Feynman on Viking Evidence of No Life on Mars


Based on the Viking tests, astronomers concluded that there probably was no life on Mars.  Begley (2006) documents the recent research showing that applying the Viking tests to earth, results in the conclusion that there is no life on earth, either.  Once again, Feynman was way ahead of his time:


(p. 204)  We like to sit down and talk about how different things could be from what we expected; take the Viking landers on Mars, for example, we were trying to think how many ways there could be life that they couldn’t find with that equipment. 



Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. New York: Perseus Books, 1999.

(Note:  italics in original.)


The reference on the Begley article:

Begley, Sharon. "Science Journal; Scientists Revisit Data on Mars with Minds More Open to ‘Life’." The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., October 27, 2006):  B1.


“Drawing the Best Minds into a Whirlpool of Mathematical Solipsism”

TroubleWithPhysicsBK.gif   Source of book image:  http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=689539


Physicists rightly feel uneasy about descriptions of the physical world that divide it into discrete clusters of equations and axioms, each cluster explaining one part of existence but not another.  Better would be finding a Theory of Everything capable of conjoining, in a few equations, planet-pulling gravitation and the microcosmic weirdness that goes on in the quantum world of atoms and particles.  Physicists would like to stitch time and space together as well.

Einstein tried and failed.  In recent years, "string theory" has been the favored means of attempting to tie everything together, but it has unraveled into mathematical frippery, positing ever more intricate elaborations extending into anywhere from 10 to 26 dimensions, some arising from themselves, some hidden in ways so baroquely scrolled that you can get a migraine just thinking about thinking about them.  Little wonder that, as an experimental science, string theory seems to have nowhere to go.

That is the problem that Lee Smolin identifies in "The Trouble With Physics."  He laments a kind of sociological imperative drawing the best minds into a whirlpool of mathematical solipsism.


For the full review, see:

RUSSELL SEITZ.  "BOOKS; Untangling the Knots in String Theory."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., December 2, 2006):  P9.


The reference to the book under review, is: 

Lee Smolin.  The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next.  Houghton Mifflin, 2006.  (392 pages, $26)


Feynman: Nothing in Biology Requires Us to Die

   Source of book image: http://stochastix.wordpress.com/files/2006/08/the-pleasure-of-finding-things-out.gif


(p. 100)  It is one of the most remarkable things that in all of the biological sciences there is no clue as to the necessity of death.  If you say we want to make perpetual motion, we have discovered enough laws as we studied physics to see that it is either absolutely impossible or else the laws are wrong.  But there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death.  This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable, and that it is only a matter of time before the biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that that terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human’s body will be cured.   



Feynman, Richard P.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.  New York:  Perseus Books, 1999.


Publishing Pretty Papers Full of Clever Mathematical Tricks

  Source of book image:  http://images.amazon.com/images/P/0738203491.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg


In his elegant and thoughtful foreward, physicist, futurist, and guru Freeman Dyson writes:

(p. viii)  Before I met Feynman, I had published a number of mathematical papers, full of clever tricks but totally lacking in im-(p. ix)portance.  When I met Feynman, I knew at once that I had entered another world.  He was not interested in publishing pretty papers.  He was struggling, more intensely than I had ever seen anyone struggle, to understand the workings of nature by rebuilding physics from the bottom up.   


The reference to the book, is:

Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. New York: Perseus Books, 1999.

Feynman: What Biology Needs is Not More Math, But to See Better at the Atomic Level

A very bright, and very mathematically competent, fellow, grants that math is not the source of all knowledge.  So is economics more like physics, or more like biology? 


(p. 124)  We have friends in other fields–in biology, for instance.  We physicists often look at them and say, "You know the reason you fellows are making so little progress?"  (Actually I don’t know any field where they are making more rapid progress than they are in biology today.)  "You should use more mathematics, like we do."  They could answer us–but they’re so polite, so I’ll answer for them:  "What you should do in order for us to make more rapid progress is to make the electron microscope 100 times better."

What are the most central and fundamental problems of biology today?  They are questions like:  What is the sequence of bases in the DNA?  What happens when you have a mutation?  How is the base order in the DNA connected to the order of amino acids in the protein?  What is the structure of the RNA:  is it a single-chain or double-chain, and how is it related in its order of bases to the DNA?  What is (p. 125) the organization of the microsomes?  How are proteins synthesized?  Where does the RNA go?  How does it sit?  Where do the proteins sit?  Where do the amino acids go in?  In photosynthesis, where is the chlorophyll; how is it arranged; where are the carotenoids involved in this thing?  What is the system of the conversion of light into chemical energy?

It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing!  You will see the order of bases in the chain; you will see the structure of the microsome.  Unfortunately, the present microscope sees at a scale which is just a bit too crude.  Make the microscope one hundred times more powerful, and many problems of biology would be made very much easier.  I exaggerate, of course, but the biologists would surely be very thankful to you–and they would prefer that to the criticism that they should use more mathematics.



Feynman, Richard P.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.  New York:  Perseus Books, 1999.


“Crystal Fire” Gives Insights on Birth of the Transistor

  Source of book image:  http://www.etedeschi.ndirect.co.uk/homecompbiblio.htm


Crystal Fire is a well-written book which highlights many important aspects of the birth of computers.  Not a perfect book—I could have done with a few less details about personal information, like who liked to play bridge and poker, and whose mother was a frustrated artist, and the like.

On the good side, they note how transistors were originally designed to replace vacuum tubes.  The eventual main applications, as memory and processor chips in computers, only came later.  (Another application of Fubini’s Law.)

They have a nice discussion of how American science was applied, versus the pure theory of the Germans.  (E.g., to the Germans, some key phenomena leading to transistors, were dismissed as "dirt effects" (pp. 74 & 78).)  The whole episode is a good example of the claim (see Terence Kealey) that very good science can come out of ‘industrial’ labs. 

They also have a good example of serendipity, in the discussion of the strange chunk of silicon with unusual conductivity properties (circa p. 95).  Reading this episode, it occurred to me that one key enabler of serendipitous discoveries is a scientist or engineer who is carrying around a problem, to which the serendipitous discovery is a solution.  Buddhists need not apply—to carry around problems, you need to be dissatisfied–a milder version of what Tom Peters describes as ‘innovation coming from pissed-off people’  (see his Re-Imagine!)


Citation to the book:

Riordan, Michael, and Lillian Hoddeson.  Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age, Sloan Technology Series: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.


“If Ethanol Made Economic Sense, It Wouldn’t Need a Subsidy”


  Source of graphics:  online version of the World-Herald article cited below.


(p. 1D)  LINCOLN – David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher, has been criticized repeatedly since he questioned the energy value of ethanol in 1980.

In a government-funded report, he suggested that ethanol provides less energy than is used to produce it.  Even though that report has been disputed and rejected by other analysts, Pimentel has not backed down.

He said last week that rural developers, farmers and investors will rue the day they put their money, hopes and dreams into the corn-based alternative fuel.

"It is too bad," he said in an interview, "because it would be a tremendous asset to agriculture if this were a true winner."

Pimentel is among the public critics who raise red flags as momentum gathers for dramatic increases in production, especially in the nation’s top two ethanol-producing states:  Iowa and Nebraska.

While Pimentel is perhaps the expert most often quoted – in part because he presented his analysis more than 25 years ago – others also raise questions about the energy value of ethanol and its economic benefits and environmental effects.

Ethanol backers defend the fuel as a viable way to help stabilize the nation’s fuel supply.  But they haven’t convinced Jerry Taylor, an energy policy specialist for the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

"If ethanol made economic sense, it wouldn’t need a subsidy," Taylor said.


For the full story, see:

BILL HORD.  "High-octane Clash."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sunday, August 6, 2006):  1D-2D.


  Source of graphics:  online version of the World-Herald article cited above.


“Financial Incentives Can Change the Way Medicine is Practiced”

        An angioplasty being performed in Eyria, Ohio.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


Medicare patients in Elyria receive angioplasties at a rate nearly four times the national average . . .

. . .

. . . some outside experts say they are concerned that Elyria is an example, albeit an extreme one, of how medical decisions in this country can be influenced by financial incentives and professional training more than by solid evidence of what works best for a particular patient.

“People are rewarded for erring on the side of an aggressive, highly expensive intervention,” said Dr. Elliott S. Fisher, a researcher at Dartmouth Medical School, which analyzed Medicare data and found Elyria to be an outlier.

Medicare pays Elyria’s community hospital, EMH Regional Medical Center, about $11,000 for an angioplasty involving use of a drug-coated stent.

The cardiologist might be paid an additional $800 for the work.  That is well above the fees for seeing patients in the office.  And with the North Ohio doctors performing thousands of angioplasties a year — about 3,400 in 2004, for example — the dollars can quickly add up.

Some medical experts say Elyria’s high rate of angioplasties — three times the rate of Cleveland, just 30 miles away — raises the question of whether some patients may be getting procedures they do not need or whether some could have been treated just as effectively and at lower cost and less risk through heart drugs that may cost only several hundred dollars a year.

. . .

Experts know that changing the financial incentives can change the way medicine is practiced.

For example, Kaiser Permanente, the big health system that employs its own doctors, says its patients in Ohio, including some in Elyria, are slightly less likely than the national average to undergo the type of cardiac procedures the North Ohio Heart Center doctors perform so prolifically.

Kaiser’s cardiologists, who work on salary instead of being paid by the procedure, typically treat patients in that region at the Cleveland Clinic, where they have hospital privileges.  And they follow established protocols about when a patient should undergo an angioplasty, when drugs might suffice and when bypass surgery might be the best resort.

“It’s not just individual doctors making up their minds,” explained Dr. Ronald L. Copeland, the executive medical director for Kaiser’s medical group in Ohio.  With no financial reason to perform expensive procedures, the Kaiser doctors frequently choose to manage the patients’ heart disease with drugs only.  “Our doctors have no disincentive to do that,” Dr. Copeland said.

. . .

For many cardiologists, the natural tendency when they see a patient with heart disease is to perform a procedure to try to clear arterial blockages.  And patients, cardiologists say, tend to rely on their doctors’ judgment.

“It’s sort of like, you go to a barber and ask if you need a haircut,” said Dr. David D. Waters, chief of cardiology at San Francisco General Hospital, who is currently studying the effectiveness of different kinds of treatment for heart disease.  “He’s likely to say you do.”

. . .

Experts say it can be difficult to detect cases in which doctors cross a medical line and are clearly performing unnecessary treatments.

“A lot of decisions are discretionary,” said Dr. Harlan M. Krumholz, a cardiologist and professor at Yale.

“It’s about where the thermostat is set,” he said, arguing that doctors in a particular geographic area tend to be unaware if the way they are treating their patients is markedly different from the practices of their peers in other areas.

Traditional measures of medical quality are not set up to detect whether patients are being treated too much, he said, unlike the kinds of safeguards that prompt credit card companies to call their customers to discuss unusual spending activity.  “Right now there are no ‘smart’ systems in place,” Dr. Krumholz said.

In the absence of any real monitoring or oversight, doctors in most places, including Elyria, have few incentives not to favor the treatments that provide them the most reimbursement.  Dr. Waters, the San Francisco cardiologist, said that the way physicians are typically paid — more money for more procedures — results in too many decisions to give a patient a stent.

“You can’t be paying people large sums of money to do things without checks and balances,” he said.


For the full story, see:

REED ABELSON.  "In Ohio City, a Heart Procedure Is Off the Charts; SIDE EFFECTS; A Stent Epidemic."  The New York Times  (Fri., August 18, 2006):  A1 & C4.


Source of graphic:    online version of the NYT article cited above.

Life Has Improved; And Can Continue to Improve

 Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 


(p. 1)  New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled.  Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”

. . .

(p. 19)  . . .  stressful occupations added to the burden on the body.

People would work until they died or were so disabled that they could not continue, Dr. Fogel said. “In 1890, nearly everyone died on the job, and if they lived long enough not to die on the job, the average age of retirement was 85,” he said. Now the average age is 62.

A century ago, most people were farmers, laborers or artisans who were exposed constantly to dust and fumes, Dr. Costa said. “I think there is just this long-term scarring.”


For the full story, see:

Health1860s1994.gif Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above. 

HealthCivilWarAndNow.gif EscapeFromHungerAndPrematureDeath1700-2100BK.jpg  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above.  Source of book image:  http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=0521808782


Fogel’s book is a primary academic source for much of what is interesting in the New York Times article.  Fogel predicts that if we don’t screw things up, half of today’s college students will live to be 100.  He shows that academics in the past have consistently and significantly underestimated the maximum lifespans that would be attainable in the future.

The full reference for the Fogel book is:

Fogel, Robert William. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100, Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


Test That Showed No Life on Mars, Now Also Shows No Life on Earth, Either

  One of the Viking landers on Mars.  Source of photo:  http://www.msss.com/mars/pictures/viking_lander/viking_lander.html


When scientists announced Monday that the search for life on Mars 30 years ago may not have been quite the bust it has long been portrayed, it didn’t mean that the mission had missed any microorganisms, let alone advanced life forms.  But it did underline the growing sense that decades of assumptions about extraterrestrial life need serious re-examination.

In 1976, scientists studying data sent back by the Viking landers were quick to dismiss life on Mars.  . . .

. . .

Some three decades later, more-sophisticated instruments have shown that the Vikings couldn’t have detected organic molecules even if any were present.  When scientists fed soil from the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru, and the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, experiments like those the Vikings conducted came up empty.  Yet, new techniques show the samples contained 10 to 1,500 micrograms of carbon per gram.

"If we knew this 30 years ago, our interpretation of the Viking results would have been very different," says Rafael Navarro-González of Mexico’s National Autonomous University, who led the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


For the full story, see: 

SHARON BEGLEY.  "SCIENCE JOURNAL; Scientists Revisit Data On Mars With Minds More Open to ‘Life’."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., October 27, 2006):  B1.



“giving individual schools more autonomy”

(p. A1)  SAN DIEGO — When San Diego’s school district began overhauling its science-education curriculum five years ago, it wanted to raise the performance of minority, low-income and immigrant students.

But parents in middle- and upper-income areas, where many students were already doing well, rebelled against the new curriculum, and a course called Active Physics in particular.  They called it watered-down science, too skimpy on math.

A resistance movement took hold.  Some teachers refused to use the new textbooks, which are peppered with cartoons.  They gathered up phased-out texts to use on the sly.  As controversy over the issue escalated, it played a part in an election in which the majority of the school board was replaced.  Now, further curriculum changes are under consideration.

. . .

(p. A11)  Mitz Lee, a parent activist at Scripps Ranch High, also a high-achieving school, continued quietly organizing opposition and eventually made it a cornerstone of her 2004 campaign for a seat on the school board.

Opposition to the program remained sharp among some veteran science teachers.  Tom Deets, who teaches at Patrick Henry High, argued that freshman who hadn’t passed eighth-grade algebra weren’t ready for physics.  Rather than teach the new course, he switched to math until the district offered him an administrative job.

Aiming to keep their hands on alternative teaching materials, an active underground sprang up, with teachers squirreling away old physics textbooks to make sure the district couldn’t collect them.  "At one time, I probably had 400 books," says Hal Cox, a retired submarine commander who teaches physics at Hoover High School.  "I put them in lockers, everywhere I could find."

The opposition came to a head with the school-board elections of 2004, when three critics of the district’s overall curriculum changes, including those in math and reading, were elected to its five-member school board.  The winners included Ms. Lee, who had campaigned for an end to "fuzzy" science and was elected by the widest margin of the new board members.  She has lately been pushing for giving individual schools more autonomy on course choice.  "I don’t want any more central mandates," Ms. Lee says.


For the full story, see:

ROBERT TOMSHO.  "Textbook Battle; Top High Schools Fight New Science As Overly Simple; San Diego’s Physics Overhaul Makes Classes Accessible, Spurs Parental Backlash; Test Scores Barely Budge."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., April 13, 2006):   A1 & A11.