Friday, April 07, 2006

Catalyst: Light Pipes - ABC TV Science

There was a great report on Catalyst last night regarding a new technology that uses natural sunlight to light rooms deep inside office buildings.

There were two technologies discussed - one uses more traditional light tubes to funnel the light inside using a clever array of mirrors and panels. The other uses 2 fluro panels which absorb the light, and then with the help of some blue diodes white light can be emitted.

Now, just to get the costs down....

Friday, March 31, 2006

Fly Gets Cool Glasses

"Pampering pets with designer goods isn't so unusual—and now even your houseflies can get outfitted in style. An entry in a German science-photo competition, this image shows a fly sporting a set of "designer" lenses crafted and set in place with a cutting-edge laser technique. The glasses fit snuggly on the fly's 0.08-inch-wide (2-millimeter-wide) head."
- National Geographic

Photo in the News: Eclipse Photographed by Space Station Crew

"Thousands of people flocked to sites between North Africa and central Asia in search of the best place on Earth to see today's total eclipse of the sun. But the coolest view might not have been on Earth at all.
Members of the Expedition 12 crew aboard the International Space Station were treated to this one-of-a-kind sight early this morning: a view of the moon's shadow passing across the Earth."
- National Geographic via 3QuarksDaily

Monday, March 27, 2006

It's just not Science

It seems a reasonable request: allow an alternate theory of evolution to be taught in science classrooms. Surely, vigorous debate on issues should be encouraged in all classes? Unfortunately, “Intelligent Design” is nothing but church doctrine masquerading as scientific theory. It has no place in science classrooms.

The ID debate has seen a revival of sorts over the past year through a number of important US court cases. The Kansas School Board recently diluated the definition of science, and introduced official skepticism regarding evolution. A school board in Pennsylvania required students to be taught ID alongside evolution in biology class. Soon after, though, eight out of nine board members were not re-elected. The debate can be traced back to a 1987 decision by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that teaching creationism in public schools violated the separation of church and state. The ID movement is a response by various Christian groups as they try to get Adam and Eve back in the classroom, at the expense of Charles Darwin. Even Australia’s former Education Minister Brendan Nelson, who holds a degree in medicine, commented last year that if parents wished for their be taught ID then he had no problem with it. While his comments were more reasonable than educators in the US, it was nevertheless disturbing.

Intelligent Design claims that the “irreducible” complexity of the natural world is such that the evolutionary process of natural selection must be wrong. Proponents point to apparent ‘gaps’ in evidence in evoultionary theory and seemingly complex organs, such as the human eye, which bear the mark of a designer. While it is never made explicit, the intelligent designer is presumed to be the omnipotent, omniscent Christian God (although, some Jewish and Muslim groups have also indicated that ID is worthy of consideration.)

As scientific theory, ID falls short in a number of ways. It is near impossible to falsify; it offers no claims that can be scientifically tested and verified. Evolutionary theory has made thousands of claims (most of which remain undisputed). It offers no positive evidence that the complexity present in the world must entail an intelligent designer. Isn’t the complexity merely due to our inabilty to fully understand the world around us? Scientific theories can’t just be asserted and expected to be given equal standing with other theories. While it is acceptable to say that a theory is ‘just’ a theory of how the world is ordered, science gives priority to those theories which are rigorously tested, peer-reviewed in scientific journals, and have been refined through the general scientific process. A scientist cannot simply advance a new theory and expect it to be accepted or even acknowledged without the backing of credible evidence. ID is also not progressive, adaptive or dynamic. After 10 years of ‘research’ it has not published one article in a peer-reviewed journal, it offers no advancement on current science, nor would it open up new areas of investigation.

Despite what the ID movement might think, there is already plenty of healthy controversy, skepticism, and debate in science, particuarly evolutionary theory. As debates such as global warming and GM foods became increasingly important, society must demand a high standard of science. Introducing ID would only lower those standards to the extent that we might as well include Astrology, the Paranormal and Telekinesis while we are at it.

Perhaps judging ID by scientific standards is too narrow? But these are the standards that ID followers want it to be judged by! If they wish to speak in terms of theology, metaphysics or philosophy, that’s fine; just don’t try to call it a scientific theory.

Even as a philosophy ID is problematic. If they wish to assert that the complexity of the natural world necessitates a designer, then surely this designer must be even more complex. Yet, who or what should we attribute to its design? They have simply argued from one complex being to another and provide no compelling reason for stopping there. Of course, ID advocates are invariably believers in a Christian God, and so it is rather convenient that their theory leads to a single Creator. It is here that we see how ID is really just creationism in disguise.

What is most worrying, but perhaps unsurprising, about this debate is how successful the ID movement has been in getting the debate started at all. The reason why we haven’t seen a massive push for the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be taught in classrooms, is that its supporters don’t have the money, power and influence of the Christian Right. Nor do they have a President on their side (as far as I know.)

Richard Dawkins, who’s book The Blind Watchmaker is a powerful and reasoned case in favour of evolution, advises: "when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half way between. It is possible for one side simply to be wrong."

This article appears in Melbourne University's Student Newspaper Farrago, Edition 1, 2006

Why does dark matter matter?

Ordinary matter are the electrons, protons and neutrons which from the atomic elements like Carbon, Oxygen and Uranium, which in turn form Earth, the Sun and Human beings. This type of matter is able to interact with electromagnetic radiation (essentially ‘light’), is visible by things like telescopes, and is generally well understood.

Cosmologists (people who study the evolution of the Universe) have a pretty good idea of how much matter is in the Universe, but observations of rotating galaxies and the structure of the Universe suggest that there must be something else apart from ordinary matter.

In fact, the observations tell us that ordinary matter makes up only 5% of the mass of the Universe! The other 95% is thought to be made up of dark matter and dark energy. Various dark matter candidates include very fast moving particles such as neutrinos, stuff similar to ordinary matter called MACHOS (massive compact halo objects), and most probably WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles). All this dark matter accounts for around 25% of the ‘missing mass.’ The rest of the universe is made up of something even stranger called dark energy. While it may sound as though it belongs in a Sci-Fi film, it as an attempt to reconcile the expansion of the Universe with the observable energy in the universe. Dark energy can be thought of as a ‘negative’ energy which is ‘pushing’ the universe outwards – although I use these terms very loosely. Both dark matter and dark energy are almost impossible to detect directly because they do not behave like ordinary matter. Instead, scientists theorize based on the indirect effects seen throughout the Universe. While it seems certain that ordinary matter is a very small part of the Universe, it will be sometime before the rest is fully understood.

This article appears in Melbourne University's Student Newspaper Farrago, Edition 2, 2006