Sunday, May 04, 2008

Unbibium or Unbelievium?

Wow... Scientists at the University of Jerusalem have made an extraordinary claim. If correct it would be the science scoop of this young century, if it fizzles out it would be a more spectacular science blooper than cold fusion and polywater combined... Much is at stake here!

Amnon Marinov and co-workers claim to have found a new chemical element and not just any either: their temporarily baptised Unbibium (aka eka-Thorium) would be the first super-heavy element to have been found in nature (and not synthesised by atom bashing, like so many other transuranium and some transactinide heavy elements). Marinov et al sifted through a pile of Thorium atoms, one at a time, using an advanced mass spectrometer. Alongside various super-heavy species, usually combinations of heavy atoms, inter-metallics, oxides and hydrides that all form as a kind of side-show when mass spectrometry is used, they also encountered a species with an alleged atomic weight of 292 and atomic number of 122. If this proves to be a single-atom-species (and not the sort of multi-atom-species that are often found inadvertently when using this kind of measurements) then it would indeed be a new chemical element and one that has in fact been predicted from quantum mechanical theory (see for example the much studied so-called 'island of stability').

Marinov and his group, hopefully not prematurely, claim to have been able to exclude any rival species for which the alleged (Z = 122, W = 292) new element could easily be mistaken.

Personally I find the claim both fantastical and plausible at once and hope sincerely that Marinov and his colleagues aren't about to burn their fingers in a manner so spectacular that few scientists before have, because of the extreme importance of this to-be-corroborated discovery.

Lemmesee, Unbibium (from Latin: 1 = un, 2 = bi, so 122: Un-bi-bi-um) would:

  • be the first period 8, g-block element of the periodic table of the elements to be found or synthesised,

  • be extremely stable: Marinov et all calculated a radioactive half-life of over 100 million years (a claim that's hotly contested by some),

  • be rare, yet not that rare: the prospect of preparing the element in milligram amounts (way more than modern chemists need to determine its chemical properties) would be very real, owing also of course to its nuclear stability,

  • be a member of a new group of elements, analogous to the lanthanides and actinides, which could be dubbed the eka-actinides or super-actinides,

  • be chemically analogous to Thorium (hence the alternative name eka-Thorium), although with such a massive electron cloud chemical properties of the element may deviate from simple predictions, due to relativistic effects,

  • be another crowning tribute to the predictive power of nuclear quantum physics.

It's unlikely I'll be able to buy some Unbibium dioxide (UbbO2) in my life time for backyard chemical experimentation. For now, I'll maintain the healthy scepticism that's appropriate and call the elusive element Unbelievium. But let science provide the compelling evidence needed to turn me into a believer...

And here's an article that deftly explains why being sceptical about this discovery at this early point in time is the right thing to do: it's really about the good old signal-to-noise ratio...

There's more scepticism/criticism, in particular on the alleged longevity of the 122/292 isotope, here...

Rolf-Dietmar Herzberg, of the University of Liverpool, is almost hostile to the discovery:
Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, who helped confirm the detection of element 118 in 2006, told Chemistry World they were too busy to check through Marinov's research.

'The popular vote is one of ridicule and I cannot fault that,' Herzberg sums up.

Marinov says he has submitted the article to the journals Nature and Nature Physics, but both turned it down without sending it for peer review. 'I am not changing the article and hope to get it published in another journal.'

The latter is confirmation that Marinov's paper hasn't been peer reviewed yet (there appeared to be some confusion about that). Looks like he will have his work cut out convincing the science community of the validity of his claims...

Friday, May 02, 2008

Expelled Exposed... Stein's a flunkie

A recent comment on my previous post about Expelled, the movie caused me to revisit that subject by checking out the excellent rebuttal site Expelled Exposed. In the interest of fairness, anyone who's seen the movie, regardless whether they liked it, hated it or had no opinion on it, should really scrutinise this website because it shows just what a flaky flunkie Ben Stein actually is.

One of my main objections to Steins' crock of shit is the almost inverted anti-Semitism it displays: Stein, to bring home his fake message, will have us believe that "Neo-Darwinism" (whatever the f*ck that is, this Americano-speak that doesn't make an iota of sense) led to the Holocaust. Stein, being himself Jewish, should be deeply ashamed to point the finger to the wrong guys, as also the Anti-Defamation League accepts (see a little lower). The deeply annoying super-trailer has been appended near the bottom of this post, so see for yourself how Ben quite literally can't wait to start cackling about the Nazis, in order to make that pernicious connection: "Darwinists" (sorry, but I use inverted comma's here, because contrary to a widespread belief the scientific paradigm we correctly call Evolutionary Biology is not an ideology, it's not an -ism, it's simply science...) = the Nazis. Expelled Exposed does a good job at dispelling this ludicrous connection.

Hitler & Eugenics


Expelled’s inflammatory implication that Darwin and the science of evolution “led to” eugenics, Nazis, and Stalinism is deeply offensive and detrimental to public discussion and understanding of science, religion, and history.

The Claim

“Darwinism” “led to” Nazism, the Holocaust, and other heinous historical events.

The Facts

Since the 1920’s, a narrow group of Christians who rejected the modernizing changes made by mainstream Protestants, have wrongly tried to blame evolution for the ills of modern society. World War I, atheism, and communism have all been attributed to evolution. After World War II, this narrow group added Nazism and Fascism to the horrors supposedly caused by evolution. Such claims occur in the writings of the young-earth creationist Henry M. Morris, a founder of the modern creation science movement, and have been repeated by “intelligent design” promoters and creationist Christian organizations such as Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and Coral Ridge Ministries.

Understanding the history of Nazi Germany and how the Holocaust could happen is obviously a very serious, and, in an era when ethnic cleansing and genocide are resurgent, a critically important subject. The public interest is not well-served by the efforts of sectarian groups to advance their own narrow agendas through distorted and simplistic explanations of horrific events.

Any serious attempt to understand the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1920’s would consider the devastation suffered by all of the belligerent countries in World War I, especially Germany, and the resulting deep political, social, and economic crisis in that country. The huge military losses (more than 2 million soldiers killed), the extraordinary number of civilian casualties, the fragmentation of German politics, the economic consequences of reparations Germany was required to pay to the war’s victors, the intensification of nationalism, and the exploitation of deeply rooted anti-Semitism are some of the factors that a serious history would address.

Anti-Semitic violence against Jews can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages at least, 7 centuries before Darwin. As Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the aftermath of World War I, they distorted and abused anything they could in their despicable campaigns to foment hatred of Jews and others they stigmatized as “asocial” or “outside society.” The Nazis appropriated language and concepts from many sources, including evolution, genetics, medicine (especially the germ theory of disease), and anthropology as propaganda tools to promote their perverted ideology of “racial purity.”

On April 29, 2008, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued this statement about Expelled:
The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.

Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.

The ADL press release also said, “Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.”

The Claim

Evolutionary biology leads to eugenics

The Facts

Expelled erroneously implies that the theory of evolution necessarily “leads to” eugenics. While some geneticists were supporters of eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement drew on support from many sources. As the United Methodist Church recently stated in an apology for its support for eugenics:

Ironically, as the Eugenics movement came to the United States, the churches, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced it. Methodist churches around the country promoted the American Eugenics Society “Fitter Family Contests” wherein the fittest families were invariably fair skinned and well off. Methodist bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics. Unlike the battles over evolution and creationism, both conservative and progressive church leaders endorsed eugenics.

Opposition came from many quarters as well; some clergy, secular critics, and scientists spoke out against eugenics on social and scientific grounds. Clarence Darrow, famous for defending the teaching of human evolution in the 1925 Scopes trial, wrote this 1926 in a scathing repudiation of eugenics called “The Eugenics Cult”:

We have neither facts nor theories to give us any evidence based on biology or any other branch of science as to how we could breed intelligence, happiness, or anything else that would improve the race. We have no idea of the meaning of the word “improvement.” We can imagine no human organization we could trust with the job, even if eugenists [sic] knew what should be done and the proper way to do it. (Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult.” The American Mercury vol VIII, June 1926, p. 137)

Darrow concluded his article by writing:
Amongst the schemes for remolding society this is the most senseless and impudent that has ever been put forward by irresponsible fanatics to plague a long-suffering race. (Clarence Darrow, “The American Spectator” vol VIII, June 1926, p. 137)

By the 1930s, scientific support for eugenics continued to wane in the United States as it became clear that human genetics was far more complex than had been realized thirty years earlier. Evolutionary biologists were in the forefront of developing this understanding, another fact which Expelled ignores.

In recent decades, Harvard evolutionary biologists Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould have been among the most outspoken critics of crude biological determinism and eugenics. Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man (1981, 2nd ed. 1996) is an excellent and readable account of the history of misuses of science to support racist ideologies, and why modern evolutionary biology does not support these ideologies. Not in Our Genes, by Lewontin et al. argues for extreme caution in making claims about the genetic basis of behavior.

Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present, by Diane B. Paul (1998) gives a full and critical account of the eugenics movement in the United States and internationally. See also In the Name of Eugenics (1985, 1986, 1995) by Daniel Kevles and Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (2004) by Christine Rosen.

The Claim

Charles Darwin advocated eugenics in the Descent of Man.

The Facts

In Expelled, Ben Stein reads a passage (omitting ellipses) that was also read by anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.)

But Stein does not quote the very next passage in the Descent of Man which makes clear that Darwin was not advocating eugenics. Rather, he remarked, “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” (emphasis added)

These are hardly the words of someone arguing for the sort of totalitarian eugenics practiced by the Nazi state, as implied by Expelled.

The super trailer:

And if all this depressed you, here's great spoof: SEXpelled: no SEX allowed!