Sunday, April 30, 2006

Promethian Propaganda

As I prepare for another book about the WWII era and focus on activities at Caltech, I am amazed at what I am finding. In talking with widows and children of scientists who were there at the time plus a few others who are in their nineties and were also there, I am finding differences between what has been written and what is recalled. All the differences cannot be accidental or just the result of one’s “slant.” Some are factual.

Discovering these differences is what makes the job fun. They give another dimension to research.

I take particular exception to parts of the new biography of Julius Robert Oppenheimer called American Prometheus. Well written and no doubt well-researched, it contains curious omissions and is a bit too adoring to be an objective work.

I do not intend to write extensively about JRO, but I cannot help but take written notice of him as I interview those whose paths crossed his in the early 1940’s. It was a time of heroes and giants; JRO was at least one of the giants although not, perhaps, all that Promethian.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Rumors of Tumors

In a recent Reuters news story, some eighty-five users of cell phones had malignant brain tumors and used cell phones “a lot.” What was the scientific quantity of use? “A lot.” Big science employed here! So a correlation was established by the writer, between cell phone use and malignant tumors. Two valuable rules of evidence were ignored.

One is that we all know that correlation is not cause and effect. We all drink water and we all die. Does water cause death? Only to those who drown in it.

The second rule is even simpler. It is exemplified by the story of people who lived near electric power poles whose children contracted cancer. Immediately, some people (and their lawyers) jumped to the conclusion that the electricity in the wires caused the cancer. What else did the children have in common? They played near the base of the poles where the power company had sprayed a herbicide to keep down the growth of weeds. It turned out that the herbicide was behind the cancer and not the electrons flowing through the wires.

Here is the second rule: One correlation does not rule out other correlations. In fairness, I can say that author of the study wrote that some “other agents” were ruled out (such as cigarettes). Probably not all of them. What they did not write about was the mechanism that causes human cells to become cancerous while in the presence of the electro-mechanical field of a cell phone. There doesn’t seem to be one.

Perhaps cell phones cause malignant tumors in some people, but probably not. The preponderance of evidence says not.

These kinds of “folk science” stories give good science a bad name. You'd think an educated Media would be more responsible. At least, more demanding.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Faces of Heroism

Today I talked to the widow of a long dead scientist. I explained that I was researching materials for a book She confided in me that her husband had worked on the first atomic bomb. She said she only found out after her husband had died, and she found out from another scientist. She did not even know her husband had gone to Los Alamos, New Mexico to the test site. It was all a deep, dark secret in those days.

The scientist told the widow how ashamed her husband had been for accomplishing his work so well.

The story of this scientist reminded me that heroism and patriotism take many forms. A person might be afraid in the face of the enemy, or might lose an arm in an accident during battle, or might have to kill a large number of the enemy to protect his comrades. Or, he might help make a new, terrible weapon. But he does his duty, even though he might not feel so good about it later. That is the nature of heroism. Often it leaves scars.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Scientific Dogma

Recently the Orange County(CA) Register had a science article on the loss of ice in Antarctica. A sub-heading said, “2 studies further support global warming caused by humans is adding to rising sea levels.”

The article presented evidence that ice was melting, but I looked in vain for evidence that the cause was human. There was none.

There probably is global warming. That the cause of global warming is human, appears to be an article of faith. Science has its dogma, too.