Hive Mind
Thursday, April 28, 2005

Programmable Cells: Engineer Turns Bacteria Into Living Computers

In a step toward making living cells function as if they were tiny computers, engineers at Princeton have programmed bacteria to communicate with each other and produce color-coded patterns.

The feat, accomplished in a biology lab within the Department of Electrical Engineering, represents an important proof-of-principle in an emerging field known as "synthetic biology," which aims to harness living cells as workhorses that detect hazards, build structures or repair tissues and organs within the body.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Scientific American apologized for being so one-sided

This is really funny.

There's no easy way to admit this. For years, helpful letter writers told us to stick to science. They pointed out that science and politics don't mix. They said we should be more balanced in our presentation of such issues as creationism, missile defense and global warming. We resisted their advice and pretended not to be stung by the accusations that the magazine should be renamed Unscientific American, or Scientific Unamerican, or even Unscientific Unamerican. But spring is in the air, and all of nature is turning over a new leaf, so there's no better time to say: you were right, and we were wrong.
In retrospect, this magazine's coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies. True, the theory of common descent through natural selection has been called the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time, but that was no excuse to be fanatics about it. Where were the answering articles presenting the powerful case for scientific creationism? Why were we so unwilling to suggest that dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago or that a cataclysmic flood carved the Grand Canyon? Blame the scientists. They dazzled us with their fancy fossils, their radiocarbon dating and their tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles. As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.

Moreover, we shamefully mistreated the Intelligent Design (ID) theorists by lumping them in with creationists. Creationists believe that God designed all life, and that's a somewhat religious idea. But ID theorists think that at unspecified times some unnamed superpowerful entity designed life, or maybe just some species, or maybe just some of the stuff in cells. That's what makes ID a superior scientific theory: it doesn't get bogged down in details.

Good journalism values balance above all else. We owe it to our readers to present everybody's ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts. Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong. In that spirit, we will end the practice of expressing our own views in this space: an editorial page is no place for opinions.
Get ready for a new Scientific American. No more discussions of how science should inform policy. If the government commits blindly to building an anti-ICBM defense system that can't work as promised, that will waste tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars and imperil national security, you won't hear about it from us. If studies suggest that the administration's antipollution measures would actually increase the dangerous particulates that people breathe during the next two decades, that's not our concern. No more discussions of how policies affect science either-so what if the budget for the National Science Foundation is slashed? This magazine will be dedicated purely to science, fair and balanced science, and not just the science that scientists say is science. And it will start on April Fools' Day.

(Via Busy Busy Busy).
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Computer-aided proofs cause debate over what constitutes mathematical rigour

Through much of the 20th century, questions of mathematical rigour were passed off to logicians and philosophers—working mathematicians have been, for the most part, content to work with an intuitive definition of proof

This notion works when each step of a proof is transparent, and can be examined by all. Proof is then just a process of reducing one big, non-obvious step, to a bunch of small, obvious ones. However, if a computer is used to make this reduction, then the number of small, obvious steps can be in the hundreds of thousands—impractical even for the most diligent mathematician to check by hand. Critics of computer-aided proof claim that this impracticability means that such proofs are inherently flawed. However, its defenders point out that some theorems that many mathematicians consider to have been proved in the classical manner also have proofs which are so long as to be uncheckable.

The most famous case of this is something called the classification of finite simple groups. These are abstract objects with certain mathematical properties; the claim is that, over a 30-year span in a series of papers totalling some 15,000 pages, all possible such objects were enumerated. Though the mathematical consensus is that the classification (nicknamed the “enormous theorem”) is complete, there are sceptics who point out that the dispersed proof is essentially unverifiable.

(Via Futurismic).



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