Archive for June 2012

The Higgs Boson is a Liberal Conspiracy To Get The Government More Involved In Mass*

June 24, 2012

We await news of the Higgs boson, with a major announcement in the offing** (perhaps as early as July 4).  Some rumors have already started to percolate, suggesting that the hints of a Standard Model Higgs appearing at a particular energy level compatible with established theory may be approaching confirmation.

If the rumors are true, and the near-confirmation does get announced next month, and if that result then holds to the point where everyone competent to have a view concurs that the Higgs has actually been identified, then that’s a very big deal, though in some ways a disappointing one.  It’s a big deal because it will mean the attempt to understand one of the fundamental phenomena of the universe, the existence of the Higgs field, will be able to proceed with actual data.

It would also confirm (again) that the basic theoretical ideas that have governed particle physics for some time are still on the job.

That, in a way, is the bad news.  Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.  One more chip on the stack of winnings the SM has already racked up?  Impressive, but not as much fun as the kind of intellectual adventure that would result if the field had to accommodate something other than the simplest answer to the question of how the cosmos manages to confer mass on its stuff like quarks and electrons (the “job” of the Higgs field.)

Still — for those of you interested in the leading edge of the now c. 8 decades of high energy physics inquiry into basic properties of nature, we’ll know something exciting, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

In the above, I’ve linked a couple of times to blog posts by my friend, Matt Strassler.  He’s a very good guide on these kind of things, writing from a theoretician’s point of view.  But while I agree with Matt on lots of stuff, and have learned much more than that from him, there’s one aspect of this latest story on which he and I disagree.  Or perhaps more accurately, on which our perspectives differ

That would be the view he takes that early speculation on the results of the two experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider amounts to subversion of the scientific process.  Jon Butterworth, a researcher on one of those experiments, strongly agrees.

In the comment thread Matt tangles with Peter Woit, proprietor of the blog Not Even Wrong, who in this post noted that  “reliable rumors”  suggest “the experiments are seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV. ” –i.e. the step toward confirmation described above.

Matt’s and Butterworth’s argument is simple:  it is crucial for Higgs data analysis that those assessing the data from each experiment not know what the folks doing the same on the other experiment are seeing — or might be glimpsing, or think they might be getting to see.  Each group needs to be blind to the other to avoid the risk of contaminating the validation process with any expectation of what they “ought” to find, given what they know (or think they do) about the other folks’ results.  Publishing rumors — even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway — damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment, and that’s bad.

That’s an entirely valid view.  But the question is whether or not people who are not engaged in that work should publish what they learn.  And here, as a science writer and not a scientist, this is the thing:  science is an enterprise to be covered; it is not simply a cultural value to be defended and advanced (though science writers do so, in a number of implicit and explicit ways).

The Higgs is news.  It is so for several reasons, both intellectual and instrumental.  The intellectual — perhaps the aesthetic — ones are those hinted at above:  whatever form the understanding of Higgs processes may take, it will form an essential part of the picture we have of the nature of reality.  The instrumental ones are the same as those which led to the heinous labeling of the Higgs boson as “the God Particle.”  Cultivation of excitement around the Higgs is part of the case for supporting large and expensive social commitments to all the apparatus needed to do high-energy physics.  As Chad Orzel points out,

Dude, this means you’ve won.”

I mean, it’s not an accident that there’s a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They’ve been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I’ve been running this blog, and it’s finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

More than churlish, in fact:  self defeating.  Either science is enough of a vital part of being a citizen and a thoughtful person that what happens as it unfolds is part of our common culture; or it is an esoteric pursuit, and hence more on the fringe than any scientist I know (and me!) would accept.  If science does take that central  a role, then properly reported stories from within experiments are fair game.  It’s not the writer’s fault if the scientists involved are troubled by (accurate, contextually-rich, honest…) coverage.  The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

Put this another way:  imagine the story is one of an investigation of fraud at a major experiment.  Would it seem right to enjoin a science writer from writing about that fraud investigation before it was complete?  Even if it impeded the investigation?  It seems to me that the answer is, mostly, “no.”  (I say mostly, because I can imagine being told that publication right now might kill some specific vital step in the inquiry. But even there, the constraint would have to be, from where I see it, narrowly constructed and limited:  I wouldn’t hold off publishing what I know for long.)

That is:  science journalists deal in accounts of what they have found out that are of interest to them and to their readers.  They have real obligations: their stories must be accurate, must hold validity within the larger context of work in which particular incidents take place, must not violate any agreements the writer may have entered into with her or his sources, and so on.  But in my view, the writer does not have the duty of policing the process of science itself.  She or he is rather engaged in a conversation with the audience — whose interests, like those of the writer, overlap with but are not necessarily identical to those of the scientists themselves.

And thus this sermon endeth.  May your day be highly energetic.

*Tweet by old friend @drskyskull (who blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

**Link to TPM, ‘coz that’s where first I saw what has become widely discussed.  But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense?  Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

Images:  Alfred Bierstadt, Buffalo Head,c. 1879.

Alfred Bierstadt, Trapped, before 1902.

Stopped Clocks and All That

June 15, 2012

John McCain and I don’t agree on much, I reckon.  I think the old man has been a net drag on American politics for a long time.

But I can’t find much to dispute in his take on Sheldon Adelson and Citizens United. (Via TPM):

“[M]uch of Mr. Adelson’s casino profits that go to him come from this casino in Macau,” McCain told Judy Woodruff in an interview that aired Thursday night. “Which says that, obviously, maybe in a roundabout way, foreign money is coming into an American campaign.”

McCain, who once worked with former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a.k.a. the McCain-Feingold bill, called the Citizens United decision the Supreme Court’s “most misguided, naive, uninformed, egregious decision” in the 21st century.

“Look, I guarantee you, Judy, there will be scandals,” he said. “There is too much money washing around political campaigns today. And it will take scandals, and then maybe we can have the Supreme Court go back and revisit this issue. Remember, the Supreme Court rules on constitutionality. So just passing another law doesn’t get it. So I’m afraid we’re in for a very bleak period in American politics.”

Unlike Romney — who famously said last summer that “corporations are people” — McCain said he believes that “corporations are not people.”

“That’s why we have different laws that govern corporations than govern individual citizens,” he said. “And so to say that corporations are people, again, flies in the face of all the traditional Supreme Court decisions that we have made — that have been made in the past.”

Put this another way:  McCain actually seems to recognize that Mittens is setting up to be the front man for a presidency whose IOUs belong to Adelson’s Israel-first hunger and, as McCain himself points out, that Chinese connection that will surely disappoint those who actually credit Romney’s bluster on confrontation with Beijing.  (Not to mention all the other notes that will have to be paid to folks like the Kochs, et al.)

John McCain sees this as “a very bleak period in American politics.”

Grandpa: you’re on to something.

Image:  John Singer Sargent, Charles Deering at Brickell Point, Miami, 1917.



Republican Brains and Liberal Facts — A Conversation

June 13, 2012

I’ve just finished reading Chris Mooney’s latest, The Republican Brain, and I commend it to you all.  It’s Chris’s best, IMHO, intellectually (though not narratively) a sequel to his earlier best seller, The Republican War on Science. Or, perhaps more accurately, the new work is a response to that earlier one, an attempt to figure out why Republicans have become so (and increasingly) divorced from reality, why as a political movement, the G.O.P. has committed itself to so much that is, simply, objectively, wrong.

Chris and I will be talking about this later today as part of my monthly gig as a host for Virtually Speaking Science.  You can listen here at 5 EDT or later (after about midnight) to a podcast that will also be available through iTunes.  You can also join the live virtual studio audience in Second Life — throwing questions at us from either venue.

We’ll start with Chris’s argument: that a broad body of research from a variety of fields — psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and more — produces a reliable, reproducible nature and nurture account of systematic differences between conservative and liberal brains and minds.  In this account, conservatives act out of the quadrant of motives and neural systems that characterize “Closed” or resistant-to-new-experience personalities…and this renders them less able to respond to facts and/or argument that challenge essential beliefs. Liberals, or those who fall into the”Open” pattern do the opposite.

That’s the most simple minded cartoon of an inquiry into a lot of research that supports Mooney’s essential point:  there are fundamental attributes of how our minds work that shape whether or not we can accept or work very hard to ignore things like the reality of human-caused climate change, or the fact that tax cuts do not increase national revenue.

I find the book really persuasive on that score — but I do have a few points I’m planning to push Chris on.  One’s a historian’s thought — not so much a criticism, as a note that the vigor of reactionary denial of reality always ramps up at times of great change.  I’m thinking of a marvelous, if less-read-than-it-should-be book The Vertigo Years, Philipp Blom’s essayistic narrative of Europe’s schizophrenia from 1900-1914 — that tension between the legacy of Victorian assurance and the reality of massive cultural and social dislocative change.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, we’re smack in the middle of just such a period right now.  The Way It Used To Be is simply unavailable to whole swatches of society who are now terrified by what’s going on with technology, social life, culture, the hierarchy of privilege.  That terror invokes exactly the kind of neurological and cognitive response Chris is talking about — and I’d like to go more into the implications of history, of the contingencies of time and place, especially as they bear on his suggested solutions to the problem of a Republic in which close to half of the political class (and their supporters) are delusional.

The second point I plan to push him on is a bit of “both sides”-ery he permits himself.  He argues that the benefits accrue both from the virtues associated with the conservative mind — he mentions loyalty, decisiveness, perserverance, among others — and those tied to liberalism:  flexibility, openness to new information, invention.  My problem with this is that it is not a symmetrical opposition.  Decisiveness, for example, is an attribute that can accrue to either shoot-from-the-hip types or reflective ones; rejection of valid information or the disdain for expertise is not.  I can guess at what Chris might say, but I’m not sure…so I plan to ask.

That said, the most important part of the conversation, I expect, will be on what to do about the very real problem that the Republican Party now resembles nothing so much as King Canute’s court.  Chris has long argued for better framing of liberal and pro-science arguments, and in this book he points at the need to couch fact in great stories.  He doesn’t go deeply into this — most of the book is laying out the case for the reality of material differences of mind and brain between the ends of the political spectrum — but I think he’s right, and I want to go deeper into what that might mean.

In any event, check out the book, and come listen in (or the other way round).

Image:  Egon Schiele,Agony (The Death Struggle), 1912

There Never Was No War On Women (Internet Division)

June 12, 2012

I’ve got a bunch of other “I should write something about this” entries in my queue — but a tweet retweeted from someone whose handle I didn’t keep (sorry) led me to an article that just short-circuited my rage-and-sorrow circuits:

A Californian blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, launched a Kickstarter project to make a web video series about “tropes vs women in videogames”. Following on from her similar series on films, it aimed to look at women as background decoration, Damsels in Distress, the Sexy Sidekick and so on….
Sarkeesian was after $6,000 to cover the cost of researching the topic, playing all kinds of awful games, and producing the videos.
You can guess what comes next.

In Sarkeesian’s own words:

“The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as “terrorism”, as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen “jokes” to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.  All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.”

Head over to the link for more detail, none of it pleasant.

The good news is that Sarkeesian much more than made her nut at Kickstarter.  The bad news — as I’m guessing most of us know all too well — is that there is a depressingly large subset of our society deeply threatened by anything that amounts of an assertion of agency by anyone not supposed to possess it.  An African-American President is not just someone with whom to disagree; he is unpossible.  He must be Kenyan.

A woman in charge of her own body?  A woman asserting that femaleness is not simply a toy built for the amusement the rude boyz of the ‘tubes?

An abomination, it seems.

There’s nothing to negotiate at that point; there’s no middle ground when, to put it in the ever so polite terms of a David Brooks, us followers have to learn how to allow our betters to lead us as they did back in 1925.  (I’ll send you to the essential Charlie Pierce for details, properly dissected.)

I would say we have a long way to go — but anyone on the receiving end of this nonsense knows this without being told.  What I can say is that this is why the fight is necessary.  I get that some folks hate and fear the reality of change in society, culture, the Way Things Ought To Be.

Not my problem.


Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes1611-1612.

June 4, 2012

Can’t say how much I chortled in glee at this report (by old friend Dennis Overbye).

It seems that one of our deep spook agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office (AKA the other NRO) somehow managed to accumulate not one, but a matched pair of Hubble-class space telescopes.  These now belong to NASA.

What’s coolest is that these instruments were optimized for a particular task — reading the label on my undershorts — but it turns out that the design choices made to enhance the two ‘scopes capacities as ground surveillance tools are also nicely tailored for two of the key observational goals of the next space observatories.  The instruments are much shorter than the Hubble, which gives them a wider field of view.  That wide angle capacity — useful indeed if you’re sitting a few hundred miles up and trying to pick out details at Parchin or Houla – turns out to be just fine for some serious astronomy and cosmology:

The two telescopes have a 94-inch-diameter primary mirror, just like Hubble, but are shorter in focal length, giving them a wider field of view: “Stubby Hubbles,” in the words of Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, adding, “They were clearly designed to look down.”

Dr. Grunsfeld said his first reaction was that the telescopes would be a distraction. “We were getting something very expensive to handle and store,” he said.

Earlier this spring he asked a small group of astronomers if one of the telescopes could be used to study dark energy.

The answer, he said, was: “Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect.”

Even bigger advantages come, astronomers say, from the fact that the telescope’s diameter, 94 inches, is twice as big as that contemplated for Wfirst, giving it four times the light-gathering power, from which a whole host of savings cascade. Instead of requiring an expensive launch to a solar orbit, the telescope can operate in geosynchronous Earth orbit, complete its survey of the sky four times faster, and download data to the Earth faster.

Equipped with a coronagraph to look for exoplanets — another of Wfirst’s goals — the spooky Hubble could see planets down to the size of Jupiter around other stars.

Caveats: the instruments themselves account for only a relatively small fraction of the cost of actually launching and running an observatory in space.  And Dennis has his snark meter set (subtly) on eleven when he writes that “responsible adults in Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences have yet to sign one.”  But still, given the years of starvation predicted for the space science side of NASA, this is the first news in a while that gives me the sense that we’re in with a chance.

I’ll admit, it’s been hard for me to see much good in the news lately.  But this story reminds me that it ain’t all bad; far from it.  We can build unbelievably cool stuff — not bad for a bipedal ape (or a thinking radish).  And sometimes, it seems, a tool built to study the darkness of the human condition can in fact turn around, and capture the light that pierces the expanse through which we journey on our pale blue dot.

Image:  Gerard Dou, Astronomer by Candlelight, c. 1665

Unclear on the Concept

June 3, 2012

From today’s Times story on gender discrimination in Silicon Valley:

“If you believe every allegation in the complaint, it’s appalling and an important window into how the valley works,” Mr. [David A.] Kaplan said. “But I’m somewhat skeptical. The clichés you hear in the valley are about the pranks, the obsessiveness, the Foosball tables. You don’t really hear about randiness and mistreatment of women. That doesn’t prove it’s not there, but that’s not the lore.” [Emphasis added]

Uh, Mr. Kaplan.  You might want to think on that.

Let me help.

Consider this analogy:. Let’s say there’s a cult of cannibal WASPs in San Francisco who decide that they need to eat actual human body parts to fully take part in communion. (Why yes, I am rereading my Armistead Maupin.  Why do you ask?)

Do you reckon that fact will become part of the lore at Grace Cathedral?

I think not.  The first rule of Fight Club and all that.

Out of the realm of fiction,  the reality of embedded discrimination is that it does not form part of the “lore.”  It’s in the water, the air, so pervasively integrated into the daily life of whatever community in which it is embedded that no one need and very few recognize its existence — at least among those on the winning side.  How many white southerners in 1950 perceived the daily reality of their lives to be one that benefitted from the systematic oppression of their African-American neighbors?  Some, but it wasn’t part of the lore; it was just an unexceptionable fact.

So too with gender.  Example close to home:  until the 1999 report on  Women Faculty in the School Science at MIT, male faculty and leadership at the Institute were not in general aware of the conditions under which their female colleagues worked.  Here’s then-MIT President Charles Vest, introducing the report:

First, I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance. Second, I, like most of my male colleagues, believe that we are highly supportive of our junior women faculty members. This also is true. They generally are content and well supported in many, though not all dimensions. However, I sat bolt upright in my chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for some time, said “I also felt very positive when I was young.”

Thus, when David Kaplan– in all sincerity, I’m sure — suggests that a charge of sexual harassment is implausible because the Valley’s oral tradition does not speak of it, the best response I can give is:

Dude, please.  Listen to yourself.*

*BTW — to belabor what should be obvious.  Just because someone makes a clueless statement like Kaplan’s, it does not follow that the specific charges in the Pao-Kleiner, Perkins dispute are true.


Image: Thomas Eakins, Study for Taking the Count, 1898.

Things I Hate #476.4: Sloppy Writing About Cancer

June 2, 2012

In Thursday’s New York Times Andrew Pollack wrote a mostly unobjectionable, informative piece on an innovation in treatment for a variety of cancers.  The trick he described involves attaching chemotherapeutic agents to antibodies that bind to specific markers on cancer cells — compounds dubbed antibody-drug conjugates.  Such therapies aim at more precise targeting of cancer drugs, which researchers, drug companies and patients hope will yield more effective results with fewer side effects.

Pollack lays out the basic technology in the piece nicely, and he frames the science within the usual sorts of anecdotes about patients on some of the drugs under trial…all pretty bog-standard medical reporting.

So why am I pissed off?

This sentence:

By harnessing antibodies to deliver toxic payloads to cancer cells, while largely sparing healthy cells, the drugs are a step toward the “magic bullets” against cancer first envisioned by Paul Ehrlich, a German Nobel laureate, about 100 years ago.

Two thoughts:  first, the lesser offense, the phrase “envisioned by Paul Ehrlich, a German Nobel laureate,” is an attempt to assert unearned authority.  The dreamt-of “magic bullets” gain a quality of respectability from association with some long-dead smart guy.

That Nobel cover helps set up the second, greater claim, and the more damaging flaw in this piece: the implied outcome for someone actually receiving the hinted-at magic bullet.

Pollack, were he here, might try stop me at this point, noting that he only suggests “a step toward” the miraculous promise of a bullet to strike cancer down — and not that cure itself.  And so he does.

But really, the whole framing of magic bullets  is the problem.  Pollack gives evidence of why this is so — at least by implication — later in the piece.  The patient in his lede has breast cancer.  for breast cancer.  Much further down the piece we learn that the antibody-drug conjugate treatment she receives only applies to those 20% of breast cancers that express an excess of a particular protein.  That speaks to one reason why magic bullets remain so elusive almost half a century into the “war on cancer:”  cancer is not a disease. Rather it’s a family of illnesses that share the property of unconstrained cell division — but respond often very differently to given choices of treatment.

Again, there’s no doubt in my mind that Pollack knows of the real harm to be done by talk of cures for cancer; almost all of the article is sober enough about the gains achieved so far by this approach (real, but not curative) and of the limits the given therapies face.

But even good reporters can fall prey to the easy phrase or the inaccurate shorthand of the beat.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter.  No one cares if a football writer uses the phrase “smash mouth” in every piece about the Steelers-Ravens rivalry.

Cancer is different.  The hunger for a cure is obviously and understandably overwhelming. But such hopes run straight into the basic science of cancer — which has undone seemingly imminent magic bullets time after time.

New hope, the prospect of more time, improved quality of life, and — with good fortune — increased remission rates.  Those are all fine as ways to frame the real advances in cancer therapy.  Present them with all the optimism one may reasonable feel.  But to imply that we’ve moved meaningfully closer to what amounts to a cure?  Until and unless that’s really true, it is beyond misleading to suggest that particular advances offer more than they do.  Very rapidly we’re into the territory of the cruel.

So yeah, even as a throwaway.  Even with the imprimatur of a Nobel laureate, alive or dead.  Even with good intentions. This kind of carelessness bugs the living crap out of me.

No snark, no jokes, a dark subject, no fun.  Nothing new here, either; I’m guessing everyone reading this has a pretty good idea that cancer is a bear of a disease(s).

What can I say?  This one strikes close to home.

Image: Zacharias Wagner, Crab, from Thier Buch (Animal Book), 1641.


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