## Monthly Archives: August 2007

Over at the SciAm blag, Chris Mims breaks the story that a public-relations flack was cheerleading for classic crackpot Stuart Pivar. Matthew Rich, a.k.a. Matt Richards, is a New York-based PR veteran of sixteen years whose PR agency issued the press release for Pivar’s new edition of LifeCode. This was, incidentally, the press release which prompted PZ Myers to repost his old debunking of Pivar’s crackpottery. This was also the press release which claimed that Neil deGrasse Tyson supported Pivar’s work, a claim which random folks on the Internet soon demolished, and which Tyson himself soon denied.

Oops!

For some reason, Matthew Rich then went around the Web, saying good things about Pivar. At the Amazon.com page for LifeCode, he wrote under the name M. rich “open minded”, saying this:

Nature has an article about a nifty and relatively new application of ideas born out of string theory: to understand what happens in high-temperature superconductors! The story goes something like this.

Take a sample of some material which can conduct electricity, and apply two kinds of outside influence upon it. First, stick it in a magnetic field pointing in some direction, and second, apply a temperature gradient in a direction perpendicular to the magnetic field. In some substances, an electric field will appear, perpendicular to both the magnetic field and the temperature gradient. This is called the Nernst effect. It doesn’t happen very much with ordinary metals, but in semiconductors — like silicon or germanium — it can be quite noticeable. It also appears in some superconductors, like Y-Ba-Cu-O and CeCoIn5 to name but two.

Sean A. Hartnoll et al. have cooked up a theory to explain the Nernst effect and other behaviors seen in the cuprate superconductors, ceramic compounds containing copper. Looking at the situation near the phase transition, where a substance is “on the verge” of changing from insulator to superconductor, they developed a theory involving the magnetic field, call it $$B$$, and fluctuations in the material’s density, $$\rho$$. Then they looked at this theory in the conceptual mirror known as the AdS/CFT correspondence. This connection between seemingly disparate ideas takes you from a “conformal field theory,” the sort of math involved with the superconductor problem (among other things), to a theory of gravity in a type of universe called anti-de Sitter space. In this mirror-world description, the perturbations in $$B$$ and $$\rho$$ become magnetic and electric charges of a black hole sitting in the AdS universe!

Skeptic’s Circle #68 is ontube at Aardvarchaeology. I enjoyed this post at Evangelical Realism, and also Andy Lewis’ description of Charles Darwin’s encounter with homeopathy. During one hospital stay, Darwin became an unwilling recipient of homeopathic “treatments,” of which he wrote,

I grieve to say that Dr Gully gives me homoÅ“opathic medicines three times a day, which I take obediently without an atom of faith.

The comment-posting mechanism over at NeuroLogica seems to be on the fritz, so I’ll take this opportunity to use my own blag to thank Dr. Steven Novella for replying to my question about a new potential class of antidepressants. I had noticed a glancing mention of neuroscientists growing interested in treating depression by working on the brain’s glutamate mechanisms.

The short version is that ketamine, an anaesthetic, veterinary tranquilizer and sometimes recreational drug, mucks with the brain’s neurotransmitter signaling by blocking NMDA receptors, thereby leaving more glutamate floating in the synapses to bind to AMPA receptors. And, in not-very-rigorous trials, this seems to make people happier!

Clearly, the next logical step is to start giving drugs to laboratory animals. C. A. Zarate and colleagues at NIMH found that doping mice with a drug which inhibited AMPA receptors reduced the behavioral effects of ketamine. This suggests that compounds which work directly to boost AMPA receptor activity — AMPA agonists — might also have an antidepressant effect.

All in all, fascinating stuff.

By now, you’ve probably heard of PRISM, the organization of publisher bigwigs fighting against open access. John Baez has just made a shocking discovery. Take a look at the brains of their outfit, Eric Dezenhall:

It’s Dr. Evil!

Well, what would you expect? This is, after all, the man who said that “it’s hard to fight an adversary that manages to be both elusive and in possession of a better message: Free information.”

Oh, Humbert, hadst thou been living at this hour!

Why? In two words: “Pirate Lolita.”

Ye newe Carnival of Mathematicks is up at John Kemeny’s place, and Ben Webster resurrects the question of a second, mathier Carnival over at the Secret Blogging Seminar. The next host of the CoM, Kurt Van Etten at Learning Computation, says that he plans to group the submissions he gets into “math” and “math research.”

Collins can believe whatever he likes about his experience, as can anyone. We all live with our private fantasies to a certain extent. However Harris’ point is that in the admirable attempt to be inclusive, Nature‘s editors were foregoing their primary role as skeptical inquirers of sound science. Should they favorably review the next book on astrology if it also includes a reasonably good description of cosmic evolution? I think the point Harris makes is a good one and something we should seriously consider as scientists and citizens. We’ve seen how effectively faith has led the way in foreign policy decisions. Perhaps a return to reasonable arguments based on solid evidence would be a wiser course for the future.

A return to reasonable arguments. . . based on solid evidence. . . You know, I rather like it.

So, one might gather, does Sandra Kiume at Neurofuture, who made that catchphrase the recurring theme of Encephalon #30.

I’ve been trying to study the way science journalism works — and, often, doesn’t work — for a while now. Way back in March, whole eons of Internet time ago and before I even had a blag of my own, Russell Blackford and I discussed serious inaccuracies in media coverage of Wikipedia. Later, here at Sunclipse, I described a rough taxonomy of science journalism failures, and hypothesized that a tendency to “false balance” may well have skewed coverage on string theory when Smolin and Woit rolled their books out. Then, I summarized the story of an incident where New Scientist magazine was not just careless, but downright irresponsible.

These topics fall under the general rubrics of physics and technology, but popularization and journalistic coverage of neuroscience is also a big concern. I have the suspicion that brain and cognitive sciences will provoke the same reaction in the near future that evolution does today — and I’m far from the first to say so. Learning about how people learn about this science is, therefore, quite important.

And the outlook is not good. Compare the size of the wheat and chaff listings at the Neuro-Journalism Mill: the sheer quantity of misinformation stymies the attempt to summarize or classify it. Encephalon #30 brings two more relevant essays. First, the Neurocritic takes New Scientist to task for a sensational headline and an exaggerated claim about genetics and memory. Then, at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young takes the New York Times to task for an article which gets the facts of rodent spatial memory correct, but bungles the interpretation.

Interesting stuff. Now, I’m just waiting to see what the experts say about the possibility of glutamine-based antidepressants and the coverage it receives. I note that Denise Gellene’s story in today’s LA Times works a little to counteract the infamous “it’s all serotonin” story, a glib line spread by advertising but unsupported by science.

After reading Revere’s Freethinker Sunday Sermonette, sit back and enjoy the climax of Inherit the Wind (1960), a movie which upsets creationists so much it has its own entry in the TalkOrigins index.

Like Macbeth (c. 1603) or Amadeus (1984), it’s not exactly history, but it’s not bad.

What did I ever do to deserve being in the first page of Google hits for the phrase, “In Soviet Russia“?

OK, I might as well tell my favorite “Russian reversal” joke, one which is deliciously anachronistic.

America, what a country! Everywhere I go, I see Firefox web browser. In your country, you keep open tabs in browser. In my country, web browsers keep tabs on you!

Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.

Spurred by Jason Rosenhouse‘s recent comments, Tyler DiPietro has upended a full barrel of verbal fury on “the most shameless narcissist this side of Bill O’Reilly,” Andrew Keen — author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture (2007).

Lesson to Keen: never try to corner the Internet. Just see how it reacts!

Bug Girl reports that Wired has a story laying out the concept of “life hacking.” Thus:

What is life hacking? Is it like computer hacking? Is someone going to break into my life?

Life hacking has little or nothing to do with home invasion. Itâ€™s the practice of using clever little tips and tricks to make your life easier, more efficient or more productive.

Really? That sounds kind of familiar. Hasnâ€™t it been around for a while?

Yes, previously it was known as Hints From Heloise.

So why is it called life hacking?

Because a new name makes it sound like a new idea. Geeks canâ€™t admit that anything worthwhile was invented before 1981. Soon, â€œmaking cocoaâ€ will be called â€œmilk hacking.â€

As a geek, I am not impressed. By rights, â€œLife hackingâ€ should refer to the invention of new and clever patterns in Conwayâ€™s Game of Life. But in their smugness, the people of Wired have made a gross misestimation of geek culture and personality, all for a joke which — I’m the blogger, I can decide these things! — isn’t all that funny anyway.

God Plays Dice has a good post on that story about people not reading books anymore.

So what do we know about the distribution? One-quarter of people read no books; one-quarter read between one and four; one-eighth read between four and seven; three-eighths read more.

They claim a 3% margin of error, as well, which is standard for polls involving a thousand people (as this one was), but that margin of error only applies to the survey as a whole. The article includes a lot of claims of the form “Xs read more than Ys”, but the number of Xs or Ys that were polled is less than a thousand, so the margin of error is greater.

Furthermore,

If you’re looking for “higher dimensions of the spirit” or “quantum healing,” you’ve come to the wrong place.

Instead, we’ve got real science, for free. All you need is time! At the SciTalks blog, Jon Shock recommends several videos on advanced topics in string theory. The Theoretical Advanced Studies Institute in Elementary Particle Physics comes highly recommended; it’s got a whole slew of videos on the AdS/CFT correspondence.

The second episode of Richard Dawkins’ The Enemies of Reason is now ontube at Google Video.

“Quantum Healing” makes an appearance at 12:33. Zounds!

Jennifer Ouellette raises the subject of “oobleck,” a non-Newtonian fluid made by mixing corn starch and water. It’s messy, it gets everywhere, and it’s downright fabulous!

Of course, the way you make a good thing better is to (a) eschew moderation and (b) mix it with other good things. For example, one can — purely in the interests of science — combine oobleck with the MIT student’s other favorite substance: liquid nitrogen, or LN2.

The thing about gases is that they take up much less room when they condense into a liquid state. Conversely, a small splash of LN2 can and will boil to produce a large volume of gas. Combining LN2 with water — a heat source — inside a two-liter soda bottle — a rigid but not infinitely strong container — inside a reservoir of oobleck yields a fascinating demonstration of thermodynamics, Newtonian mechanics and materials science: