Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scientists in the Media

I keep my eyes and ears open for science discussions in the general media. This kind of outreach by professional scientists is very important in conveying concepts and theories to the lay person. Here are a couple of excerpts that I found interesting:
“I think it’s probably one of the most abused concepts in physics among the public. You should be wary whenever you hear something like, ‘Quantum mechanics connects you with the universe’ … or ‘quantum mechanics unifies you with everything else.’ You can begin to be skeptical that the speaker is somehow trying to use quantum mechanics to argue fundamentally that you can change the world by thinking about it.”
Lawrence Krauss, Arizona State University, on “quantum quackery,” MSNBC.COM, September 20, 2010.
“This is something people have difficulty wrapping their minds around, because it doesn’t show up in any obvious ways in our everyday lives. It’s a very subtle effect, until you’re flying close to a black hole or moving close to the speed of light.”
Sean Carroll, Caltech, on time dilation, NPR, September 23, 2010.

[NOTE: Scientists in the Media will be a recurring feature here on the SLB.]

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Competition and the Exoplanet Olympics

I had a nice chat with UCLA Professor of Physics & Astronomy, David Jewitt last night after his thought provoking research colloquium “Planets and Exoplanets.” Jewitt’s range of topics for the talk was broad. He started with a current view of our very own solar system – not the boring, rather static one that we all learned in grade school, but the new and much more dynamical model. He also examined the popular methods for exoplanet discovery: radial velocity (wobble), transit, direct, and microlensing. Toward the end, he touched on the question of life on other planets including the moons Europa and Enceladus. It was a rigorous treatment with plenty of detailed scientific graphs and formulae. The scope of the presentation was for fellow faculty researchers, researchers from other fields, and the general public (he led off the discussion with a humorous disclaimer that the success for such a broad reach was impossible and someone was likely to be disappointed – I guarantee that everyone was quite pleased).

As good as the lecture was it was my discussion with Professor Jewitt afterward at the reception that was the most enjoyable. I inquired about the discovery of Gliese 581g, the exoplanet recently announced that is around three times the mass of Earth and inside the host star’s so-called “habitable zone” where liquid water could exist. The announcement on Sept. 29 by Vogt et al from UC Santa Cruz, was one of the biggest science headlines of the year. The star Gliese 581 is a mere 20 light years away.

I lamented to Jewitt that I was disappointed to read this week that an exoplanet group in Geneva expressed doubt on its discovery. He explained the cold reality of competing scientific research groups. Apparently, there are two main groups of planet-hunters, one in California (UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz) and another group in Switzerland. The California group announced Gliese 581g with the consensus of the Swiss group and others. But on Oct. 11 Francesco Pepe’s comments at the IAU Symposium in Turin first appeared on a Facebook page, “We cannot confirm it [Gliese 581g] in our HARPS data.”

It’s tempting to make a big deal out of this or present it as some kind of embarrassment, but this stuff is the meal ticket of science. Jewitt looks at these occurrences of one upmanship as healthy scientific competition between different groups that yields better science in the long run and certainly makes things exciting.

As I strolled away from the California NanoSystems Institute Auditorium where the talk was held, I reflected on Jewitt’s words. The situation reminded me of the long held competition between the UCLA Galactic Center Group and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the likes of which has yielded some of the most amazing results in the past decade. It’s not unlike watching well conditioned athletes competing in the Olympics – the race is exciting, but in the end it is the advancement of the sport that matters most. So too with competing scientific teams – we all win when the race is over and new truths about the universe are known.

[The inset image is an artist’s concept of the red dwarf star and Gliese 581g.]

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Anti-Science Movement

With the U.S. mid-term elections a thing of the past, it is a good time to take stock of where we are as a country in terms of scientific goals. The GOP’s newly acquired control of the House and gains in the Senate means that the relatively science-friendly Obama administration must now steer a rougher course in supporting America’s science establishment. The conservative agenda of governance is generally pro-business while forsaking scientific progress. Take this excerpt from a Rush Limbaugh broadcast:

“The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.”

It is tempting to laugh off this and other conservative rhetoric, but Limbaugh and similar voices are no laughing matter. America, more and more often, bears witness to these fact-less exclamations from high-profile figures in the American political arena. Take tea party poster child Christine O’Donnell’s claim that “evolution is a myth.” Or consider Representative Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) intention to investigate climate scientists for fraudulent claims about global warming. Then there is the contentious Alaskan race between moderate Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski and her tea party opponent Joe Miller who said Murkowski’s acknowledgement of the reality of global warming is “exhibit A for why she needs to go.” And we can’t forget the anti-science vitriol from conservative cheerleader Sarah Palin who famously decried fruit fly research a waste of public money. These are just a few examples of a rising anti-science tide that academia can no long ignore.

There is no doubt about the growing anti-science streak on the American right that could have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts including environmental regulation, stem cell research, and many other important issues. The right-wing populism that is flourishing in the current climate of economic insecurity echoes many traditional conservative themes such as opposition to taxes, regulation, and immigration. The biggest area of concern, however, is the movement is also tapping an age-old U.S. political impulse – a suspicion of elites and expertise. In addition, the movement is also averse to science-based regulation, which it sees as an excuse for intrusive government. This is why we see resistance to oil drilling regulation even in light of the massive BP spill in the Gulf.

Denialism over global warming has become a merit badge of the political right. Limbaugh, for instance has advised his followers that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists,” and has called climate-change science “the biggest scam in the history of the world.”

 U.S. citizens face economic problems that are all too real, and the country’s future crucially depends on education, science and technology as it faces increasing competition from China and other emerging science powers. But in the current poisoned political atmosphere, the defenders of science have few easy remedies. Reassuringly, polls show that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. public sees science as a force for good, and the anti-science rumblings may be short-lived. Scientists and educators should redouble their efforts to promote rationalism, scholarship and critical thought among the young to help illuminate the pressing science-based issues of our time. Of course, that’s the whole idea behind the Science Lifestyle Blog. Keep the faith!