Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bad science-fiction

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, September 30, 2009

Last week I commented that good science fiction combines genuine science and imagination, and obtains stimulant stories that reveal something about human nature or about current or future societies.

On the contrary, bad science fiction constructs fantasies that "sound" scientific but are not based in legitimate scientific knowledge, and many times openly contradict it. It usually presents amazing technology, some of it real (laser beams, computers, robots) and some less plausible or plainly impossible (force fields, time machines) to sustain the drama which is actually just adventures. It's simply fantasy with a science flavour. Movies such as Star Wars and a lot of what is transmitted in TV as "science fiction" are clear examples.

But still, bad science fiction is an honest entertainment. The problem is that there are also mixtures of science and fiction which are dishonest: think of the innumerable quacks and charlatan scams that claim to have discovered new scientific principles and to possess the "secrets" to cure any disease.

Let's take a popular example. What if there was a machine capable of healing us just by being connected to it?

An American guy that calls himself "professor" William Nelson, and affirms to have worked in the Apollo project for NASA, moved to Budapest and started manufacturing a machine that "restores the bio-energetic balance of the body".

He calls it SCIO, for Scientific Consciousness Interface Operation (also known as EPFX, QXCI or Quantum Xrroid Interface System; all these name don't have any meaning whatsoever, of course).

Nelson looks just like what he actually is: a full blown charlatan, a fraud. But he is a great seller and his machine is popular in a lot of countries, including Mexico. The number of quacks that offer "treatments" with this almost-magical machine is rising, as well as the number of their customers, which are really only victims of their own wishful thinking and of the ignorance or malevolence of the so called "therapists". The scam is also dangerous, because it claims to substitute legitimate medical treatments.

Good science fiction is not about impossible things, but, precisely, about the things science considers possible, and starting from there, it constructs fantasies. In contrast, the SCIO machine, whose ale in the USA, by the way, is prohibited under charges of fraud, is bad science and bad fiction: a lie and a disrespect to the intelligence and good faith of people in pain.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Good science-fiction

By Martí­n Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, September 23, 2009

I'm a fan of good science-fiction: the one that, as the name implies, joins science with fiction to see what this union produces.

In good science-fiction, fiction starts from authentic scientific knowledge and extends it through imagination to obtain stimulating and even revealing stories. (Less frequently, science obtains from fiction the inspiration to make explorations that show new worlds, or new possibilities).

I'm not a deep connoisseur, but I greatly enjoy the classics, such as Isaac Asimov. I have just delighted re-reading his excellent book of short stories, The martian way (1955).

And I know even less about Mexican science fiction. But I have just finished a stupendous book, Gel azul (Blue gel, Suma de letras, 2009), a pair of short stories from my friend Bernardo Fernández, known as Bef, one of the best contemporaneous Mexican cartoonists (or moneros, as he would put it).

The already famous Bef has built himself a second reputation as a novelist, wining prizes in Mexico and Spain. His detective-style novel Tiempo de alacranes (Joaquín Mortiz, 2005) won one in the Semana Negra de Guijón (Black Week at Guijón, Spain), and Gel azul won the Ignotus prize. It deserved it.

The point is that Bef is a great story-teller: intelligent, precise, efficient, charming, sensitive. In his novels, his obsessions are recurrent: the filthy, violent, unsuccessful, fallen-on-hard-times detective who, deep inside, is very likeable; the cute girl, unreachable and bitchy; the mystery to be solved; the fight against mafia, be it dealers or organ-stealers from those who dream a blue-tinted virtual dream while connected to the web.

It is worth to try to find it (sorry, no translation to English yet). It made me happy, made me think and I spent a really good time.

Because is hard to live in a city and in a country where such terrible things happen. Epidemics. Drought and then a flooding. Two crimes inspired by crazy men "inspired by god" (although in last Friday's shooting at the Mexico City Balderas subway station, it was also a Christian believer the only civilian that confronted the criminal: its clear that fanatics, not religion, are the problem).

It is not only legitimate, but sometimes necessary to find a useful evasion. No doubt, novels like Asmov's and Bef's are two excellent choices.

(By the way, the cover posted its not the Mexican edition of Gel azul, it's the Spanish one… I liked it better, it's drawn by Bachán.)

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Crazyness and losses

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on Milenio Diario, september 16, 2009

In memory of Antonio Sánchez Ibarra

Yesterday, Roberto Garza in MILENIO DIARIO proposed that the activation of the pleasure brain centers that make people become drug addicts –or alcohol addicts, I might add- can explain why frequently "the most compulsive drug addicts are 'saved' by throwing themselves into a sudden religious conversion".

On the same page, religion expert Roberto Blancarte judged that the important thing is not whether we are dealing with a crazy person or somebody that really "talks with god", but to value their actions and sanction them in consequence, whatever their motives.

The truth is that the actions of evangelic priest José Mar Flores Pereyra, "highjacker" of a Mexicana airplane on 9/9/9 caused direct damages -and also indirect ones, through the wild speculations they generated.

Some people would like to directly blame his religious beliefs. I think this is a non-justified generalization that can spur discrimination against those who profess non-catholic religions.

We atheists and freethinkers tend to think that religions foster superstition and magical thinking. Personally, I think that religious thinking and rationality are not compatible (the great biologist Richard Dawkins, a furious promoter of atheism, of whom recently Blancarte spoke in his column, argues that to indoctrinate kids in religious faith is a form of child abuse).

But I think we have to distinguish between individual actions and group actions. (Although we have to, also, be careful with fanatics: the mother and wife of "Josmar" unconditionally approve of his craziness. And France is having serious problems with sects such as scientology, as reported yesterday in Milenio Diario.)

It is not a minor problem. Without a doubt, part of the solution lies in the promotion of scientific and rational thinking (which are, actually, the same thing).

That's why I am very sorry for the loss, last Sunday, of a great friend of mine and a great Mexican promoter of science: Antonio Sánchez Ibarra, from Sonora, a state in the northern part of Mexico, winner of the National Prize for Science Popularization in 2000, and an enthusiastic promoter of a lot of projects for the diffusion of astronomy, not only in the North of our Country, but in all of Latin America as well.

We certainly could use more promoters like him in our country.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Inmegen: ¿good or bad news?

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, September 9th, 2009

On August 26 mexican newspaper MILENIO Diario reported that the Federal budget for 2010 will feature a 47% cut to the National Institute of Genomic Medicine (Inmegen). 120 million pesos less (from 252 in 2009 to 132 in 2010).

The natural reaction would be anger, sadness or resignation in view of another example of the lack or value our government assigns to scientific research. Inmegen would be an isolated step in the right direction, and this cut is a worrying symptom against which we should protest. This is what Gerardo Jiménez, the Institute's head, did when he declared that the decision "puts several projects of scientific research related to the study of chronic and degenerative diseases at risk".

But there's another side of the coin. Inmegen has been questioned from several fronts. The most serious one is about corruption in the construction of their building, started in 2006 and today still unfinished and abandoned. Several damages to the Federal Treasure were identified, worth 33 million pesos, as well as overexpenses for 78 million (111 million in total). Its administrative director was fined with almost 3 million and incapacitated for 10 years by the recently disappeared Public Function Ministry (the architect responsible of the building was also incapacitated, for 15 years).

And the science being done at Inmegen also has its own problems. Their relatively modest study of "the Mexican genome" was artificially blown up to turn it, according to Mexican president Felipe Calderón, into "our entrance into XXI century medicine". The still distant benefits of genomic medicine have been exaggerated wildly. Its capacity for sequencing (reading) genomes, under-used during the influenza epidemic, has now been exceeded by the National University (UNAM), which –even with its ever-present limitations and its budget problems has just inaugurated superior installations. And its reductionist approach, patent in talk of "Mexican" or "sonoran" (from the mexican state of Sonora) genomes, is biologically and even ethically questionable.

The traditional image of Mexicans is one of lazyness: a guy with a big "sombrero" and a sarape sleeping against a cactus. I think our real problem is one of perseverance: when necessary, we are able to start taking actions to solve our problems.

But sadly, we do not follow up. We build the road but don't give it maintenance. We created a Federal Elections Institute, but we didn't protect it so it wouldn't fall apart and loose all credibility. We created the Inmegen, but we don't guarantee it an appropriate building, personnel nor budget, and we don't ensure that budget is spent honestly.

What a waste.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Social sciences

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, September 1, 2009

Sometimes, readers give me a hard time because of my occasional mistakes or confusions, or when my comments -normally about politics- don't match their own ideas. Sometimes they accuse me of "speaking about topics in which I'm not an expert". We should remember that a science writer its not a specialist, but a generalist: he or she communicates science faithfully, but not with the same level of precision or detail an expert is accustomed to.

Still, I just don't seem to learn. Today I will talk about social sciences (in which I'm not an expert, either, but that are also sciences). My thesis is simple: if political actors knew them better, they wouldn't say so many stupid things, they wouldn't make fools of themselves so often, and they wouldn't hurt the rights of citizens so frequently.

Case 1: Felipe Calderón, the man who sits at Mexico's President's Office, states in the National Program for Human Rights, that "he will eradicate prostitution" in our Country (the United Nations, program advisor, protests and recommends to attack the problem in an integral manner).

Anthropology and Sociology teach us that prostitution serves an important social function.

Economy shows that its a service for which citizens are willing to pay: its monetary weight shows its relevance.

And Ethics indicates that prostitutes are not criminals, but workers with human rights. What we should do is improve their situation and give them work alternatives.

Case 2: Mexico's archdiocese, through its spokesperson, the arrogant Hugo Valdemar, demands the "correction" of the National Free Textbooks to make clear that priests and independence heroes Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos did not die excommunicated; they made peace with their church upon confession before death.

If there are mistakes, they should be corrected. But History has a rigor: Hidalgo and Morelos were judged by the inquisition and tortured. The tips of their fingers were scraped with a knife ("we take away your authority to consecrate and bless, which you received with the unction in your hands and fingers", the ceremony stated) and their tonsure was removed; they were degraded and humiliated. It is not strange that they gave up and confessed. Both of them were later executed by a firing squad; Hidalgo's head was exhibited in the Alhóndiga de Granaditas (the public granary) in the city of Guanajuato for nine years.

It is simply dishonest that the institution that criminalized them now wants, 200 years later, to manipulate history just to capitalize on their prestige. It would be wrong to consent this… but in view of the many disastrous errors that are being detected in the new Public Free Textbooks, we can certainly doubt of the capacity of the decision maker in our Education Ministry.

I may be wrong, but I fear that lack of culture -scientific or not- can be our country's doom.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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