Saturday, October 30, 2010

philosophy of uncertainty principle.

This thought came to me from a discussion in my British literature class, of all places. We were discussing science and the implications of the new exciting discoveries that led to doubts and loss of confidence in our knowledge of the world: evolution, machines, PROGRESS.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that both the position and momentum of a particle cannot be determined, or that more precisely one is measured the less precise becomes the measuring of the other. This is because when attempting to measure either the position or the particle using radiation, the observer alters the state of the particle, thus becoming part of the observed system: objective measurements are impossible.

Think about that for a second.

This implies that no information is neutral and the ultimate truth may be unattainable. Our view of reality becomes one unknown element out of a set of possibilities. Oh, particle, why won't you simply surrender the mysteries of your being to us?

I love how this quantum physics-principle seeps into a bigger question about the objectivity and goal of physics, other science, and expands into (somewhat loosely though, since particles are not the same thing as everyday objects, but the implication persists!) questions of perception, truth, and reality. Drop a dot of ink on a wet paper towel.

But it's fun to draw parallels of this fact into bigger life schemes: ex, Valentine's Day: doesn't the fact that you tell A you like him affect your feelings for A? Or his feelings for you which may affect your feelings for him?
by John Richardson in Physics World

Perhaps we can appreciate an answer by returning to literature. John Keats on negative capability:
I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates every other consideration.

toying with evolution.

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" said Theodosius Dobzhansky, who was both an evolutionary biologist and a Christian. This famous statement was the title of his 1973 essay which argued for education of evolution in public schools.

Regardless of how you may feel about evolution and its compatibility with religion(and this is a touchy subject for many people), I have a fun thought experiment proposal: whenever you observe a phenomenon, think of an evolutionary biology explanation for such facts!

For certain facts it is rather easily and the answers are readily available, like, why can't women run as fast as men? Or, why can't humans produce 500 babies at once like flies do? Or why do we go to sleep at night? etc etc. Recently I read an article on development of gossip as explained by evolutionary biology. Gossip Girl has biology to thank!

But try to come up with explanations for other things you observe & how they may be explained by evolutionary biology. It doesn't matter if your explanation makes sense. It doesn't even matter if the phenomenon itself is true! :)
1. Why do people laugh? 
2. Why do people like climbing trees?
3. Why do girls go to restroom in groups? (the focus being: why don't guys do it?)
4. Why do people obsess over celebrities (including pseudo-celebs, like reality TV shows!)?

funny evolution-related cartoon.

Here's a fun read from the Scientific American: Why do men have nipples? mentioning both the "request" for evolutionary biologists to explain observed facts, and the answer to the question in the title.

For those looking for a provocative and interesting (longer) read: The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade, a New York Times writer, who argues that religion developed by natural selection because it enhances a group's survival. Now that's an interesting twist on the complicated relationship between evolution and religion. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Civic Scientists: little pieces of knowledge.

I attended an incredible talk by 1996 Nobel Laureates Dr. Robert Curl and Sir Harold Kroto this evening. Let me just read that sentence again and bathe in its glory. I was 30 feet away from not one, but two Nobel laureates. Wow. I was especially excited about this lecture which was part of the Civic Scientist lecture series.
A ‘civic scientist’ to me is a true scientist who uses his or her knowledge, accomplsihemnts, and analytical skills to help bridge the gap between science and society.” -Dr. Neal Lane.
Dr. Lane was actually the one who introduced our two speakers for the night!

Dr. Robert Curl came on the stage first to t
alk about the public opinion and science. He spoke about the fact that there is often public resistance to information that may be inconvenient, fearful, or contradictory to their beliefs. Well, many of the public debates involve questioning of science facts at heart. Abortion/stem cell research asks when a fetus is human, and global warming begins the issue with: is this even happening? It was especially interesting how he contributed the phenomenon of public ignorance to the development of internet. Simply due to the vast amount of information online, people can find others who agree with their views. It’s so easy.

Next, Sir Kroto, in a bright orange shirt, spoke more about the fundamental importance of science. Yes, it is useful because there are nurses who can’t use decimals and administer exponentially wrong amounts of medicine (eeek), ahd science may lead to development of the most gracious gift to humanity: anesthesiology.While we try to emphasize the importance of science by asserting its practicality and usefulness, science needs to be appreciated for its innate beauty (See Richard Feynman lectures).

Sir Kroto closed the talk with a clip from the movie “The Third Man”. Like Harry Lime, the truth is always true (duh) and constant. As Sir Kroto put it, it does not sway to people’s prayers. The truth may be hidden and elusive, and may lead to initial confusion, but it has always been there and it will always be there. It just hasn’t been fully understood, yet.

Dr. Lane, Dr. Curl, and Sir Kroto.

Again to the importance of civic scientists: scientists, as discoverers of natural facts, need to facilitate the public’s understanding of truths. The talk reminded me of the Newsweek article I read titled “Their Own Worst Enemies” by Sharon Bagley. She states that scientists expect the public to understand and absorb the facts they generate and throw out at them, whereas the public may feel insulted or ignored in response. Hmm.

I am undecided as to what kind of scientist I will be, but I would like to be a fundamentally, a civic scientist under all my titles. I want to take the kind of knowledge I have and use it to inform others who can then make truly informed decisions. Here’s the image I have: I’m a mom by the kitchen with a knife that only I can use (because I’m the grown up adult), who will cut up the pieces of chicken for the kids to eat. Because it’s unreasonable for me to expect the kids to chew and digest the huge pieces of meat, and I have the tool to make it edible for them, it is my responsibility to, naturally.

annie hall: favorite.

Wandering across to the DVD section after reading dense papers on aging, I saw Annie Hall among the stacks. I had heard great things about Diane Keaton's costume in the movie, so I had to check it out.

I immediately headed home in bubbly anticipation after reading the back cover and eyeing Miss Keaton's effortlessly chic, androgynous outfits, and spent the 90 minutes laughing at the development of the doomed romance between Alvie Singer, portrayed by the amazing Woody Allen, and Annie Hall, by Diane Keaton.

 La-dee-dah. How fantastic is this?

Alvie talks directly to the camera sometimes, and directly acknowledges that this is a movie: "Boy, if life were only like this".  The entire movie plays out like an old friend telling you a story you've heard many times, but are happy to listen to again.

There are many quotable lines from  nervous, pessimistic Alfie, and the ditzy Annie, who transforms into becoming more confident and assertive, which ultimately drives the two apart.

It's a bittersweet, beautiful, and most importantly realistic love story. I absolutely loved it. The movie moves quickly, with intimate and observant shots, and leaves you thinking long after it ends. Definite to-watch.
"Love is too weak a word for what I feel - I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you, two F's, yes I have to invent, of course I - I do, don't you think I do?" says Alvie.

savior siblings...

In immunology, we learned about MHC molecules and how they are inherited. Since the three classes of MHC molecules are found in a block, they are often inherited as a unit, a haplotype, which rarely crosses over. Therefore, there are four possible combinations of MHC combinations in a given mating, which gives a sibling one in four chance of matching another sibling.

Immediately I thought of "My Sister's Keeper", which I had read about online. I have neither seen the movie nor read the book. In the book, the couple has another girl after their first is born with leukemia. The sibling who is born to provide an organ to be transplanted is called a "savior sibling"(There IS a term for it!). 

A savior sibling is selected to be genetically compatible. A couple may choose to terminate the pregnancy if the child is healthy but not a match for the sibling in need.

As in Jodi Picoult's novel, the sibling may not be happy about being a savior. Kant would argue that in this case, the savior sibling is being used as a means, and therefore this is immoral... but from a utilitarian point of view, a child is born and with minimal "harm" to the child herself, saves another's life. That's good, right?

Would I want to be a savior sibling? Would I want a savior sibling?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

you made a mistake.... doctor.

I went to a Scientia lecture by Dr. Vimla Patel this afternoon. The talk was titled: "Failure to Detect Medical Error: Debunking the myth of the Infallible Expert". Dr. Patel is a biomedical informaticist at UTHSC who studies medical errors.

While the talk was fascinating (an hour went by so fast!), certain points Dr. Patel made really captured my attention. While we accept mistakes as normal and human, when experts make such errors, we may not be as forgiving. Especially in this case, when the expert is a physician whose mistake may affect someone's health/body/life, mistakes are considered an anomaly never to be repeated.

She spoke about the different studies conducted to observe mistakes, detection and correction, and her approach to studying this was fascinating. She had a graph starting with on-paper experiments where residents/students are asked to evaluate a case, then "in vivo" studies where a team having a dialogue was observed, unaware that it was a simulated experiment. Then, of course, there were in situ studies where specific doctors were followed and recorded to detect their mistakes. She mentioned that they are developing virtual experiments to fill in the gaps between the different "realistic" experiments.

She also mentioned that mistakes may not be mistakes, something I took further as an advice on life than on this limited topic alone: there are always uncertainties and unknowns in a situation, and we may do the best we can, but the environment we were in may not have been complete.