Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Sun Block: You’re Not Putting Enough On (And Neither Am I)

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

I hate the stuff, but it’s necessary. I spent too many years burning myself black (yes, black), riding on the back of a tractor for endless dusty days. I need to do a better job of protecting my skin.

And that means using more sunblock.

It’s greasy and unpleasant, but it can save you from a nasty burn and even nastier cancer. Those that know these things recommend a full 2 ounces, a shot glass full, of sunblock of SPF 30-50 (any higher does you no good). And you’re to reapply it EVERY TWO HOURS!

It’s the most unpleasant part of a beach vacation, but you should also use it for everyday when outside the house or traveling in a car. Better yet, wear a broad brimmed hat and a cool shirt.

A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy, has done the research. Sunscreen is messy and unpleasant, but it works (I highly recommend the book - it’s a fun read and very informative).

You’re Probably Wrong About That

Monday, September 19th, 2011

I spend a great deal of my day being wrong about things. How about you?

You and I know a great many things. We know, we hope, how to do our jobs, how to get from point A to point B, how to survive from day to day. But there is a lot of our personal store of knowledge that is suspect, incomplete, and simply wrong.

I’m going to go out on a limb and generalize for a moment. Take any given person and examine their understanding of subjects. Take history, for example. You’ll find that almost every individual has an incomplete understanding of human history and what they do claim to know is either filled with gaps, errors, and misunderstandings, or is utterly fictional. It’s a rare person who’s both well informed and curious about the world to the extent that they are willing to explore and think, to question their own assumptions, and to continually revise their understanding about the world, the universe, virtually everything. And even they are wrong about many things.

Pick an individual at random and ask them about the basics of science. How, for example, does the sun burn and not exhaust its fuel? What is petroleum and coal and where do they come from? How does one catch the common cold? You’ll find that the answers to these questions run from the simply incomplete to the fanciful and frustratingly dangerous.

Let’s take the common cold, for example. Many people still believe that you can catch it from being cold or wet. Benjamin Franklin knew that this isn’t the case (but the man was insatiably curious about everything and was willing to test his ideas). Colds are caused by viruses. Being cold or wet has nothing to do with it.

Or take the topic of history. Why, for example, is the U.S. closely allied with England and suspicious and cold towards France when the U.S. fought two wars against England and France helped the U.S. win its independence? I have an theory that’s based upon a wide reading in history, but it isn’t a simple answer. There are a lot of factors that contributed to the relationships between these three countries over the last 300 years or so.

To most of these questions and many others, the knowledgeable person might start with, “it’s complex,” and that’s true. But that shouldn’t be one’s excuse to being misinformed or mistaken. Lots of things in life are complex. Complexity isn’t something to be backed away from. It should be explored and puzzled over.

I sometimes look at the general public and sigh in despair. Not only are many, many people wrong about the fundamental ways the world works, from the physical sciences to human interactions, but they hang onto their ignorance and mistaken knowledge desperately and will respond by attacking if one attempts to correct them or question what they think and believe. This ignorance isn’t without cost. Wars, the economy, even our environment are all in the balance.

I judge people, but not on the current state of their knowledge. I judge them on their willingness to learn, to think, and to change what they believe to be true. I think that is the fundamental philosophic difference between the scientist and the believer. The scientist should always be willing to say, “based upon new information I am willing to re-evaluate.” The believer often shuns information that contradicts what they “know.”

While, as I said at the top of this article, I may spend my days being wrong about things, I’m always questioning, always looking for ways to get just a little more “right.” “Hmm. How about that?” is a common experience for me. And it feels good to say, “Well, I was wrong about that, but now the world makes just a bit more sense.”

I may be wrong about this, but I’m willing to accept new information, to debate, and to think. Are you?

Better Living Through Science

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Many people glory in technology and celebrate their improved life experience because of the latest gadgets, pharmaceuticals, and product of all kinds. I myself am one of them. But I’m careful to keep separate those benefits we receive from improvements in technology from the incalculable benefits of science.

Science is a set of tools, a remarkably simple yet effective method of ferreting out the secrets of our existence. I’ve heard some people say that “science is only one way of knowing the universe” and I find myself frowning and grumbling upon hearing it once again. There are other ways of thinking and feeling about the universe, but for KNOWING the universe, for determining how things work and why, science is the only approach that works.

Everything you use, everything you can touch, smell, or taste – all of these things and our understanding of them comes from science. Not from faith, magic, or other occult practices (You want occult practices? That’s the Economics Department. They’re on the 3rd floor.).

You can benefit by incorporating the scientific method into your life, even if you yourself are not a scientist. The basic methodology of science will help you to understand the world, your life, and your desires much more clearly than you do today.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Look at the world and experience it. When you find something that you don’t understand, seek to find out if anyone else has already sufficiently explained it. If not, move to the next step.
  2. Propose a theory on how the thing you don’t understand works.
  3. From your theory, devise an experiment and predict the results to demonstrate that your theory is correct.
  4. Test it. Then let other people test it. Better yet, try and disprove your theory.

Here’s the key to why the scientific method is so important and it can be important to you personally: if you adopt the attitude that you could be wrong about ANYTHING, you are more likely to live your life with your eyes and mind open. You’ll tease out how things really work. And even if you’re not trying to figure out how gravity works, this approach might serve you really well in business, or art, or even with your personal relationships (Gravity’s been done. Galileo and Newton pretty much got that covered in the 17th century. Pick another topic for your queries.).

Try it for yourself. There are a lot of things around you that you probably don’t understand, or understand to the depth that can be really useful to you. Use the steps of the scientific method, just like you’d use your Mr. Wizard Chemistry Set. Be relentless in seeking out how things work.

The first thing you’ll find when you start looking is that most of the things you’re curious about have been explored. You only have to look. But there are always more topics and many topics can be revisited if they’re not sufficiently explained or tested. For example, just why are your home energy bills so high? What is sucking up so much power? How can you track down the energy vampires in your home and how can you organize your gadgets to best optimize your energy usage? If you follow the scientific method, you might approach it something like this:

  1. Topic to investigate: Something (or a group of things) are driving my energy usage up. What are they?
  2. Theory: I have a number of “energy vampires” that are using energy when not in use. By unplugging the right ones, I can reduce my energy usage without affecting my lifestyle.
  3. Devise an experiment: Precisely monitor energy usage over 24 hours for one month, then test, in repeated cycles and one device at a time, unplugging phone chargers, entertainment devices, and other appliances. Adjust for seasonal and other usage changes. Use separate energy monitors like this for the whole home or like this one for individual devices.
  4. Test the results: If my energy vampire theory is correct, I should be able to see a reduction in energy usage by unplugging chargers and other devices when not in use.

You can test anything in this fashion.

The most successful gardeners may seem to be instinctive, but if you spend time with them, you will discover that they have developed a deep body of knowledge through the scientific method, even if they don’t call it that. They’ve experimented and thought long and hard about why the zucchini grow best in the side garden and they’ve continued to probe the secrets of their soil, the weather, and the right way to compost. The master gardener achieves their mastery through science. Those who hold to beliefs and never vary their methods end up cursing the garden gods when their crops fail. The master gardener may see crops fail, too, but they’ll learn something from it and make an experimental change in their methods so that, over time, their gardens prosper and their yields increase.

You can play cynical semantic games to make science seem like a religion or belief system, but if you’re honest and try the scientific method for yourself, you’ll see that the tools it supplies really can make your life better, richer, and more interesting.