Politics

Whales vs pesticide, knowledge vs understanding, women vs ignorance

A ‘battle cry’ for female scientists — and for women held down by bad science

The Guardian neatly writes up science journalist Angela Saini’s book Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It. It’s a work that’s become celebrated by women working in science and technology, but it’s also notable for what it says about how scientific-seeming claims have been used to suppress women in all areas.

“There are people out there who insist that somehow the inequalities we see in society are not just because of historic discrimination, but also because of biology – the idea that there are factors within us that will cause men or women to be better at some things than others.” …

“Actually, science doesn’t support that point of view. I think it’s important we understand these scientific facts. We need that ammunition to counter the weird mistruths that are circulating within and outside science about sex difference”.

While, yes, men overall outperform women in some areas of math and science on standard tests, the evidence shows that these results completely disappear in economic or social situations where boys are not given more science opportunities than girls. Perversely, this can mean that some of the wealthiest societies have some of the highest differences in scores. But one thing that’s being done to try and break through the social expectations that underwrite this difference is … get more copies of this book out there. A Kickstarter campaign aims to land a copy in every school library in the UK.

Inferior is not a children’s book by any stretch of the imagination. It includes a firsthand account of female genital mutilation and deliberately examines a large number of academic studies in painstaking detail. But, like recent bestselling children’s books Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, it could play a valuable role in breaking down gender stereotypes for the next generation of would-be scientists and mathematicians, and Saini is confident many teenagers will engage with it.

Prediction vs Understanding: If a machine learns to solve a problem … is that good enough?

Singularity University is an organization founded by some tech giants, including Google, that looks at some of the Big Questions, especially those related to AI, machine learning, and how those technologies might actually improve the lives of billions. In an article on their website, Amar Vutha looks at the difference between being able to predict the behavior of a system and understanding how that system works. He starts with an example that’s often used to show that prediction can come without understanding.

For more than a millennium, the story goes, people used methods handed down by the Greco-Roman mathematician Ptolemy to predict how the planets moved across the sky.

Ptolemy didn’t know anything about the theory of gravity or even that the sun was at the centre of the solar system. His methods involved arcane computations using circles within circles within circles. While they predicted planetary motion rather well, there was no understanding of why these methods worked, and why planets ought to follow such complicated rules.

But Vutha also provides examples showing that machine learning techniques are allowing predictions of systems in everything from biology to weather that, unlike planetary motion, may never resolve themselves to a neat set of rules around central organizing principles.

While there is no doubt that atoms and chemistry, and therefore simple principles, underlie these systems, describing them using universally valid equations appears to be a rather inefficient way to generate useful predictions.

In the meantime, it is becoming evident that these problems will easily yield to machine-learning methods.

What does it mean if we develop a system that can well-predict changes in climate, or prescribe the best course of treatment for cancer, but that system produces no new understanding of the underlying system. Is that knowledge? Does it matter? If you’ve spent a season of Westworld, or an afternoon with Ex Machina, wrestling with thoughts of what constitutes consciousness and agency, or even if haven’t, give this article a read for companion ideas about knowledge and understanding.

Does something live inside the blood-red heart of garnets?

Garnets are a hard, usually reddish semi-precious gemstone that, amusingly enough, are often found in a metamorphic rock called “schist.” So, while working in the field, geology students can call out to each other “Hey, hand me some of that garnet schist.” Believe me, this is hilarious if you’re a freshman geology student. Garnets—which are actually found in many kinds of rock and come in many different colors—are frequently used in abrasives and while nice, clear specimens can be quite valuable, they’re also a pretty common gem. 

A pretty common gem with a strange, strange secret.

Inside of many garnets are networks of tiny “tunnels.” These far-smaller-than-hair-thin openings have long been recognized, and mineralogists have produced a good number of theories about their origin, including some that include traces left by the passage of radioactive particles, or microscopic flaws formed within cooling crystals. But in the New York Times, Veronique Greenwood records a stranger possibility put forward by a Swedish geobiologist.

After Dr. Ivarsson and his colleagues traveled to Thailand, they found that an assortment of evidence contradicted standard geological explanations for how the cavities might be formed. In a paper in PLOS One, the researchers are floating a new hypothesis: Perhaps what’s making the tunnels is alive.

For the casual reader, the strangest thing about the last two paragraphs might be that there’s such a thing as a “geobiologist.” But there are things that live in rocks. Some even get their energy from digesting certain minerals. But garnets, which are a family of silicate crystals, seem like a particularly odd place for anything to make a living. This isn’t a sample of brine trapped inside a salt crystal, or something that survives Antarctic cold behind layers of translucent stone. This is a … mineral. Just a mineral.

The theory that Ivarsson et. al. put forward is that tiny pits or fractures in a garnet may offer entry to an organism, such as some kind of fungi, which then dissolves its way into the mineral as a source of specific nutrients. That’s certainly possible. Fungi push, cut, and dissolve their way through all sorts of material, bringing back nutrients that they often trade to plants in exchange for some good old sugars. But many of the tunnels in garnets don’t seem to originate on the surface of the crystals, and the sharp angles of many tunnels follow the crystal structure in ways that don’t particularly look … organic.

And hey, why didn’t I think of being a geobiologist? Dammit Jim, someone has to care for those Horta.

California wild fires are our fault, and also … our fault.

The unprecedented number and scale of wildfires scouring California are directly related to human-caused climate change. Changes in climate are making rainfall in many places, not just California, more episodic. That is, more of the rain that falls come down as part of larger, events with fewer small rains in between. Local areas may be getting drier, or wetter, but many areas are getting more cyclical. And that kind of cycle can produce a system that leads to periods of lush, rapid growth, followed by prolonged periods of drying … a formula for a tinderbox.

But that’s something of the strategic level of wildfires. On a more tactical level, humans are also responsible. Directly. As Sarah Gibbens writes in National Geographic …

Last year, one of the largest wildfires tearing through southern California was caused by a downed power line. Illegal campfires can start blazes, like one that began in 2009 and grew to destroy more than 2,700 acres. Everything from items with small sparks like cigarette butts to more ostentatious flames like fireworks have started large fires. 

Fires can start from many natural reasons, some of which are still poorly understood. However, when it comes to so-called wildfires in California, the causes are people in over 95 percent of the cases. Which includes deluded Trump-loving QAnon fans who start the state’s largest fire to get back at a neighbor.


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