Latin as the language of botany

The field of botany has changed its requirement that new species have their official scientific descriptions be written up in Latin.  Now an English description–though not a description in some other language–will be acceptable.  (The scientific name will still be Latin based.)  The article on the subject, though, shows just how important Latin has been and still is important in the sciences.  For one thing, ironically, the English technical vocabulary that will replace Latin itself derives from Latin etymology.  From the Washington Post:

For at least 400 years, botanists across the globe have relied on Latin as their lingua franca, but the ardor has cooled. Scientists say plants will keep their double-barreled Latin names, but they have decided to drop the requirement that new species be described in the classical language. Instead, they have agreed to allow botanists to use English (other languages need not apply). In their scientific papers, they can still describe a newly found species of plant — or algae or fungi — in Latin if they wish, but most probably won’t. . . .

Although botanical Latin paid homage to the great Roman plant chronicler, Pliny the Elder, it quickly evolved into a specialized, descriptive and scientifically precise language far removed from classical Latin. The late British scholar William Stearn, who wrote the definitive reference book on botanical Latin, said Pliny would have understood the work of Clusius but not that of 19th-century botanical luminaries.

The wry joke is that even with the diminished role of Latin, the argot used by English-speaking botanists might as well be Latin. In describing flower parts, they speak of “the corolla tubular with spreading lobes.” The familiar thick green leaf of the magnolia is described in one encyclopedia as “elliptic to ovate or subglobose, obtuse to short-acuminate, base attenuate, rounded or cuneate, stiffly coraceous.”

As botanists increasingly seek to deconstruct organisms at the microscopic level and through DNA sequencing, the vernacular descriptions become even more opaque, said Alain Touwaide, a researcher and Latinist at the Smithsonian who would translate for botanists.

Keeping the Latin description, he argued, would ironically make it more understandable. “To make these notions understood, you have to create Latin words that have an etymological root that renders the word self-explainable,” he said.

via Botanists agree to loosen Latin’s grip – The Washington Post.

China to put a man on the moon

China, the new America:

China has declared its intention to land an astronaut on the moon, in the first official confirmation of its aim to go where Americans last set foot nearly 40 years ago.

While Chinese scientists have previously discussed the possibility of a manned lunar mission, a government white paper published on Thursday is the first public government document to enshrine it as a policy goal.

China will “conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”, the white paper said.

Although a manned moon mission is still some time off – Chinese experts say after 2020 – the statement highlights Beijing’s soaring ambitions just five months after the US retired its space shuttle programme . “Chinese people are the same as people around the world,” Zhang Wei, an official with China’s National Space Administration, said at a briefing. “When looking up at the starry sky, we are full of longing and yearning for the vast universe.”

According to the white paper, which serves as a blueprint for the next five years, China will develop new satellites, accelerate efforts to build a space station and strengthen its research in space. Laying the foundation for a mission to the moon, the government also plans to launch unmanned lunar probes and make “new technological breakthroughs” in human space flights by 2016.

via China push to put astronaut on the moon –

Remember when we used to have grand ambitions like that, thinking we could do anything and then doing it?  Our last manned moon landing was in 1972.  Back then we were in a competition with the Soviets in a “space race.”  As the new and improved version of communism that China has devised outperforms us economically, I doubt that we will even care if China takes up where we left off in outer space.  For better or worse, we don’t have the same energy and optimism that we used to have.  Evidently, China has it.

The multiple universe theory

An interesting article in Harper’s Magazine by MIT physicist Alan Lightman on how the “multiverse” theory–which cosmologists are embracing apparently as their only alternative to Intelligent Design–is throwing down the very foundations of the scientific enterprise:

The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.

This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

It is perhaps impossible to say how far apart the different universes may be, or whether they exist simultaneously in time. Some may have stars and galaxies like ours. Some may not. Some may be finite in size. Some may be infinite. Physicists call the totality of universes the “multiverse.” Alan Guth, a pioneer in cosmological thought, says that “the multiple-universe idea severely limits our hopes to understand the world from fundamental principles.” And the philosophical ethos of science is torn from its roots. As put to me recently by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg, a man as careful in his words as in his mathematical calculations, “We now find ourselves at a historic fork in the road we travel to understand the laws of nature. If the multiverse idea is correct, the style of fundamental physics will be radically changed.” . . .

While challenging the Platonic dream of theoretical physicists, the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine­tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it. Actually, the word anthropic, from the Greek for “man,” is a misnomer: if these fundamental parameters were much different from what they are, it is not only human beings who would not exist. No life of any kind would exist.

If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life? Intelligent design is one answer. Indeed, a fair number of theologians, philosophers, and even some scientists have used fine-tuning and the anthropic principle as evidence of the existence of God. For example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Pepperdine University, Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, said, “To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…. [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”

Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties—for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker—then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not. Some of those universes will be dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy, and others will permit the emergence of cells, plants and animals, minds. From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn’t matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.

via The accidental universe: Science’s crisis of faith—By Alan P. Lightman (Harper’s Magazine).

I don’t understand why the theory of multiple universes–an infinite number of UNIVERSES with every possible variation, universes that we can’t even observe–is more credible than belief in a Creator!  Actually, the term used here is “more appealing.”  Since when do scientists base their beliefs on what they like?  I’m also wondering, if the infinite universes contain all possibilities, might one of them have a creator?  And how do we know that this universe, the one with the anthropic principle, might be the one that is intelligently designed?  I know, I know, I don’t understand the science, as some of you will be explaining to me, but it seems to be that the theory of multiple universes is unscientific, since it is non-verifiable, non-falsifiable, and eludes all empirical evidence.

HT:  Joe Carter

The “God particle”

Michael Gerson gives the most lucid explanation I have found for what the Higgs boson–a.k.a. the “God particle”–is.  He also explores the implications of the strange fact that mathematics, which is a function of the human mind, can actually predict what things exist in the external world:

Modern physics can explain just about everything, except why anything has mass. The Standard Model of physics, which emerged four decades ago, employs an elegant mathematical formula to account for most of the elemental forces in the universe. It correctly predicted the discovery of various leptons and quarks in the laboratory.

But the equation doesn’t explain gravity. So the Standard Model requires the existence of some other force that seized the massless particles produced by the Big Bang and sucked them into physicality. The detection of Higgs bosons would confirm this theory — which is why scientists are smashing protons into one another in a 17-mile round particle accelerator and picking through the subatomic wreckage.

It will take a few more years for definitive results. But most scientists don’t seem to appreciate the glorious improbability — and philosophic implications — of the entire enterprise.

In 1928, theoretical physicist Paul Dirac combined the mathematical formulas for relativity and quantum mechanics into a single equation and predicted the existence of antimatter. Antimatter was duly discovered in 1932. But why should a mathematical equation — the product of brain chemistry — describe physical reality? It is not self-evident that there should be any correspondence between mathematical formulas and the laws of the universe. Modern physics does not consist of measured phenomena summarized in elegant equations; it consists of elegant equations that predict measured phenomena. This has been called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” However unreasonable, it led to the construction of the Large Hadron Collider along the border of France and Switzerland, the largest machine ever built by human beings.

Dr. Ard Louis, a young physicist teaching at the University of Oxford, recalls his first encounter with Dirac’s equation. “How can mathematics demand something so fantastical from nature? I was sure it couldn’t be true and spent many hours trying to find a way out. When I finally gave up and saw that there was no way around Dirac’s result, it gave me goose bumps. I remember thinking that even if I never used my years of physics training again, it would have been worth it just to see something so spectacularly beautiful.”

Louis describes a cumulative case for wonder. Not only does the universe unexpectedly correspond to mathematical theories, it is self-organizing — from biology to astrophysics — in unlikely ways. The physical constants of the universe seem finely tuned for the emergence of complexity and life. Slightly modify the strength of gravity, or the chemistry of carbon, or the ratio of the mass of protons and electrons, and biological systems become impossible. The universe-ending Big Crunch comes too soon, or carbon isn’t produced, or suns explode.

The wild improbability of a universe that allows us to be aware of it seems to demand some explanation. This does not require theism. Some physicists favor the theory of the multiverse, in which every possible universe exists simultaneously. If everything happens, it is not surprising that anything happens. But this is not a theory that can be scientifically tested. Other universes, by definition, are not accessible. The multiverse is metaphysics — just as subject to the scientific method as the existence of heaven.

One reasonable alternative — the one advocated by Louis — is theism. It explains a universe finely tuned for life and accessible to human reason. It accounts for the cosmic coincidences. And a theistic universe, unlike the alternatives, also makes sense of free will and moral responsibility.

via The search for the God particle goes beyond mere physics – The Washington Post.

I love that:  “sucked into physicality.”  Also the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.”  Also “Modern physics does not consist of measured phenomena summarized in elegant equations; it consists of elegant equations that predict measured phenomena.”

Intelligent design is not just predicated on one thing or another showing evidence of having been designed by a primal mind.  It seems to me to go much deeper than that.  Mathematics is mind, and that mathematics applies to nature is evidence of a mind behind nature.   Isn’t it?

Can Science explain everything?

From David Wheeler at the Chronicle of Higher Education blog:

There’s a new bully on the intellectual block, shoving scholars around. Lots of them are caving into the threats. The bully’s name is “scientism,” the belief that science has a monopoly on all real knowledge. All other knowledge, scientism asserts, is simply opinion, irrationality, or utter nonsense.

That was the perspective Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered at an event titled “Can Science Explain Everything?” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week. . . .

Hutchinson, theauthor of Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism, said that science is in the middle of confrontation with religious faith and with many other forms of belief. He is proud of science’s achievements thus far. But he thinks that, in part because of its overwhelming success, members of other disciplines, seeking the authority that science has, try to make themselves out to be scientists. An alternative course, he suggests, would be for scholars such as sociologists and political scientists to firmly declare that they have ways of building knowledge that are simply different from science, not “unscientific.”

Science has two key elements, reproducibility and clarity, Hutchinson said. Reproducibility means essentially that an experiment done in one place by one person can be repeated somewhere else by someone else. Clarity refers to the unambiguous nature of science’s measurements, descriptions, and classifications. History is an example of a discipline that has produced real knowledge that is not scientific knowledge, he said. History at its best is based on facts, but historians cannot reproduce Henry VIII’s exploits to find out if accounts of them are true.

Mr. Hutchinson listed other phenomena that may be “true” but that he believes are outside of science’s scope: the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, or the terror of a war. Many humans may share similar perceptions of these phenomenon but the basis of those perceptions will lack clarity. “Ambiguity is an intrinsic part of these things,” he said.

Where, exactly, does God fit into this picture? Mr. Hutchinson says that while the universe has physical laws, God may be behind them. Science would be helpless to detect an act of God that violates the laws of physics since it would not be reproducible. Scientists should have no problem being religious, he said.
Enter Lisa Randall, a woman with an astonishing range of achievements from a libretto for an opera to experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva. She studies cosmology and theoretical particle physics and is the author of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.”

While polite in tone, Ms. Randall said the term “scientism” was embarrassing and an act of name calling, at a time when the discussion about tackling the world’s problems needs to be elevated. “It shouldn’t be embarrassing or quaint to be earnest about facts or logic,” she said. And, she added “Why do politicians feel comfortable talking about God and religion and not about science and mathematics?”

Art is important she said, but it ultimately operates through the filter of human perceptions and emotions. Religion, she said, is also a human phenomenon that serves social needs. “If you say it makes me happy or helps me live my life, I’m not going to stop you,” she said.

But, she said, religion is different to different people. Scientists, while they have their petty fights, are ultimately able to create knowledge they can agree on.

In audience questions after the two talks, one person cut to the chase and demanded “yes” or “no” answers to the evening’s challenge: “Can science explain everything?”

“No,” said Mr. Hutchinson.

“We don’t know,” said Ms. Randall.

via Can Science Explain Everything? – Percolator – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

HT:  Jackie

Psychologists admit to bogus research

Social science aspires to the status of natural science, never mind that human beings are not as consistent or predictable as inert matter.  But a new study has found that an alarmingly large percentage of experimental psychologists admit to using questionable, if not bogus, research methods:

Questionable research practices, including testing increasing numbers of participants until a result is found, are the “steroids of scientific competition, artificially enhancing performance”. That’s according to Leslie John and her colleagues who’ve found evidence that such practices are worryingly widespread among US psychologists. The results are currently in press at the journal Psychological Science and they arrive at a time when the psychological community is still reeling from the the fraud of a leading social psychologist in the Netherlands. Psychology is not alone. Previous studies have raised similar concerns about the integrity of medical research.

John’s team quizzed 6,000 academic psychologists in the USA via an anonymous electronic survey about their use of 10 questionable research practices including: failing to report all dependent measures; collecting more data after checking if the results are significant; selectively reporting studies that “worked”; and falsifying data.

As well as declaring their own use of questionable research practices and their defensibility, the participants were also asked to estimate the proportion of other psychologists engaged in those practices, and the proportion of those psychologists who would likely admit to this in a survey.

For the first time in this context, the survey also incorporated an incentive for truth-telling. Some survey respondents were told, truthfully, that a larger charity donation would be made by the researchers if they answered honestly (based on a comparison of a participant’s self-confessed research practices, the average rate of confession, and averaged estimates of such practices by others). Just over two thousand psychologists completed the survey. Comparing psychologists who received the truth incentive vs. those that didn’t showed that it led to higher admission rates.

Averaging across the psychologists’ reports of their own and others’ behaviour, the alarming results suggest that one in ten psychologists has falsified research data, while the majority has: selectively reported studies that “worked” (67 per cent), not reported all dependent measures (74 per cent), continued collecting data to reach a significant result (71 per cent), reported unexpected findings as expected (54 per cent), and excluded data post-hoc (58 per cent). Participants who admitted to more questionable practices tended to claim that they were more defensible. Thirty-five per cent of respondents said they had doubts about the integrity of their own research. Breaking the results down by sub-discipline, relatively higher rates of questionable practice were found among cognitive, neuroscience and social psychologists, with fewer transgressions among clinical psychologists.

via BPS Research Digest: Questionable research practices are rife in psychology, survey suggests.
HT: Joe Carter