Archive for March, 2006

Prayer Doesn’t Help Heart Patients

Posted in Religion, Science on March 31, 2006 by Mike Procario

Well the study on the effects of prayer on the health of heart patients has come out. It has been covered by the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and Reuters. This is being treated as big news. The results are negative, from the Post

The long-awaited results, the latest in a series of studies that have not found any benefit from "distant" or "intercessory" prayer, came as a blow to those hoping scientific research would validate the popular notion that people can influence others' health, even if the sick do not know that someone is praying for them.

I blogged about this the other day. As I expected people who believe in the power of prayer do not think this study has any merit as stated in the Post.

The findings are unlikely to change the minds of the faithful, several pastors said.

"We welcome and appreciate the involvement of scientists researching faith," said Rob Brendle, associate pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. "But this is just one study. We believe wholeheartedly that prayer changes things. So many of us have experienced that in our lives."

and from the New York Times

Other experts said the study underscored the question of whether prayer was an appropriate subject for scientific study.

"The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion," said Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia and author of a forthcoming book, "Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine."

It has struck me that this kind of study would be very hard to do, and the Times story confirms that despite very careful experimental design, it is not possible to to really control all of the variables.

The new study was rigorously designed to avoid problems like the ones that came up in the earlier studies. But experts said the study could not overcome perhaps the largest obstacle to prayer study: the unknown amount of prayer each person received from friends, families, and congregations around the world who pray daily for the sick and dying.

In his recent book, Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett has argued for these kind of studies. He would expect religions in the spirit of truth in advertising to stop claiming the prayer is useful, if it cannot be scientifically confirmed. That seems unlikely to occur.

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Testing Flickr

Posted in Blogging, Photo on March 29, 2006 by Mike Procario

Ginger Standing

Originally uploaded by cyclequark.

Just a test of flickr blogging. I got a Nikon D50 for Christmas. It has allowed me to catch the girl's pet rabbits in the act, which I never could with my old point and shoot.

Flickr has a blog this button which will create a blog entry with a link to the flickr photo and allow you to add text. If I ever take an interesting picture of something other than a rabbit, I will know how to blog it.

Everyday Physics: Driving in the Evening When It Is Wet

Posted in physics, Science on March 28, 2006 by Mike Procario

I had to go out to the store tonight to pick up milk and few other basics. It had been drizzling much of the day so the roads were wet, but it was not raining so much that visibility was affected. However, it was harder than normal to see. It seemed darker than it should. If I lived out in the country, then I might have blamed the clouds for blocking the moonlight, but I live in a suburban area where there is plenty of artificial light, streetlights, car headlights, lighted homes and shops. Why does it seem so dark?

It is the wet streets, so that light from my headlights reflects specularly. Specular reflection is when a very smooth surface causes all parallel rays of light to be reflected the same way, and in the this case it is away from me. Click the link above to see a diagram. On a dry night the black road surface absorbs lots of light, but it also reflects some diffusely or in all directions. Some of that diffusely reflected light comes back to me, some goes sideways and helps to illuminate things around the road, and some just goes away from me, On a wet night most of the light from my headlights reflects away from me, Even the overhead lights lose some of the usefulness. More of the light gets reflected back up at the light, rather than toward me where it would help me see.

If that wasn't bad enough the general lack of illumination is complemented by extra glare. All of that light from my headlights that it is not coming back at me is being directed into the eyes of drivers coming the other way.

I liked to use this story when I taught freshman optics, but it would never rain the night before, and most freshman do not drive much. It does help much, if the class is not familiar with the experience you want to relate to the lesson.

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It Is Not Easy Being a Girl Geek.

Posted in personal, Science on March 27, 2006 by Mike Procario

My daughter expressed a strong desire for dopamine earrings. They are silver earrings in the form of the chemical structure of dopamine. Her mother and I gave her a pair as a gift, and she has been wearing them regularly. Today she told me that several people have complemented her on how interesting they look, but no one has recognized that they are dopamine. She is somewhat disappointed.

If she had told me this yesterday, I could have blogged about it on her birthday like she wanted.


Most Memorable Colloquim

Posted in personal, physics, Science on March 26, 2006 by Mike Procario

I inspired Kristen at to write about the best and worst colloquia she has heard, so I decided to write about the most memorable colloqium I ever heard. It was neither the best or worst, but I will never forget it. It was the first colloqium that I attended as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As brand new graduate students, my officemate and I had not yet learned the traditions of colloqium, so we sat in the second row. As the hall filled we soon saw that we were surrounded by the faculty. We soon learned that graduate students sat in the back of the hall, so they could relax and fall asleep if necessary.

The speaker was the Nobel Prize winner, Carlo Rubbia. He had not yet won his Nobel Prize, but he was speaking on stochastic cooling of antiprotons. It was being developed at CERN by Simon van der Meer, his co-Nobelist. That work that would lead to the discovery of the W and the Z bosons for which Rubbia won the Prize.

In 1979 there was no Powerpoint. Most physics talks were given using transparencies and an overhead projector. Rubbia had a massive stack of transparencies. I did not think there was any way that he could go through them all. I had never experienced such an information overload before, and I have not experienced one as great since. To this day, I tell people that Rubbia took a deep breath and spoke for an hour straight without inhaling again.

Within about 10 minutes, I knew that this was not going to be a leaisurely lecture where I might have time to think about what I was hearing and perhaps learn something. Rubbia would put a transparency up and before I had an idea of what it was suppose to illustrate it was gone and new one appeared. Unfortunately, we were surrounded by the faculty and we did not want make a bad first impression, so we sat up straight and tried to survive the hurricane of physics that was pounding us.

In 1983 I was at CERN working on my thesis experiment when UA1 announced the discovery of the Z boson. A talk by Rubbia on the discovery was scheduled for the auditorium and it was packed. I went to a second auditorium where the talk was shown by video. It was a much more pleasent experience. I could relax, and I now knew enough to follow the talk even at the supersonic speed that it was given.

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Studying the Effects of Prayer Scientifically

Posted in Religion, Science on March 24, 2006 by Mike Procario

I am beginning to think that I should call this blog, Reading the Washington Post so You Don't Have to. In today's Post there is a story on scientific research into the healing power of prayer. This is either a truly wonderful idea or a truly stupid idea. I am a firm believer in the value of scientific research. I believe that the knowledge obtained by well done scientific research is the highest quality knowledge that we have, but I also know that some types of research are very hard to do well.

If you were to test a medicine, you would try it first on mice. Can we test the power of prayer on mice? Can we pray for some sick mice and not for others and see if any get well? I do not think you will get a lot of volunteers to pray for sick mice. Clearly a scientific study of prayer would have to follow a much different course than the usual one. It would start in people with all of the compications that presents, and you would not have the benefit of results in animals to demonstrate that it worth the trouble to pursue. Who would want to tackle such a hard problem. Hopefully, it would not be someone with an axe to grind either for or against the proposition.

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Posted in personal on March 24, 2006 by Mike Procario