At the turning of the year, science past and future

The new year has begun. It’s a time to look back and to look forward. If you’ve managed to recover from your New Year’s revelry, I invite you to look at a few places that review the best science of 2005 and try to anticipate what 2006 may bring.

Science decided that “Evolution in Action” was the biggest breakthrough of 2005. They’ve made their Breakthrough of the Year section available to everyone who their website, not just subscribers. They make special note of four developments in evolution: the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, recent discoveries in human evolution, speciation, and avian influenza.

The Breakthrough of the Year runners-up are also discussed in a separate article. In addition to reviewing the achievements of 2005, the Science staff made predictions on which scientific areas to watch in 2006, as well as evaluating the predictions they made at the end of 2004. For 2006, I’m particularly interested in RNAi and the avian flu.

When I get articles from Science, I usually prefer to look at PDFs, which look nicer when printed. However, some of the full text HTML versions on the Science website include reference lists, however, which you might find useful if you want to read further. The links provided above go to full text HTML pages rather than PDFs.

In addition to Science’s end of the year special, Scientific American has also named their top 50 leaders in science for 2005. Unfortunately, it was recently revealed their choice for research leader of the year, Dr. Hwang, fabricated many of his stem cell and cloning findings. Scientific American also compiled a list of the top 25 news stories of 2005.

This post refers to:

Breakthrough of the Year Section. Science Magazine. December 23, 2005. (See orange box in the Table of Contents for links to PDF files.)

Scientific American 50. Scientific American. November 21, 2005.

Top Science Stories of 2005. Scientific American. December 26, 2005.

Snippets of Science History

A few days ago, I found this op-ed piece about evolution and intelligent design. The column is called Common Ground, and it is written by Bob Beckelis and Cal Thomas. Thomas is a conservative, Beckelis a liberal, and the column is about their attempts to see eye to eye.

Bringing together liberals and conservatives is an admirable goal, but on this issue my overall impression is that these guys don’t know what they’re talking about. There are a number of points in this editorial that bother me in this column and which I hope to address eventually, but for now I’ll start with a brief foray into science history.

Thomas, the conservative, points to four great scientists who didn’t believe in evolution: Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Johannes Kepler and Galileo. He writes:

And what about some of the greatest names in science — men like Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Johannes Kepler and Galileo? Charles Darwin was a devout Christian as a young man, but his religious views — like his scientific ones — “evolved” as he got older. By the time he wrote The Origin of Species, he was as good a practical secularist as any non-believer. Was the later Darwin smarter than the combined wisdom of those scientists who believed the universe did not come into existence by chance but had a creator behind it?

All four of these men were indeed great. What Beckelis and Thomas don’t tell the reader is that three of these men (Kepler, Galileo, and Newton) died at least 80 years before Darwin was born and 100 years before he embarked on the voyage that led him to formulate his theory of evolution.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a German mathematician. He is best known for his three laws of planetary motion. Kepler’s first law of planetary motion is that the planets’ orbits are ellipses, rather than intricate combinations of circles, which were considered a perfect shape therefore believed to be the basis for the geometry of the heavens. Kepler also showed that the sun is at one of the two foci (singular: focus) of these ellipses.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is known for many achievements. His most famous is perhaps the observation that both heavy and light objects fall at the same speed. He was also the first to describe the force of friction and inertia. His observations of space using some of the earliest telescopes showed that the Milky Way consisted of stars, the moon had mountains, the sun had spots, and Jupiter had moons.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is best known for the inverse square law which describes how gravity works and for his three laws of motion. He also demonstrated that any object that had mass exerted a gravitational pull. Thus, while the earth was pulling on his famous apple, Newton deduced that the apple was also pulling on the earth. In addition, Newton is the inventor of calculus.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is considered the father of modern evolutionary theory. In 1831, over a century after Newton’s death, he embarked on his voyage around the world aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. His voyage lasted five years, and by the end of it, Darwin was arguably one of the most well-travelled men in history. The specimens that he had sent back to England at various points during the voyage had earned him a reputation as a respected naturalist. His first book, The Origin of Species wasn’t published, however, until 20 years after his return. He spent those years observing the natural world and refining his theory of evolution.

The century between Newton’s Death and Darwin’s voyage was marked by many scientific discoveries, many of which would influence Darwin’s ideas on evolution. In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus published a system of scientific nomenclature that is still in use today. Linnaeus was the first to classify humans in the same family as the great apes. However, his system was meant for identification and description rather than studying the relationships between species.

Darwin wasn’t the first proponent of evolution. Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck were also early evolutionists. Lamarck published his thoughts on evolution and other matters in 1809, the year of Darwin’s birth.

Comparative embryology, the study of embryos of different species, also began prior to Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. In 1826, the mammalian egg was discovered by Karl von Baer. von Baer described the initial development of vertebrate embryos, showing that they all started development from a mass of apparently homogeneous cells and went through similar initial forms.

Darwin’s work was also influenced by the observations of two geologists: William Smith and Charles Lyell. Both Smith and Lyell studied geological stratification and the fossils accompanying these strata. Their work was instrumental in showing that the earth had to be far older than the few thousand years suggested by Biblical accounts. This meant that the earth was old enough to have allowed for the gradual evolution suggested by Darwin. (It was shown much later that evolution does not always happen gradually.)

The point of this trip through history is that scientists do not work in a vacuum. They are influenced by the ideas of others, evaluating and re-evaluating these ideas as new evidence is collected. When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, he had had over 130 years worth of evidence that Newton, Galileo, and Kepler didn’t have, as well as the benefit of an extensive tour of the globe.

This post refers to:

Thomas, Cal and Beckelis, Bob. ‘Intelligent design’: What do scientists fear? USA Today. November 30, 2005. Accessed online December 1, 2005.

Tallack, Peter. The Science Book. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 2004.

Johannes Kepler: His Life, His Laws and Times. Accessed December 7, 2005.

The Galileo Project. Accessed December 7, 2005.

Isaac Newton’s Life. Accessed December 7, 2005.

Darwin, Charles Robert. MSN Encarta. Accessed December 7, 2005.

The Darwin exhibit. American Museum of Natural History. New York, New York. Exhibit runs from November 19, 2005 to May 29, 2006. Visited on November 22, 2005.

Erasmus Darwin. Accessed December 7, 2005.

Zoological Philosophy.. Accessed December 7, 2005

Developmental Similarities: Karl von Baer. Accessed December 7, 2005

William Smith. Accessed December 7, 2005.

Charles Lyell. Accessed December 7, 2005.

On the application of labels

As you’ve all probably heard by now, the Dover school board underwent a transformation after Tuesday’s election. Rather than embracing evolution or being convinced that intelligent design is not in fact a scientific theory, it seems more likely that the Dover residents were tired of the scrutiny and perhaps tired of being labeled as scientifically backwards.

Indeed, most people probably don’t know enough about either evolution or intelligent design to really distinguish between them. To borrow someone else’s words:

Most of my friends in high school were “Creationists,” but in reality, they didn’t know much about evolution or creationism. It was more a cultural badge than a well thought out view about how the world worked. Similarly, most people who believe in evolution do so because it shows that they are enlightened people who aren’t superstitious, they don’t know the details of the process of evolution….

Along the same lines, a view presented by Carol Wolman is that those who don’t believe in evolution are using that as a label to present themselves as the “elect.” I think that’s certainly likely for some people. I think, though, that there are also a number of people who feel a real need to be saved, and won’t risk anything interfering with their salvation. Wolman points out, though, that religion and science needn’t be incompatible:

In fact, the dichotomy between a Creator and Darwinism is totally spurious. Who set up the law of natural selection? In fact, who set up the law of gravity, who set up e=mc2, who set up the periodic table? Did Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Mendeleev invent these laws? No, they discovered the intelligent design of the universe.

The view strikes me as being reasonable, and accommodating to a number of people who still belive divinity should play a role in how the universe works. Sadly, I don’t think it’s a view that will be espoused by many people anytime soon.

This post refers to:

Razib. “ID vs. Creationism, what’s in a name.” Nov. 9, 2005.

Wolman, Carol. “Intelligent Design vs Evolution: A False Dichotomy.” Nov. 11, 2005.