New Knowledge

My Baby's BookI still have the book that tracked my infant development after I was born. It’s a little time-capsule of medical opinion from a different age.

At the three months mark, my mum was advised to provide me with fresh fruit juice. These days, the Australian government offers a different medical recommendation:

exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants.

Although, perhaps things will change again soon. The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy publishes a fact sheet on infant feeding with a different view again:

Based on the currently available evidence, many experts across Europe, Australia and North America recommend introducing complementary solid foods from around 4-6 months.

Similarly, I was told by a colleague that when they were a parent some decades ago, the sleeping recommendation was to place babies on their stomach (I guess to minimise any inadvertent shaping of their heads while they are still soft?). However, the Australian government offers different guidance these days:

Put your baby to sleep on its back and use light cotton blankets.

Well, aside from being confusing when parents get differing advice from their own parents compared with the government, this is actually a good thing: when the medical facts change, the medical community changes its collective mind. And while there’s a good chance that the recommendations aren’t perfect and may change again, at least the new recommendations are better than the old recommendations.

Of course, this is old hat for anyone familiar with scientific method.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a similar evolution of knowledge when it comes to recommendations for best managing people. When I have taken courses designed to impart the best new thinking around management, a less useful approach is followed.

There is often an unwillingness to state that prior management recommendations are wrong and should be replaced with better ones. In fact, new techniques have typically been presented to me as new “tools” that can be added to my “toolkit“. This toolkit apparently can grow without limit, and it is largely up to my discretion as to when, where and to whom I should apply a given technique.

I grant that there is difficulty in running experiments needed to show that a particular technique is better than another, and dealing with people is a messier problem-space than dealing with germs or injuries. Also, sure, management science is a relatively new discipline. Still, it feels like a cop out.

I hope that one day, looking at today’s management courseware will seem as quaint as looking at my old baby book.

Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This month I’ve already read the book club book. The actual book club get-together is still almost two weeks away, so I’m actually in some danger of forgetting all about it by then. I seem to have a talent for forgetting the details of a book, which can come in handy, since it justifies me keeping a copy of good books on my book-shelf – I know I can enjoy them all over again.

But this book was one that I nominated, so I really should try to remember something about it for the discussion. Hence, I’m going to note my thoughts down here, in easy-to-reference form.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A personal tale masquerading as an ethics tale hidden inside a science tale

When this book was selected for book club, it was partly on the basis that it had over 1,000 reviews on with an average score of 4.5 out of 5. I think this is a fair rating – there is something in this book for everyone.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, takes us through her journey of discovery regarding the family and story behind the “HeLa” line of cells – cells still alive today and involved in important science. Her close connection to the family becomes an important part of the tale, both because it allows her to access the detailed history of the family but also because it provides a very human face for the abstract cells.

The absence of such a human face is part of the context for so many of the ethical issues that occur in the history of the cell line. Examples of racism, exploitation of the poor, the law trailing scientific advances, lack of informed consent, lack of compensation, industry profiting from volunteers, scientific denial, and many others. The book is long-ish and I feel like I should’ve taken notes of these issues so that I could remember them to discuss later.

The tale is at times amazing, horrific, uplifting and sad. For me, one of the saddest aspects was how disadvantaged the family has been. Their ancestors were exploited as part of slavery on a tobacco plantation and they never seem to have escaped the legacy of that. Although, the book itself promises to assist, so perhaps the family will have a happier future than their past.

Rating by andrew: 4.5 stars

Search for children assists paleontologists

This is something that blew my mind last week. Some paleontologists are convinced that there were fewer dinosaurs than we thought – that some different types of dinosaurs were just the adult form of another one, despite the fact that they look completely different. It’s explained in this 20 minute TEDx talk:

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To completely spoil the video, Jack Horner (the paleontologist inspiration behind Jurassic Park) believes that:

  • the Dracorex, Stygimoloch and Pachycephalosaurus were the same dinosaur
  • the Triceratops, Nedoceratops and Torosaurus were the same dinosaur
  • the Edmontosaurus and Anatotitan were the same dinosaur
  • the Nanotyrannus and Tyranosaurus were the same dinosaur

and he deduces this through cutting open dinosaur skulls and bones at the Museum of the Rockies where he is the curator. Those skulls/bones of the suspected “younger” dinosaurs are spongy while the “older” ones are more solid. If other museums were happy for scientists to cut open their dinosaurs perhaps this would’ve been discovered sooner.

But perhaps there’s another angle. If women were more involved in the science of paleontology earlier on, perhaps this would’ve been discovered sooner.

Part of the basis for the theory is that no child dinosaurs (ie. small / less-developed specimens) of the now-suspected “older” dinosaurs have been found to date. To my admittedly non-expert mind, this is pretty damning evidence right there. According to Wikipedia, the Torosaur (for example), was first discovered in 1891. Somehow, it has taken over a hundred years for a dinosaur expert to come up with evidence to support the simple theory that the reason there are no child versions found in all this time is that there are no child versions, ie. that it is an adult version.

Horner himself puts forward the explanation that scientists just like to name things – the more dinosaurs, the more chance for names. However, attempting to put on a feminist-shaped hat, I would also think that an alternative explanation is that the predominantly male dinosaur collectors  of the early years of paleontology were not interested in looking for child dinosaurs – the only interesting dinosaurs were the big ones, that probably also turned out to be the male ones. I wouldn’t blame the individual collectors for this – I would think it likely that this was the culture of the industry at the time. Hence, it’s only as the industry changed, and more women came into it for example, that such thinking changed – thinking that enabled a real interest in finding child dinosaurs and explaining what happened to them. (And I realise that I’m falling for a stereotype here that women would be more interested in dinosaur children than men would be, but I suspect it’s true all the same.)

This is merely a hypothesis, and informed merely by personal speculation and a few web searches today. For example, an article from 2010 in Wired trying to identify significant female paleontologists in the face of a complete lack of their public presence. Also, a blog post from a female paleontologist describing how it has traditionally been a male-dominated profession (the photos of Paleontologist Barbie are worth a look, too). In any case, I wonder if there will be further breakthroughs due to the changing gender mix in science.

Why some scientists diverge from the mainstream

A while ago, a friend sent me a link to an article by Richard Lindzen as an example of a respectable scientist who sits on the “skeptical” side of the fence in the global warming debate. At the time, I noted that Lindzen was also known as a skeptic of the link between smoking and lung cancer, but aside from thinking it was an interesting coincidence that he fell twice into the skeptical camp on such emotional topics, didn’t ponder it much more.

However,  recently I listened to a lecture by Naomi Oreskes (presumably connected with her recent book) where she provided a possible explanation of the link between the two views that also can explain why a respectable scientist is willing to diverge so far from the mainstream position.

We don’t hear debates about whether the sun-goes-around-the-earth or the earth-goes-around-the-sun any more. There isn’t disagreement on whether driving a car is dangerous, or whether excessive sun-baking increases the chance of skin cancer.

But when it comes to climate science, there is a very visible debate. If there was a clear split in the climate science community, that would be one explanation. Although, all major national science academies fall in the climate change believer camp, and in an essay in Science, Oreskes found that of 928 randomly selected abstracts on climate change, exactly none argued against the idea of human-influenced global warming. (Other similar studies can be found listed here.)

I’m not interested in discussing here who is right or wrong, but noting that the respectable scientists who are arguing a skeptical position regarding climate change are a small group indeed. It’s not a bad thing for science that they exist, as educated debate improves our body of knowledge, and such a debate needs people on both sides. However, it must be a tough job for the individuals involved. It’s natural to wonder why they would do it.

Due to the politicisation of the field, and the implications for certain industries depending on resulting policies, I’m not surprised that scientists who argue against climate change are effectively given a megaphone. On the other hand, I would be surprised if this was a sufficient reason for respectable scientists to adopt positions that they didn’t believe.

Oreskes proposes that the reason is: many scientists in the skeptical camp are fierce believers of capitalism and the free market. Hence they will naturally assume that any argument leading to a conclusion of greater industry regulation must be wrong, and will look very hard for the flaws in it.

An example of such a scientist, according to Oreskes, is Fred Singer.  Not only is he a climate change skeptic today, but in the past has been skeptical of the link between (second hand) cigarette smoke and cancer.  In the case of second hand smoking, he was arguing against the US EPA‘s desire to regulate smoking.

So, perhaps this applies to Lindzen as well. In that case, his skeptical views on both the dangers of smoking and climate change are not co-incidental at all.

Of course, if scientists all agreed on everything, then we wouldn’t need scientists. But I find it interesting to understand what might motivate scientists to disagree when it must seem like the whole scientific community is in agreement against them.

Three Impossible Things

I am sharing three examples of things that I was impressed to find existing. As they exist, they are clearly not impossible; a more accurate word might be inconceivable. Until I came across them, I had no conception of this stuff, and learning about them simply makes me glad. It also reminds me not to assume that something’s impossible just because I’d never heard about it.

Drilling a square hole

It turns out that you can drill a square hole, if you use a drill bit that’s based on a Reuleaux triangle and mount it on a special chuck. Such a thing was built by a guy called Harry Watts in 1914 and apparently you can still get them from the Watts Brothers Tool Works. The resulting hole has slightly rounded corners for practical reasons, but it still has four straight edges at 90 degrees to each other.

Assemble “Stonehenge” without a crane

A retired carpenter has shown on his site how he was able to assemble two vertical pieces and a capping piece (a la Stonehenge) by himself and without a crane. He also demonstrates some techniques that might have been used to move heavy stones in ancient times for other projects. Exactly how they did this will be a mystery, since they didn’t document it and aren’t around anymore, but it’s interesting to see simple techniques that would have made it straightforward.

Sharing a cake fairly

Of course, it’s easy to share a piece of cake two ways, while maintaining fairness (or “envy free”, i.e. no one feels someone else has a bigger piece) – one cuts, the other chooses. But, how to do it for more than two people? Well, in 1995, Brams and Taylor published a procedure for sharing between any number of people, involving cutting more pieces than necessary and taking turns trimming them. Assuming the people involved understand the proof, they should be happy that a fair distribution of the cake has been made, even if they each risk ending up with multiple pieces of different sizes.

Female of the Species

All too often the achievements in Australia have a qualifier attached. It isn’t the biggest wind farm in the world, but it is the biggest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the tallest ferris wheel in the world, but it is the tallest ferris wheel in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the longest jetty, but it is the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere.

When all the achievements in a list are qualified in that way, it diminishes the sense of achievement. In this case, suggesting that all the best stuff is in the Northern Hemisphere, but if you’re stuck in the Southern Hemisphere, then perhaps Australia is not too bad a place to be.

This Sunday (8th March) is International Women’s Day. In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a list of a few brilliant people whose achievements aren’t qualified by being the “first woman to”, but who are simply outstanding. And who happen to be women. So, it’s worth shining a bit of extra light on their achievements at this time of the year.

Angela Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was a musician and dancer. She considered ballet “ugly and against nature”, so pretty much went off and created modern dance. She founded several schools that spread her approach to barefoot, improvised dancing, and so we have it today.

Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was an accomplished mathematician who also made significant contributions to physics. Although her mathematical discoveries were foundational in the area of abstract algebra, what’s known as Noether’s Theorem is considered one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in the field of physics and some physicists have claimed it as on par with the Pythagorean Theorem.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a philosopher and popular writer. Her most famous work is probably the novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, which concerns her philosophy of Objectivism. Her ideas have been extremely influential in the arena of capitalism and former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was one of her keen students earlier in his life. Greenspan’s approach to regulating capitalist markets can be said to be a prime cause for the extent of the last couple of decade’s economic growth in the US and the subsequent global financial crisis.

Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler (1913-2000), better known as Hedy Lamarr, was a popular Hollywood actor in her day. More significantly (from my point of view), she invented a communications technology that is now used in every new mobile phone and laptop. Together with a friend, she was granted a patent in 1942 for a “Secret Communications System” that the genesis for spread-spectrum communications that has evolved into 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth.

Vera Rubin (1928-) is an astronomer who was responsible for proving the existence of dark matter in the universe. This is pretty important as it turns out that the vast majority of the universe is made up of dark matter, and a lot of astrophysics now relies on dark matter to explain it. Actually, it turns out that most of dark matter is actually dark energy, but this doesn’t diminish the discovery.

I don’t suggest any of these people are perfect, nor that I agree with all their views, but their contributions to science and culture are profound, and I suspect most people didn’t know about them. As for myself, I was inspired by the list of scientists mentioned in the book Pythagoras’ Trousers.