Monday, June 29, 2009

Science as a Moral Compass?

Science can mean many things to many people, but can science become a person’s moral compass in life and help make tough ethical decisions? Possibly to most, science isn’t usually viewed in this light but let’s take a closer look to see if there’s potential.

First, we should review the basic tenants of science. Good science is always in pursuit of the truth. The truth in scientific endeavors, as in life, isn’t always easy to swallow. For example, if a scientific theory that’s been held for a long time suddenly comes under scrutiny as result of new findings, what should the reaction be in the scientific community? The new results may serve to counter a scientist’s lifetime worth of work, so they shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the truth is the truth and new theories that support a more accurate description of nature would need to be considered. It would be easy to dismiss the new results as heresy, but does that serve the truth?

Next, consider the Scientific Method itself. A scientist begins by asking a question, then conducting background research, and constructing a hypothesis. Through experimentation, the hypothesis is tested, and the data is analyzed to draw a conclusion. The final step is to communicate the results to the scientific community that is expected to repeat the experiment and achieve the same results. All the effort is to seek an accurate depiction of nature. The scientific method is cyclic pursuit of the truth because as new research results become available, the original hypothesis must be refined over and over again. This is the beauty of science, over time a closer approximation of the truth is garnered.

Sometimes however, scientists falter in the principles they’re supposed to uphold. Recall from 2006 the scientist embroiled in the Korean cloning scandal. Hwang Woo-suk was found to have falsified research results when he claimed to have successfully cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells from them. The result was disgrace for an individual scientist and repudiation for the South Korean government program that supported him. Certainly the truth was not the primary motivating factor in this case.

But can these scientific principles be applied to the moral dilemmas in everyday life? It may be a difficult realization, but I maintain that if you adhere to the same pursuit of truth in your life, just as a scientist does, it can lead to a fulfilling, satisfying and best of all, low stress existence. I myself, who some may see as the epitome of scientific thought, has had to learn this lesson the hard way. But even at my age, some old scientific-dogs like me can learn a few new tricks.

I remember a discussion I had with my therapist when we were talking about the Null Hypothesis concept during one of our sessions. If a scientist fails to use proper methods to yield conclusions for an experiment, i.e. their use of the truth is fallacious then the results of the experiment are corroded. The point is that all this can be applied to a person’s moral compass. The pursuit of the truth in your personal life is completely congruent with the same principles used in science. You adhere to one; you should adhere to the other. The result is a more principled, more unadulterated life view that will be more harmonious with the people you care about and who care for you. Is this yet another beneficial aspect of a science lifestyle? Yes, I think so!

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Most Curious Character – Part I

During the early years of my reawakening to all that is science, I became aware of Richard Feynman (pronounced “fine-man”), the late famed professor of theoretical physics at Caltech. I had heard of him before this time, probably because he died at the UCLA Medical Center on February 15, 1988. Although I had graduated years earlier, I must have taken note of his passing because it involved my alma mater. His significance, however, did not resonate with me at the time, but I would learn over time just how much this man meant to the world of physics.

If field of physics had a monarch, it would be Richard Feynman. He was not only one of most brilliant and most accomplished physicists that ever lived, he was also a global ambassador of American physics for many decades. His loss was felt by many people even outside of physics. A phenomenon that began before his tragic death from cancer and has continued to this day was the creation of the “Feynman groupie,” an exclusive club of which I am a proud member.

Richard Feynman had so many accomplishments. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics (QED). He developed the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics. He invented the “Feynman diagram” a pictorial representation scheme for describing the behavior of subatomic particles. He participated in the “Manhattan Project” which created the first atomic bomb. More recently, he was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. And his talk from 1959, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” pioneered the area of nanotechnology. Any one of these accomplishments would have meant a successful career for single scientist.

Feynman groupies are people inside and outside the physics community who appreciate his often uncanny imagination and ability to come up with lasting theories. Feynman groupies are also people from diverse walks of life who recognized his brilliance and success as a human being. One evening I was sitting at a coffee shop when an elderly woman walked by slowly, trying to see what I was reading. She recognized one of the “red books” and said “Oh, you’re reading Feynman’s book. I have that book too. I can’t understand it, but I know it’s important.” She was referring to the “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.”

I find that all sorts of people pay tribute to Feynman in that manner as they appreciate him being a “curious character.” The description of this blog was derived in part from a book containing a plethora of anecdotes and humorous episodes in Feynman’s life, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).” It seemed only fitting that I dedicate this blog after the physics world’s most famous curious character. And even though I never had the opportunity to meet Richard Feynman, it is infectiously curious scientists like him that I set out to find.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pie ‘N Burger

Good food and good science always go well together and I like to combine the two every chance I get. Fortunately, my tastes allow me to use very broad strokes when classifying “good food.” One time it might be a cool new tapas bar with select Spanish wines, and the next it could be an elegant steak and seafood bistro with a full bar for a nice cockle-warming Glenfiddich 18 single malt Scotch. If I’m allowed to smoke a fine Cuban cigar at the same time, I’m in nirvana. What I choose all depends on where I am around town for a stimulating astrophysics lecture or seminar. I try to plan out the food part of the equation well in advance. When I’m in Pasadena, in and around the Caltech campus, there are plenty of culinary options across the entire spectrum. Pasadena is a chowhound’s paradise.

But sometimes I like to keep it simple and continue my never-ending search for the perfect burger. In that case the decision is pretty easy because Pie 'N Burger, the Caltech mainstay greasy spoon, is just a few minute walk west from campus over on California Blvd. I love the place and I have so many great memories invested there. Every time I walk in, I envision the late great Richard Feynman sitting at one of the ancient wood chairs at the counter, scribbling some QED equations. I’ve heard that general relativity maven Kip Thorne is known to go there. And one time after a rousing LIGO seminar over in East Bridge (the lecture was called “Gravitational Waves and Multimessenger Astrophysics”), I ran into the speaker for the lecture, Szabolcs Marka from Columbia University, who was sitting at the counter with a colleague and his small son. We had a very nice chat as the burgers sizzled on the grill.

I’m afraid that I’ve never had a pie at the venerable Pie 'N Burger, but I’ve had many a good cheeseburger. I don’t know what they do to them, but they’re one of the best burgers in town. The place is short on aesthetics but high on nostalgia with that long time Caltech association. First opened in 1963, Pie 'N Burger has become an institution of science food in my mind. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Cocktail

One of the best things about being a SLSer (Science-Life-Styler) is that you approach all facets of life with the same adherence to the scientific method. So isn’t it natural that this outlook applies to your own body and your health? Yes, of course it does. I do this myself all the time. In fact, quite a few years ago I decided to be proactive about it. I decided that I wanted to control my own intake of dietary supplements. I became convinced that I wasn’t getting the optimal complement of nutrients through my regular diet so I took off to research a variety of commonly available vitamins and supplements in order to better understand, from a scientific point of view, how my body could benefit from them.

The result is what I call “My Cocktail” of additives I take on a regular basis. I thought I’d post my cocktail here. I recommend that you do your own research and come up with your own cocktail depending on personal requirements and limitations. Please note that I am NOT advising you to take any of these supplements. I’m simply saying that you should consider researching your own cocktail for improved health and longevity. As I’ve done, you should discuss each additive with your physician.

So here is a list of each item in my current cocktail along with a brief summary of its benefits. I have piles of research on each item and I’m always on the lookout for new studies that may affect my opinion on each:

Garlic (500mg) for cardiovascular health, cholesterol control

Vitamin A (10,000 IU) for immune system

Vitamin B and B-12 for nervous system, energy metabolism

Vitamin C (500mg) antioxidant

Vitamin D

Vitamin E (400 IU) antioxidant

Coenzyme Q-10 (30mg) for energy, produces ATP, neutralizes free radicals

DHEA (25mg)

Selenium (100 mcg) antioxidant, free radical, teeth

Chromium Picolinate (200 mcg) for metabolism of carbohydrates

Folic Acid (400 mcg) reduce cardiovascular disease, reduce risk of colon cancer

Ginko Biloba (120 mg) memory (doesn’t seem to be working!)

Magnesium (250 mg) nerve and muscle function

In a couple of cases, the research material I used in deciding to take a particular supplement comes directly from Scientific American, and in some cases I reviewed articles from the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Endocrinology.


One supplement that I wanted to mention specifically is Vitamin D (the D3 molecule known as cholecalciferol). Please refer to the excellent article “Cell Defenses and the Sunshine Vitamin” in the November 2007 issue of Scientific American describing the science behind how D3 strengthens the immune system. D is created by skin cells from a chemical reaction when skin is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) light. It makes a lot of sense that most people today don’t get enough direct sunlight on the skin in order to synthesize D naturally. This one vitamin has drastically reduced the number of times I’ve been sick in the past two years since I started taking it.

Another supplement that needs clarification is DHEA, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland known as dehydroepiandrosterone. There is quite a bit of debate about DHEA and evidence that the body’s decline in DHEA production as you age produces a very well known disease called death. In fact, declining production of DHEA may be a genetic trigger for the aging process. I’ve looked at DHEA for some time now, and there are many purported benefits such as improved longevity, works with Vitamin E to reduce the atherosclerotic process, decreases abnormal platelet aggregation, decreases low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, restores immune balance, and increases libido just to name a few.

I also began taking a resveratrol supplement which is receiving much interest in the research community. There is a very informative article “Unlocking the Secrets of Longevity Genes” in the March 2006 issue of Scientific American that examines the genetic effects of longevity. Basically, resveratrol is a Sirtuin activating compound present in red wine. Sirtuins is a collection of genes such as Sir2 which mimics biological stress, such as calorie restriction, shown to be necessary to produce longevity. I’m also quite happy to consume a little of my favorite Pinot Noir wines from Oregon’s Willamette Valley to extend the resveratrol effect even more!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Religion

OK, I’m going to bring up a controversial subject here on SLS. Let me lead into it gently. I realize that most humans have a very difficult time accepting the possibility that there is no purpose in life. I’m not one of them. I believe that we are simply very lucky to be alive for an all too brief span of time here on Earth and everyone should work to optimize their experience as much as possible. If you think about it, each of us alive right now is a “successful organism” in the sense that each of us can trace a biological lineage to the beginning of human kind. That’s a pretty amazing concept and all the more reason why we should work to protect our ancestor’s investment in our lives. Generations upon generations have given their all to bring us life. The immensity of all this is why every time I hear about an indiscriminant murder I think about the impact on the biological timeline. Terminating someone’s life, in one fleeting moment, serves to halt that organism’s genetic journey throughout human history. The magnitude of the act is enormous.

But I digress. Let’s get back to my original point. I actually feel empowered by my belief that there is no fundamental "purpose" in life, but rather the point is what each of us make of it. Imagine how fortunate I am, through an incredibly complex sequence of random evolutionary events, to be alive right now, especially as mankind awakens scientifically to be ever more aware of the workings of nature and the universe in which we live.

I feel comfort in knowing that the basic elements needed to create life are formed in the heart of stars. When stars explode, these fundamental elements are scattered throughout the universe, seeding distant nebula clouds which give birth to new planets and new life. The hemoglobin in our blood – the elements oxygen and iron were created in a supernova. The gold in a wedding ring was created in a supernova. The calcium in our bones was created in a supernova.

Supernovae are very rare events, happening every 50-100 years in our own galaxy. One spectacular example is the Crab Nebula (M1 in the Messier catalog) which is the remnant of a supernova that was observed and recorded by ancient Chinese astronomers in 1054. M1 is 6,500 light years from Earth, definitely in our galactic neighborhood. With an expansion rate of 1,500 kilometers per second, it is already seeding the surrounding area within the Milky Way with important elements of life. I feel very good about this and I found some prose by Neil deGrasse Tyson to reflect on this point of view. It is a poem of sorts and I call it "My Religion." I hope you like it and I encourage comments with other perspectives:

“My Religion”

The molecules that make up our bodies.

The atoms that make up the molecules.

Are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars.

That exploded their chemically enriched guts into the galaxy.

Enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life.

This means that we’re all connected to each other biologically,
to Earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically.

This makes me smile, and I feel quite large!

It’s not that we’re better than the universe; we are part of the universe.

We are in the universe, and the universe is in us.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Children’s Center at Caltech

One of best things about science is teaching children about science. It should be no surprise that Caltech does this very well. The Children’s Center at Caltech (CCC) is a fully accredited, private, non-profit organization that offers childcare to the Caltech/JPL community and is also open to children from the surrounding area. CCC has a website found at: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~ccenter/

CCC is a delightful experiment in introducing science to preschool age children. Much more than an ordinary preschool, CCC invites kids to take part in a science-based curriculum during that period of intense curiosity in a child’s life that is so important to nurture. The emphasis is on active, hands-on learning, with pre-math activities such as shape identification, shape and quantity of numbers and pre-reading activities such as alphabet bingo, dictation, and storytelling.

I arranged for a tour of CCC with the center’s director Susan Wood who I found to be very engaging and entirely passionate about the CCC mission. I didn’t anticipate what I was in store for, but it turned out to be wonderful. The children are grouped together by age; e.g. the Koala group has the three year olds. They were busy with a unit called “Dead or Alive,” in which their assignment was to figure out how to decide if something is living or nonliving. Observations and hypotheses are noted in their journals, a routine task for budding science investigators. One child reported “the strawberry is alive because it is green.” CCC emphasizes collaboration and the group’s observations are distilled into posters. Another experiment involved water play, specifically comparing natural loofahs to manmade sponges. The four-year old Raccoons were learning about energy by estimating how far a paper airplane will go, throwing it, and measuring the result. Another experiment was to put a thermometer in a shaft of sunlight to see what happens. Their workroom has all kinds of quantitative tools such as cups, rulers, a kitchen scale, etc. The Beavers, age five, study the six simple machines – the wheel and axle, the wedge, the lever, the inclined plane, the screw, and the pulley. The underlying lesson is about form and function and about tools in general. The Beavers use their journals to record full drawings of machines seen around the Caltech campus – a telescoping construction crane (pulleys), electric carts (wheels), a cherry picker trimming tree branches (levers), and even a washing machine (gears).

My favorite area at CCC is the Outdoor Science Laboratory. Under a slanted corrugated steel roof, a central U-shaped work island has a built-in light table, white-boards that flip over to reveal overhead mirrors for better views of things on the counters, and portable electrical power from a pair of overhead cable reels. There are also microscopes for looking at bugs and leaves. The walls are lined with cabinets, sinks, and a whiteboard. One of most endearing aspects of the lab is a coat rack with a number of tiny white lab coats the children are encouraged to wear during their experiments.

At the culmination of my tour, I was brimming over with enthusiasm for CCC’s obvious success at introducing science to very young children. To my knowledge, there is no other science-oriented preschool anywhere. I was impressed by the excellent ratio of teachers to students and how unusually well-behaved the children were. The kids truly seemed to be interested in the science principles being presented.

I asked director Wood about what lasting effect the preschool science curriculum had on the children as they progressed on with their education. It seemed to me that introducing the scientific method early on in life would necessarily induce great things later on. Alas, director Wood indicated there was no funding for such tracking efforts.

Anyone out there reading this post that is in the field of preschool education, please consider taking a closer look at CCC as a model for a school in your area. This is an idea that should spread.

Friday, June 19, 2009

UCLA Day 2009



Saturday, May 9 was the annual UCLA Day 2009 on the Westwood campus. It was a delightful warm, sunny, spring day with thousands of returning alumni making a pilgrimage back to their alma mater for a day of memories and views of the future with family and friends. I looked forward to the event because I was invited to both the Mathematics and Physics/Astronomy department receptions. It was a perfect venue to seek out curious characters. I also arranged to meet up with an old college buddy and his high school age daughter (who happens to be my God-daughter) who is contemplating her college admission choices. We enjoyed a nice outdoor lunch and later in the day a barbeque dinner was served. We all had a very nice time in a stimulating academic setting. In an era of grade inflation where the average GPA of incoming UCLA freshman is 4.36, and Advanced Placement courses in high school, my friend and I quipped that it would be doubtful we’d gain admission in this competitive climate.

I went to the math department reception first. The reception was hosted at the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) building. I was immediately welcomed by the department’s Chair Dr. Christoph Thiele. Christoph is a wonderful chap, a young and dynamic ambassador of a mathematics department that is firmly on the map of top-tier schools. He introduced me to Professor Mark Green, recent chairman of IPAM.

The two receptions overlapped in time, so I went off to the next reception in the adjacent Physics & Astronomy building (PAB). When I arrived there was a rousing reception happening on the rooftop patio. I met Dr. Alice Shapley, associate professor of astronomy who specializes in Lyman Break Galaxies, Dr. Edward Wright who is the principal investigator of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, and department chair Dr. Ferdinand Cononiti who gave me an excellent rundown on the state of the department (the prospects for the department are excellent!). I was hoping to run into Dr. Andrea Ghez, the professor of astronomy who first discovered the massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way, but I learned that she was off working in Hawaii using the Keck telescopes.

Towards the end of the reception, I walked over to a group of people discussing good physics books. One curious character was sort of leading the discussion and he looked familiar. It turns out it was my old physics professor from 1975, Dr. Charles Whitten. As I stuck in my two-cents, I told him I took his class from 1975. He replied, a bit sheepishly because his recognition immediately aged us both quite a bit, “Yes, so you did!” I then continued, “But at the time I hated physics … but now I love physics. I don’t know if there’s a correlation.” Maybe a latent correlation, just 34 years late!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Science Journalism in Disarray


The profession of science journalism is in serious peril. Pick up any typical metropolitan newspaper and spend a few moments to locate a science story. Not easy right? Now I’m not talking about an article about cloning sheep, swine flu, or global warming which are reputable areas of science, but only represent a small slice of what’s happening in science today. Most newspapers dumb down their science coverage by including stories of this kind that they can easily get from the wire services. The articles tend to be small snippets, and certainly not bylined pieces. Most newspapers don’t have an official science news section anymore, let along many science journalists on staff. The Boston Globe cut their weekly science coverage and health section in March. CNN’s seven person science unit was closed last year.

Given this disturbing trend, I’ve been very encouraged that my own city’s newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, continues to publish top-rate science articles in the paper’s Science File section. For instance, the recent Saturday, June 13, 2009 issue contained two excellent articles. A front page, above the fold article appeared entitled “The moon as a crash pad” that provided an in-depth review of today’s launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a mission designed to scout for potential locations for humankind’s first off-world colony on the moon. The other article was “In Pasadena, a discovery for the ages” which was a Q&A with a noted local scientist, Wendy Freedman, director of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, who along with two colleagues were named as recipients of the Gruber Prize, one of the world’s top awards in the field of cosmology. Seeing this article in the mainstream press excited me because it pertains to a field of interest of mine, cosmology. The Freeman team’s work involved the determination of the Hubble Constant that describes the rate of expansion of the universe, and helped place the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years. This is important stuff that the public should be exposed to.

The coverage in the L.A. Times is due to a staff journalist, John Johnson, who singlehandedly writes excellent science news for the paper. I’ve complimented Mr. Johnson on his work many times and I encourage all you Science Lifestylers (SLSers) to visit www.latimes.com to sample some of his articles. It is fortunate that The Times still employees a science journalist of this caliber, although I’m always holding my breath that deeper budget cuts may mean the end of all science coverage in the paper.

Good science journalism can positively affect people’s lives, especially the life of a physics groupie. One of Johnson’s articles actually played a significant role in my science metamorphosis. On June 10, 2006 he wrote a “Column One” article entitled “Gravity’s Field of Dreams” about the LIGO project involving gravitational wave research. At the time, I was loosely looking for a project for independent research and the article encouraged me to look closer at LIGO. As it turns out, I decided to pay a visit to the LIGO observatory in Hanford, WA and the rest is history in terms of my academic focus. I have Johnson to thank for this introduction.

I realize that the way the population acquires news in general is rapidly changing. More and more people no longer read or subscribe to print newspapers, favoring online news sources. In many respects, there has never been more science news available with all the web-based resources out there (the Science Lifestyle Blog is a perfect example). The problem is that the resources are undirected. The average person may not know to search for news about the Higgs Boson or LHC. This is where professional journalism comes into play to produce articles that direct, inform, and educate the public about important news items. There is so much bulk science news now, important stories can get lost in the process. Good science journalists provide a professional service of choosing the good stories and present them in such a way for the masses to understand the concepts involved.

To bolster what’s left of science journalism, I suggest that you reach out to your own local newspaper’s science journalists and if you judge them to be doing a good job, issue thanks and appreciation. They love to receive this feedback as it can become fuel for their next performance review, or budget meeting when the science section becomes threatened. Please report back here with links and references to good science journalism in your own local papers. I’m sure we’d all love to hear from you.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Roots of an Obsession

Sometimes in between concentrated uses of brain cycles, I take pause and find myself pondering why I've slipped into this obsession with mathematics and science. Where did the inclination to wholeheartedly embrace an academic field come from? I know people go overboard about more mainstream activities like sports, collectibles, gardening, birding, gambling, or even self-debilitating types of things like alcohol and drugs. Is what I’m experiencing just another type of addiction? Am I just a bookish type of addict where my drug of choice is a differential equation?

To come to an understanding of my behavior I recall my past addictions to see if there is a pattern. When I was growing up, maybe like many young boys, I threw myself into hobbies. One of my most serious hobbies was model rockets. I looked forward to going with my parents grocery shopping on Friday's after my Dad got home from work because there was a well-stocked hobby store near the market. I'd walk over and pore over their selection of model rockets and accessories and dream about how high they'd soar. As a kid with only a small weekly allowance, I would have to save a long time in order to buy some gear to take down to the vacant field near my house and do rocket demonstrations for my little friends.

But when I turned 14, another, much longer term obsession attracted my attention when my junior high school installed a shiny new computer lab for all the students to use. Now this was 1968, so the kind of equipment we used then was pretty arcane by today's standards. My very first introduction to computers was sitting down at a teletype machine in the lab and typing the Gettysburg Address onto paper tape. I tore off the foot long tape and raced home after school to show my Mom. I was so impressed that the little tape contained part of a famous speech. My obsession had begun.

All I could think about was computers and what they could do. On Saturday afternoons I'd accompany my father to the Topanga Plaza Mall in Woodland Hills because they had a large Pickwick Bookstore with an excellent computer section. I'd read the books for hours until my Dad came to pick me up. My family never took vacations because my Dad was a workaholic, laboring on the space program, so I'd spend my entire summer vacation at San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN) using their timesharing computer system. There, I'd routinely meet like-minded hackers (this was a time when the word meant something good, just someone who loved computers) and we’d wile away the summer learning about the depths of the giant computers behind locked doors.

There is one thing good about having an academic obsession; you never have to worry about what to major in! When I was accepted at UCLA, computer science was the only thing on my mind, but there was no straight CS major then, so I had to choose a joint major of math/computer science. That didn't sit right with me because I was obsessed. I didn't want any math to interfere with my computer work.

When I went to orientation weekend just before my freshman year, I had to stay one night in the dorms. I was paired up with another math/computer science major so I anticipated a good opportunity to chat all about computers. When I met him for the first time in our room I had just gotten back from the campus bookstore where I bought a bunch of mainframe computer manuals. I tried to talk to him about them, but I was dismayed to find out that not only did he not know much about computers, but he wasn't too excited about them. Disappointment! I recall him saying as he bounded out of the room to socialize, "You should have fun; you'll have plenty of time for all that later." Of course he was right in a sense, but for a person obsessed, I just didn't understand that mentality.

So after all this, I don't think I've answered my own question, how did I get obsessed with physics? The plain truth is I don't really know, I guess I think it's cool to tackle the biggest questions during my brief stay here on planet Earth. Physics tries to answer those questions like how the universe began, what are we made of, and is there anyone else out there. I realize that physics and mathematics are two subjects that most people run from, but for me they represent the answers to life itself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Earth Speaks!


What would you say to an extraterrestrial? That’s a question that has confounded human beings for quite some time, especially since we began the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The question needs an answer the moment we detect the first signal from a distant civilization. And just how do we reply? This isn’t an easy question either. Fortunately, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute has started a new project called “Earth Speaks” that asks space enthusiasts around the world to answer the first question and provide possible “first contact” communications when, or if, we ever receive the first cosmic message from the stars.

I recommend that all you science-lifestylers (SLSers) reading this post should participate in the project by visiting the SETI website: http://earthspeaks.seti.org/ to register for a free account, and then post your own well thought out messages to aliens. I make a point to say “well thought out” because after reading some of the messages posted by other people around the world, most folks are not giving this the respect it deserves. Here are some of the less inspired suggestions:

“When you read this I won’t exist anymore. Theories say that Earth will end by 2012.”

“Be careful! Don’t land your UFO after 9pm. Someone can steal it or you can be kidnapped.”

“Don’t answer. We kill ourselves for money.”

Alright now, I think you all can do better than this, yes? This is a serious project, so treat it as such and give it your best shot. To check out more of the suggested responses posted by other people, the site has a Google map of the world with push-pins indicating posts. Just click on the pins to read the posts. Most are pretty ridiculous and some are rather long-winded. What do you think?

Although I’ve followed the work of the SETI Institute for many years and I respect their dedication to the search for alien life, I have qualms about this new project. Yes, it is important to determine how best to reply to an alien civilization once discovered, but my concern is how we can best communicate with them? Here is a good example; an independent Russian group the last few years has sent greetings in Russian and English to targeted stars in our galactic neighborhood. Tell me exactly how an alien race can interpret the syntax and semantics of either Russian or English? It reminds me of the old Stargate SG-1 TV series, where every civilization the SG-1 team visited through the stargate somehow knew English. At least the Star Trek series had the Universal Translator to solve the language problem. But we’re not talking SciFi now, this is for real.

I think the message we ultimately send must take into account several factors. First, we can’t just send audible or written natural language. Human language evolved over millennia on Earth and to expect that anyone out there might have a chance at understanding it is unrealistic. Also, so much of human language is tightly woven into the social and cultural fabric of being Homo sapiens and any commonality with a sentient being that evolved independently on another world would be very slim. Yet another factor involves conceptual elements of language. How would an alien race interpret words (or concepts) such as “love,” “morality,” honesty,” or “religion” if those words (concepts) are part of our message? Alien civilization may indeed be very “alien” by any standard we can conceive of and any hope for a successful translation may simply not be possible, at least during the first contact period.

So what is an appropriate message then? I think our message should be very simple, something that would qualify us as beings that have mastered the conceptual basis of the laws that govern the universe. The message could be a recognizable series such as the prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, or maybe the spectral lines of hydrogen. But even sending them the speed of light is subjective to the units of measure used since 299,792,458 m/s is based on the meter which is an arbitrary standard, and the second which is dependent on the Earth’s rotational period. The message should qualify us as having the cerebral capacity to have made basic mathematical and scientific progress necessary for the Human race to be a worthy galactic colleague. I believe this can be achieved without natural language, at least at first.

Here is my suggestion for the first message, the first ten prime numbers. We can’t send Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) unless we send definitions of what these numerals mean ahead of time. We can’t really assume anyone else uses the base-10 numeral system either since that evolved from the number of our physical digits. Aliens with 8 fingers would likely evolve an octal (base-8) system. It is for these reasons I propose the following message as our first contact. Get it? What would your message be?

.. ... ..... ....... ........... ............. ................. ................... ....................... .............................

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Tribute to My Brother

My brother’s name was Donald. He was six years younger than me. Through a very unfortunate set of circumstances, Don passed away one year ago today at 46, leaving a wonderful daughter (my niece) to fill a significant void. Our family is still trying to make sense of it all. I wanted to pay him a tribute on a public forum like this because he never got his day of fame, so in this small way, maybe now he can get a little just due.

Don was a smart kid. Truth be told, he started off a lot more brainy that me. He was the bookworm between us when we were kids, always reading all sorts of books with those black horn rim glasses of his. He favored science oriented books, especially dinosaur books. At only 6 years old he could recite the names of just about any dinosaur. He’d talk of the Cretaceous period with intimate familiarity like the back of his hand. When asked by an adult, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” Don would invariably reply proudly, “I want to be a paleontologist!” Not bad for a precocious grade school kid. When asked the same question at the same age, I said I wanted to drive a trash truck. A kid’s expectations are funny at that age.

By the time Don was in middle school, he transitioned from thunder lizards to the night sky. Don became an accomplished amateur astronomer. He was one of those people who you find at star parties, the one who knows all the constellations, planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies and other deep sky objects. And this was years before the advent of the “Go to” telescope that automatically locates sky objects for you. Don did it all himself because the entire night sky was firmly implanted in his head.

Don did everything possible to further his knowledge of astronomy. He subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine. He bought a nice 6-inch Celestron reflecting telescope that he parked up on top of our car port and would spend hours up there each night. He went to the Griffith Observatory every chance he got. And more recently, he told me how he’d pack up his telescope in his car after work during the week and head out to some dark sky area, park the car, take out the scope and watch the heavens for hours and hours and then run home to grab a few hours of sleep before work the next day. I appreciate that kind of devotion and he showed it at every step of his development.

Don never became an astronomer. He wasn’t good in math. In fact he hated math. Sometimes I think he didn’t like math because I turned out to be good at it, and sibling rivalry was strong in our family. But I think the bigger reason was that one particular 5th grade math teacher, Mr. Putnam, convinced him he was awful at math, and so he was. A career in astronomy without math isn’t really possible, and it is a shame that one unfortunate experience in 5th grade would shape a youngster’s future, but I think this happens all the time, and makes it even more imperative for parents to keep a watchful eye on what school does to their child. Over the years, I tried to suggest to Don that he become an “observational astronomer” or do something related to astronomy like write for a magazine, or work at the observatory in some capacity, or write a book about star gazing, or any one of a thousand other things. But life has a way of dampening passions early held dear.

I’m sorry to say that Don never realized his potential in science, but I know in his heart, he was a scientist, that’s how we grew up. His memory is strong in my mind because he always represented the ineffaceable curiosity of a young person channeled to a life of science. When I close my eyes I can still see him up late at night, alone on our carport, counting each Perseid meteor during the infamous mid-summer shower, and how he’d look up to the sky with wonder and awe as they streamed down through the atmosphere and wink out as quickly as they appeared.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Open Courseware Revolution



I’d like to give you a valuable tip about a revolution going on in higher education. It’s called Open Courseware and it is spreading fast among the nation’s top schools, such as MIT, UC Berkeley, Notre Dame and others. Soon most universities will participate in this trend to make their course offerings available online for free. So what exactly do you get for free? Actually quite a bit, you get a syllabus, handouts, homework assignments and solutions, as well as mid-term and final exams and solutions. But the best thing you get is a full series of video lectures recorded during actual class sessions. With all this at your disposal, it is very close to being enrolled in the actual course. So what don’t you get with open courseware? Well, you don’t get university credit for your effort. Pay nothing for the course and you don’t get a degree, but you do get the knowledge and this knowledge has never been so widely available to every person on the planet.

You can finally quench your thirst for knowledge. There is the heartwarming story of a long distance trucker taking an open courseware philosophy class on Nietzsche. Consider the impact of this movement. The trucker would never likely be able to avail herself of college courses in any other way, and instead of wasting hours upon hours on the road listening to Top-20 tunes, she improves herself by taking university level courses.

I’ve utilized open courseware myself to gain the requisite knowledge for my chosen field of gravitational wave research. I found that I needed a refresher in basic physics so I turned to MIT Open Courseware. The university was one of the first to embrace the concept and open up its course catalog to the public. I encourage you to go check out this site and browse through the course listings and examine the individual course web pages where you can find all the materials.

Here is how I approached taking one of my favorite courses. I perused the physics department course catalog and selected course 8.02, a renowned course on Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) for freshman and sophmores and a real deal breaker given how tough it is. The class gives you a good idea what it would be like taking this course in real life during a fast-paced semester of 36 meetings. You get a distinct impression how brilliant MIT students need to be, because you must remember they’re taking a full course load at the same time. I then went to the course website and downloaded all the materials. I found out from the syllabus the textbooks needed for the class and I ordered them on Amazon.com. Then I tried my best to keep pace with the schedule of lectures, readings, and homework assignments. I took all the exams. To get the video lectures, I visited the Apple iTunes website and downloaded about 10 lectures at a time onto my iPod Nano which has video display capabilities. This way I could be totally portable with my studies and take the physics lectures along with me anywhere at all, even while sipping an espresso at Starbucks.

The quality of the lectures is superb, often masterful. The professor for the 8.02 class I took was Professor Walter Lewin. I can see why he is so highly revered at MIT. You can witness his teaching style for yourself by playing the Youtube clip attached to this post that showcases one of his lectures on classical mechanics. He is simply excellent and I speak from a professional perspective as I taught at UCLA for 15 years. I enjoyed each and every one of his lectures, complete with very amusing and animated in-class demonstrations of E&M principles. I particularly enjoyed the Van de Graaff generator demonstrations which illustrated concepts of electric charge. The image of Professor Lewin’s hair standing on end still makes me chuckle. The video production for the lectures is expertly done to give the viewer a feel of actually being in class as the camera frequently pans the room and catches student’s facial expressions.

For any science enthusiast reading this blog, think about getting a solid foundation in the field(s) of your choice and take advantage of the open courseware revolution. As I was taking the MIT physics courses, I felt fortunate to have this technology available to me which allows me to take high quality courses from such a respected math and science school as MIT.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Scientific Fiction

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of this term before, it’s made up. I needed a new term to describe the type of fiction I enjoy reading. I find generic SciFi to be too broad, sometimes including fantasy, social science, whimsical themes, and other soft-science areas. I prefer the storylines based on hard science. Even better, I like fiction based on science fact that includes clever and often brilliant extrapolations of the science to new, weird, and exciting directions. The nice thing about reading scientific fiction is that you can actually learn some real science while reading it.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a number of authors that routinely write in this genre, and some are quite prolific. One author is Gregory Benford who is a professor of physics at UC Irvine in Southern California specializing in plasma physics and astrophysics. He has published over twenty fiction books. The first Benford book I read was “Artifact” (1985), but I also enjoyed “COSM,” and “Timescape.” In my opinion, they’re all excellent. Other authors you might consider taking a look at are: Greg Bear, John Cramer (“Einstein’s Bridge” and “Twistor” are outstanding examples of scientific fiction), and Stephen Baxter (“Manifold” series). Another author that includes a lot of technical detail is Ben Bova and his planet series (I’m saving the Mars book for the next rainy day).

Scientific fiction isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’ve never tried it, you might like it. Lately, I’ve been trying my own hand at writing some scientific fiction. Let me tell you, it’s not easy! I respect the guys who do it and do it well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I Was a Science Bigot!


My first job out of college was with a small defense contractor that specialized in designing radar systems. The job involved using the science of signal processing, mathematics, and computer science. By all indications, I should have been quite happy due in part to the fact that several college friends also worked at the company. We young people did have fun time during that time, with an office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but I only lasted nine months. It was during a time of the microcomputer revolution (circa 1979) and I felt I was missing something by working on stodgy old radar systems.

I recall the time I resigned my position as software engineer and the vice president of the division summoned me to his office. The big cheese made me feel quite small because he was of the opinion that I was selling out to go work on business software instead of scientific software. He was confident I was making the wrong choice and told me I’d be sorry. Being young and headstrong, I went ahead and quit, and spent many years involved with the business side of computers. Any interest in science at that time was completely submerged. I didn’t even subscribe to Scientific American, yikes!

All along, however, I knew what my contemporaries felt about business, and distinctly recalled my initial disdain for business while in college. I remember seeing some particular words of wisdom (aka graffiti) on a bathroom wall around the corner from the Computer Club in the engineering building on campus. It was actually a formula that I clearly remember to this day (see graphic attached to this post). Roughly translated – as the limit of the GPA tends to zero, you give up with science and math and go get an MBA. Imagine that, talk’in trash with math!

The bathroom scrawl was a mathematical representation for being a sell-out, and I actually agreed with the somewhat bigoted tone at the time, but here I was selling out myself. To be fair to myself however, most of my hardcore science friends from college went over to the dark side as well over time. In the years that followed, I succeeded in the computer business, taking advantage of two revolutions, the microcomputer revolution and the Internet revolution. I’ve often grappled with my abandonment of academia in my early years, but hey, I’m not dead yet and my scientific metamorphosis has shown me a new and more tempered path.

Monday, June 8, 2009

FOTO Event Field Report


Friends of the Observatory (FOTO) is a non-profit membership based organization in support of the Griffith Observatory here in Los Angeles. One of the important benefits of FOTO membership is attendance for the many superb lectures organized by the group. I’ve been a member of FOTO for years. I was fortunate to attend a fascinating lecture Wednesday evening, June 3, 2009 called “Beyond the Hubble: The Next Space Telescopes” by Dr Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories. Dr. Dressler is very recognizable from the Nova television series where he’s been a guest many times.

I arrived early to grab a bite at the Observatory’s “Café at the End of the Universe” named after Douglas Adam’s novel. As I was munching down a Wolfgang Puck sandwich, I overheard the conversation at a large table of FOTO enthusiasts chatting it up while having dinner. The discussion was quite animated, moving from time dilation effects of travelling at the speed of light, to exoplanet discovery, to being physics groupies! Of course my ears perked up at this mention. One woman recounted her visit to Pie ‘N Burger near Caltech when to her surprise, noted Caltech physicist Kip Thorne walked in. She told her friends how she was all giddy and acted as if he were a rock star like Elvis or someone of that stature. Excellent!

After dinner I made my way over to the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater where the lecture was to be held. The hi-tech multi-media theater seats 200 people and the place was packed. I enjoyed seeing so many people from the community out on a weeknight for science.

The lecture was timely and informative. Dr. Dressler focused on how the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has had astonishing impact on a very wide range or astronomical research, including life histories of stars, the evolution of galaxies, cosmology, dark matter, and dark energy. He then reviewed the achievements of the other member of NASA’s “Great observatories” program, including the Spitzer, Chandra, and Fermi space telescopes which have collectively extended human sight not just in space and time but also outside of the visible spectrum. These telescopes have revealed exotic events in our universe that were not dreamed of a century ago. With an eye to the future, Dr. Dressler also highlighted the role of the new James Web Space Telescope (JWST) that will launch into space in 2014. The JWST will take over where Hubble left off. Primarily an infrared instrument, JWST will also have some capability in the visible light range. JWST will have a 6.5 meter mirror compared to Hubble’s 2.4 meter primary mirror.

If you live in L.A., you should definitely consider treating yourself to the Griffith Observatory as a science resource for the entire family. You might also consider joining FOTO. For readers outside the L.A. area, I recommend that you seek out any “Friends of” organizations associated with your local observatory, museum, amateur astronomers group, etc. Please report back here with information about your group.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Social Aspects of Science: The Science Family

Could there be anything better than a science family? Not in my opinion, but let’s take a closer look. A science family is your run of the mill nuclear family with one big difference, the driving force behind its cohesion is science. How would this work? Easy, but it has to start with a symmetry between both parents. The critical element is that both parents share a common passion for science. The reason is that it takes a concerted effort to plan the science lifestyle for a whole family. Only one participating parent just wouldn’t produce the necessary congruence. A good path for having your own science family probably would start with a science relationship (see previous Science Lifestyle blog post on Tuesday, May 19 for details) and then let nature take its course.

Let’s explore how life might be in a science family. It would have to start with introducing the children to science early on, definitely during the preschool years and continuing through their traditional education years K-12. Given the state of math and science education these days, the activities of a science family could supersede what the child learns in school. The underlying theme of the family would be science, from weekly home experiments, to watching science shows on television, to science outings, to science vacations, and to science-oriented activities around the house. At a basic level, a science family would always exhibit curiosity about nature and the world in which we live.

A science family could spend hours of quality time together in a home science laboratory. This could be a retrofitted garage, shed, or stand-alone building on your property. I always envisioned an underground science lab bunker with a telescope dome on top. There would be a spiral staircase in the lab leading up into the dome for easy access. The lab would include a life sciences lab bench for conducting chemistry/biology experiments. It would have the standard complement of chemicals, beakers, test tubes, Bunsen burners, and a good digital microscope. You’d also need an electronics test bench with test equipment such as a variable power supply, digital oscilloscope, signal generator, laser, digital multi-meter, etc. You might also have a separate physics experiment area with photon detector for a double-slit experiment to demonstrate quantum effects to your friends. Of course you’d need plenty of computers for monitoring scientific experiments around the world (like the Ice Cube neutrino detection experiment in Antarctica). And needless to say, you’ll need plenty of power including a back-up gas generator. The kids would be instructed in the use of most of the equipment and needless to say, safety procedures would be a top priority.

Science activities around the house would be fun and educational. For instance, you could have a weekly science themed family dinner where you pick the top science news item of the week and have a discussion at the dinner table (note: the TV is off during dinner time in a science family). The kids would look forward to their weekly dose of science. To spread the wealth, you could invite one or two neighborhood kids to join your weekly science dinner. Hopefully, the visiting kids will report back to their own parents about how fun your science house is.

Family science outings could be the high point during each month. This is where dedicated science parents come in. Parents need to keep their eyes open for kid-friendly science events around town. Joining your local Science Café would be a good source of event information. But science events don’t have to be formal ones, a visit to a beach tide pool, nature walk, or even the zoo can be approached with a science point of view. Each of the kids would be given their own lab notebook so they can record their observations in order to learn the scientific method.

To me, the concept of a science family is an exciting prospect. But it’s not easy to maintain a science family and the parents will have to do some work. The results, however, clearly will be seen in the children’s increased knowledge, intelligence, grades, confidence, and life prospects. Parents should be willing to go this extra mile to benefit their kids; that’s why they chose to have kids in the first place, right?

As a physics groupie, I’ve always aspired to have a science family. I guess it would help to have kids first!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

UCLA Math Special Awards


It is that time of year again, graduation time and it’s also the time when academic departments honor their best and brightest. Today I had a wonderful time attending the UCLA Mathematics Department special awards ceremony. The event was held in the Math Sciences building (see attached picture) and was very well attended by faculty, staff, graduate students, a few undergrads, and me. Even though I’m always the odd man out at these gatherings, they always make me feel very welcome, and I never feel out of place because the math department is my home.

A number of well deserved awards were handed out including the Sorgenfrey Distinguished Teaching Awards to Michael Hitrik, Susie Hakansson, and Fred Park, as well as a number of teaching assistants. The Basil Gordon Prize was given to Zhi Hong Chen for excellence in the Putnam Mathematical competition. Recognition was also given to several grad students for the Beckenbach Dissertation Year Fellowship Award. There was even a new Lockheed Martin award given for outstanding undergrad research in applied mathematics to Sheida Rahmani.

The final award was for the Horn-Moez Prize for excellence in first-year graduate studies. I have a vested interest in this award because I chose to lend support for this prize by helping it achieve endowment status last year. This year’s winner is Feng Guan who passed all his qualifying exams while holding down a four course load each quarter, not an easy feat!
It was heartening to see so many accomplished young people being recognized for their achievements. Even department superstar, Fields Medalist Terry Tao was in attendance to offer congratulations.

Mathematics has become so important in my life that staying in close proximity to a world-class math department is my necessity. For everyone reading this, I’d recommend that you reach out to your local college or university and get acquainted with faculty and students involved in departments of your chosen scientific fields. You’d be surprised how open and welcoming academics can be when you express a sincere appreciation and enthusiasm for their work. Has anyone else has had a similar experience? Please leave a comment here or contact me directly.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Original Papers


As a physics aficionado I tend to seek out all available resources of information in my selected fields and I encourage you to do the same in your field(s). From these resources, many of them online, I’m able to obtain a lot of current research results, as well as background material that leads to a better understanding of the underlying mathematics and physics.
Here is an example of my research techniques. One of my areas of interest is gravitational radiation. To know more about this area, I need to know details about the specific astrophysical events that emit gravitational waves. One interesting source is the coalescence of binary black hole systems. This leads me to find out more about the physics of black holes. The theory of black holes is a result of Einstein’s general relativity, which requires knowledge of tensor algebra, and tensor calculus, which requires knowledge of differential geometry, which requires knowledge of linear algebra and elementary calculus. Whew! I’m exhausted just writing about it.

One approach for gaining all this knowledge is to pick a couple of good introductory books on general relativity or black holes and leave it at that. I, on the other hand, prefer to go a step further. I like to go way back to original papers.

In almost every distinct scientific field, there is one or more seminal paper that launches a successful new idea or significant direction. In my example above, Einstein’s original papers from the early 1900’s are a great example. I’ve gone back to read these papers to get a more solid foundation for the more contemporary theories. I find that it helps to read the research that started it all. I’ve done the same in other fields, like reading the original Watson and Crick paper from 1953 proposing the double helix structure of DNA. One of my favorites in the field of cosmology is Edwin Hubble’s original paper “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae” from 1929 and Hubble’s book “The Realm of the Nebulae” from 1936. Hubble’s original work changed cosmology forever after his observations led to the realization that the universe is expanding.

The only problem with seeking out original papers is they may be hard to find. Even with the Internet where scientific research is so readily available, finding original papers may be a challenge. The reason of course is that in early days, papers were in print form only. Old papers would need to be digitized and converted to commonly accepted formats such as Postscript and PDF, or even graphic file formats such as JPEG. This isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, I’ve found that with fortitude, I’m usually able to find most original papers eventually.

The acquisition of original papers may be extra work, but I think it is well worth while in order to get a good foundation for your favorite areas of study, plus the detective work needed to locate them can be fun.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Black Holes for Kids


Kids are naturally drawn to the mysterious and unknown, so kids and black holes are a great fit. But just how would a young person go about learning about these intriguing predictions of Einstein's general relativity? Easy, just visit the new web resource: http://www.scienceface.org/.

Scienceface.org is a joint education project of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany and Milde Science Communication. The site has begun releasing a series of fifteen 10-minute film clip interviews with leading research scientists about black holes. The best thing about the video series is that the interviewer is a young university music student and daughter of the site’s founder Bernard Schutz. Dr. Schutz is a British-American physicist and researcher in gravitational waves. He is a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC). The content is brought down to the high-school level which should be approachable for all non-specialists.

Scientists interviewed for the film clips include Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech and one of the founding fathers of my chosen field of interest, gravitational waves and the LIGO project. The video interviews have been designed as an overview of the science behind black holes, how we observe them, black hole research going on today, how they've changed our way of thinking, and what Einstein thought of them.

I was excited to learn of this new resource in part because it relates to my field of research, but also because the target audience is young people and the goal is to provide education about astrophysics.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Science Cafe



As a physics groupie, I like to be up to date on all the science events happening around town. It can be a daunting task, however, to continually check all the venue’s calendars for upcoming lectures, seminars and symposiums. In a typical month period there are as many as half-a-dozen events that I’m interested in right here in Los Angeles, and I always hate it when I miss one because I don’t hear about it in time.

One great solution to this problem is to join your local Science Café. You can start by going to the Science Cafes website: www.sciencecafes.org and search for your local chapter. For my readers outside the U.S. visit the UK-based Cafe Scientifique website: www.cafescientifique.org for a directory of Science Cafes in the UK and other countries.

I live in Southern California, and our Science Café chapter is organized using the Meetup.com group management website. The So Cal group can be reached at: www.meetup.com/SoCal-Science-Cafe. Our group has over 700 members, and membership is free. Each Science Café group works a little differently. The So Cal group organizers (I am an organizer and field reporter for the group) seek out local science events that might be of interest to the group. We send out broadcast announcement e-mails to all members who wish to receive such notices. I found out about the recent JPL Open House event (see previous Science Lifestyle blog post on Saturday, May 2 for details) from one such e-mail. On our group’s Meetup website members can post their profiles that include areas of science interest and photos. Also available are polls, shared file area, message board and most importantly an event calendar.

Some events are organized and sponsored by our Science Café group itself. For instance, the group might invite a recent book author to give a talk at a local bookstore. I’ve attended a number of Science Café events and I’m never disappointed. One reason they’re so good is that they are attended by like-minded folks who share a passion for science and the enthusiasm is always quite high. Kids are always encouraged to attend Science Café events.

I recommend you all join your local Science Café. It is free and it is fun and you won’t miss another good science event again.