Tag Archives: science

The mysteries of life on Earth abound

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Nietzsche was wrong. God is not dead. But he is. . .well, uninteresting.

Or that’s what the latest issue of The Atlantic reports in a wee item entitled, “We’ve figured Out the Universe – and It’s Boring.” The magazine’s Rebecca J. Rosen, a senior associate editor, quotes several scientists suffering from mild depression, a not-yet-diagnosed malady I’ll call “post-Higgs boson syndrome.”

Having borne witness, last year, to the discovery of the particle that was supposed to explain everything (and, in fact, does, just as predicted) British mathematician Stephen Wolfram complained, “At some level I’m actually a little disappointed.”

Why? The formidable Stephen Hawking, the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, put it this way: “The great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect.” Added Columbia University physicist Peter Woit, “I always felt the best possible thing. . .would be to not see the Higgs.”

All of which only proves what every nerd and geek knows in his or her ComiCon-drenched soul: Poets can’t hold a candle to scientists for unalloyed sentimentality.

But if the cosmos is entirely explicable, what are we to make of its constituents – specifically, this third rock from a yellow dwarf star in the suburbs of the average-sized galaxy we call The Milky Way? The mysteries that attend life of Earth show no sign of remission. If anything, they advance in perfect marching step.

Today, Egyptians rejoice at the removal, by their unelected military, of their duly elected president Mohammed Morsi. As the Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin notes, “Historic Tahrir Square exploded in joy shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday when, for the second time in two years, Egypt’s military leaders announced they have forced the country’s president from office, relieving him of his command and replacing him with an executive of their choosing. . .It was an odd thing to celebrate. Just 29 months ago, many of these same people had occupied Tahrir Square and cheered the prospects of democracy finally coming to Egypt. This warm night in July, they were welcoming back a military-led transition in place of a democratically elected president.”

Today, U.S. President Obama (who doesn’t know what to think about the latest developments in Egypt) is hell-bent on completing his man hunt for Edward Snowdon, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked specifics about American and British surveillance programs that target, essentially, everyone.

According to the Guardian this week, “The plane carrying the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, from Russia has been rerouted to Austria, following suspicions that (Mr. Snowdon) was on board, leading to a major diplomatic incident. The Bolivian foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, said French and Portuguese authorities refused to allow the plane to fly through their airspace. He added that rumours Snowden was on board were unfounded. ‘We don’t know who invented this lie. We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales,’ Choquehuanca told Associated Press.”

Today, a new study from the World Meteorological Organization finds that the ten-year span between 2001 and 2010 was the warmest decade in 160 years. Says the WMO news release: “The world experienced unprecedented high-impact climate extremes during the 2001-2010 decade, which was the warmest since the start of modern measurements in 1850 and continued an extended period of pronounced global warming. More national temperature records were reported broken than in any previous decade. . .Global-average concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose to 389 parts per million in 2010 (an increase of 39 per cent since the start of the industrial era in 1750), methane to 1808.0 parts per billion (15 per cent) and nitrous oxide to 323.2 parts per billion (20 per cent).”

Still, other research paints a somewhat different picture. In May, Scientific American reported: “The Earth is now warming faster than at any time in the last 11,000 years, but scientists do not understand clearly why the atmosphere has warmed less than they expected over the last decade or so – and more slowly than in the 1990s.”

God may be boring. We, on the other hand, continue to ignore His example.

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How (not) to breed a culture of innovation

Think about tech at least once in your freakin' life!

Think about tech at least once in your freakin’ life!

Once again, a major Canadian think tank concludes that the nation’s private sector is not spending enough of research and development, on science and technology. Once again, the news runs buried in the tech sections of the day’s print organs, all but guaranteeing the predictable reader response of “so what.”

For decades – at least since the early 1980s – experts have warned that unless industry picks up the pace of innovation, the consequences for Canada’s productivity and competitiveness in the global economy will be dire. But what, exactly, does that mean and why should anyone outside the pearly gates of academe give a fig?

Not long ago, the Conference Board of Canada took a shot at answering the question. In a report entitled “How Canada Performs”, the organization had this to say about the country’s low ranking, compared to other economies, on innovation:

“Overall, countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs. It is also critical to environmental protection, a high-performing education system, a well-functioning system of health promotion and health care, and an inclusive society. Without innovation, all these systems stagnate and Canada’s performance deteriorates relative to that of its peers.”

What’s more, the Board said, “With new key players – such as China, India, and Brazil – in the global economy, Canadian businesses must move up the value chain and specialize in knowledge-intensive, high-value-added goods and services. Although Canada has some leading companies that compete handily against global peers, its economy is not as innovative as its size would otherwise suggest.”

Now, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) – a creature of the current federal government – adds its voice to the chorus. “Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on R&D (GERD) declined from their peak in 2008 and, when measured in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), since 2001,” it reports. “In contrast, the GERD and GERD intensity of most other countries have been increasing. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 17th in 2008 and to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies). . .The more recent declines in the country’s total R&D funding efforts are attributable predominantly to private sector funding of R&D.”

The Council also notes, somewhat cheerfully that “Canadians understand that, if we want to create jobs and opportunity in a competitive world and address the key societal challenges that confront us in the 21st century, STI must be an integral part of the national agenda.”

But here’s the thing: I’m not at all sure Canadians do – understand, that is. If they did, then this conversation, which feels like a toothache, would be over. So would the chimerical debate, in government circles, about funding hard, “blue sky” science at the “expense” of applied, commercially viable research. Notice where these discussions almost never occur: Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, and, yes, even the United States.

That’s because these nations, unlike Canada, have recognized the truth of their circumstances, which is, both simple and elegant: If you want an innovative culture, you have to breed a culture of innovation. And silos of self-interest won’t help you accomplish the task. All segments of society – government, industry, higher education – must pull in the same direction if we’re going to get anywhere.

Or, as the STIC observes, “The responsibility is shared: all participants in our STI ecosystem have a role to play in driving enhanced performance and lifting Canada into the ranks of the world’s leading innovative economies. It is not just about investing more, but about investing more strategically and coherently, focusing our resources and efforts, learning from the experience of global STI leaders and improving agility to seize emerging opportunities. That is how Canada will truly be able to ‘run with the best.’”

It’s also how you convince average Canadians, who may not often read the tech sections of their newspapers, that their material well being – their wages and standards of living – depends directly on the quantity and quality of the innovations they enlist in the service of their respective futures.

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