News and commentary on science

>> Friday, April 5, 2013

So, this is mostly a life update thing but I'm going to add some philosophical and stuff at the end for those interested enough to read all the way through.

I passed losing 100 pounds last week which puts me well over halfway to my goal. Going slower than I like, but, still, as long as I'm still moving in the right direction, it's all good. By the way, for the dieters out there, Kroger's "Slow Churned" [Light] Death By Chocolate ice cream could be the eighth deadly sin and, at only 140 calories a scoop, it's a happy indulgence. And no one's paying me to say it. It's just that damn good.

Had to replace one of my AC units, the one that we've been babying since I moved in in 2004 that goes out repeatedly and takes care of upstairs which is not only much hotter than downstairs but it's where we all are most of the time. Well it died, but at least it happened now, when we had a nice cool week and not in July. I'm hoping the much higher efficiency unit (w/ten years parts AND labor warranty) will also help with cooling bills this summer.

I was taken aback when changing my W-4 from married to single (but otherwise identical) resulted in more than an extra $120 coming out of my paycheck every week (which is why I paid into the IRS last year for the first time in decades). Ouch. Sucks to be a single parent. My hats off to any of you out there doing it on far less than I'm making. I literally have no idea how you manage it. 

Was discussing the topic of gay marriage on (I rarely go there any more, but I have a bud who knows how to write articles that get discussions going to a frightening degree). Not going to discuss it here because I already have and, really, I didn't have many people arguing with me, not even Relax Max.

But several folks there were up in arms at the notion and after some extended hair rending and teeth gnashing over the increased moral turpitude that's crept into our society now that we can't beat blacks and our wives any more with impunity (ah, the good old days, when children had a 50% chance of living to adulthood and hygiene meant a monthly soak in a metal basin), one of them got into a long drawn-out rant against science, the kind I see once in a while among the creationist or global climate change naysayers. As I am myself, I noted that there was a level of irony in someone dissing science while using it to communicate, in this case, on the internet.

Here is his carefully quoted response to that [Note that the previous was paraphrased with almost undoubtedly some bias on my part]:

So, now science means anything that involved any sort of scientific or technological discovery to make? I am "using science" if I drive a car? Turn on a light? Flick my bic? 
 I still can't think about it without wiping tears of laughter from my eyes.

Uh, duh? Did he think that stuff grew on trees? Spontaneously fell from the sky like manna?

Now, I'm not equating religious folks with this kind of thinking - most religious people I know personally are perfectly rational reasonable thoughtful people who use religion as a guide to be better people. Can't fault that. But some of the crazies that pop up on talk radio and the internet are freaky out there.

This same guy, later on, said, "Science itself as we know it, was begun by "religious people" . . ." [guffaw, chortle]. While it was true that Christianity, at one point, was "in charge" of science, they were (a) largely basing it on Aristotle (who was not Christian but might have been a very devout pagan for all I know) and (b) did so up through the time called the Dark Ages, largely because science was stagnant in their hands. The name "Dark Ages" was not coincidental. And, while a number of scientists have been and are now devout in their respective religions, I don't think I'm really speaking out of turn when I say several of the organized religions have been basically obstructing science since the Dark Ages.

Note also, that that's just Western science. I know that, in many early civilizations like the Mayans and Babylonians, science, particularly astronomy, was closely linked with their religion. I haven't looked at the link between science and religion in the Far East Asian cultures, but I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar. (And for those who might thing Western culture dominated science in ancient times, I beg to differ).

But I have seriously digressed.

My point is that people can be awfully harsh with scientists and those implementers of science, engineers, and tend to focus on the evils that have resulted. I don't want to dismiss those, of course. We're not absolved of guilt for our part in that, for what our work facilitated. But I also think that just as religion today shouldn't really be held responsible for some of the more heinous things done in the past in the name of religion (and there are ample examples), scientists might be given a little slack on the less than savory results of our work done in generations past. Not that ills done in the name of religion and murderous/unhealthy science don't go on now as well. They do.

Similarly, just as religion deserves credit for good things that are done, including a significant portion of the relief efforts in some of the more tortured parts of the globe, science deserves note for those activities on the plus side of the scale. And I think that that is often taken for granted.

Some of it is, obviously, medical, things that have transformed the health of humankind in ways that would have amazed people a couple of centuries ago (though it should be noted, again, that various cultures already appreciated some aspects of that, like hygiene, again in certain Asian cultures): vaccines (much maligned but a huge factor in reducing infant mortality and child survival rates), antibiotics, hygiene and pasteurization, analgesics, safe and sterile surgical techniques (now with anesthesia!), clean water supplies and plumbing (which doesn't get enough credit for making changes in our world). When my grandfather was a child, half his siblings didn't make it to adulthood. That wasn't unusual in his day. I can't even imagine it. Two centuries and more back, childbirth was one of the biggest killers of women; now it's far less so (in countries where women can get pre and post natal care).  Thank you, biology and medicine.

Manufacturing break-throughs, assembly lines, automation, irrigation and farm machinery have allowed drops in prices and increased affordability in a number of things that used to be in short supply and/or only available for the very rich, like clothing and various (even rare) foods, vehicles and electronics and computers. Thank you engineering.

Material sciences and organic chemistry (particularly plastics) have meant huge breakthroughs in alloys and semiconductors  and ceramics/composites and plastics from cookware to bullet-proof vests to surgical implants and fiber optics to nano technology and, again, electronics. They've enabled solar panels and computer supersystems as well as computers that fit neatly on a wrist. Are you glad you can listen to music without having to go the concern hall every time? Thank you material sciences and chemistry.

Like riding in a car rather than horse and buggy? Like having electric lights rather than relying strictly on candles? Like flying in planes? Air conditioning and central heating? Like having access to instant information (cell and internet), weather information, location information? Much of the latter relies on a huge phalanx of satellites made possible by the space programs of many different nations. Thank you, physics and, yes, rocket science and combustive chemistry.

I'm just scratching the surface here, but I don't think it would go amiss, when we start thinking nostalgically about how simple life used to be, we might want to also remember how dangerous it was, how inconvenient, how dirty (even the wealthy), how exhaustive it was for most people, how little time and money was available for luxuries of any kind.

Science and scientists are certainly not free from fault, but there's a sizable debt we all owe to their efforts. Perhaps it wouldn't be amiss to remember it once in a while.


  • Roy

    Good points all. I read Peter's article soon after it was published, but I stopped going back to read comments by the time you must have commented; when Char-broiled and Matthew-Mark-Luke-John start commenting I usually duck out to keep my blood pressure down.

  • Relax Max

    Congratulations on losing that much weight. I know how hard it is. That's terrific.

    I'm sorry the devil caused your A/C to fail...

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