America’s last space ship?

Last Thursday, July 21, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed, ending the United States’ Space Shuttle program. And it may mark the end of manned flight, at least as far as the United States is concerned. Russia will still be able to send people into orbit, and American astronauts can hitch a ride with them to get to the International Space Station, another program whose days are numbered.  But there are no plans to update manned spacecraft  or start any more manned space programs.  See Shuttle Atlantis Final Landing Completes U.S. Retreat from Manned Spaceflight – IT Infrastructure – News & Reviews – eWeek.com.

So does this mean all of those science fiction fantasies about space being the final frontier and all that were just a blip of technological and imaginative optimism?

Pushing back against “born this way”

Postmodernists are opposed to “essentialism,” the notion that ANYTHING is innate or predetermined.  Thus I have found it interesting that when it comes to homosexuality, the prevailing argument is that this condition IS innate and predetermined.   I have been waiting for signs that postmodernism is on its way out, and this seemed to be a significant development.  But now it seems that postmodernists are pushing back against Lady Gaga’s assertion that we can all say “I was born this way.”  Instead we are seeing a revival of the notion that identity, including sexual identity, is “fluid.”  Thanks to Tim Challies for his comment alerting me to this from Gender Studies professor Suzanna Danuta Walters:

If marriage and military access are conjured as the Oz of queer liberation, then biological and genetic arguments are the yellow brick road, providing the route and the rationale for civil rights. The medicalization of sexual identity – and the search for a cause if not a cure – has a long and infamous history. This history includes well-meaning attempts by social activists to create a safe life for same-sex desire through the designation of homosexuality as biologically predetermined but also, more ominously, includes the sordid history of incarceration, medication, electroshock “therapy” and numerous other attempts to rid the body (and mind) of its desires.

Notions of homosexuality as “inbred,” innate and immutable were endorsed by a wide variety of thinkers and activists, including progressive reformers such as Havelock Ellis and not so progressive conservatives, eager to assert same-sex love as nature’s mistake. Richard von Krafft-Ebing in the 1880s and Magnus Hirschfeld in the 1903s – both pioneer sexologists and generally advocates of “toleration”– came to believe in some notion of “innate” homosexuality, whether through theories of a kind of brain inversion or through vague references to hormonal imbalances. These theories mostly had little traction, and no evidence whatsoever, and were further undermined during the heyday of the early gay movement which included a deep commitment to the depathologization and demedicalization of homosexuality, manifested in a long-term attempt to remove “homosexuality” as a disease category in the DSM.

Theories of biological origins of “gayness” have ebbed and flowed during different historical and social moments, most obviously intersecting with the rise of eugenics and other determinist frameworks in the early part of the last century. There is no question that the romance with biological and/or genetic explanations for sexual “orientation” has ratcheted up in recent years, due in no small part to the combined force of the gay marriage debates and the increasing “medicalization” and “geneticization” of behavior and identity, spurred on by the initiation of the human genome project in 1989 which furthered the already booming interest in genetic bases for behavior, personality, disease, etc. . . .

In our present political context, gay volition is like Voldemort – dangerous even to be uttered. This “born with it” ideology encompasses gay marriage, gay genes, gayness as “trait” and is used by both gay rights activists and anti-gay activists to make arguments for equality (or against it). This is bad science (mistaking the possibility of biological factors with wholesale causation) and bad politics (hinging rights on immutability and etiology). Causality is – of course – the wrong question and will only get muddled answers. The framing of “gayness” as an issue of nature vs. nurture or destiny vs. choice misses the point about (fluid, chaotic) sexuality and about civil rights. It’s not our genes that matter here, but rather our ethics.

via Born This Way? – Brainstorm – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of course, the author doesn’t cite any evidence for her contention, just surveying the overall history of the question, which is how postmodernists tend to argue.

Pollution cures global warming

Climate scientists–the established ones, not the renegades–have found that global surface temperatures did not rise from 1998 to 2008, despite heightened carbon emissions, and they have been trying to figure out why.  Now they are saying the temperature drop is anthropogenic, the result (like they had been saying of global warming) of pollution, just a different kind:

Smoke belching from Asia’s rapidly growing economies is largely responsible for a halt in global warming in the decade after 1998 because of sulphur’s cooling effect, even though greenhouse gas emissions soared, a U.S. study said on Monday.

The paper raised the prospect of more rapid, pent-up climate change when emerging economies eventually crack down on pollution.

World temperatures did not rise from 1998 to 2008, while manmade emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel grew by nearly a third, various data show.

The researchers from Boston and Harvard Universities and Finland’s University of Turku said pollution, and specifically sulphur emissions, from coal-fueled growth in Asia was responsible for the cooling effect.

Sulphur allows water drops or aerosols to form, creating hazy clouds which reflect sunlight back into space.

“Anthropogenic activities that warm and cool the planet largely cancel after 1998, which allows natural variables to play a more significant role,” the paper said.

Natural cooling effects included a declining solar cycle after 2002, meaning the sun’s output fell.

The study said that the halt in warming had fueled doubts about anthropogenic climate change, where scientists say manmade greenhouse gas emissions are heating the Earth.

“It has been unclear why global surface temperatures did not rise between 1998 and 2008,” said the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

via Asia pollution blamed for halt in warming: study | Reuters.

Good thing it exactly balanced out!  Otherwise we’d be causing a new ice age that would also destroy civilization as we know it.

Digging up Shakespeare

An effort is afoot to dig up the body of William Shakespeare:

Paleontologists are looking to examine the remains of William Shakespeare, hoping to unlock the mysteries of the life and death of the world’s most famous playwright — and to prove that the poet once puffed.

The bard is buried under a local church in Stratford-upon-Avon. And a team of scientists, led by Francis Thackeray — an anthropologist and director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa — have submitted a formal application to the Church of England for permission to probe the site where he sleeps, perchance where he dreams.

Safely, of course.

“We have incredible techniques,” Thackeray told FoxNews.com, referring to the “nondestructive analysis” the team has planned. “We don’t intend to move the remains at all.” Instead the team will perform the forensic analysis using state-of-the-art technology to scan the bones and create a groundbreaking reconstruction.

The first job is to confirm the playwright’s identity, Thackeray said.

“We’ll have to establish the age and gender of the individual,” he told FoxNews.com. The team also plans DNA tests for not only Shakespeare, but also the remains of his wife and sister, also buried at the Holy Trinity Church.

For Thackeray, the next priority is solving the longstanding mystery of Shakespeare’s final days. “We would like to find out the cause of death, which is not known historically.”

If all goes well, he believes the research could ultimately establish a full health history and build a picture of the kind of life the writer led. “Growth increments in the teeth will reveal if he went through periods of stress or illness — a plague for example, which killed many people in the 1600s,” Thackeray explained.

The team also looks to address a controversial suggestion Thackeray made a decade ago, when he examined a collection of two dozen pipes found in the playwright’s garden and determined that Shakespeare was an avid marijuana smoker.

Thackeray claimed the devices were used to smoke cannabis, a plant actively cultivated in Britain at the time. The allegation has provoked disbelief and anger among some fans of the bard.

via Did Shakespeare Smoke Weed? Let’s Dig Him Up and Find Out – FoxNews.com.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  On his tomb, the Bard himself begs people, in Jesus’ name, to leave his body alone.  Not only that, he put a curse on anyone who would be so presumptuous as to dig him up:

“Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/ To digg the dust encloased heare;/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.”

I’m suspicious of this story.  The Church of England says that it has received no such request to exhume Shakespeare.  Though the Institute and Prof. Thackeray seem to exist, their expertise on Shakespeare sounds very shaky.  Yes, people have grown hemp for centuries, but it was used for rope, not dope!  There is NO evidence that I have seen, NO documentary evidence, that anyone smoked weed in the 16th or 17th centuries.  If that happened, Shakespeare would have written about it.

Go East, young scientist

The United States is now facing a brain drain that threatens its traditional scientific and technological leadership, as more and more American scientists are heading for greater opportunities in China and other ambitious countries.  So says scientist Matthew Stremlau:

Twenty years ago, most molecular-science PhD graduates in the United States went on to start up their own labs at universities across the country. These labs drive innovation and keep the United States globally competitive. Today, however, only a handful of my friends will go on to run their own labs, though more would like to. Some go into industry or consulting or law. Others leave science altogether.

As public funding for science and technology shrinks, it just isn’t possible for people who want to become scientists in America to actually become scientists. So when a friend of mine who recently received her PhD in molecular biology asked for some career advice, the answer was easy. Go to China, I told her. . . .

The global science landscape is radically different from what it was when I started graduate school 10 years ago. Opportunities for cutting-edge science are sprouting in many other countries. China stands out. But there are plenty of others. India, Brazil and Singapore built world-class research institutes. Saudi Arabia aggressively recruits researchers for its King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. With a staggering $10 billion endowment there — larger than MIT’s — American scientists no longer need to suffer through Boston’s endless winters. Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi opened the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in 2009. These emerging powers have a voracious appetite for good scientists. So they’re trying to poach ours.

I spent nearly two years doing molecular biology research in China. I have worked at the National Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and at Peking University in Beijing. The Chinese are serious about science. Government spending on research and development has increased 20 percent each year over the past decade. Even in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008-09, China continued to bet big on science and technology. China now spends $100 billion annually on research and development. The Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, estimates that by 2013, Chinese scientists will author more articles in international science journals than American scientists do.

Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West. This environment of creativity and hard work will produce big breakthroughs. Chinese universities aggressively recruit foreign scientists. The start-up packages can be generous and in some cases comparable to what a young faculty member receives in this country. In the future, China might be a better option for U.S. scientists desperate to fund their research. . . .

Talented scientists in this country often fall through the cracks because they can’t get funding. Agencies are deluged with applications and often have to reject as many as 90 percent of the proposals they receive. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to deteriorate further as budget cuts limit the resources available for research. So I’ve started encouraging my friends to think more creatively about their careers. Go to China, I tell them. Or Singapore or Brazil or the Middle East. If the United States can’t fund its scientific talent, find a country that will.

via Go to China, young scientist – The Washington Post.

Is this more evidence of American decline?  Or does it really matter in a global economy?

The health benefits of fidgeting

Some good new words here:  Inactivity Studies; Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (a.k.a. NEAT).  Also, I daresay, some good advice:

James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has an intense interest in how much people move — and how much they don’t. He is a leader of an emerging field that some call inactivity studies, which has challenged long-held beliefs about human health and obesity. . . .

His initial question — which he first posed in a 1999 study — was simple: Why do some people who consume the same amount of food as others gain more weight? After assessing how much food each of his subjects needed to maintain their current weight, Dr. Levine then began to ply them with an extra 1,000 calories per day. Sure enough, some of his subjects packed on the pounds, while others gained little to no weight.

“We measured everything, thinking we were going to find some magic metabolic factor that would explain why some people didn’t gain weight,” explains Dr. Michael Jensen, a Mayo Clinic researcher who collaborated with Dr. Levine on the studies. But that wasn’t the case. Then six years later, with the help of the motion-tracking underwear, they discovered the answer. “The people who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more,” Dr. Jensen says. They hadn’t started exercising more — that was prohibited by the study. Their bodies simply responded naturally by making more little movements than they had before the overfeeding began, like taking the stairs, trotting down the hall to the office water cooler, bustling about with chores at home or simply fidgeting. On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who hadn’t. . . .

The good news is that inactivity’s peril can be countered. Working late one night at 3 a.m., Dr. Levine coined a name for the concept of reaping major benefits through thousands of minor movements each day: NEAT, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. In the world of NEAT, even the littlest stuff matters. McCrady-Spitzer showed me a chart that tracked my calorie-burning rate with zigzagging lines, like those of a seismograph. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to one of the spikes, which indicated that the rate had shot up. “That’s when you bent over to tie your shoes,” she said. “It took your body more energy than just sitting still.”

via Is Sitting a Lethal Activity? – NYTimes.com.


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