Field of Science

Templeton is no Nobel

Of all the obituaries of John Templeton (sponsor of the eponymous prize and foundation), this one, by Dan Gardner in the Ottawa Citizen, is the best. Some excerpts:
The Templeton Prize is not in any way superior to other awards. It's not even their equal. It is, after all, an advocacy tool designed to reward and advance a particular worldview. There are plenty like it, but none of these is held in anything like the esteem of the Templeton Prize.

But then, none pays so handsomely as the Templeton Prize. John Templeton may have been a spiritual man, but he advanced his cause with the force that only big money delivers.

And this is the main problem with the prize. It's set up as a research prize, and yet in practice it's actually a form of proselytization by subterfuge.
The Templeton Foundation is controversial in scientific circles. And yet, its influence grows. How could it not? Scientists and universities find it hard to say no to free money. "Largely as a result of Templeton grants," wrote science journalist John Horgan in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "some 90 American medical schools now offer courses on links between health and spirituality."
The Templeton Foundation sponsors a whole range of outreach efforts like this - including media training for journalists.
The Templeton Foundation is no disinterested benefactor. The Templeton Prize is no Nobel. Treating them as if they were is to accept and honour the crude force of money.

And that is an unfortunate legacy for a man devoted to higher things.
But one that we shouldn't be too surprised about, of course!

Thoughts on the individual scientist, prompted by Ian McEwan

There is a Science Extra podcast today from the Guardian featuring novelist - and BHA Distinguished Supporter - Ian McEwan.

The podcast is here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/audio/2008/jul/14/science.extra.podcast

I won't reproduce what he says - you can listen to the audio for that. But his first subject, before he gets on to talking about the beauteousness of theory and its relationship to truth, was creativity and the individual, and this prompted some thoughts.

McEwan mentions various drives and attributes (to some extent they are part of creativity and achievement, although it's not entirely clear what these are examples of from the podcast as it starts out of context):
  • ingeniousness
  • playfulness
  • stubborness
  • ability to focus
  • degree of ruthlessness
  • ambition
  • associative intelligence
  • ability to think laterally

However McEwan then points out how much science is done in teams, rather than by individuals with which the above qualities might be associated.

There does indeed seem to be a discrepancy between the archetype of the lone genius scientist and the actual practice of modern science, which has moved from the individuals' study into the laboratory. The notion of the great Einstein is still culturally prevalent (though often in a distorted, malign, "mad scientist" form) but is almost reduced to a myth. I speculate that many Britons, if asked to name living scientific high-fliers, might go with Stephen Hawking, and then immediately begin to struggle.

Meanwhile a similar shift has not really taken place on the artistic wing of academia. Artistic collaborations are still usually experimental. Ensemble music is collaborative by definition, but even then the composer and conductor are often honoured more than anyone else taking part - I imagine most people can name five classical composers but might struggle to name five classical musicians. Film is a modern, collaborative artistic work, but again the director or the star are held aloft. If Britons were asked to name living artistic high-flyers, we would doubtless get very little agreement, but nevertheless I speculate that there would be plenty of answers.

When the press report on new movies or think about new paintings or other works of art, the individual creator (be it Robert De Niro or Banksy or Madonna) is at the forefront, but when science is reported in mainstream press, not even the team, the university or theb company is always mentioned, let alone some individual supposed creative genius. Instead we get "Scientists have discovered..." and maybe buried away the bottom, "The research, published yesterday..." with an attribution as an aside, if they're lucky.

On the one hand, this is very good practice by the media! partly because it really is true that the originators are less important than the finding and some named individual is unnecessary, but also because it encourages us to think of theory as objective, in the sense that it should be assessed, criticised and implemented without too much regard for its personal origins, peoples' reputations or the social implications amongst peers!

But on the other hand, perhaps the de-emphasis of individual creative input and the move away from the notion of the great individual scientist (both in practice and in reporting) is a depersonalisation of science which removes motivation for those who might otherwise be more interested to learn about or take part in a more scientist-oriented science.

Physics teachers are disappearing from British schools, apparently. Why? Perhaps it is hard to be personally ambitious in a discipline, when there is a dearth of role models to follow; without living examples of high-achieving individuals, presented as such.

A half flat flatfish!

One of the common challenges thrown at evolutionary theory is the apparent uselessness of intermediate forms. What use is half a wing, for instance, or half an eye? If it doesn't have any survival benefit, then how could it evolve? Evolution, after all, is blind – there is no plan or purpose. Each organism survives or dies on its own merits (or plain dumb luck).

Most of these challenges have been answered long ago. As Prof David Dutch (University of Wisconsin) points out, half a wing – and less – could make all the difference in the world if it lets you jump an extra centimetre. And half an eye puts you way ahead of blind competitors.

But what about flatfish?

Flatfish make a living lying on the sea floor, peering upwards by virtue of the fact that both eyes are on one side of their head. But what earthly use could it be for some ancestor flatfish to have one eye shifted only part-way round its head? It would, after all, still point into the sand. Just not straight down...

The truth is that no-one knows what use it would be, which has lead some to propose that no such intermediate forms exist or are needed. In this 'hopeful monster' argument (first made by the geneticist Robert Goldschmidt in the 1930s), some freak mutation may have generated a fish with two eyes on one side in one step - and this freak managed to put the mutation to good use.

But it turns out that this is not what happened. Today's Nature carries a report of the discovery of an intermediate flatfish ancestor, with eyes swivelled part way round. Now, flatfish start off symmetrical, and one eye moves round as the fish develops. But these are not immature fish, because they are too big and also the bones are ossified - which only happens after metamorphosis.

Still, what good is a half-formed flatfish? This discovery doesn't answer that - though Dan Cressey, writing in Nature, suggests
"It's possible that the asymmetrical eyes may have allowed the creatures to bottom-feed, watching for predators above while lifting themselves up on their fins to look for prey on the sea floor."
What's just as remarkable about this new discovery is that it wasn't made in some fossil bed newly discovered in an exotic location, but rather in the bowels of the Natural History Museum in Vienna (and other museums in England, France and Italy). They were originally dug out of limestone quarries in Northern Italy and underneath modern-day Paris, and have lain in collections ever since - until Matt Friedman, a PhD student studying evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago in Illinois, discovered their significance. According to Matt,
"I suppose there is a general perception that museum collections are dusty, static archives, and that everything in them has been carefully studied and precisely identified. But the truth is that they are much more than just long-term storage, because as our interpretive framework matures, we can begin to make sense of specimens that evaded or baffled earlier generations of researchers, or draw new conclusions about materials we mistakenly thought we had figured out ages ago."
Makes you wonder how many other missing links are field away in some museum drawer somewhere, just waiting to be discovered!

Refs

Friedman M. (2008) The evolutionary origin of flatfish asymmetry. Nature, 454(7201), 209-212. DOI: 10.1038/nature07108

Daniel Cressey. The eyes have it. Published online 9 July 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.946

University of Chicago Medical Center. "Flatfish Fossils Fill In Evolutionary Missing Link." ScienceDaily 10 July 2008.

Living the Scientific Life blog:
The mysterious origin of the wandering eye.

Science in ‘The Mist’

(Caution: This post reveals the plot and ending of the film!)

This film, now on general release in the UK, could be described as War of the Worlds meets Lord of the Flies. A collection of ‘ordinary folks’ are trapped in a small town supermarket by an exceptionally thick mist. It soon becomes clear that there is something dangerous in the mist.

The hero is shown as an ordinary Joe – an artist and a father. His first test is to persuade a group of shop staff that there really is something dangerous outside. He’s unable to do so and the man who goes outside to fix a problem is attacked by giant tentacles. Our hero’s courage is not enough to save that life, though he does cut off a piece of tentacle.

He then faces a neighbour who refuses to believe in the monsters and leads a group of people into the mist and to their deaths. It may not be accidental that the neighbour is a lawyer. He’s shown as a person whose life is based on suspicion of his fellows and persuasion rather than respect for truth.

Our hero has therefore lost his first two conflicts with folly. However, an attack by monsters (in which the hero fights bravely) proves the reality of the threat.

Now he must face a different kind of folly in the person of Mrs Carmody, the local religious nutcase. She’s depicted as a vicious crackpot who first declares the monsters to be the demons foretold in the Book of Revelation and then organizes her followers to sacrifice people to them. The anti-religious subtext is clear: religions make absurd claims and foster violence.

When I saw the film, in a quite ordinary London suburb, the audience reaction was even more interesting. They were very hostile to Carmody and greeted her death with applause. I cannot remember the last time I heard an audience applaud a film.

The film explains the monsters as inhabitants of a parallel universe who’ve been let into our universe by the folly of scientists at a local army base. Curiously there is no scientist in the film – three junior soldiers serve as proxies. Despite the need for organized violence and defensive barriers the soldiers play no part in the defence of the supermarket. Their role is to show guilt at what the scientists have done and to attract the hostility of Carmody and her crew.

The hero uses commonsense in accepting the reality of the monsters and organizes people to fight them. He resists both the lawyer’s denial of reality and the religious leader’s determination to interpret events in fantastical term. He plans rationally and acts with speed and courage. He is a rational and humanistic hero – though admittedly not a scientific one.

But he and his team are not perfect. They escape from the store but surrender to premature despair. All but one are dead by the time the Army arrives to save the day with flame throwers and biological protection suits.

The final message then is: Never despair.