Thursday, December 20, 2007

Renegade Science: Carl Sagan

The Aracibo Radar Telescope, Costa Rica

Last night was the 11th anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan. He was seemingly everywhere during the '70's and '80's, a popular media figure, affable and engaging. Even when stricken with cancer he continued his work of putting a human face on scientific endeavours, particularly space exploration. His novel "Contact" was adapted for a film starring Jodie Foster, with a remarkable ending sequence depicting the First Contact with an extra-terrestrial species in profoundly personal terms.

While no renegade in the strict sense of the other scientists in this series of posts, it is important to remember Sagan's early contributions to global warming theory, and perhaps more importantly, his sense of priorities: science, for Sagan, was never an end in itself, but rather a means to understand and appreciate the mysteries of nature.

The following is a tribute excerpted from the Carl Sagan site, found here:

"His thesis included his discovery of the surprisingly high temperature of Venus and his correct explanation that it was caused by a runaway greenhouse effect. Early on he began to wonder what would happen if our own moderate greenhouse effect here on Earth were to intensify as it had on Venus. He became one of the first scientists to sound the alarm on global warming and other forms of inadvertent climate modification, including the potential consequences of a major nuclear war which he named "nuclear winter."

It was nearly fifty years ago that Carl began his life-long research on the origin of life and the search for life and intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos. Back then, research on the latter subject was effectively a form of professional suicide. The scientific community viewed it as a subject beneath its dignity. Only a handful of courageous scientists, Carl among them, dared to jeopardize their careers by doing such research. Today as the numbers of newly discovered extra-solar planets steadily mount, the field of astrobiology flourishes.

Even earlier, the notebooks he filled in his teens were suffused with a passion for the values of science and democracy. He viewed the error-correcting mechanisms built into both the methodology of science and into our constitution as being on a par with the domestication of fire, the invention of agriculture and writing; among the most precious innovations ever devised by our species.

In this society dependent on science and technology, he thought that it was critically important for science to learn to communicate its insights, values and methods to everyone. At a time when "reputable" scientists rarely if ever ventured before the public, he was willing to risk his career for that also. One such effort, his 1980 "Cosmos" television series, has now been seen by a billion people worldwide. Parts of it will be broadcast in North America at 8pm EST on Christmas Day on the Discovery Science Channel. On Tuesday evenings at 9pm EST, starting January 8, 2008 the whole series will begin to run again. "Cosmos'" enduring world-wide appeal is another testament to his prophetic vision.

He believed that science must always remain scrupulously faithful to the most rigorous possible methodological standards but that we shouldn't shrink from the spiritual implications of its insights. He dreamed of a civilization rooted in our dawning understanding of nature, where skepticism and wonder went hand in hand. He didn't want to humiliate or demean the believer. He was always ready to communicate."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Renegade Science: Loren Eiseley

2007 marks the centennial of the birth of anthropologist and ecologist Loren Eiseley, who's popular writings helped to inspire the environmental movement. The following poem is from his collection "The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley."


I have envied the hawk's breast
enduring the great heaven;
all wild wings and the stubbornness of rock yielding
no foothold but to eagles.
The serenity of stars over chaos
is worthy remembrance
and the peace of an old planet
forgetting the troubled footsteps of men...
I have envied
even, at times,
the stony security of a snail
locked in his narrow house.

But I have pondered and not understood
earth that endures spoiled cities
in preference to white deserts and the stars.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Renegade Science: John Lilly

ACCOUNTS OF DOLPHIN RESEARCH IN 1957 "If one works with a bottlenose dolphin day in and day out for many hours, days and weeks, one is struck with the fact that one's current basic assumptions and even one's current expectations determine within certain limits the results attained with a particular animal at that particular time. This effect, of course, is quite commonly found with one's peers in the human species.

"This working hypothesis of an advanced capability raised our index of suspicion and in turn sensitized our minds and methods to new sources of information. It was this subtle preparation of the mental climate which allowed us in 1957 to listen to some rather queer noises that the dolphin was producing in the laboratory and to review them very carefully on the tapes. Because the possibility of a very large brain capacity and because of musings about the possible areas of achievement already realized in this species, but as yet undiscovered by us, our minds began to open.

"This opening of our minds was a subtle and yet painful process. We began to have feelings which l believe are best described by the word 'weirdness.' The feeling was that we were up against the edge of a vast uncharted region in which we were about to embark with a good deal of mistrust in the appropriateness of our own equipment. The feeling of weirdness came on us as the sounds of this small whale seemed more and more to be forming words in our own language. We felt we were in the presence of Something, or Someone who was on the other side of a transparent barrier which up to this point we hadn't even seen. The dim outlines of a Someone began to appear. We began to look at this whale's body with newly opened eyes and began to think in terms of its possible 'mental processes,' rather than in terms of the classical view of a conditionable, instinctually functioning 'animal.' We began to apologize to one another for slips off the tongue in which we would call dolphins 'persons' and in which we began to use their names as if they were persons. This seemed to be as much of a way of grasping at straws of security in a rough sea of the unknown, as of committing the sin of Science of Anthropomorphizing. If these 'animals' have 'higher mental processes,' then they in turn must be thinking of us as very peculiar (even stupid} beings indeed.''

An account of the mimicry phenomena with Elvar and other dolphins:

"The repeatedly painful and humbling part of this experience that we as human beings had felt that man is at the top: we are alone; yet here is an 'animal' which was entering into that which was peculiarly human; i.e., human speech. At no matter how primitive a level he was entering into it, he was taking Step 1.

"To convey to you our sense of wonder and yet the sense of the uncomfortable necessity of continuously reorganizing our basic assumpltions is difficult. We gambled on Elvar's taking the first step and he did. (We haven't done as well with his delphinese language.) He impressed us with the fact that he took the first step to repair a gap of at least 30,000,000 years in a few weeks. He may be skipping some of the belabored efforts of the human race for the last 40,000 years to achieve our present degree oi articulate speech among ourselves. Maybe he is not skipping Maybe he is just beginning what Homo sapiens went through 40,000 years ago. And he first did it when and only when we believed he could do it and somehow demonstrated: our belief ta him."

"These experiences illustrate the thesis that one can protect one's self by maintaining one's ignorance by belittling disturbing experiences? Or one can newly recapture sensitivity and be openminded (even painfully so) and discover new facts. Discovery, in my experience, requires disillusionment first, as well as later. One must be shaken in one's basic beliefs before the discovery can penetrate one's mind sufficiently above threshold to be detected A certain willingness to face censure, to be a maverick? To question one's beliefs, to revise them, is obviously necessary. But what is not obvious is how to prepare one's own mind to receive the transmissions from the far side of the protective transparent wall separating each of us from the dark gulf of the unknown Maybe we must realize that we are still babies in the universe taking steps never before taken. Sometimes we reach out from our aloneness for someone else who may or may not exist. But at least we reach out, and it is gratifying to see our dolphins reach also, however primitively. They reach toward those of us who are willing to reach toward them. It may be that some day not toa far distant we both can draw to an end the 'long loneliness,' as Loren Eiseley called it."

from John Lilly's homepage

Renegade Science: John Lovelock

Photo from Greenpeace via BLDG BLOG

The following is excerpted from what I thought was a rather fascinating Rolling Stone profile of of controversial environmental scientist James Lovelock, who argues that climate change is now irreversible:

Lovelock's cottage in the woods is a world away from South London, where he grew up with coal soot in his lungs, coughing and pale and working-class. His mother was an early feminist; his father grew up so desperately hungry that he spent six months in prison when he was fourteen for poaching a rabbit from a local squire’s estate. Shortly after Lovelock was born, his parents passed him off to his grandmother to raise. "They were too poor and too busy to raise a child," he explains. In school, he was a lousy student, mildly dyslexic, more interested in pranks than homework. But he loved books, especially the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

To escape the grime of urban life, Lovelock's father often took him on long walks in the countryside, where he caught trout by hand from the streams and gorged on blueberries. The freedom and romance Lovelock felt on these jaunts had a transformative effect on him. "It's where I first saw the face of Gaia," he says now.

By the time Lovelock hit puberty, he knew he wanted to be a scientist. His first love was physics. But his dyslexia made complex math difficult, so he opted instead for chemistry, enrolling at the University of London. A year later, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Lovelock converted to Quakerism and soon became a conscientious objector. In his written statement, he explained why he refused to fight: "War is evil."

Lovelock took a job at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, where one of his first assignments was to develop new ways to stop the spread of infectious diseases. He spent months in underground bomb shelters studying how viruses are transmitted -- and shagging nurses in first-aid stations while Nazi bombs fell overhead. "It was a hard, desperate time," he says. "But it was exciting! It's terribly ironic, but war does make one feel alive."

...Lovelock's colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, struggled to design instruments to test for life on the Martian surface. Lovelock, as usual, took a different approach. Instead of using a probe to dig up soil and look for bacteria, he thought, why not analyze the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere? If life were present, he reasoned, the organisms would be obliged to use up raw materials in the atmosphere (such as oxygen) and dump waste products (like methane), just as life on Earth does. Even if the materials consumed and discharged were different, the chemical imbalance would be relatively simple to detect. Sure enough, when Lovelock and his colleagues finally got an analysis of Mars, they discovered that the atmosphere was close to chemical equilibrium -- suggesting that there had been no life on the planet.

But if life creates the atmosphere, Lovelock reasoned, it must also, in some sense, be regulating it. He knew, for example, that the sun is now about twenty-five percent hotter than when life began. What was modulating the surface temperature of the Earth, keeping it hospitable? Life itself, Lovelock concluded. When the Earth heats up, plants draw down levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases; as it cools, the levels of those gases rise, warming the planet. Thus, the idea of the Earth as superorganism was born.

The idea was not entirely new: Leonardo da Vinci believed pretty much the same thing in the sixteenth century. But Lovelock was the first to assemble all the existing thinking into a new vision of the planet. He soon quit NASA and moved back to England, where his neighbor William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, suggested that he name his theory after Gaia, to capture the popular imagination. When established scientific journals refused to touch his ideas, Lovelock put out a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. "The Gaia hypothesis," he wrote, "is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here." Gaia, he added, offers an alternative to the "depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever traveling driverless and purposeless around an inner circle of the sun."

Hippies loved it. Darwinists didn't. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, dismissed Lovelock's book as "pop-ecology literature." British biologist John Maynard Smith went further, calling Gaia "an evil religion." In their view, Lovelock's concept flew in the face of evolutionary logic: If the Earth is an organism, and organisms evolve by natural selection, then that implies that somehow the Earth out-competed other planets. How is that possible? They were also troubled by Lovelock's suggestion that life creates the condition for life, which seems to suggest a predetermined purpose. In the minds of many of his peers, Lovelock was dancing very close to God...