Monday, September 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

POSTED: Friday, May 18, 2012, 4:03 PM

A reader sent me this interesting blog post from NPR’s Robert Krulwich. He comments on a snippet of a 1964 lecture by physicist Richard Feynman:

Think about what he's saying. Science is our way of describing — as best we can — how the world works. The world, it is presumed, works perfectly well without us. Our thinking about it makes no important difference. It is out there, being the world. We are locked in, busy in our minds. And when our minds make a guess about what's happening out there, if we put our guess to the test, and we don't get the results we expect, as Feynman says, there can be only one conclusion: we're wrong

That makes it sound easy, but how do you define a valid experiment or observation of nature? A few readers informed me recently that there are hundreds of papers describing cold fusion and showing that it works. There are also quite a few showing that it doesn’t work. I'd put my money with the naysayers.

Faye Flam @ 4:03 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Thursday, May 17, 2012, 5:40 PM

Penn neuroscientist Martha Farah was curious about some of the “neuro drinks” that are so popular among students for revving them up, slowing them down, or sometimes both at the same time.

So the head of Penns’ Center for Neuroscience and Society asked some experts to look into the matter and report back at an event yesterday afternoon. She also organized a small experiment to see if a couple of popular brands had any obvious effects.

Tony Rostain, who is an expert on adolescent psychiatry, talked about neurotransmitters, the potential effects of amino acids and some of the other weird ingredients in these drinks. Thomas McLellan, a former Deputy Director of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, explained why the FDA doesn’t crack down on some of the claims surrounding them.

Faye Flam @ 5:40 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 6:24 PM

Victor Stenger is a physicist who has written extensively on questions of science and religion. His latest book is called God and the Folly of Faith. After reading excerpts and reviews in several magazines I’ve finally decided to order a copy.

In this essay, which appeared in the Huffington Post, Stenger argued that science can address religious claims. He refutes Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” and can remain compatible as long as they stick to their own domains:  

….while supernatural entities may not be directly observable, any effects these entities might have on the material world should manifest themselves as observable phenomena. Anything observable is subject to scientific inquiry. On the other hand, if the supernatural has no observable effects on the natural world, then why even worry about it?

Faye Flam @ 6:24 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, May 14, 2012, 4:33 PM

Like many people, I was intrigued by autistic professor Temple Grandin after reading the essay Oliver Sacks wrote about her in his collection, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” Grandin studies animal science at  Colorado State University and is the author of several books about herself, about autism, and about the minds of animals. Among her many achievements has been the design of a more humane system for slaughtering cattle.

She’s giving a talk Tuesday at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Sorry to say it’s sold out, but we can watch it through streaming here, starting at 6:30 pm. Here’s what the Academy says:

A professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, Grandin was diagnosed with autism as a child. Using her unusual ability to “think in pictures,” she has led groundbreaking research on how animals process their experiences and surroundings and is an outspoken animal welfare advocate. In her talk entitled, “All Kinds of Minds,” Grandin will discuss how people process information differently and why the world needs all kinds of minds. She’ll also talk about the differences in the way animals think. Visual thinkers, mathematical thinkers, and word thinkers abound in the human population, while animals, lacking verbal language, think in sensory ways.

Faye Flam @ 4:33 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, May 14, 2012, 10:33 AM

Here's today's evolution column. It also ran in today's Philadelphia Inquirer on the front of the Health and Science section:

The eye was a puzzle to Charles Darwin, who thought natural selection must have produced this complex machine but didn’t know how. Creationists still sometimes issue an old taunt — “What use is half an eye?” — unable to envision a way organisms might use parts of what became our eyes.

In the last few years, new insights have filled in the gaps in some surprising ways. Many of the components of the eye, for example, quietly evolved during the 3.4 billion years that life existed as single cells. Some of the pigments that color our worlds were inherited from bacteria, said neurobiologist Jay Neitz.

Faye Flam @ 10:33 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Sunday, May 13, 2012, 2:46 PM

Last week’s column about texting and tweeting among status-hungry primates brought in many responses from readers, including one with some interesting questions about the evolutionary roots of bullying:  

“I have been thinking for a while about bullying and how common it is in kids, even otherwise typical kids, and wondering if it was a natural instinct in them, to some extent.” 

The reader went on to ask if bullying might serve to define the social hierarchy.

Faye Flam @ 2:46 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, May 11, 2012, 6:30 PM
This Higgs weighs a sturdy 13-ish pounds

In his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, Science writer Ed Yong took a good, critical look a number that was getting bandied about in the press. A recent report had stated that 16.1% of cancers are caused by infections, such as HPV.

Health statistics can be notoriously misleading, and it’s always a good idea to understand how they were derived and what they really mean. Yong explains that the number in this report is what’s called a population attributable fraction, and then he gives a little background on it was calculated:

Formally, these numbers – the population attributable fractions (PAFs) – represent the proportion of cases of a disease that could be avoided if something linked to the disease (a risk factor) was avoided. So, in this case, we’re saying that if no one caught HPV or any other cancer-causing infection, then 16.1% of cancers would never happen. That’s around 2 million cases attributable to these causes.

Faye Flam @ 6:30 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Thursday, May 10, 2012, 5:56 PM

This is an interesting reaction I got to Monday’s column:

Evolution explains much in society.  I think too much.  It is moving in the direction of reducing behavior to that of all primates and to a society devoid of morals and free will.  The scientific method is a cake walk compared to the difficult thought processes that engage the minds of those individuals who labor with ideas of justice, mercy, wisdom, prudence, right and wrong etc., all of which are meaningless in the context of evolution.  In the context of evolution they don't exist and we have an amoral society.  Schools need discussions of dogma. Dogma wrestles with the complexities of right and wrong.  I am not arguing in favor of a single religious doctrine taught in schools but of Judaic, Islamic, Christian etc dogmas.  The classes would be open to all.  The students would then learn to discuss and value systems with various dogmas and come to realize that there can be compromise, friendship and respect between peoples of different beliefs.  This would be antecedent to participating in politics/governing and other societal institutions.  Societal institutions are now peopled by individuals who discuss difficult societal issues and dogmas, with no educational framework to deal with the resolution of problems related to justice, mercy, right and wrong. 

My reaction is that evolution is no more responsible for rendering justice or mercy “meaningless” than is any other area of science. You could also say that right and wrong are meaningless in the context of organic chemistry. So should we stop doing or teaching organic chemistry? What about astronomy? What has that done for morals and ethics lately?

Faye Flam @ 5:56 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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