Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Historical Sea Level Fluctuations

A new study from the University of Haifa suggests sea levels might have fluctuated during historical times far more than previously believed. Dr. Dorit Sivan, who supervised the research, writes that an investigation of underwater ruins along the coast of Israel show short term changes of the sea level of almost a meter during the last 2500 years. We are currently near the highest level.
According to Dr. Sivan, the changing sea level can be attributed to three main causes: the global cause – the volume of water in the ocean, which mirrors the mass of ice sheets and is related to global warming or cooling; the regional cause – vertical movement of the earth's surface, which is usually related to the pressure placed on the surface by the ice; and the local cause – vertical tectonic activity. Seeing as Israel is not close to former ice caps and the tectonic activity along the Mediterranean coast is negligible over these periods, it can be concluded that drastic changes in Israel's sea levels are mainly related to changes in the volume of water.

So far, only a press release version of the study has been released. I'd like to see the complete study when it comes out because this short summary leaves me with more questions than answers. The press release only mentions sites along a short stretch of coast (about forty miles) in the eastern Mediterranean. Has Sivan compared these results to records from any other part of the world? Considering that the Jordan River/Dead Sea valley is a rift zone, how can they be sure that local tectonic activity isn't involved? Do temperature records, such as those obtained the Greenland ice cores of pollen found in lakebed strata, support their sequence? For that matter, what is the sequence? Inquiring minds need to know.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lost Tribes Found!! (again)

Israel is to fund a rare genetic study to determine whether there is a link between the lost tribes of Israel and the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.

Historical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a connection, but definitive scientific proof has never been found. Some leading Israeli anthropologists believe that, of all the many groups in the world who claim a connection to the 10 lost tribes, the Pashtuns, or Pathans, have the most compelling case.

The study would be worth any price if it allowed us to tell the Taliban leaders (and their friends) that they are "really" Jews.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Open access isn't the same as free access (#scio10)

There is one point from the discussion following our ScienceOnline2010 presentation that I want to elaborate on. This is the way in which credentialism excludes amateurs. This is a problem that I face.

The internet has made accessible vast amounts of literature for much wider audiences than ever before. Many of the original sources that I have been able to use in my research would not have been available to me just ten years ago. Many early journals existed for only a few years, in very small numbers. To read them, I would have had to travel to major libraries in Europe and the Eastern states, which would have been prohibitively expensive. Once at those libraries, I would have needed to get access to their rare book collections, which would have been very difficult since I lack an institutional affiliation. Because of Project Gutenberg, Google Books, and the efforts of many libraries I can now read these works online and, in may cases, view scans of the actual pages without traveling.

My point about lacking an institutional affiliation is very important. Most of the people at ScienceOnline2010 were associated with some kind of university or research institution. It was so taken for granted that they put it on the name tags, as if the affiliation was part of their name. I'm sure that it is standard practice at all professional conferences to assume the attendees are all in that profession. However, this was not a scientists' conference; it was a science communicators conference and communicators were defined as including bloggers who just happen to like science. Many attendees commented that it would have been useful to put peoples' blog aliases or online avatars on their tags along with their names. However, I didn't hear anyone suggest that these identities should have been put on the tags in place of their affiliations. Lacking an institutional affiliation, I put down my wife's home-craft soap business, just to have something to fill in the blank.

The wonderful era of online access, which I mentioned above, is already facing counter-pressures to close it back up. The attendees were all familiar with the problems of modern scientific journals. They are ungodly expensive to purchase and many libraries don't have all of the relevant titles to their research. Many journals are beginning to address these problems by putting their content online, allowing institutions to purchase subscriptions that give access to the members of that institution wherever they are. That's great for them, but a barrier to everyone else. As an alumnus of the University of Washington, I'm supposed to have the same access privileges to library resources as do current students. The catch is that those privileges do not extend to internet access. To read journals, I have to go to the library. That's not a problem for people who work at the University, but, to someone who does not work there, it means making a special trip to read any given article. In those who do not work on or near a university library, the internet revolution has changed nothing.

Many of the journals who have put their content online do allow laypersons to access their articles, but we have to pay by the article. The prices range from ten to forty dollars per article with no consideration for length. Scientific research articles are usually quite short; one article I want is three pages long and will cost me forty dollars to view. For current research articles, I need to determine if it is relevant to my work without actually seeing it first.

The pay-per-view firewalls deprive an historical researcher of important context. The Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society are a perfect example of this. A few years ago they began posting online scanned images of the pages of their entire run. These were treasure to me. Whenever I went looking for an article, I browsed the entire issue to get an idea of the intellectual context of that one paper. This was not only useful, it was a lot of fun. In my presentation, I mentioned letters from landowners about natural oddities discovered on their land. As recently as the late 1700s, the Proceedings printed letters as trivial as someone finding a turnip in the shape of the Prime Minister's head. Priceless!

Last spring, with the scanning complete, the Society turned management of the digital archives over to JSTOR, a for-profit institution. Most of the attendees at our presentation were not even aware of the change. Because of their institutional affiliations, nothing had changed for them; they simply go online and read whatever they want. For me and people like me, it costs ten dollars for each article and letter unless we make a special trip to the University library.

As I mentioned in the presentation, the professionalization of the scientific world was a great thing in many ways, but, along with breaking down some barriers to the free exchange of ideas, it created new barriers. It divided the scientific world into two classes, active practitioners and passive spectators. Threats and barriers to the free and open access of ideas are not limited to censorship and social pressures; sometimes they are as simple as cost and distance.

An Open History of Science (#scio10)

My co-presenter at ScienceOnline2010, Eric Michael Johnson, has already put his part of our show up on his blog, The Primate Diaries. Here is mine. We went in chronological order, which meant I went first.
There weren't very many books during the Middle Ages. We all learned in our high school Western Civ that there wasn't very much literacy then, but what's lees often mentioned is that there wasn't very much to read. The best educated people in Europe could go their entire lives without ever seeing a copy of some of the basic books of their intellectual canon. They knew some of the books only by reputation. For example, there was not a single copy of Ptolemy's Geography in all of Europe until around 1400.

Several events changed this situation. The first was contact with Byzantine and Islamic culture. During the Crusades and after, travelers brought back documents that had been lost to Europe--acquired through honest intellectual contact and wholesale looting--and they brought back new ideas and information that had been discovered by the scientists of Islam. These documents and ideas were given broad distribution by the introduction of paper around 1400 and the invention of the printing press fifty years later. The recovery of lost works of antiquity led many many European thinkers to view their times as a rebirth, or Renaissance, of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome.

Immediately following these developments, Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa, demonstrating that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were connected and that direct contact with Asia was possible, and Columbus ran into the New World while attempting to reach Asia from the other direction. While the political world was dazzled by the commercial possibilities of these discoveries, the intellectual world was stunned by the fact that there was more world than they had ever suspected--more cultures, more species of plants and animals, unknown lands. As some English guy put it:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

This new knowledge had a subversive effect. It meant that the ancient authorities--Aristotle, Galen, Pliny, and the Bible--hadn't known everything. More importantly, it dramatically increased the prestige and importance of leaving the books, going into the field, and looking at things, poking them with sticks, doing experiments, and generating new knowledge. This flood of new knowledge required new means of communication.

Even with paper and the offset printing press, books were still expensive to produce. There were no publishing houses in the sense that we think of them. There were printers and they wanted be paid up front for their work. Experimenters and explorers needed rich patrons or to be rich themselves to share their knowledge in book form. Some intellectuals could afford to have cheap pamphlets printed, but the main means of disseminating knowledge was letters. Letters, of course, are as old as writing, but thinkers in the late Renaissance turned letter writing into a means of knowledge distribution unlike anything that had ever existed. an international community, dedicated to the free knowledge grew up that called itself the Republic of Letters. Members of the Republic were expected to share information without regard for politics or religion, to contribute to a discussion, and to pass it on.

An extreme example of membership in the Republic of Letters is Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc who wrote around 14,000 letters in his lifetime and formed something of a central clearing house for new ideas on all topics. To put that in perspective, 14,000 letters means a letter a day for the entire forty years of his productive adult life. These were not short notes of the "Dear Grandma, thank you for the dollar on my birthday, having a wonderful time in Paris and making new friends, love, Nicky." These were meaty letters, multiple pages, dealing with substantial topics.

By the mid 1600s, this model of knowledge distribution had matured. In places like London, Paris, Florence, and Amsterdam enough intellectuals lived to create informal societies with regular meetings. The logical next step was to bundle their letters into small books that they called "journals", to distinguish them from "gazettes"--local news-sheets--and "mercuries"--news and shipping reports from abroad. The Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society, still one of the most prestigious scientific journals in Europe, began publication in 1665. Because books were mostly printed in small runs of only a few hundred at a time, an important function of journals was to write reviews, which were more like abstracts than critiques. It was only later in the century that reports on experiments and research began to fill the majority of the pages of journals. The early journals also featured theology and speculation about systems of the universe. Again, it wasn't until the end of the century that fully scientific societies with scientific journals evolved from their generalized predecessors.

Entry into the early journals was, in a way, much easier than now. The barriers between the individual scientific disciplines had not solidified nor had the fields become professionalized. Though the class system presented some barriers, there was nothing like the credentialism that exists today. Virtually any literate person could participate by mail in any discussion. As late as the early nineteenth century, the most prestigious journals regularly printed letters from landowners about their experiments in animal breeding or some natural oddity they had discovered on their property. In those days before public libraries and easily accessible university libraries, the gentlemen who received letters, pamphlets, and journals were almost honor bound to pass them around and let others read them.

The free and open exchange of ideas envisioned by the Republic of Letters and the first journals was an ideal that was not always attained in practice. Then as now, many researchers would jealously guard their work in hopes of producing an irrefutable synthesis before unveiling it to the world. Then as now, the powers that be were made uneasy by new ideas. The majority of powers had no problem suppressing any ideas that they didn't understand. The inquisition, though not as powerful as it had been two centuries earlier, was still in business and could order all copies of a book destroyed and compel an author to make a humiliation public recantation of his ideas. Following the rule of unintended consequences, they feared that all new ideas had the potential to undermine the established order. With Church and monarchy poised to come down on their heads, experimenters often practiced self-censorship. The same "better safe than sorry" attitude practiced by the powers was practiced by the thinkers. with a two tier stratification into members and correspondents.

The nineteenth century brought an increased professional to the sciences that created new barriers. Credentials in a particular field, while recognizing a persons proficiency in that field, could also be viewed as excluding them from other fields. Professionalism, credentialism, and the rise of a popular scientific press separate from the professional press turned most of the growing educated classes into mere spectators to science. The era of the polymath, gentleman experimenter were numbered and were clearly over by World War One. Rather than self-funded, science came to be paid for by industry, government, or by universities that were themselves paid for primarily by industry or government. These entities had their own motivations for restricting participation in and access to the results of science.

Eric's part was very professionally done with slides matching his narration. Mine was a more old fashioned, history professor presentation with me staying in one place, lecturing (I had an attack of tremors and was trying to steady myself by keeping one hand on the lectern. It didn't work).

About a minute into my presentation I looked out on the audience and could see that they were united by a single thought, "why is the nervous guy talking about the Renaissance?" I like to think that later I saw a few lights go on as they began thinking, "so that's where that came from" and "I never thought of it that way." I think Eric's presentation the importance of an open society for scientific progress and the pressures of twentieth century governments to monopolize and classify information made some of my historical background make better sense.

Dr. Free-Ride (AKA Janet Stemwedel) live-tweeted the session and picked up some of the points from the discussion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cognitive Daily Closes Shop

The premier psychology blog in the SciBlog borg, Cognitive Daily, just announced that today is their final day. Dave and Greta Munger began posting five years ago today and have been a constant source of interesting information and experiments/tests. I was lucky enough to meet Dave at ScienceOnline2010 this weekend (Greta always seemed to be on the other side of the room or talking to someone). Dave promises to keep a presence online with other projects, but Gerta plans to commit all of her time to her teaching job at Davidson College. That's good for her students, but bad for us. Get over there and say goodbye.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mammoth Tales: The FAQs

Does the world really need a new blog? I don't know, but I need a new blog and, really, what's more important than that? It's a rhetorical question; you're not expected to answer unless you want to. Below, I have provided answers to some of the questions I imagine you might have.

Who are you?
I'm John McKay. If you know a John McKay, I'm probably not him. There are way too many John McKays in the world. I keep waiting for all of the others to change their names and leave the field to me but, so far, they are not cooperating. This John McKay is an underemployed, middle aged, historian with an interest in science. I'm writing a book.

Really? Tell us about the book.
It's about woolly mammoths, a history of their early discoveries and how Enlightenment scientists reconstructed them into the animal we know. It is not about mammoth extinction or about cloning new mammoths. Other people have written about that and I'm trying to fill in some of the gaps in the mammoth story.

But, what did kill the mammoths and when will we clone some new ones?
Bad luck and not soon.

Is this blog going to be all mammoths all the time?
No. Mammoth Tales will feature science journalism, science education, history of science, and maybe a little plain old history in those fields that I feel comfortable commenting on. I plan to offer links to stories that I find interesting, even if I don't have much to add to the stories. Moving away from science, I like good conspiracy theories, pseudo-science, and hidden histories. Expect an occasional deconstruction of those ideas. I also like to expose bad writing about science and history. But, there will also be mammoths.

Even with that other stuff, is there really enough to say about mammoths to fill a blog?
The short answer is yes. But if I ever get to busy to post or run into a dry stretch in the news, I have a pool of old mammoth and science posts from my other blog that I can update and post here.

Other Blog? If you already have another blog, why do you need this one?
The other blog includes a lot about politics and social issues. I am very opinionated on most things. However, it can be bad business to mix too many things together. How often do we hear conservatives complain about how a celebrity's off stage liberal politics ruin their enjoyment of that celebrity's performances? How often are non-believers and other believers turned off by businesses that push the owner's religion? Mammoth Tales is a blog for people who share my interest in mammoths, science, history, and bad ideas, but might not share my political, social, or religious beliefs.

Can you tell us a little more about those political, social, and religious beliefs?

The place look a little sparse. Are you planning to fix it up a little?
That's high on my to-do list. I'll have a blogroll up in the next few days. After that, I plan on making a nice logo and adding some pictures to the sidebar. I'll also look for some cool bells and whistles to make the Mammoth Tales experience more interesting.

Is there anything else you want to say at this point?
No. That's about it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

I'm Back

I got home at about eleven last night after a seven hour flight and sixty dollar cab ride. Clever Wife met me with hugs and chocolate cake. Then I slept for eleven hours. One more cup of coffee, and I'll feel normal (though I should aspire for something better than that).

The flights were safe and on time. On the way, I read most of the way (Anthony Grafton's Defenders of the Text) and took a short nap over North Dakota (Minnesota and Montana residents can insert their own joke here). On the first leg of the trip back I read Sydney Perkowitz's Hollywood Science. The book was an easy enough read that I expected to finish it on the second leg. Instead I sat next to a man who was so interesting that we talked non-stop the entire trip. Fortunately for her, the young woman sharing the row with us was listening to her Ipod so she didn't have to put up with two geezers bonding.

Every session at the conference was interesting and I got something of use out every single one. I'll post separately about some of the sessions. The socializing and networking went better than expected. I'm naturally rather shy, though I can be a crashing bore when I come out of my shell. I think I managed to stay in the middle most of the time. I must have done something right, I just received a friend request in Facebook.

I had one technical glitch. I took our spare cellphone and skipped taking the camera thinking I could use the phone and it would be one less thing to carry around. Then I discovered that the camera in the spare phone doesn't have a flash. There will be no pictures except those others send me (which probably won't be of me at my best).

The biggest problems for me were medication related. I've reached the age where I have multiple prescriptions. I'm bit of a physical mess. between us, Clever Wife and I have something like eleven prescriptions. I had at least one unpleasant reaction each day, each one worse that the previous. The first day, I went to a session on graphic tools and found my eyes so dry that I couldn't focus (naturally the eye drops were back at the hotel). On day two, I had an attack of tremors during my presentation (I'll post the presentation later today or tomorrow). The last day, when I should have been running around trying to make my best impression for some last minute networking, I had an attack of tremors so bad that I couldn't eat with a fork at lunch. If there hadn't been finger food, I would have gone hungry. It was only at the airport that I realized I had taken a second dose of the morning pills the night before and was going through violent withdrawal from the night pills. When I popped a night pill, the tremors were gone in twenty minutes. At home, I have avoided this by using a daily pill box. I understood that TSA regulations required me to carry all of my pills in the pharmacy labeled bottles, so I left the pill box at home. Let's call that one a learning experience.

Now, I have to check my Luddite paper notes from the conference and try to put everything I learned into action. I need to get over my Twitter aversion and join the noise. I started tinkering on a more specifically blog a while back; I need to finish it and get it online. I need to send letters to the people I chatted with (networking, you know). I need to get an agent for the book. I need to work on my elevator speech. I need to do the laundry from the trip. I need to get a new sport's jacket because the old one is getting really ratty even though I've only been wearing it for nine years. I need to get some groceries and fix Clever Wife a nice dinner. I need to make it up to the cats. Blah blah blah. And so on.