Monday, April 15, 2013

A new perpetual motion machine

Laura Snyder, a science historian and professor of philosophy, has stated that the word “scientist” was used for the first time 180 years ago at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, on June 24, 1833. Has it been only 180 years?

Prior to this time those who pursued “scientific” endeavors, mostly gifted amateurs, called themselves natural philosophers. All this gradually changed as deductive reasoning ( testing hypotheses and theories) became a key component of science, along with the creation of new scientific institutions, external funding for scientific projects and a growing belief that science ought to be for the public good.

Patenting of nature

Fast forward 180 years and we currently have a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that deals with the very structure of life itself. It's unlikely that the majority of Americans and most people on the planet for that matter have the slightest idea what is being debated and the potential outcome, regardless of the Court's ultimate decision.

In simple terms, the case before the Supreme Court is whether or not a company can patent human genes. This is a case that could effect everyone—because it involves DNA, the blueprint for life.

What constitutes a new gene? Will research be stifled and the flow of information impeded? How does a company recoup its investment, sometimes millions of dollars? Who will have access to affordable new tests and procedures as a result of any genetic breakthroughs? These are only a few of the questions that will have to be debated--publicly--and which go way beyond the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Joe Barton's rule

Joe Barton, a conservative Republican congressman from Texas and strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry, once apologized to BP (the company that caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history) because the White House demanded that the company pay millions of dollars for the clean up of the Gulf.

While the congressman claims that climate change does exist, he has consistently denied that there is any human connection to climate change. He cites the great flood in the Old Testament, before humankind burned hydrocarbons, as proof that the climate certainly changes, but humans have nothing to do with it.

Congressman Barton clearly has every right to his beliefs and he can certainly cite the Old Testament as “proof,” but it has nothing to do with modern science, and that is a big problem and not just for Americans.

Magical thinking

If you were to Goggle “perpetual motion machines” you would uncover a colorful history going back to at least the Middle Ages. Hope springs eternal. The pmm is a machine that continues to do work forever without acquiring energy from an external source. The problem is that it violates all the laws of known physics, like conservation of energy, thermodynamics and Newton's laws of motion. But people keep trying. It's the Joe Barton rule and that is a big problem.

The ecological economist Herman Daly has said that it's “politically impossible to stop growth,” while at the same time it's “biophysically impossible to continue it ad infinitum.” We may need another 180 years.

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