Posted tagged ‘PZ Myers’

With Apologies to PZ Myers: Not one penny for tribute, unlimited sums for mechanical cephalopods.

May 2, 2008

The next episode of Friday Newton blogging is going to have to wait for an off-day edition; end of term woes and committee meetings have sucked up all the time I was going to spend putting together my material on Newton’s gambling habits.

But what would Friday be without some rather off-axis look at science in the public square?

So, stealing a patch of PZ Myers turf, I thought I’d share what I picked up from my MIT colleague Anette Hosoi a few weeks ago.

Hosoi’s lab uses biological sources to provide inspiration for the creation of small robots; Hosoi and her group are most famous for their work on a robotic snail. (Video, courtesy of my students in the Graduate Program in Science Writing, can be found here— bottom of the page, after two videos on the humanoid robot, Domo.

As it happened, I was taking around a visitor the other day — the incomparable David Macaualay. (Name dropping alert — at least for those of us sufficiently steeped in geek to know the wonderfulness of Macaulay’s books and films on engineering, the made world, design, the brain and pigeon’s eye-views of Rome.)

Professor Hosoi and her students were in fine form, showing us the latest in mechanical swimmers, the updates to the artificial slime on which the labs’ snails crawl and so on. Last up was a student new to me since the last time I hung out over there. Her project…well it seems that the Department of Defense’s wild eyed boys and girls at DARPA got a look at this video

Someone over there said “I want me one of these.”

So Hosoi’s team, among others are now trying to deliver a design for, a robotic octopus, a deformable robot capable of carrying a payload — sensors, weapons, whatever — into and out of the tightest spots evah. Your defense dollars at work.

What can I say? Actually, it’s a sweet, rich problem, with all kinds of potential applications in peace as well as war. If Hosoi or any one else responding to DOD’s prompt comes up with a good solution, it will have confronted a number of serious physics and engineering hurdles to get there; this is the kind of problem folks come to places like MIT to research.

What’s really going on is something PZ has known for years: we are humbled by the powers of the mighty cephalopod. Besides which, this is a hell of a lot better way to spend my tax dollars than on ESP, trained naval warfare dophins, and ballistic missile defense.


March 21, 2008

This is going to be all over the science blogosphere in a blink, so there is no real need for me to pile on, except that it gives me the opportunity to recycle one of my recent favorite political snarks,

I mean, if you have done something really dumb — like make an ignorant, ill-informed, duplicitous film that is so ineptly put together as to be unable to attract even papered full houses — and then you decide you want to make sure that none of your critics can actually see the film, it might be a good idea to know your enemy, just a little bit.

But nooooo! The producers of Expelled, Ben Stein’s formal notice of secession from reason knew they had a problem with PZ Myers. After all, they had interviewed him under false pretences to serve as one of a number of straw men to a bankrupt argument. He’s been pretty clear — brutally plain — about both that essential discourtesy, and the larger dishonesty of the project as a whole. They know he can dish the invective pretty well, and to the largest audience in the science blogosphere.

So I can understand why they wouldn’t want him actually to see the film. From their already morally (as well as intellectually) compromised position, that would be tantamount to giving not just ammunition but the whole damn arsenal to the enemy. So it’s no real surprise that they had a police officer at the ready to identify mild-seeming bearded squid fetishists in the line for a restricted screening of the film in Minneapolis.

But as I said, you have to be smart if you want to be safely dumb. And the problem with that, I think is obvious. Hence the result that PZ gleefully documents in the post linked above (and here again).

The thought police expel PZ from the line waiting to get into the theater. They manage to ignore his guest.

Richard Dawkins.

Stop for a moment. Think.

Richard Freaking Dawkins.

This isn’t just dumb, folks. To channel Eroll Flynn in Captain Blood “Bedad! It’s epic!”

(By the way — this really is not the way real film makers behave. When I, or any of the documentarians I know and respect, make a film, we promise –and deliver — DVDs of the finished product to those who have contributed to the project, for receipt right after the premiere.)

What happened in Minneapolis is like — and I’ve been struggling to come up with an analogy that isn’t just blood thirsty — corralling Mothra but losing track of Godzilla, or, f you want a reference to another bad science movie franchise perhaps, caging Velociraptor but failing to account for T Rex.

And it gives me the chance to make the observation that is the real point of this post. I don’t often read Ben Smith’s column over at, but at the height of the Spitzer schadenfreude orgy, he came up with this*: “When stupid gets to $200 a barrel, I want the drilling rights to Eliot Spitzer’s head.”

Not me, man. I want to tap into the fine wine of dumb these guys have got going.

(Eyewitness account of the scene inside the theater here.)

*Quoting from memory. Sue me if I missed a word.

Images: Inferred Dinosaur Behavior (Velociraptor and Proceratops) illustration in L. M. Chiappe, A Field Trip to the Mesozoic, PLOS Biol 1/2/2003. Licensed under a Creative Commons License ver. 2.5.

Piotr Jaworski, “Tyranozaur,” 2004. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.

PZ’s Birthday — with Gravitas.

March 10, 2008

Belated happy birthday to the big squid on the block of science blogging — see Bora’s (who else’s?) catalogue of those around the blogosphere who responded in a more timely fashion to the Dear Cephalopod’s numerologically significant planetary rotation.

Not much to add to the universal cheer for PZ Myers continued presence on earth, except a quibble. (What did you expect? This is a blog, for Spagetti Monster’s sake).

PZ, in his acknowledgment of the outpouring of blogolove, noted that his accomplishment was pretty ordinary:

Now I do have to remind you all, though, that we’re all aging at exactly the same rate (unless you have access to a spaceship that travels at a significant fraction of the speed of light), and all I’ve got is a head start on many of you…

But alas, PZ here makes an error common to the non physicist or non-mud-grubbing pedant. (as my last physics course was some 34 years ago, guess which category into which I fall.) He nods towards the special relativistic side of time dilation, but, (horrors!) he ignores the gravitational impact on the passage of time.

The effect is a consequence of the way Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. (See here, or here. Fwiw, I wrote and directed the animations accompanying the second essay. They’re more than ten years old, but I still like them). General relativity states that strong gravitational fields make clocks run slower than clocks in a weaker field — as in fact they do. An observer at sea level will, if she happens to have an atomic clock handy, observe time as passing more slowly than will her colleague flying in an atomic-clock equipped airplane. (More precisely — the airborne clock will be observed to have run slightly fast compared to the clock on the ground when the plane lands.)

The effect is small in most circumstances (not near a black hole, though!) — but significant enough to matter a great deal to the Global Positioning System. (Click on Clifford Will to see the relevant essay.) Left uncorrected, the seemingly small time dilation effect (a clock on a satellite in geosynchronous orbit orbiting medium earth orbit altitude used by the GPS system (20,200 kilometers or 12,552  miles) ticks 45 microseconds/day faster than a clock on earth) would, even when accounting for special relativity, which pushes slows the speedy satellites’ clocks by 7 microseconds/day, produce navigation errors of more than 10 kilometers a day. Will writes that failing to account for the effect would render the system useless for navigation in just two minutes.

All of which is to say that PZ, professing reason at about 1,138 ft above sea level, (give or take the height of his office building), is aging slightly slower than any colleague he might want to chaff at the University of Colorado, Boulder, altitude 5,430, but just a smidgeon faster than your faithful blogger, writing this in Boston (ish), maybe a hundred feet above high tide.

Use those microseconds wisely, I say.

Update:  GPS satellite orbits corrected. Brain bubbles are my only excuse.  Thanks to commenter Tom below for catching the error.

Image: Guercino, “Et in Arcadia Ego” c. 1628. Source Wikimedia Commons.