Three ways to embrace the science in our lives

04/05/2014 5:58 PM

04/05/2014 5:58 PM

Even if you don’t have a bent for science, science can work its way into your consciousness.

Just pay attention to the news. Two ongoing tragedies have brought to the forefront aspects of science worth knowing about. And another recent development highlights the wonder of the infinite nature of what we know and how we know it.

So here’s a brief overview in three parts.

Geomorphology

. This is the science of land formations, and geomorphologists have been all over the media in recent days helping to explain the fatal mudslide that occurred about 50 miles north of Seattle. They’ve talked about “post-glaciated” landscapes, about the soaking rains that helped to undermine a thick layer of soggy soil, about the unknown effects of past logging, about a smaller slide that occurred in 2006 and about a 1999 study for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that appeared to predict a “catastrophic failure.”

“The surface of the Earth is constantly changing,” David Montgomery, a University of Washington professor, told USA Today. “We humans just don’t always notice it, because it happens slowly. There had been landslides in that area going back hundreds of years.”

One lesson rarely learned in this kind of tragedy involves questions beyond science that I’ve yet to see answered — when and why were those houses built in that unstable, high-risk valley?

Bayes’ theorem

. We can thank an 18th-century Presbyterian preacher and statistician in England, Thomas Bayes, who devised the idea that the probability of something happening can be calculated, beyond a mere educated guess, upon receipt of new information. As I’ve come to learn, the theorem sat dormant for many years but was embraced in recent decades by software developers as computational capacity accelerated.

In addition, more than a year after Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the South Atlantic in June 2009 with 228 passengers and crew members aboard, researchers began a “Bayesian” analysis of prior search efforts. The result: A bit of a wild goose chase based on one faulty assumption — that the jet’s black boxes had survived undamaged. Eventually though, after adjusting for that errant factor, the researchers developed a probability map that predicted rather accurately the underwater location of the flight wreckage.

Discussion of Bayes’ theorem arose again after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 330. By most accounts I’ve seen, however, the number of uncertainties about the flight remain so great and the search area so vast that a Bayesian analysis may have little chance of succeeding.

I was reminded the other day of this pertinent quote from Marguerite Yourcenar (“Memoirs of Hadrian”): “When all the involved calculations prove false, and the philosophers themselves have nothing more to tell us, it is excusable to turn to the random twitter of birds, or toward the distant mechanism of the stars.”

Which brings us to

Inflation

. We are lucky and should be thankful that “inflation” as a description of economic activity is not much of an issue in the current environment. But we may also be lucky that “inflation” as a theory of what happened in the earliest micro-moments of cosmic time has recently earned an endorsement.

Physicists employing a telescope near the South Pole have identified gravitational ripples linked to the Big Bang. Some kind of inflation, a swelling of energy said to have occurred in an unimaginably brief period, has long been posited, but, according to reports, these newly recorded waves heighten the issue. Of course, it will take scientists many more years to prove it.

Some people are raving about the astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson’s new television series, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” In addition to reading the news, perhaps it’s time to tune in.

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