Thursday, January 17, 2019

The political correctness of animalists

John Maxwell Coetzee
In an article in the Spanish major newspaper La Vanguardia, the writer Quim Monzó recalls a campaign organized by the City Council of a Catalonian village to move people to collect canine excrements, with a poster where a pig-like dog appeared to tell its master: "I am your dog. Don’t make me look like a pig. Collect my excrements." The poster provoked numerous complaints from local animalists, who considered it an insult to pigs. Quim Monzó adds the following comment:
As expected... we are now hearing the slogan that the time has come to eliminate all phrases that trivialize the suffering of animals. [The animalist association] proposes that we stop using expressions like "kill two birds with one stone" or "be treated as a guinea pig”... We must not say "take the bull by the horns". There is also an English expression "bring home the bacon," which should not be used either.
Monzó has given his article a significant title: Idiots, idiots everywhere.
I would not dare to call animalists idiots, but I must accuse them of irrationality. Do they really believe that some pig was offended by the campaign for the collection of canine excrement, or that whenever we say don’t be a pig (or any of its synonyms) to rebuke a dirty person? I am afraid that pigs are not even aware of our use of language. The only ones who bother about this are animalists, and until proven otherwise, we must assume that they are human beings.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Monitoring scientific news in the general press

Illustration of the
initial news
Sometimes the general press is accused of opening up great expectations about scientific discoveries and forgetting about them when reality puts a brake on expectations. In other posts I have criticized this. That’s why I’m happy to be able to give an example of the impeccable follow-up of a specific scientific news, performed during a decade by a media outlet (the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia).
The initial news appeared on May 9, 2005 on pages 29 and 30 with the following headlines:
The text echoed the discovery of drugs that act by inhibiting the action of a gene (EGFR), whose deleterious mutation can lead to the appearance of cancer (disordered multiplication of cells).
Over the next 10 years, this news received the following follow up in La Vanguardia:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Monitoring futuristic scientific news

In a previous post I mentioned that many published scientific news are not really new discoveries, but future forecasts. In a later post I made a more complete study by analyzing 56 journals of six different years and verifying that the number of scientific news that can be called futuristic seems to be growing over time, having passed, in little more than 20 years, from one out of three, to one out of two, approximately.
This gave me the idea that it would be interesting to know what had happened to these futuristic news after some time. For each specific news, three things may have happened:
1. The forecast of a possible discovery has been confirmed.
2. It has not been confirmed, but a new field of research has been opened, and the news in question continues to be investigated as possible future science.
3. Or it has not been confirmed, and the news in question has fallen into oblivion.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Jules Verne’s scientific predictions for 2889

Jules Verne
In a science fiction story published in English in the United States in 1889, entitled In the Twenty-Ninth Century and subtitled One Day of an American Journalist in 2889, Jules Verne made several scientific predictions that, according to him, would take almost a millennium to be put into practice. Let us look at a few of the most interesting:
         The average lifetime of the human population will have increased from 37 in 1889, to 68 in 2889. According to the UN, the average longevity in the world exceeded 68 years in the five-year period from 2005 to 2010, almost nine centuries before Verne’s forecast. Here, as elsewhere, he underestimated.
         The land and sea voyages of the nineteenth century will have been replaced in the XXIX by air travel, or intercontinental underwater pneumatic tubes. At present, little more than a century after Verne’s story, although air travel has achieved great primacy, land and sea travel continue to exist, and for distances less than a thousand kilometers make a successful competition to air travel. Intercontinental pneumatic tubes, on the other hand, are still science fiction, although there some recent steps in this direction.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Irreversible processes

Those physicists who consider the arrow of time as an illusion have a problem: not all physics is compatible with a reversible time, as the equations and theories mentioned in an earlier article of this blog seem to indicate. The second principle of thermodynamics is known since the mid-nineteenth century (1850), when Clausius introduced the concept of entropy and it was proved that the value of this physical magnitude always increases, if it is measured in an isolated system that does not exchange matter or energy with its outside. Since the universe is an isolated system, we have at least one physical quantity that makes it possible to unequivocally signal the direction of time flow.
Aware of this problem, physicists in favor of the reversibility of time have answered in different ways: it has been said that the second principle of thermodynamics is a fictitious, subjective law that does not conform to reality; a mental illusion; an approximation; a consequence of the initial conditions of the universe. It has been hypothesized that, if the universe were cyclic, the arrow of time would be reversed during the contraction stage. (This theory has been abandoned). To escape the problem, Stephen Hawking proposed a universe without initial conditions in his book A Brief History of Time. It is curious, this desire to defend at any price the reversibility of time, when it was precisely Hawking who proposed the existence of an arrow of time in black holes, which rather than being permanent, would disintegrate.
In 1928, a year after inventing the term the arrow of time, Arthur Eddington challenged the physicists who defend the reversibility of time with the following devastating words: If your theory is found to be against the second law of Thermodynamics... there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation (The Nature of the Physcal World, 1928).

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Science and civilizations

In my book Biological Evolution and Cultural Evolution in the History of Life and Man, published in Spanish, I analyze the cultural history of 23 civilizations and compare their evolution. In the particular case of science, I wrote this:
...the first-generation civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt and the American) reached their maximum scientific development in mathematics and astronomy. Egypt and Mesoamerica added medicine to these sciences. A second-generation (Greco-Roman) and a third-generation civilization (Islam) also practiced the natural sciences. As for the West, it is a unique and unprecedented case, as its scientific development has been overwhelming.
...astronomy was the first cultivated science... Mathematics emerged in parallel... It was soon found that both sciences were related, for mathematics supported astronomy, making it possible to perform complex calculations and predictions.
The pagan religions... tried to predict the future, using for that purpose sacrificed animals, which led to an accumulation of anatomical knowledge, soon applied to man, which mixed with ancient knowledge about the properties of medicinal plants, led to the formation of a corpus of medical doctrines.
On the other hand, the development of the physical, chemical and biological sciences was less urgent... and so it was attempted only by civilizations that had freed from the necessities of survival an important part of human work... This happened for the first time in Greece, the cradle of philosophy and most of the modern sciences.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

What is culture?

Politicians and the media do not seem quite clear about the meaning of culture. When people talk about the world of culture, they usually refer to issues as diverse as pop music shows, bullfighting, opera, theater, cinema, museums, university... This is an abuse of language that mixes four things quite different, though related: culture, shows, entertainment and education.
The Cambridge dictionary defines thus these four terms (in each case I have chosen the meaning closest to what I am speaking about, because there are others):
·      Culture: music, art, theatre, literature, etc.
·      Education: process of teaching or learning, or the knowledge you get from this.
·      Show: a theatre performance or a television or radio program that is entertaining rather than serious.
·      Entertainment: public shows, performances or other ways of enjoying yourself.
Let us call things by their names. A cultural act should be a public celebration where attendees try to increase their culture, to get knowledge that will improve their critical judgment. A classical music concert, the presentation of a book, a visit to a museum, are cultural events. Conversely:
  1. Except in a few cases, we do not watch a movie to increase our culture, but to enjoy ourselves (entertainment).
  2. A pop festival or a bullfight are not cultural events, but shows.
  3. We can go to the opera or the theater to improve our culture, but the performance itself may not be a cultural act, but a show, especially when the stage directors distort a classic work to express their originality or to shock the public.
  4. University professors can be considered a part of the world of culture if they perform popularization, but that is not their main activity. Education and research are.
When the media talk about the world of culture and put there actors, pop musicians (some of whom confess that they do not know music), and even DJs, they are really talking about the world of entertainment.
Let us call things by their name.

The same post in Spanish
Manuel Alfonseca