Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Other realities

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, August 26, 2009

In 1957, Hugh Everett III, a United States physicist with a prince's name (not Rupert Everett, a British actor as, I mistakenly stated in the printed version of this column on Milenio Diario), proposed one of the most intellectually stimulating ideas in modern physics: the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

It is not clear whether this theory can be really called "scientific" because, like a lot of cosmology, it does not have direct evidence, although it does have a coherent physical and mathematical background. It tried to solve a big problem of the most popular version of quantum mechanics (the Copenhagen interpretation): that the equations predict that particles can exist in "superposed states", unless these are observed.

To ridicule this idea, Erwin Schrödinger, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, postulated the mental experiment of the cat that shares his last name, which would be simulotaneously "dead and alive" as long as it is not observed. Something contrary to common sense.

Everett's version proposed an astonishing solution: the moment the particle -or the cat- is observed, instead of randomly choosing one of the two possibilities, the universe bifurcates, giving birth to two parallel universes: in one universe, the cat lives; in the other one, it dies.

Although in a recent interview in Discover magazine mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, one of today's most brilliant minds, labeled it as "insanity", the fact is that Everett's odd -but not absurd- theory still is of interest to a lot of physicists.

But in 1941 Jorge Luis Borges, one of the glories of Hispano-American literature, had published his extraordinary short story The Garden of Forking Paths, where he prefigured the many-worlds theory. Sometimes the connections between science and literature are as amazing as the most audacious scientific theories.

Last August 24, Borges would have turned 110 years old. Maybe in another possible reality, where he is more long-lived, he does. In another one, it is normal to be that old.

Maybe there are alternate realities where the Mexican educational system is not in wrecks, where future teachers don't massively flunk the test to select them. Where their union leader is not elected for life, and can pronounce words with more than two syllables such as "epidemiologic", or initials such as "H1N1" without confusing numbers "1" with letters "l".

Where vital parts of Mexican history are not omitted from school textbooks, such as the Spanish conquest or the three centuries of colonial domination.


(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fox: disatrous horoscope

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, August 19, 2009

It's not surprising that Vicente Fox, Mexico's former president, declared on Saturday 15, at his Centro Fox in San Cristobal, at the graduation ceremony of the first generation of its Master in Politics course, that Mexico's economical crisis of is the result of "a convergence of stars in a negative sense, of negative vibes".

It's not surprising because he is very well known for his capacity for saying nonsense. Because his lack of culture is legendary. And because, even when he was president, it was clear that he and his wife Martha believed in all kinds of quackery.

Santiago Pando, the star advisor of Fox's presidential campaign, claimed to receive advise from the "galactic mayans", "light beings" whose voices he heard. And the President's Office hired a clairvoyant in 2006, Rebeca Moreno Lara, who acted as "mystical advisor" for the first lady.

So it's not surprising , but it is outrageous and worrying. It seems that, as a country and as a society, we still believe that the causes of our problems are in the stars, not in our own actions and decision. No wonder we haven't been able to solve them.

For the pseudoscience of astrology, certain "star combinations" are disastrous, fateful: they cause disasters (from the word disaster, stellar cataclysm and therefore something bad produced by stars).

Astronomers are tired of explaining that such star combinations don't really exist. They're only an effect of perspective: although two stars, seen from the Earth, may appear to be in "conjunction", they are separated by millions of miles (if not, by light years, equivalent to around 10 billion kilometers).

Maybe Fox's declaration is, by itself, a disastrous sign: a signal of the failure of our educational system, which allows that somebody that was the president harbours these primitive beliefs. Of the failure of our political system, converted into a publicity-driven media-cracy, that allows this uncultured character to win an election by a wide range. Of the failure of the effort by we science journalists and science writers, who have not managerd, through the media, to carry a minimum of scientific culture to the average citizen.

"Certainly" (as Fox would have said), a very bad sign.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

HIV: genomic confusion

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, August 12, 2009

On August 6, the main science note on almost all media was a study of the genetic material of the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV.

The bad news is how this discovery was reported. Some sample headlines: "HIV genome deciphered"( BBC, picked up by newspapers such as Publimetro and radio shows like Hoy por hoy en la ciencia (Today in science), from UNAM and W Radio); "HIV genome, deciphered" ( El Clarín, Argentina). What is the problem? That it is incorrect: the full genome of HIV was decoded about 10 years ago. (A Mexican blog on internet even mentioned that "it has been confirmed that HIV uses RNA -ribonucleic acid- instead of DNA -deoxyribonucleic acid", something that has been known since the eighties.)

Some other media were more precise, though still not so clear: MILENIO Diario mentioned "the first HIV full map", "to create an image, not only of RNA nucleotides, but the forms and folds of the RNA strands". Excélsior, with the information from EFE news agency, used the following header: "AIDS virus genome structure decoded". And Spanish El mundo digital headlined "HIV genome, at bird's eye", and explained that "for the first time, the complete structure of HIV's genome was decoded and they got a clear image of its internal architecture".

Let's explain briefly:

HIV, unlike most organisms, does not have genes made of DNA , the famous double helix molecule, but of RNA, formed by only one chain, not two. The chemical links that form this chain are the "letters" in which genetic information is written, and this is what was deciphered years ago.

The discovery of researchers from North Carolina University headed by Kevin Weeks (and published on Nature magazine) is that the HIV RNA strand folds in a complex way: some parts pair up with others to form double helical stretches, for example.

When the virus penetrates a cell and its genetic information is read, these "knots" and rolls (technically known as "secondary structure") can delay the reading of the genes, and this can be fundamental to control how HIV proteins are manufactured.

In other words, a kind of "hidden code" was discovered on the virus' genome, which can be important not only to fight it, but also to better understand the control of genetic information in all types of organisms.

Unfortunately, to explain this with the necessary detail, more space is required than is normally available in news media. At the very least, we should try to be as precise as possible.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Dinosaurs for free!

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, August 5, 2009

Popularising science is placing scientific culture in reach of the general population: to turn science into a part of pop culture.

One way to do it is through exhibitions and museums, in which many visitors have the opportunity of directly experimenting and getting close, in a special surrounding, to the objects, phenomena and concepts of science.

But this is seldom achieved in such a marvelous way as in the exhibition "Huellas de vida" (life's footprints), which Mexico City's government and the Museo del Desierto (the dessert museum) from Saltillo, Coahuila, together with other institutions, have installed in the city's main square since May 22.

I confess that I approached the exhibition with some skepticism: I am accustomed to visit science museums, and didn't think I'd find something to amaze me. I was wrong.

From the first enormous fossil fish, with its monstrous mouth filled with teeth, that welcomes you in the first chamber, the journey is full with marvels. Complete fossils, some original and some replicas of superb quality, of terrestrial and "aerial" dinosaurs (actually, pterosaurs; among them, the grand Quetzalcoatlus). Robotic models, specimens of "living fossils" and of species that help us compare the routes from which evolution, sometimes, produces similar results in very different species. Actual, live paleontologists showing how they work.

And a really professional museography, in which the specimens can be enjoyed with safety, and the professional and enthusiastic attention of many young guides, perfectly prepared to answer even the oddest questions from an avid public.

Of course, going to the exhibition will not turn you into a dinosaur expert. But that's is not the idea. A science exhibition must only, as Carl Sagan begged, "spark the sense of wonder". This the exhibition fully achieves. Other museums should take it as an example to follow.

Honestly, don't miss it. It opens from 9:30 to 19:30 from Monday to Sunday. But hurry up: it ends on August 31. And if this was not enough, it's free! What a magnificent gift for the citizens of our city.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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