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I found three pieces of evidence for our Martian origins to be the most compelling. Firstly, there is good evidence in the way that iron crystals in Martian meteorites are aligned to indicate that Mars once had a strong magnetic field that must have held on to oxygen oxygen is what we call paramagnetic, sporting an unpaired electron and being attracted by a magnetic field.

Thirdly, Martian soil contains copious quantities of borate minerals, and work by chemist Steven Benner has recently shown that borate can catalyze the formation of ribose, a sugar that we know is essential for the formation of DNA and RNA. Taken together, this and other evidence makes as good a case for life arising on Mars as I have seen. I am afraid that to me Happer seemed to handily cross over the boundary into denier territory.


What was strange about the talk was that it was divided into two sections. There was also some criticism of climate models. If this was all there was to it things would have been fine.

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Among the howlers he perpetuated were the following: there is little evidence that CO2 drives temperature, there is little evidence that fossil fuels lead to health problems, there is little evidence that the planet cannot thrive in higher CO2 levels I was tempted to ask him; sure, the planet can thrive, but what about humans? Happer seemed to discount even the most basic facts of climate change, and the crowd did not know how to respond except with a couple of boos and disbelieving laughter.

An amusing exchange took place at the end of the talk when Edward Witten pointed out a recent article by Richard Muller of Berkeley in the NYT titled "A Pause, not an End, to Warming" in which Muller rationalized the pause in global warming as a temporary slowdown, and one which he had predicted using very simple models.

These simple models did not have the limitations of the complex models that Happer discussed. That's it, no further explanation necessary.

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Nonplussed, all Witten could do was repeat the question. Let me recapitulate the difference between skeptics and deniers that I pointed out in that post; Dyson is a reasoned and healthy skeptic whose criticism exemplifies the best traditions of science, Happer is a denier. What do I make of people like him? I have decided that every field of science and public policy needs a critical mass of people who challenge the status quo. Some of these people are reasonable, others are not.

But all of them at the very least get the conversation started and force everyone else to look at the other side of the argument. The problem starts when these challengers of the status quo grow to such large numbers that reasoned dialogue becomes impossible.

Infinite in All Directions

The second day of the symposium was devoted to astronomy and public policy. Dyson started working in astronomy quite late but made some important contributions. There were other ideas too, including work on adaptive optics that was initially done as a part of the JASON panel of government advisors.

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He has proposed all kinds of outlandish sounding but scientifically plausible ideas, like looking for frozen fish in the orbit of Jupiter and growing plants on comets that can grow their own greenhouses. Dyson is a perfect example of someone whose scientific speculations make every effort to be as rigorous as his published scientific work. Seager is an expert on exoplanet atmospheres and talked about the exciting missions planned in the next few decades for looking at the existence and composition of the atmospheres of earth-like exoplanets.

This is undoubtedly one of the most exciting areas of science. It certainly tracks with Dyson's interests, and this year Thomson Reuters has nominated Geoffrey Marcy — the grandfather of exoplanetary astronomy — for the Nobel Prize.

Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson | LibraryThing

The last part of Dysonfest dealt with public policy. The session was kicked off by the grand old man of arms control, Sidney Drell, who a few years ago created a stir when he published an impassioned plea for the abolition of nuclear weapons along with seasoned and influential policy veterans like George Schulz and Henry Kissinger.

More than almost anyone else Drell knows about the safety issues and political instability inherent in a world with thousands of nuclear weapons. It was inspiring to watch this 93 year old with a cane talk about his concerns for a nuclear-free world in a strong and purposeful voice.

I had a chance to talk to him alone for some time, and his words made it clear that it is up to young people to bring into fruition the work that he and his colleagues started. Press talked about applying ideas from game theory to ethical and more efficient clinical trials in which one could decide when to withdraw or continue administering an experimental drug in a control group. Few living thinkers can beat him at that game. The end of Dysonfest felt like a walk through the entire universe of science and technology. Anyone whose name is not in the box is not allowed to stay.

You never know who is going to make an appearance next as Dyson flashes from subject to subject, bringing in Rutherford and Disraeli, Proust, Darwin and Beowulf. Epigrams leap out. I would feel that the Creator had been uncharacteristically lacking in imagination. From time to time, he writes a passage that should captivate any ordinary reader not already enthralled.

I have chosen the latter course. If the reader would prefer an elementary textbook, there are plenty available. I do not need to write another. Up to now I have dodged summarising what the book covers, uneasily aware that it might simply be a list and run the risk of being orthodox and dull, but its content has to be mentioned.

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You may be in for a surprise or two as well. Scientists stand in need of these Christian virtues just as much as preachers do. If I were younger, I would do the same. Trending Latest Video Free. One in 16 US women were forced into having sex for the first time Deliberate drowning of Brazil's rainforest is worsening climate change Mathematicians find a completely new way to write the number 3 New Scientist Live The world's greatest science festival Sim Singhrao on the secrets of a healthy mind at New Scientist Live.