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Follow up on the CERN Black Hole Flap June 25, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in Pop Culture, press, science.
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I’ve not said much (or here) about the lawsuit that seeks to halt the turn-on of the LHC because it may produce a mini-blackhole or other object that devours our earth and the universe. In response to the press when the original suit was filed, CERN sponsored a safety review, which was recently released.

Ars has a great summary of the report:

The report’s conclusion is that, if the LHC were capable of destroying the earth, nature would have beaten us to the punch.

Read the report. It takes 96 pages to arrive at that pithy sentence. :-) Or read the Ars bit which is a good summary. They end with:

Overall, it’s hard to read this report and not wind up viewing the apocalyptic fears as simply being poorly thought through. It was striking how clearly the worries over the LHC have parallels to the fears over biotechnology, which came up during our recent interview with Carl Zimmer. There too, billions of years of natural experiments and decades’ worth of scientific experiment should be informing our view of safety; for at least some segment of the public, that’s not happening.

Not in the USA! February 6, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in France, politics, Pop Culture.
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These two got married last Saturday morning. This would never happen in the USA – and if it did – the guy would never be taken seriously again. Or at least, he would be subject to a continuous swift-boating operation by the opposition.

The woman is Carla Bruni. The guy is Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarko is the current president of France. Under normal circumstances that isn’t the same as being the president of the USA: the prime minister of France does most of the day-to-day heavy lifting in the government. However, Sarko is a “go-to” guy. He is one of those “there is a problem. I’ll solve it right now.”

Along those lines, he got divorced in October. I suppose he had a problem. On Saturday morning, he fixed it. BTW, Carla looks almost identical to his former wife, Cecila, just about 10 or 15 years younger.

Can you imagine if this happened in the USA? Is this guy fit to run our country if he can’t keep his marriage intact? He got married so quickly – was there something going on behind Cecila’s back? How awful! Must impeach him now (I’ve not seen any hints in papers that that is the case – but that may have to do with my poor french…).

That isn’t to say that many French wonder about the swiftness of the romance and you can imagine the difficulty in protocol when a state visit occurs and you bring your girl friend along.

I wonder if a single guy could ever make it to the presidency of the USA in modern times? How about a widower?

Bashing Science December 28, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in Pop Culture, science.
9 comments

I’ve not seen the new Will Smith movie, I am a Legend. I’d had no real plans to see it. My mother-in-law handed me a Dan Gardner column on the movie (warning: it contains spoilers). I’m even less inclined to see the movie now.

But Gardner’s thesis is interesting: bashing science in a popular movie doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Bashing religion does:

As the controversy over The Golden Compass amply demonstrated, it’s impossible for a major movie to include even veiled criticisms of Church and Faith without generating angry denunciations and calls for boycotts. But release a movie that explicitly scorns Science and Reason, a movie that vilifies technology, a movie that claims there is superior wisdom in prophecy and superstition – do that and there won’t be a peep of protest.

The plot of this movie sounds a lot like Jurassic Park — arrogant scientist tries to over rule the “natural order” and is wiped aside. However, unlike JP, this movie sounds like faith and religion and belief there-in are what saves (read the column to find out more if you aren’t planning on seeing the movie).

In the first place, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to have the same sort of protests and calls for boycott when a movie like this comes out. Science can stand on its own two feet — it must be, by its very nature, self consistent, and so should be able to withstand any sort of attack like this. Besides, this is a movie. It is entertainment. I like science fiction – even Star Trek. Warp speed? Clearly a fiction (warp speed is faster than the speed of light). Star wars? Same thing.

On the other hand, I’m uneasy. Look at the doubt that the Bush administration has been able to sow in the USA by repeating over and over, very loudly, that climate change is not a problem. There is no scientific evidence for that position. Yet, a good fraction of the US believes it (fortunately, that fraction is dwindling by the minute).

Gardner has another good point, which matches both Paula and my readings of the various movie reviews out there:

Reviewers often mentioned that the movie touches on deep themes but none that I know of spelled them out.

I think the reviewers could easily have brought up the “themes” without spoiling the ending: science and religion and their roll in society, or similar. Why not (ex: NYTimes)?

In the end, I love entertainment. Movies, TV shows, the web, stories, fiction, etc. And I don’t really care what people write or film – but as a society we have to keep them separate from real life. Science is science, and sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t really tell us what we want to hear.

Have you seen the show House? A seriously dysfunctional pain-killer-popping diagnostician goes around solving those cases that no one else can — he sees patients only after everyone else has given up? I think of that as a science-positive show. House and his team uses science, logic, and sometimes gut instinct to solve various medical cases. They don’t always make it. And they leave room for faith in there too – there was one episode (which I can’t find) where shear faith by another doctor (Cuddy) saved the day. I remember the end of that when Cuddy says something like “see — I was right” and House responds with something to the effect of “No, that was a bad decision – the statistics all go against what you did; I was right all along; you were lucky.” That is keeping science in its proper place.

Or maybe I’m taking this waaaay to seriously. :-)

I’ll end with another quote from Gardner:

Of course, it probably didn’t occur to the makers of I Am Legend that many of them would be dead – or would never have been born – if it weren’t for those well-meaning but foolish scientists. Ditto for the audience. Our ingratitude for the bounty of science is boundless.

This Show Looks Awful, do I have to watch it? October 25, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in Pop Culture, TV.
25 comments

A friend of mine, Ann, pointed this out to me. If you look carefully at the paper white board there you’ll see a t->Wb decay written out, and a simple branching ratio calculation (which is basically correct, as far as I can make out — can’t make out the lower matrix well enough — CKM??).

Ok — so any popular TV show that puts that up, I need to watch, right? So — if you click on the “About” for the series “The Big Bang Theory”, you get:

Two nerdy physicists sharing an apartment have their lives disrupted by a beautiful new neighbor.

Sounds really bad!!! At least in the Numb3rs show they had a string theorist who was interesting (they may still have, but I’ve really stopped watching shows since I got here to France). And it has a lot of personal tension, which is about the only thing that makes a drama on TV last more than 1/2 a season. Has anyone seen this Big Bang show? Is it any good? Or just a filler show that plays on typical stereotypes?

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