Monthly Archives: April 2013


That’s us.

Much of human history can, I think, be described as a gradual and sometimes painful liberation from provincialism, the emerging awareness that there is more to the world than was generally believed by our ancestors.

Earth day was this past Monday, a good reason to give some extra consideration to that ‘pale blue dot’ that every human being that has ever lived has called home. Will there ever be a day when that will no longer be true?

Carl Sagan, owner of the above quote (from Broca’s Brain) and a chief proponent of space exploration, was always a forward thinker, often extrapolating in the most hopeful ways from present realities to future possibilities. Some of his visions may have been a bit too hopeful, such as his conjecture that “perhaps by the early twenty-first century there will be interplanetary regattas competing for the fastest time from Earth to Mars”, but in general I think he stays square on the optimistic side of realistic. And he, like another famous astrophysicist/communicator, is a huge proponent of manned space flights.

Some of the reasons for space exploration are very much down to earth, addressing such practical realities as overcrowding and resource scarcity. To put it bluntly, minerals and elbow room are limited on the planet, unlimited outside of it.

But apart from such practical considerations, Sagan also encouraged space exploration for its metaphysical returns. He speaks of this ‘deprovinciaiization’ of mankind. As we learn more about places we visit, we understand more about how where we come from, the ideas and the culture of the place we call home, fits into this larger scheme. It gives us perspective. It fills in blank areas on the map and expands our sense of the relationships between places and people. One extreme example of this is the overview effect, in which astronauts experience a change in awareness concerning the earth and its place in the universe. From space there are no divisions between countries and people.

This deprovincialization of mankind has been aided powerfully, I believe, by space exploration – by exquisite photographs of the Earth taken from a great distance, showing a cloudy, blue, spinning ball set like a sapphire in the endless velvet of space; but also by the exploration of other worlds, which have revealed both their similarities and their differences to this home of mankind.

This kind of thinking is mirrored by Steven Pinker (Violence Vanquished), who argues that the world today is far safer than it has ever been before, largely due to the growth of government and global organizations and a more educated and worldly population.

A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

Both Sagan and Pinker are addressing some very important ideas. The more we know about how we relate to people in other places, whether historical or geographical, and the more we know about the natural world, the better we understand our own circumstances at a specific place and time. Travel makes the world more peaceful. So it’s important to read and explore, to remove the barriers of ignorance. I often find that a simple walk around the block teaches me a lot about my neighborhood and a bike ride teaches me a lot about my city. The further I travel from my origin, the more I find out things that challenge my assumptions, that shake me up a bit and reveal a world I never knew existed.


The Overview Effect

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.

Starting with this quote from astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, the film OVERVIEW explores the changes in perspective that arrived with manned space flights and accompanying images that showed, for the first time in human history, the tenuous piece of real estate on which we all reside. When viewed from this vantage point, the Earth exists as a complete and unified whole, virtually free of any arbitrary divisions created by humankind. It also appears fragile and alone, something that needs to be fought for, cherished, and protected.

It’s a brilliant and beautiful film. It may be the most wonderful thing I’ve seen so far this year.

Art of Conversation

I’ve been attending several sessions of a workshop yesterday and today that center on the topic of scientific communication. The workshop, hosted by the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery, is called ‘Art of the Conversation’, and addresses the general question: how does someone in a scientific career talk to other people about what they do?

The first session I attended yesterday was ‘Accessibility: Explaining technical information to a lay audience’ with Dr. Jennifer Ashton (senior medical contributor, ABC news), Steve Paulson (host of Wisconsin Public Radio’s ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge‘), and Sharon Dunwoody (professor of journalism and mass communication at UW-Madison).

The three speakers each gave their perspective on techniques to improve the communication of scientific information to the general public. Some of the information was geared more towards scientists who want to explain their work to an interviewer or to the public, and some of it was more appropriate for science writers who want to take that role.

Many of their suggestions were very intuitive, but nonetheless they are issues that many scientists have trouble with (myself included). In any case, it always helps to hear these things repeated. Here is some of what they said:

  • Simplicity is key, but avoid ‘dumbing it down’. Avoid using jargon or overly technical language.
  • Give examples. Or non-examples. Sometimes something can be better understood by understanding what it isn’t.
  • Offer the information in layers, from general to specific, to get at complex ideas. This can also help to ensure that people from a wide variety of backgrounds can learn something.
  • Difficulties scientists can run into: getting lost in the details, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, staying too general. Either case can cause people to lose interest.
  • To really make their research interesting, scientists should, 1) show why they’re passionate about what they do, and 2) personalize the issue, adding the human factor to the discussion.
  • Stories should have a narrative arc: beginning (why should someone care), middle (contains most of the information), and end (tie it in again to why people should care)

As a sort of summary, I think that many of these suggestions fall into two major categories:

  1. Inspiration – Getting a reader/listener to care about the topic. This is achieved by making information interesting and relevant and telling a story.
  2. Education – Making it easy to learn about a topic. Once a person is really interested in something, educating them becomes a lot easier, but there are still ways to ensure that they learn as much as possible. Using examples and simple, straightforward language are good ways to do this.

Funding and things.

The conference is over and I’ve retreated for a while to the Sonoma County Library, making bountiful use of the free magazines and free internet. Libraries are a wonderful pause and a good base while traveling. It’s surprising I haven’t used them on more of my trips.

In a little while I’ll head back down to San Francisco, where I’ll be meeting up with some old high school friends of mine who have found themselves in the bay area. It seems that anyone who is doing anything tech related ends up in San Francisco (or thereabouts, it’s really all the same place to me).

One of the biggest pieces of news from this last week was the announcement of President Obama’s new budget, including important adjustments to science spending (important for scientists anyway, and they’d probably argue that anything important for science is important for people as a whole). There’s a pretty good summary from Science Magazine on some of the changes here.

Fusion energy sciences (part of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science) sees a budget increase of 14%. The way I understand it, this effectively covers the US commitment to the ITER project without taking as much away from the rest of the domestic fusion program. As a grad student, I’m pretty sheltered from much of the funding debate, but I pick up on it a little bit here and there. But it doesn’t take an economist to know that more money means more research.

One of these days it might be interesting to write up a brief history of fusion research. It would make for a good first chapter for the thesis. It would also be interesting to see how scientific advances correlate to changing funding levels. Fusion can get a bad wrap (always being 20 years away), but it’s important to put things in perspective. The new budget is for about $450 million, and (I’ll have to find these numbers again) I think that the total amount of money spent on fusion research since the 1950s totals about $20 billion. That’s how much money BP agreed to set aside to pay for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Energy is costly, but maybe we can choose better ways to spend our money.

Science as an endurance sport

A few days ago a friend referred me to an article in the New York Times on the Barkley Marathons, a highly secretive and physically brutal ultra-marathon that takes place in the rugged mountains of Tennessee. With 100+ miles, unmarked trails, and no race support, it is a race that is designed to induce failure. In it’s present form, only 12 people (out of 800 racers) have finished it under the time limit of 60 hours.

One of the things I found interesting was a comment in the article from the race organizer, where he said, “most Barkley finishers had a background in science or engineering and all but one had an advanced degree.” That’s interesting, I thought. What is the connection between distance running and science? Commence speculation.

I have to admit that I’m a little bit biased, since I am both a runner myself (though not of the ‘ultra’ type) and a physics graduate student. I would like to think that runners are all just very smart people, or that scientists are all bad-asses. I’ve known enough runners and enough physicists to know that I can’t make those generalizations.

I posed this question to a friend of mine (also a grad student, and a runner in high school). He thought it might be that nerdy types prefer fringe sports, like ultra-running or ultimate frisbee or curling. There might be something to that. As the NY Times article comments, some of the Barkley veterans are a little miffed that the race is getting any coverage at all. They’d prefer that it stay secret and out of the mainstream.

But I think there’s more of a connection. I think that there is something in the personality of people attracted to distance running that brings them to science as well.

It might be the case that a person pursues endurance sports and scientific research for the same reason: because it is difficult, and they don’t know if they are up to the task. Runners who have pushed into the ‘ultra’ category of racing have likely done so because they have found that typical runs, on the order of a few miles, no longer provide enough challenges. “I wanted to test my limits,” one of the Barkley’s competitors says. “The Barkley is good for that because pretty much no one can finish it.” This seems to be in line with advice from Albert Einstein,

“One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

Wolfgang Ketterle, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics, agrees that there are some commonalities in the type of people who enjoy science and running. On the similarities of the two, he says

“I think both running and science reflect certain character traits. I have endurance, patience, and ambition. I’m willing to work hard toward a goal, to push myself and overcome limits. Running and science both let me express these traits. Also, this is one set of skills that made me successful in both science and running.”

So challenging oneself is a large part of the draw. But running can also provide an outlet for anxiety and a way to move beyond the stress of difficult work. Alan Turing, the highly influential mathematician, and one of the fathers of computer science, was an avid runner. He said, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.” Running for him was a release valve, a way to move past the cloudy thoughts of a busy mind into clearer thinking. He is said to have come up with the basic idea of the computer while pausing in a field during one of his runs. Ketterle finds that running fulfills a similar role:

“When I run, I think about everything—physics, family problems, plans for the weekend. I haven’t made any big discoveries on a run, but it does give me time to think through problems. Some solutions are obvious, but they are only obvious when you are relaxed enough to find them. Running is like decompressing and cleaning up your mind. Your body is busy and your mind is free.”

So running may provide a way to step back from the rigors of analytic thought and allow ideas to coalesce in a different frame of mind.

This all just speculation, of course. There are many endurance athletes who choose not to study science or engineering, and there are many scientists and engineers who want nothing to do with athletics. In the end, maybe all we can say is that some people find running and scientific work to be very complementary. I know I fall into that category.