An appreciation of Vera Rubin

I had thought my review of Sapiens was the last post for the year, but I saw Vera Rubin’s obituary and read some more about her and then realizing how special she was, I wanted to note her passing. She was very, very, yet quietly, special.

Dr. Rubin’s astronomical research established the fact that, at least according to our current physics, galaxies are spinning so fast that the gravity from its mass is insufficient to hold them together. The centrifugal force should lead to them flying apart like a car going way too fast around a tight curve. She measured the speed and the mass of many galaxies and found this result consistently, and then she went to the next step. Since the galaxies were not flying apart, something else was holding them together, and that something else was dark matter. Some of her colleagues, especially the females of the group, think she should have been awarded a Nobel for that, but a Nobel for physics has not been awarded to a woman for over 50 years. Imagine why, and no, it is not because none have done work meriting the award. Dr. Rubin proves that.

It is one thing to make these measurements reliably and validly, painstakingly, and another to question how to explain the results and wonder why current theory fails to do so. It is something else again to make the intuitive jump to a new understanding. In a later interview Dr. Rubin said, “Nobody ever told us all matter radiated light. We just assumed it did.” Seeing beyond such a basic assumption takes genius.

She did this work despite the gender bias in her profession. When she finally got time at Palomar observatory (the men were very busy there, you know), she found the only bathroom was marked for men. Why, when no women were around, or were they worried the cleaners might use it? She cut out a skirt and pasted it on the door’s symbol. More significantly, after completing her master’s in, I think, astrophysics successfully, she applied for the PhD program in a university near where her husband had obtained a job and was not even given an application because, well, you know why—no mystery to solve there. Later, after she had obtained her PhD somewhere else, she went to present her research and was chided by senior astronomers for some non-mysterious reason, like she was a woman and had brought her young daughter with her to the conference because she was a mother. She did this monumental work while raising 4 children. Here, here!

Such a scientist. In one later interview she said, “I’m sorry I know so little. I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?” Why, yes, I believe it is, and thank you for sharing the fun with us. More? A common, indeed basic assumption is that the physical laws of the universe are universal—they are the same everywhere. Dr. Rubin said, “I personally don’t believe it’s uniform and the same everywhere. That’s like saying the earth is flat.” Maybe we will never know the reality of that but consider that her work has led to the understanding that the cosmos comprises 5% atoms (those we understand well enough), 27% dark matter (our hypotheses are not proving out here despite much effort) and 68% dark energy (no clue at all unless it is some feature of string theory or multiverses or what?). As the NYT writer put it, this “subverts any illusion that astronomers might actually know what is going on.”

Dr. Rubin said that discovering some new understanding (or shedding light on our ignorance) was the best reward for doing science and that if others were using her data in the years to come to solve this mystery, that would be the greatest award. Finally she said in another interview, “In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I’m Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”Bravo!

Dr. Rubin died on the night of December 25, 2016, but don’t worry, she just stepped out for a minute to gather in a different light; she’ll be back. Time to travel on to this next new year. Hope for a better world and work to make it so. And send some thanks to Doctor Rubin.

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin

Sapiens: a brief history of humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

I finished this book a few days ago and have puzzled over what to write because I am excited about the topic here and appreciate the direction of his effort, but here is my review.  Happy New Year.

Before I set off on my diatribe, let me say clearly that I am not unhappy I read this book and I would almost recommend it to you. I appreciated some parts of it but found a good bit of it deplorable. In reading some real reviews I gather that I am not alone. Harari is most perceptive when discussing the origins of agriculture (though no footnotes and some of this was not original) and the religious transitions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Also how myths, money, and empire create unity and bind a culture. When he talks about prehistoric peoples, evolution and neuroscience, he shows either great command of the obvious or worse as he spouts academic BS about such matters, either unfounded supposition and counter to evidence or lack thereof or just plain wrong.

One major and interesting point is that the agricultural revolution around 9000 BCE was a ‘fraud’. Most agriculturalists had to work harder for poorer food than hunter-gatherers, plus with agriculture came cities, elitism, and more diseases and epidemics, some from domesticated animals. Monotheism also followed the development of agriculture and monotheists were more fanatical and less tolerant, so more wars for god. Harari gives a reasonable scenario for the domestication of plants and animals, though in talking with my wife, she found his lack of consideration of gender roles and child rearing a major lacuna in his exposition. He calls the domestication and treatment of domesticated animals humanity’s biggest crime but then cites the genetic manipulation of a rabbit to glow in the dark as a harbinger of a greater day for us all. As Uncle Joe says, “Gimme a break.” His statement that plants domesticated us so that their numbers increased even as their genetic pool became more monolithic was made with more depth and wider perspective by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire.

He speculates (though not clearly labeled as such) that Neanderthals did not have what he calls the Tree of Knowledge mutation and so lacked the ability to create narratives about a spiritual world or make intellectual progress while even a cursory reading of the past 20 years would show how we share a genetic heritage and how Neanderthals were not ignorant brutes but made music, controlled fire, painted pictures and buried their dead ritually. He also says that the most difficult human behavior to organize is violence but marshals little evidence to support this supposition and ignores organized violence in other mammals such as wolves and chimps and clear evidence about human violence from prehistory on. I guess he wants to emphasize that empires were a unifying force based upon cultural myths and not upon violence. Hard to separate the two if you ask me. It is like when some Southern fanatics say that flying the Confederate flag is heritage, not hate, but the heritage of a slaver’s flag necessarily entails hate, or at least, degradation of another human being. Harari here wants to take his pound of flesh without taking any skin or blood or nerves as in Shakespeare. No juice without the skin and pulp.

I appreciate his discussion of science as the discovery of our ignorance along with the notion of progress in technology and how happiness is not really included in this progress, but again he becomes so simplistic as to get it wrong. He sets up the dichotomy of happiness being determined by serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin as opposed to experience. I have read a lot of ignorant dichotomies about brain and mind since 1970, but to find this in 2016 is a bit dumfounding. Furthermore he discusses evolutionary science and intelligent design (meaning genetic engineering but with this phrase used by religious evolution deniers) without addressing consistently and rigorously the idea of teleonomy.

One more quibble is his shallow discussion of economics over our history. Maybe I am more of Marxist than I give myself credit for, but after recognizing Hariri’s point that money is a great unifier because it is a) a convertible mechanism for exchange and b) based upon trust, I wish he would have tempered his enthusiasm with a deeper presentation on class, elitism, and historical dialectic. He gives only lip service to the notion of elites as he does to other topics such as biological ethics. Oh well, let me console myself with a little review of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and some of Christopher Hitchens’ essays on these topics.

Those are my most serious quibbles with this book but the list goes on for awhile. I appreciate his effort to place humans in a longer historical context and when his discussion is based on history, it seems most valid. When he begins to discuss prehistory and evolution, I would suggest putting this book down and reading E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature or Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene or any of Frans der Waals’ books or the many books that address the mind-body problem with biological accuracy. My favorite continues to be Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience.

I understand that this book is a best seller and is being translated into many other languages. Someone said he must simplify for those without the background to understand the finer points. I reply that he should have spent the time educating himself about the finer points before enthusing over unsupported generalizations, some of which are at best misleading. Read Sapiens and see what you think, or try these other books if you have not already done so. Travel on.

higher evolution?

A quick post here and now on an important topic.  The NYT had a column 2 days ago about a famous biologist/geneticist, William Hamilton, who speculated half in jest that life on earth might be an entertainment powerful aliens set in motion.  Okay then, this is the guy Richard Dawkins cited so much and with so much respect in his book, The Selfish Gene, showing how evolution progresses in a random manner (sort of, I know that is too simple, but at least without a guiding purpose to an end point).  The columnist for the Stone, Robert Wright, properly points out that this similar to the thought some of our intelligentsia endorse that we are actually a simulation in some being’s supercomputer and to the notion of God as in intelligent design.  (Link here, I hope:  I will throw in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an unusual Jesuit born in 1881 who pursued studies in geology and paleontology and developed the idea of the Omega Point.  Evolution and Gaia, he thought, were progressing to the point where life would become so conscious and complex that we would join with the universe or god.  For such ideas and others on original sin, the Catholic church exiled him to China where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man (from 700,000 years ago roughly).


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French philosopher, scientist and priest

I am getting ready after all these long years to re-read one of the seminal books in our history, Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  A couple of weeks ago I found an old copy (there are none new) and glanced through it at some of my favorite topics, including teleonomy, the notion that life evolves with purpose, that it progresses.  Human attempts to understand our place in the universe most often devolves into misunderstanding that we are the crown of creation.  Ain’t we grand to figure that out?  So life science with the advent of Darwin and evolutionary genetics generally frowns on such notions that God or aliens or whatever directs evolution from some supernatural place or, if alien, some supernormal one.


Jacques Monod, another French scientist and philosopher.

One of the more agreed upon findings is that life on Gaia has evolved to greater complexity, though any understanding why is more speculative.  Monod focuses some on another of my recent favorite topics, invariance.  Life is life because it reproduces itself invariantly and evolution ‘progresses’ because of random imperfections in the invariant reproduction that contribute to or detract from the organism’s adaptive success in its current environment.  And it does seem to be true that this increased complexity has engendered greater minds. (I am looking at you, Mammals).

My own thought here is that life began some 3.5 billion years ago as a self-sustaining chemical conflagration.  To maintain itself invariantly (its soma) until reproduction, life must solve the world problem (SWP) of finding sustenance in the environment for its biochemistry.  This SWP in a more powerful way is the essential path evolution leads us on (along with CR or conspecific relations but that comes some billion years or so later).  Monod’s book is important because he lays out life’s great genius or better, daemon, as he explicates the title, Chance and Necessity.  From this perspective, life’s evolution of intellect is part and parcel of just this, to manage and minimize exigency and to exploit chance.  Remember you read that phrase here first, and as H. L. Mencken said, “We are here and it is now.  All other human knowledge is moonshine.”  Travel on.




Positive emotion (& humorous aside)

The effort to focus more on positive psychology has been a struggling trend for a while now. Most studies focus on negative emotions and treating psychopathology. Still, since the 1990s more have been studying happiness and contentment and how to promote such positive experiences, e.g., exercise, making enough money for economic security, meditation, maintaining social supports. Most of this effort has focused on humans. We have known at least since Darwin’s 1872 book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, that our human feelings have deep biological roots.

So I find a small, admirable study on PLOS looking at the expression of positive emotions in rats. How did they stimulate this to study it? By tickling in contrast to placing in an unknown environment with intermittent white noise (trust me, you would not like it either). They found that when rats are happy from friendly handling and tickling, their ears relax to the sides and grow pinker. Other measures of facial expression such as eye widening, eyebrow shifting, and grimacing showed no difference between the two conditions. So we now know how rats show their happiness, albeit a somewhat limited means of expression. Maybe rats are not biologically primed for enjoyment as humans and other primates are (or dogs, don’t forget dogs). Maybe other expressions would be seen in parenting behaviors, e.g., nursing, the young leaving the nest, or in social play as juveniles, but these are harder to study.


Not exactly happy, I think, ears too upright and not that pink.

In addition to their findings, like all good researchers, they also reported refinements in procedures. One is the technique for photographing and analyzing facial expressions, certainly an important advance. Another, and here comes the humor, is “the refinement of the tickling procedure”. I love it. I also appreciate that they are studying “heterospecific play treatment” (play between us and them) to promote animal welfare (more on that later maybe, but consider Yuval Noah Harari’s contention in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanind, that our domestication of animals and subsequent treatment of them is one of our crueler innovations). Anyway, here is the link to the PLOS study:

And now travel on.