She’s so heavy

Snowy roof

I was watching the news on TV one night last winter. The woman reading the news made a public service announcement: Get the snow off your roofs before it melts, she said, because it gets heavier when it melts and your roof could collapse.

First things first: yes, get the snow off your roof so it does not pile up and collapse your house. But, no, snow does not get heavier when it melts. Try this: go outside this winter with a large clear glass. Fill the glass with snow. Go back inside your house and watch the glass until the snow melts. The dense water takes up a smaller volume than the fluffy snow. But is the glass of water heavier than the glass of snow? You will notice it is the same weight. And it is not almost the same weight, it is exactly the same weight. This is called the law of conservation of mass. It is not just a good idea, it’s the law.

Recently, I was reading a newspaper. An op-ed on homeopathy caught my eye. To my surprise, it argued earnestly that there is something to homeopathy. There is nothing to homeopathy (this works as a pun as well). Stay away. If your kids are sick, take them to a doctor, do not give them homeopathic remedies. The op-ed writer seemed sincere, but I was amazed and disappointed by the lack of professionalism of the newspaper, their non-editing could contribute to someone avoiding necessary medical treatment.

Another day I was watching the news, and the man reading the news was discussing faith healing. In an effort to seem even-handed, he had a faith healer and some scientists in different video clips. He ended his segment by saying faith healing’s effectiveness remains controversial – the jury’s still out. No it is not, the jury’s in on that one. I hardly need berate it, as everyone knows this, but, again, if your kids are sick, take them to a doctor, not a faith healer.

I won’t write about the faked moon landings, or 9-11, or climate change – I am sure you know what I think. There is a shallowness in much of our public discourse these days, particularly involving science and scientific achievements. Our discourse is dominated by a lazy relativism: everyone has an opinion, and no one point of view is right; cranks are accorded the same seeming respect (or lack of same) that those with real scientific credentials receive. That discourse culminates in our society’s self-conscious and ironic detachment of celebrity from achievement, where that salacious wink of irony hides an encompassing nihilism: all is second to distraction.

To bring real scientific debates to the public, eight years ago we inaugurated the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium series with the help of a visionary and generous philanthropist, Lorne Trottier. So far we have discussed topics ranging from climate change, the anthropic principle, alternative medicine, to the biological origin of ethics. The symposium always involves real scientists, and real scientific debate. This year, on October 28th and 29th, 2013, we take a hard look at science as it appears in the headlines. I invite you to drop by.

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