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Yes, the whole political thing is over. Maybe I’m too late to bag on Romney but I read an interesting article in Scientific American talking about the emergence of “antiscience”. In the interest of being objective, the article criticises both sides of scientific illiteracy and publicly spreading stupidity through their misinformed opinions on scientific discourse. There’s an interesting treat for you all at the end of this article. SA posed science related questions to both Obama and Romney, then graded their answers based on how well they answered.

The Democrats were guilty of the false belief that vaccines cause autism and mental retardation. The Republicans, as usual, tried to attack the validity of science itself, preaching creationism and falsely denying climate change. I love how they still say “it’s unclear” or “there is no consensus” or “the evidence is still divided”. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use this picture:

GWLiteratureReview1_full

If the Republicans had any scientific credibility in the first place, I hope that picture buries it. I did an article on climate change but it was a little bit of an appeal to emotion on my part because I feel bad for polar bears (and other animals). The thing to take away here is: First, there is no “debate” over climate change. Refer to the picture above. It’s pretty damn conclusive. Second, it does not matter if climate change is man-made or not. It seems politicians have some sort of screw loose in their head where they think that as long as they can shirk responsibility and say that humans didn’t cause climate change that we’ll somehow be safe from it. Sea level rising? Fish population dwindling? Starvation of the human race imminent? Oh, don’t worry, we didn’t cause it so we’ll be safe. Nope, we don’t have to do anything about it because it wasn’t us. Yeah … you know what? I’m pretty sure Earth doesn’t give a damn if we caused it or not, if we don’t do anything we’ll suffer anyway. Here’s Romney’s take on it (one of his takes, he actually switched back and forth between believing and not believing it).

My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.

Whoa, hold on there! Trillions and trillions? Besides making bombs and guns I don’t remember the Republicans being willing to spend trillions and trillions on anything. The entire NASA budget is only what the US military spends on airconditioning in temporary bases in Iraq, if you guys remember my article about NASA’s contributions.

The article goes on to identify a trend of “antiscience” whereby politicians outright attacked science and gained popularity from it. Huntsman, the only candidate to actively embrace science, finished last in the polls. I don’t know if I should blame politicians or people for this one. Maybe they realise they’re just spouting lies to gain popularity. Surely they can’t be dumb enough to believe what they’re saying (unless you’re Todd Akin). But in the end, they do it because the public responds. So damn, what does that say about the public? Get your shit together. I don’t think anyone who reads my blog is antiscience (or they’d be completely in the wrong place) but seriously, how do you end up with the mentality that science is bad and evil? Here’s a quick summary of what the article says about science’s contribution to America:

For some two centuries science was a preeminent force in American politics, and scientific innovation has been the leading driver of US economic growth since World War II. Kids in the 1960s gathered in school cafeterias to watch moon launches and landings on televisions wheeled in on carts. Breakthroughs in the 1970s and 1980s sparked the computer revolution and new information economy. Advances in biology, based on evolutionary theory, created the biotech industry. New research in genetics is poised to transform the understanding of disease and the practice of medicine, agriculture and other fields.

Add this to what I’ve already said in my article about NASA’s contributions and it makes you wonder why you would stop pursuing science at all, let alone become antiscience. The articles continues to point out that America is no longer the scientific leader of the world, and how sad this is when science has been part of America’s success and history. The antiscience epidemic is so bad that it’s gotten to the point where people are being ostracised from the Republican party and communities for having different beliefs. People always ask what’s so bad about religion, or having beliefs. Well, I’m not attacking religion specifically here but any academic can see that the militant spread of false ideology sets back the human race as a whole. Idiots should not be in a position where they can influence the minds of the future.

Anyway, let me just leave you with a tidbit. This one is very interesting; Scientific American proposed a science debate between Obama and Romney which was rejected (despite having the support of tens of thousands of intellectual minds). However, they prepared written responses to the top 14 questions and their answers were graded by SA’s editors. Yes, graded. Like they were high school kids answering a test. Very interesting read: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=obama-romney-grades-science-in-an-election-year

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Following a lively conversation on Facebook, sparked by the picture below, one of my friends suggested that someone weigh up the benefits of science to society in comparison to the benefits of military research. I figured I’d tackle the task, but as I am aware people don’t like reading long posts, I thought I’d just focus on one particular part of science. And believe me, the list would be long if I were to try it from every field of science. I doubt I’d even be able to finish it.

So the “part” of science I’m going to talk about is NASA. It’s just one organisation, and yet, NASA has contributed more to society than most people give it credit for. This post is largely inspired by the comment I hear a lot that goes roughly along the lines of “why spend money going into space when we have enough problems here on Earth”. Well, here’s why.

First and foremost is the ultimate pursuit of knowledge. Since the development of the human brain, especially the growth of the neocortex, humans have been obsessed with answering everything they can observe. This used to be done largely through the use of deities, but as science developed, we formulated functional, physical understandings of the universe. This is important because it was precisely due to this drive that we have achieved our current level of advanced society. If this drive to explain things didn’t exist, we would still be living as cavemen.

Second, there’s the fact that humankind will inevitably require the means of traveling outside of our solar system. This need is due to two things – the first being the fact that humans are destroying the Earth through exploitation of resources. The World Wildlife Fund predicted that by 2050, we would need to colonise two planets if we continued to expend resources at our current rate. While this report is a decade old, the very fact that we even have to consider something like this in our lifetime is a sign of bad things to come. This prediction is not alone either, with Stephen Hawking also proclaiming that our species will face extinction if we do not colonise other planets. And even if we manage to survive all the things that could kill us (meteors, black holes, climate change, ourselves), somehow managing to survive five billions years into the future (super unlikely), our sun will go Red Giant on our asses and kill us all anyway. So for starters, NASA contributes to our society by developing technology that helps ensure we even have a future to live in.

Finally, and here’s where the examples come in, NASA technology has resulted in a wide range of what are known as “spin offs”. These are essentially technologies developed by NASA and incorporated by others to suit other needs, and I will focus on these as the core of NASA’s contributions. After all, human nature dictates that what occurs in the future is less important than what happens now, so let’s look at some of the technology NASA has contributed to our current lives. There are so many of these that I’m only going to pick out a few. There’s actually 35 archived catalogues dedicated to NASA spinoffs, which you can find on this page.

But let’s look at a few examples. I’m not sure how to go about this so I’ll just make a quick list and explain the more obscure ones.

  1. Velcro
  2. Teflon
  3. Scratch resistant lenses
  4. Freeze dried food
  5. Sports shoes (shock absorbers, stability and motion control)
  6. Cordless power tools
  7. CAT and MRI scanners (so anyone with fractures or internal injuries can thank NASA for this technology allowing doctors to see what’s wrong in your body).
  8. Light emitting diodes (can be used for cancer treatment and promote faster healing of wounds).
  9. Infrared technology
  10. Mammography systems (reducing need for biopsies due to better breast cancer detection).
  11. Miniature heart assist device (implanted into patients waiting for a heart transplant).
  12. Memory foam
  13. Sunglasses (the technology of the lense being able to filter out UV rays).
  14. Water purification systems
  15. All manner of protective coatings (used on tools, vehicles, buildings and bridges)
  16. Kidney dialysis machines
  17. Medical rehabilitation equipment
  18. Insulation (specifically aluminium and propylene/mylar)
  19. Retroreflectors (used as a sensor to detect hazardous gases in oil development, chemical planets and waste storage sites)
  20. Anthrax detection system
  21. Wireless light switches
  22. Decontamination processes (specifically for areas contaminated by chemicals, used by many companies)
  23. WARP-10 (a portable pain reliever for muscle and joint pain)
  24. Patient harnesses (to assist patients recovering from traumatic brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury, hip/knee replacements, etc.)
  25. Crash test models (and dummies)
  26. Liquidmetal (used in a large range of sporting equipment, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, orthopedic implants, and coatings).
  27. Navigation systems for planes allowing terrain recognition in all conditions
  28. Gas sensor (used by aircraft to detect dangerous weather conditions and avoid them).
  29. Eye surgery equipment (improving on LASIK)
  30. Bank terminal technology

As I write this, I realise that there is way too much for me to keep going. I’ve put down 30 of the more common ones. You are welcome to take a look at a longer list available here (even if you don’t read it, I advise you to click that link and scroll down just to get an idea of just how much NASA alone – let alone all of science – has given us). One thing is for sure though, in 35 years, NASA has given humankind a ridiculous amount of things. Science in general is responsible for everything you see around you. I guarantee that there is at least a dozen things around you right now that are the result of science, so when people ask why we should bother spending money on science (not only in the case of NASA, but for the LHC as well), I shake my head in dismay. But wait, I’m not done yet.

It’s become a cliché to compare the chronically underfunded NASA to the comically-bloated military establishment, but the comparison is instructive. In 2010, total military spending (not including indirect costs from interest on incurred debts) was 683.7 billion dollars. This was a three percent increase over the previous year.

Let me put it another way. At the same time the NASA budget was being nickle and dimed with budget decreases every year, the budget increase in the military for that year was about equal to the total NASA budget. The military budget increased by nearly $20 billion dollars the same year that NASA was cut back by a critical few hundred million.

– Joel Boyce, Care2

To wrap your head around it, here’s a quick comparison. It costs $1 billion more than NASA’s budget just to provide air conditioning for temporary tents and housing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’ve been sloppy with my hyperlinks, for which I apologise. This post was a huge undertaking. Here are my last two links for you guys. Dr. Tyson is fun to listen to and is quite popular on the internet, so I thought you guys might enjoy these.

Neil deGrasse Tyson defending NASA before the Senate

Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about NASA’s importance

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