How did it take me so long to notice this?

Proof that I’ve been neglecting my blogroll to a degree, I missed this TED talk.

Its by Dr. Neil Turok, a Physicist at Cambridge and founder of AIMS(African institute of Mathematical Sciences) which is a school in South Africa that brings together students from all over the continent for a 9 month postgraduate course to learn advanced mathematical and computer skills.

The talk is very, very much worth listening to. And I’m wondering if they’ll have use for a certain Ghanaian physicist in a few years time. This is one of those jobs I’d be more than happy to settle into.

Open source science

This is an opinion piece from the American Mathematical Society talking about the use of proprietary software in Mathematics.  The same argument could easily be made for proprietary software in the sciences in general. Interestingly enough one of the authors of the piece is also the man behind SAGE, which I am finally installing on my assigned computer at school today. Its also why I have been using Python with scipy and matplotlib as a replacement for Matlab recently. Its not that I believe I’m any smarter than the kind of people working at wolfram or mathworks (I’m not) but I like knowing that the algorithms I use are open to be reviewed by anyone with the skill and the time. Plus I’d prefer not to have all my work in a format I can’t use without pirating software or paying per-seat licensing.

Random thoughts……

On one hand, this is a great thing. Obviously the idea of using quantum dots to produce cheaper, more efficient solar cells has legs and is worth the planned investment of at least the next four years of my life.

On the other hand…. Someone is getting a jump start on me

Silly and irrational I know, but I never claimed to be perfect.

A small correction to the boingboing post

I noticed in the last couple of days that my incoming traffic spiked because my I2CAP post got linked by a bunch of places including boingboing so I went to take a look at their post just to see what it said. One of the things I noticed was a mention of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commision as an “old Soviet era research nuclear reactor” and I figured I might as well correct that impression.

As you can tell from the link, it is very much an existing institution. It was founded in the early 60’s as part of Kwame Nkrumah’s plans to modernize the country and hugely improve our competitiveness in science and technology. This is also the same reason KNUST was founded.

At the moment it houses a small research reactor which still sees use and a larger gutted out building which was meant to be a functional power producing reactor and was weeks away from being operational when he was removed from power.

At the moment it is very much a functional, if underfunded, research institution that actually does interesting work. I’ve met some of the people there and been privileged enough to do some work for them and for the graduate School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences which started working last year.

I know the idea of actual interesting scientific research being done in Africa by Africans is the kind of stuff that hardly gets noticed or commented on, even by us, but it does happen and this is a good example of the kinds of places where it happens

Religious Zealotry vs. Science

I’ve been out of things for a little bit because of schoolwork so i missed the beginnings of the debate in Kansas. Thankfully Mushtaq has been talking about it and so between him and this blog by a grad student at the University of Kansas, I have bees speedily brought up to date. For those of you who are similarly clueless, I’ll summarize. Basically, the state Board of Education in Kansas is holding hearings about whether or not to teach Intelligent Design “theory” (and I use that word extremely loosely) beside evolution in classrooms. Not being satisfied with that, they are also trying to get the school board’s definition of science changed. They want to omit the part about science looking for natural explanations to phenomena so they can tie religion in to every aspect of science education. Their reasons for doing so are spelled out here.

For now, I’ll ignore the larger implications of what they are doing and focus on why Intelligent Design is not a valid scientific theory and evolution is. There seems to be some confusion over the use of the word ‘theory’ so I’ll start there. In regular english use, a theory is merely a reasonable idea. In order for an idea to qualify as a scientific theory, it must endure rigorous and ongoing challenges to its validity and must be capable of explaining all the available data as well as predicting any new data that appears on the same topic. In other words evolution is a widely accepted theory because it provides a coherent and testable explanation for everything we currently know about the history of life on earth. Certain parts of the theory are still being refined but those are the specifics. The general framework is accepted by the majority of scientists as being valid. If tomorrow we find evidence that plainly contradicts evolution, that will be the end of it and they’ll start looking for a new theory that incorporates everything we now know.
Intelligent Design doesn’t really explain anything. Ignoring the fact that its just a way to backdoor creationism into schools, the basic idea behind it is that nature is too complex to have come into being on its own so it must have been created. No real mention is made of the creator(s), their origin and the means by which creation took place. This ‘theory’ can never be tested because all contradicting data can also be ascribed to the same intelligent designer, automatically rendering it useless as a scientific theory. If there is no possible way to prove it false it can’t be a scientific theory. Its defenders ignore the mountains of evidence supporting evolution and instead nitpick at areas that are still being investigated as proof that the entire theory is flawed. When they’re not doing that, they make ridiculously incoherent and obviously uninformed arguments that seriously call into question their ability to think rationally about anything.

Now, lets return to the larger issue behind this, the attack on naturalism. One of the core beliefs of the scientific method is that nature follows specific rules and that we can deduce these rules by observing nature without invoking any other outside powers. The Universe, whether it was created by god or randomly came into being, follows these rules. The fact that you are sitting at a computer reading this and didn’t need to utter a prayer or make a sacrifice in order to get it to work is a fairly convincing argument for this point of view. Its not that we don’t believe in god, most scientists I’ve met have some kind of spiritual faith. Its just that we don’t consider ourselves in the business of proving or disproving god’s existence. Nothing about the rules of nature confirms or denies the existence of god(s). You can believe or not, just don’t expect help from us either way. It wouldn’t be a belief if you could prove it.
Anyway, religious zealots hate naturalism because it provides an explanation for the world that doesn’t necessarily require a holy man or holy book, thus threatening their power. They want to be the ones with all the answers and if that means dismantling centuries of human scientific progress, so be it.

Personally, the people I really feel sorry for are the kids who are going to have their heads filled with all this nonsense. Someday they’ll have to deal with the real world. By choosing religious dogma over reality, their parents will be doing them a disservice too great for me to properly describe. Plus, if this spreads you might as well move all science related institutions overseas because your kids will be too stupid and uninformed to man them. So either bring us here or move them to our homes and cut down on airfare. Might I suggest putting a nanotechnology R&D lab in Ghana, my parents will be glad to see me move home and I will no longer have to deal with the winter.

I’m validated

Further proof of what I spoke of in my previous post comes courtesy of New York Times writer Thomas Friedman’s book ‘The World Is Flat‘. He explains the premise of his book in this article. Basically, the rest of the world is catching up scientifically while school systems in this country are wasting time debating the validity of evolution and scientifically accepted theories on climate change are ignored.

He appeared on the daily show to discuss his book yesterday and mentioned the area where I believe the lack of funding for basic research is going to hurt american industries a lot in the next couple of decades, alternative energy.

Lets assume that corporate oil concerns keep masive government funding from going in this area until the technology has already been created by, say, the Chinese. While your evonomy will still be chained to a depleting natural resource, your biggest potential industrial rival will be totally independent as far as power generation and will be gaining influence throughout the developing world by passing on this technology.

As an African, I have a fairly serious interest in solar cell technology. Anyone who knows about Ghana’s oil issues can understand why. I’m actually trying to get unto the research team of the professor who works in that field. The lack of funding in this area is something that really bothers me. Well, I was planning on learning mandarin anyway because of the fact that its useful in NY’s kung fu community. I guess now it will also come in handy for reading Chinese research papers.

Are you guys trying to become irrelevant?

I was reading Slashdot during one of my study breaks when I came across this article. Basically, DARPA, the research arm of the pentagon, is cutting its funding for open ended research in favor of more focused research with short term goals. For those of you unaware of DARPA, the most visible success was the invention of the internet. Their open ended research has yielded massive amounts of technological innovation which then crossed over into the civilian world and helped this country maintain its technological dominance.

This shift in funding isn’t an isolated incident either. Corporate funding for research has also been shifting from the kind of open ended scientific research that could take a decade to pay off to short term projects that pay off in a few quarters. I imagine some people are wondering why this matters. Well, simply put, you’re handing your technological dominance over to the Europeans and Asians on a silver platter by letting the bottom line dictate where research money goes. While short term research pays off faster, it does not create anything new. The kind of radical ideas, like the Internet, that end up shaping the future come from long term open ended research. You find a couple of really talented people, you give them money and leave them alone. Every once in a while you check on them every once in a while to make sure they’re remembering to eat and shower. That’s what DARPA used to do. So did formerly great American institutions like Bell Labs, HP and Xerox.

The Europeans still fund lots of basic research and Asian countries, particularly India, Japan, China and Korea are increasing the strength of their academic institutions. Incidentally, the increased barriers to immigration you’ve been throwing up are helping them by keeping the foreigners who populate your science and engineering programs at home. If they end up holding the patents to the next great thing while American research groups are still looking at the ground in front of their feet, there goes your dominance. Personally, It doesn’t make a difference to me who is in charge. I just don’t see why anyone would willingly take themselves out of the race. Plus I don’t want to have to learn another language just so I can go somewhere else to do good research.