Sulston Earned Nobel, Not by “Bold Theories,” But by “Gathering Data for the Sake of Seeing the Whole Picture”

(p. A9) The nematode worm known as C. elegans is only a millimeter long and leads what appears to be a fairly dull existence. It eats bacteria, wriggles around and reaches adulthood in three days. “It consists basically of two tubes, one inside the other,” the English biologist John Sulston wrote in a memoir.

Although some colleagues thought he was wasting time, Dr. Sulston for years spent up to eight hours a day peering through microscopes at these worms. His findings on the genetics of worms won him a Nobel Prize for physiology in 2002.

. . .

His work didn’t involve “bold theories or sudden leaps of understanding,” he wrote in a 2002 memoir, “The Common Thread.” Instead, he saw his role as “gathering data for the sake of seeing the whole picture.”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Exhaustive Study of a Worm Ended in Nobel Prize.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 17, 2018): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 16, 2018, and has the title “Sulston’s Work on Lowly Worm Led to Major Role in Mapping Human Genome.”)

Sulston’s 2002 memoir, mentioned above, is:

Sulston, John, and Georgina Ferry. The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2002.

Lacking Absolute Certainty, Evidence Can Get Us to “True Enough”

(p. A17) As in his earlier books, Mr. Blackburn displays a rare combination of erudite precision and an ability to make complex ideas clear in unfussy prose.

If truth has seemed unattainable, he argues, it is because in the hands of philosophers such as Plato and Descartes it became so purified, rarefied and abstract that it eluded human comprehension. Mr. Blackburn colorfully describes their presentation of truth as a “picture of an entirely self-enclosed world of thought, spinning frictionless in the void.”

The alternative is inspired by more grounded philosophers, like David Hume and especially the American pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Mr. Blackburn repeatedly returns to a quote from Peirce that serves as one of the book’s epigraphs: “We must not begin by talking of pure ideas—vagabond thoughts that tramp the public highways without any human habitation—but must begin with men and their conversation.” The best way to think about truth is not in the abstract but in media res, as it is found in the warp and weft of human life.

Put crudely, for the pragmatists “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” We take to be true what works. Newton’s laws got us to the moon, so it would be perverse to deny that they are true. It doesn’t matter if they are not the final laws of physics; they are true enough. “We must remember that a tentative judgment of truth is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty,” says Mr. Blackburn, a sentence that glib deniers of the possibility of truth should be made to copy out a hundred times. Skepticism about truth only gets off the ground if we demand that true enough is not good enough—that truth be beyond all possible doubt and not just the reasonable kind.

For the full review, see:

Julian Baggini. “BOOKSHELF; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, July 25, 2018): A17.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 24, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘On Truth’ Review: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.”)

The book under review is:

Blackburn, Simon. On Truth. Reprint ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Openness to Creative Destruction Released Today

Art Diamond next to sign saying "Congratulations!".
My wife Jeanette decorated the mantelpiece to celebrate the publication of Openness. Our daughter Jenny, and dachshund Fritz, joined the celebration.

Today, June 3, 2019, is the official release date of my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a thoughtful presentation by Pete Boettke that contrasted the role of economist as scientist and as savior. He plausibly claimed that one of my mentors, George Stigler, defended the economist as scientist.

But as is true of many of us, Stigler was not always consistent. He sometimes said that whether you are a fireman or an incendiary, you need to know how fire works. And I generalize that if you want to be effective at saving the world, you need to know how the world works. Science as a method of tolerant inquiry, and not as a body of unquestionable doctrine, helps you to know how the world works.

So my immodest hope for Openness is both that it advances the science of economics, and that it helps to save the world.

PS: Openness can be purchased from Oxford University Press for 30% off using the discount code ASFLYQ6.

No End to “Tantalizing” Mysteries of Science

(p. A13) NASA’s Opportunity rover began its 15th year on Mars this week, although the intrepid robotic explorer may already be dead.
“I haven’t given up yet,” said Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator for the mission. But he added, “This could be the end. Under the assumption that this is the end, it feels good. I mean that.”
The rover — which outlasted all expectations since its landing on Mars in 2004 and helped find convincing geological signs that water once flowed there — fell silent last June when it was enveloped by a global Martian dust storm. In darkness, the solar panels could not generate enough power to keep Opportunity awake.
. . .
Years ago, Dr. Squyres said no matter when the mission ended, he was sure that there would be some tantalizing mystery they would see just beyond reach.
On Thursday [January 24, 2019], he said that indeed seems to be the case. Opportunity was in the middle of exploring what looks like a gully that was formed by the flowing of water on ancient Mars. As expected, the gully looks eroded near the top, but the rover had not reached the bottom to look at where the sediments would have flowed.
The scientists had rejected some alternative hypotheses, but other ideas could also explain the landscape. “So far, the story is uncertain,” Dr. Squyres said. “The answer probably lies just down the hill.”

For the full story, see:

Kenneth Chang. “NASA’s Opportunity Rover May Have Reached Its End.” The New York Times (Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 25, 2019, and has the title “‘This Could Be the End’ for NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover.”)

Ridiculed Nathan Myhrvold Perseveres on Asteroids and Is Vindicated

Nathan Myhrvold has also been ridiculed on his entrepreneurial patent clearinghouse (called Intellectual Ventures), and on his geoengineering solution to global warming.

(p. D1) Thousands of asteroids are passing through Earth’s neighborhood all the time. Although the odds of a direct hit on the planet any time soon are slim, even a small asteroid the size of a house could explode with as much energy as an atomic bomb.

So scientists at NASA are charged with scanning the skies for such dangerous space rocks. If one were on a collision course with our planet, information about how big it is and what it’s made of would be essential for deflecting it, or calculating the destruction if it hits.
For the last couple of years, Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technologist at Microsoft with a physics doctorate from Princeton, has roiled the small, congenial community of asteroid scientists by saying they know less than they think about these near-Earth objects. He argues that a trove of data from NASA they rely on is flawed and unreliable.
. . .
(p. D4) Dr. Myhrvold’s findings pose a challenge to a proposed NASA asteroid-finding mission called Neocam, short for Near-Earth Object Camera, which would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A congressional committee that controls NASA’s purse strings just included $10 million more in a budget bill for the development of Neocam.
. . .
When Dr. Myhrvold made his initial claims, the Neowise scientists made fun of a few errors like an equation that mixed up radius and diameter.
“It is too bad Myhrvold doesn’t have Google’s bug-finding bounty policy,” Dr. Wright told Scientific American. “If he did, I’d be rich.”
Dr. Mainzer also said at the time, “We believe at this point it’s best to allow the process of peer review — the foundation of the scientific process — to move forward.”
. . .
Earlier this year, Icarus published Dr. Myhrvold’s first paper on how reflected sunlight affects measurements of asteroids at the shorter infrared wavelengths measured by WISE. It has now accepted and posted a second paper last month containing Dr. Myhrvold’s criticisms of the NASA asteroid data.
. . .
When the scientists reported their findings, they did not include the estimates produced by their models, which would have given a sense of how good the model is. Instead they included the earlier measurements.
Other astronomers agreed that the Neowise scientists were not clear about what numbers they were reporting.
“They did some kind of dumb things,” said Alan W. Harris, a retired NASA asteroid expert who was one of the reviewers of Dr. Myhrvold’s second paper.
Dr. Myhrvold has accused the Neowise scientists of going into a NASA archive of planetary results, changing some of the copied numbers and deleting others without giving notice.
“They went back and rewrote history,” he said. “What it shows is even this far in, they’re still lying. They haven’t come clean.”
Dr. Harris said he did not see nefarious behavior by the Neowise scientists, but agreed, “That’s still weird.”
. . .
Dr. Myhrvold said NASA and Congress should put planning for the proposed Neocam spacecraft on hold, because it could suffer from the same shortfalls as Neowise. “Why does it get to avoid further scrutiny and just get money directly from Congress?” he asked.

For the full story, see:
Kenneth Chang. “A Collision Over Asteroids.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 19, 2018): D1 & D4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 14, 2018, and has the title “Asteroids and Adversaries: Challenging What NASA Knows About Space Rocks.”)

Hundreds of Years of CO2 Emissions Could Be Stored Forever in Oman’s Rocks

(p. A10) IBRA, Oman — In the arid vastness of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, out where goats and the occasional camel roam, rocks form the backdrop practically every way you look.
But the stark outcrops and craggy ridges are more than just scenery. Some of these rocks are hard at work, naturally reacting with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into stone.
Veins of white carbonate minerals run through slabs of dark rock like fat marbling a steak. Carbonate surrounds pebbles and cobbles, turning ordinary gravel into natural mosaics.
Even pooled spring water that has bubbled up through the rocks reacts with CO2 to produce an ice-like crust of carbonate that, if broken, re-forms within days.
Scientists say that if this natural process, called carbon mineralization, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale — admittedly some very big “ifs” — it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age.
And by turning that CO2 into stone, the rocks in Oman — or in a number of other places around the world that have similar geological formations — would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever.
“Solid carbonate minerals aren’t going anyplace,” said Peter B. Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been studying the rocks here for more than two decades.
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide is drawing increased interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deploying such technology is essential to efforts to rein in global warming.
. . .
The rocks are so extensive, Dr. Kelemen said, that if it was somehow possible to fully use them they could store hundreds of years of CO2 emissions. More realistically, he said, Oman could store at least a billion tons of CO2 annually. (Current yearly worldwide emissions are close to 40 billion tons.)

For the full story, see:

Henry Fountain. “How Oman’s Rocks Could Help Save the Planet.” The New York Times (Saturday, APRIL 28, 2018: A10-A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 26, 2018.)

Grünberg Found Useful Effect That Went Against Then-Dominant Theory

(p. A25) Peter Grünberg, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who discovered how to store vast amounts of data by manipulating the magnetic and electrical fields of thin layers of atoms, making possible devices like the iPad and the smartphone, has died at 78.
. . .
Since the British physicist Lord Kelvin first wrote about the subject in 1857, it had long been known that magnetic fields could affect the electrical resistance of magnetic materials like iron. Current flowed more easily along the field lines than across them.
While this effect on electrical resistance was useful for sensing magnetic fields and, in electronic heads, reading magnetic disks, it amounted to only a small change in the resistance, and physicists did not think there were many prospects for improvement.
So it was a surprise in 1988 when groups led by Dr. Fert at the Laboratoire de Physique des Solides in Paris and by Dr. Grünberg found that super-slim sandwiches of iron and chromium that they had assembled showed large sensitivity to magnetic fields — or “giant magnetoresistance,” as Dr. Fert called it. The name stuck.
The reason for the effect has to do with what physicists call the spin of electrons — their somewhat mysterious ability to have an orientation in space. When the magnetic layers of the sandwich have both their fields pointing in the same direction, electrons whose spin points along that direction can migrate freely through the sandwich. Electrons that point in another direction, however, are scattered.
If, however, one of the magnetic layers is perturbed by, say, reading a small signal, it can flip its direction so that its field runs opposite to the other one; this dramatically increases the electrical resistance of the sandwich.
As Philip Schewe, of the American Institute of Physics, explained, “You’ve leveraged a weak bit of magnetism into a robust bit of electricity.”
Experts said the discovery was one of the first triumphs of the new field of nanotechnology, the ability to build and manipulate assemblies of atoms only a nanometer (a billionth of a meter) in size.

For the full obituary, see:
DENNIS OVERBYE. “Peter Grünberg, 78, Dies; Heart of Modern Gadgets Is Based on His Research.” The New York Times (Friday, April 13, 2018): A25.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date APRIL 12, 2018, and has the title “Peter Grünberg, 78, Winner of an ‘iPod Nobel,’ Is Dead.”)