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Colorful Pebbles & Darwin’s Dictum

April 2001
Science is an exquisite blend of data and theory
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Writing to a friend on September 18, 1861, Charles Darwin reflected on how far the science of geology had come since he first took it up seriously during his five year voyage on the HMS Beagle:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

For my money, this is one of the deepest single statements ever made on the nature of science itself, particularly in the understated denouement. (continue reading…)

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The Metagene Gene

January 2001
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A review of Matt Ridley’s Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters.

We are at a unique confluence of science and publishing where the results of the former are being dispersed by the latter at such a rate that even the most ardent reader of popular science books can hardly keep up. This is good news for science, of course, since its products are outstripping even Moore’s law of doubling every eighteen months, so updates and revisions are called for just as frequently. Lucky for publishers that readers are willing and able to plunk down a quarter of a hundred bucks to discover the secrets of the cosmos and life, and literary agents specializing in science tomes are demanding — and getting — five- and six-figure advances for their clients. And by most counts publishers are earning out those advances in a matter of months, thereby closing indefinitely the gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures. (continue reading…)

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Fools & the Wise of Heart

January 2001

Whatever your religion or faith (or even lack thereof), there is no doubt that the Bible is a font of wisdom from which we may draw moral homilies. My personal favorite is from the wisdom book of Proverbs, in which Solomon warns those who would look outside themselves to assess blame for their own shortcomings: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind; and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”

As a long-time public defender of modern scientific medicine, I have commonly labeled medical scientists as wise of mind, and alternative medical practitioners as fools. The wind of quackery we have inherited, I reasoned, is surely the result of an uneducated public duped by the otherwise risible tactics of flimflam artists praying on the unsuspecting masses. I am no longer sure that this is the source of the headlong rush toward these New Age medical alternatives. “The fault,” Shakespeare correctly identified in another context, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” (continue reading…)

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