‘Boiling point’

This post is the second in a series about the use of scientific terminology in the vernacular. This is a topic that I’ve always found fascinating, mainly because it really clarifies how laypeople understand science.

In chemistry and physics, a liquid’s boiling point is the highest temperature at which it will remain liquid. Increase the temperature even slightly and it will change state and become a gas.

According to answers.com, the term “boiling point” has been used informally since the second half of the 1700s to mean a climax, and has come to mean a turning point or point at which one loses one’s temper.

I think this metaphor, although perhaps tired from over three centuries of use, is an excellent one. So often, anger simmers a little before exploding violently, bursting out like the bubbles of air escaping from boiling water. It is also apt as a metaphor for a climax, where a situation may change in the same way as a chemical changes state: both gradually (the temperature increases slowly) and suddenly (the boiling point is a discrete temperature).

This one definitely gets my presumptuous tick of approval.

Science in the USA

I just spent 3.5 weeks in the United States, which is the reason for the lack of posts since the 4th (when we left). As I haven’t read much science news (or any other news) since we left, I’ll have to draw on my actual experiences (gasp) for this post. So, here is a round-up of the science-related touring that we did.

  1. In the Muir Woods, California, we saw the giant redwoods, which are beautiful and awe-inspiring. We also listened to an ecology talk run by a volunteer, in which we learned why the woods were named after John Muir (William Kent, who bought the land to conserve it and donated it to the government, wanted it named after his hero) and a bit about redwood biology (they can reproduce sexually or asexually, and can grow so tall because they have symbiotic fungi that draw water in from the fog).
  2. We visited the aquarium in Monterey, California, which is renowned for its three-storey kelp pool containing many of the local species, including the lovely leopard sharks. We saw penguins, sea otter, and lots of fish. We managed to get to the penguin feeding, otter training, and kelp pool diver feeding (that is, a diver fed the fish). The keeper talks were excellent, especially the otter talk, which explained how they care for injured otters, foster hurt babies, and release them back into the wild. Conservation is important at the aquarium, and the otters that they have kept are considered unreleasable.
  3. In New York, we went to the American Museum of Natural History. The museum is huge and we didn’t get through the whole thing. But we saw the space exhibit and the planetarium show (“Cosmic Collisions”, narrated by Robert Redford — it was excellent), quite a lot of the biodiversity exhibits and of course the dinosaurs and extinct mammals. The museum reminded me a lot of the Australian Museum, but it was less child-oriented and at least three times the size.
  4. On our last day in New York, we visited the Central Park Zoo. This is a cute little zoo, which you can get through in under an hour. We loved the polar bears and penguins and puffins.

Other general observations:

  • Conservation and environment really is a big deal in California — it’s not just a media beat-up. Cars are smog tested yearly, everyone I met recycles absolutely everything, and public transport around San Francisco was excellent.
  • The staff (paid and volunteer) at every attraction we visited, were passionate and enthusiastic.
  • In New York, people were interested in the environment but far less knowledgeable about it.
  • We didn’t meet anyone who believes in “Intelligent Design”, but I think that’s just a testament to flying over the “fly-over” states.

A ‘quantum leap’

This post is (hopefully) the first of a series about the use of scientific terminology in the vernacular. This is a topic that I’ve always found fascinating, mainly because it really clarifies how laypeople understand science.

Literally, the term quantum, from the Latin quantus (“how much”), refers to an indivisible amount of energy (but it hardly seems to mean that anymore, even in physics). An electron’s quantum state describes its current properties; a quantum leap is a change in its properties.

In physics and chemistry (where I first encountered the term), a quantum leap refers to an electron’s instantaneous movement from one energy state to another. The novel (when it was new, anyway) aspect of this theory is that this movement is discrete, rather than continuous, as was predicted by Newtonian physics.

The term quantum mechanics was coined in 1924 by Max Born. Since then, quantum physics has entered the mainstream. People talk about it and read news about it, even if (like me) they barely understand it, if at all. Originally, it was used somewhat correctly, referring to a sudden change, as opposed to a slow, evolved one.

Now, however, it’s used all over the place, often to mean a very large change. Given that the term really refers to electrons, which are very small, I find this quite ironic. As they say, small things amuse small minds…

No right answer

“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear,” says Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, but to me the goalposts must have shifted somewhere along the way. In my lifetime, mainstream opinions about euthanasia, and abortion (to name two important examples) have changed drastically.

The article linked above describes the extreme measures that parents of a Ashley, a girl with serious brain damage, have taken to change their daughter’s life. They have had her sterilised, so that she can’t become pregnant if raped; removed her breast buds, so that she won’t have the added discomfort of breasts; and given her growth hormones so that she will remain smaller and thus easier to transfer and care for.

They argue on their blog that they have done this to make her more comfortable and not for their own benefit; certainly they seem to be trying to provide her with the best environment possible. And of course, within reason, making things easier for oneself as a parent does make things better for the child.

In the Time article, the doctors looking after Ashley discuss their approach to this unusual case as doctors. Here’s a quote that I think goes to the heart of the matter:

“I felt we were doing the right thing for this little girl—but that didn’t keep me from feeling a bit of unease,” admits Diekema. “And that’s as it should be. Humility is important in a case like this.”

There’s no rule book for situations like this. And sometimes there just isn’t a right answer. All you can do is weigh it up and make what seems to be the best decision. I don’t know if Ashley’s doctors did the right thing or not. Even they don’t really know. In a sense, that’s what medical ethics is about.

Private universe

There’s been a fair bit in the news about autism recently.

I’ve always been fascinated by this disorder. The MMR vaccine scandal has been interesting to follow as an example of below-par science, and poor understanding by the public of the science. To me, this is just a symptom that science education and mainstream media science reporting needs some vast improvement.

But the main reason is probably that I know so many people on the spectrum. I grew up knowing a family in which all the boys had quite severe autism and have since met others with autism or Asperger syndrome. I always wondered: What sort of place could these boys have in a world where communication is vital? When you “have a different sort of internal thought” that in some cases leaves you completely dependent on your family or other carers for your entire life — what does it mean? What does it tell us about the human brain? Is it really a disorder, or just another state of being?

From that last article:

With autism diagnoses rising steadily, talk of an “epidemic” and a growing search for a cure, Roy feels threatened. “I feel stabbed when it comes to ‘curing’ or ‘treating’ autism,” he says. “It’s like society doesn’t need us.”

Many autistic people are starting to agree. They have had enough of being treated as a medical problem, arguing that autism is not a disease that needs to be cured but just a normal part of human diversity. This emerging “autistic rights” movement hopes to launch an international campaign akin to Gay Pride, encouraging autistic people everywhere to embrace their “neurodiversity”, and persuading wider society to accept them as they are…

Carina Schmidt’s son has autistic disorder and requires round-the-clock attention. His condition is so severe that he required a 10-month stay at the Kennedy Krieger Institute to break some of his self-harming habits. She is adamant about doing everything possible to help her son, who now lives in a group home in Rockville, Maryland. She also supports the development of prenatal tests for autism. “If my son could be cured today I would say ‘yes’,” she says. “My family has suffered like there is no tomorrow – that’s why we choose to have no more kids.” … Schmidt says that she will continue seeking help for her son. And she is sure he wants her to. “I can see my son wants to be normal,” she says.

There are no easy answers here. But I think the research being done now is fascinating and exciting. Even if people with autism don’t want a cure, this research goes to the heart of what makes us human: our complex, intricate, amazing brains.