Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Twitterpated, The Sequel

I've been neglecting you, I know.
Part of it is this new media - twitter and, in a way, facebook - and the demands of it. I make a point of posting something every day, which, it turns out, is difficult to sustain. My facebook page now has over 300 followers, and I feel that I owe them something (this is not necessarily a bad thing), so each day I find news stories about science and link them. My twitter handle has only 33 followers, however, but finding content to pass along is somewhat easier. The difficulty with twitter is finding something unique to say, instead of merely forwarding what others have already posted. Each tweet must stand alone, be self-sufficient and self-explanatory (at least cursorily), and be interesting enough that someone might care to read it or share it with others. My blog, on the other hand - and you know who you are - has about half a dozen readers.
Now, I'm not fooling myself into thinking that 300+ people like my facebook page because they really like it and care about what I have to share. I think that the majority of those people have either agreed to follow my page because I know them personally and harassed them into it, or else they are strangers who accidentally liked my page because it's the name of that song by The Killers (that song knocked me from #2 in a Google search to pages behind a nearly infinite number of youtube videos and lyrics sites... grumble grumble). But maybe I can do something positive given those circumstances - maybe if I share enough stories about cool science facts and discoveries, things that we've learned over the years (evolution, climate change, and neurology come to mind), some of it will get through. Maybe someone out there will be chatting with her friends over coffee and recall seeing some news story about how scientists built a self-folding robot, and they'll discuss how neat that is, and maybe she'll take some engineering courses in college. Ok, a bit optimistic perhaps, but the point is valid. Maybe I can make a positive difference, however small.
There is one other reason why I have been neglecting my blog, however, and it answers the question you probably have right now: "if you do want to make a difference, why should that involve twitter and facebook, but not blogger?" It's a valid question. The answer is simple: health. (There is one additional but less important answer: summers are always busier, with interns and conferences and so forth.) Blogging requires a lot more effort than does retweeting photos from NASA, and lately I've not been well enough to have the energy to do it. Without going into detail, this health issue has actually been a real struggle for me. I want to write - desperately - but I very often find that I can't.
Does it matter to anyone but myself? Probably not. I write mostly for my own benefit, so there's very little (if any) global impact if I stop. This is why I've concentrated what energy I do have on the upkeep of MAB on facebook instead of here. It (potentially) matters to more people. (NB: this is not an underhanded ploy to garner empty compliments!)
So that's that. I've let myself become twitterpated because it's less work than being bloggerpated. I am a limited resource (even more so with the health issue) and so I must take care to delegate my effort. But for all that, I enjoy blogging far more than posting news stories on facebook. So I won't completely give it up.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Twitterpated

As Thumper explained to Bambi, "he's twitterpated."
In the real world, twitter has taken on new meaning. Having recently joined the twitterverse - with considerable trepidation, I might add - I wanted to share my experience.
I have to admit, the Twitter format seemed impossible, at least it did before I started. But the 140 character limit turns out to be a boon for creatively sharing information. The strict format fosters creativity, much in the same way that a highly structured poetic form encourages more imaginative use of language, or a small studio apartment motivates clever uses of space. I have to think about what I'm going to say and how I'm going to say it, to a greater extent than when blogging or posting to Facebook (to say it without using txt spk is an even more difficult undertaking!). That isn't to say that I am sloppy with other forms of media, but instead that the format affects the content in a particular (and interesting) way.
Because of this, I think Twitter would be a good exercise for any scientist who wants to work on getting better at communicating with the public. If it takes more than 140 characters to explain, in basic terms, what you're researching, then perhaps it's not so compelling research after all... either that, or (more likely), you're not doing a good enough job of explaining! (A decade or so ago, we used to refer to this kind of communication as "talking points.")
So call me twitterpated. I don't mind.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Many Worlds of Leo Szilard

I've just returned from the APS April meeting, which hosted a special session entitled The Many Worlds of Leo Szilard (yes, Neil deGrasse Tyson was also there....).
Sadly, I overheard two students in the auditorium behind me commenting that they had no idea who this "Sizlard? Zilard? Lizard?" guy was.
Dr. Szilard, a physicist from Austria-Hungary, was instrumental in the development of the first nuclear reactor, electron microscope, linear accelerator, cyclotron, and was involved in the Manhattan Project. He is even anecdotally credited with designing his own radiation cancer therapy. My work would not be possible without the solid foundation he provided.
Despite his work on the nuclear bombs of the Manhattan Project, he had a tremendous respect for human life and hoped desperately that the United States would not actually use the weapons. He drafted a petition, collected signatures, and presented the result to President Harry Truman, but to no avail - the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war in the Pacific arena. Szilard was eventually dismissed from the Manhattan Project by General Leslie Groves for having suspected communist sympathies.
Today, few people outside of those interested in our nuclear history know his name (let alone how to pronounce it). In spite of this, he is forever memorialized with a crater on the dark side of the Moon named after him.
I can only hope those students learned something. I'd rather not repeat the history that Dr. Szilard tried so valiantly to prevent.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Travel

Sorry, all. I'm going to do that thing you're not supposed to do with a blog and apologize for not writing in so long. But it wasn't my fault, in that sense. I was traveling.
I wish I could tell you that I was traveling to new and exciting and exotic locations around the globe, taking in local culture and trying new foods and climbing mountains and leaving prayer flags at temples. But no such luck. I was traveling for work.
The difference this time was duration. I was away from home for 5 1/2 weeks.
I have a news flash: a 5 1/2 week business trip is too long.
It was an awkward in-between kind of length, too long for a typical hotel-stay kind of trip, but too short to be considered a sabbatical. Yet I did stay in a hotel (thankfully one with a small kitchen, albeit in the same room as the bed), instead of finding a characterful apartment to live in for a while. I lived out of a suitcase. I went without the companionship of my pets or the familiarity of my home. I spent $3.75 in quarters every week to do laundry.
To what end? Well, ostensibly, I was there to participate in 3 different experiments: one a measurement of gamma rays from an important nucleus in novae and x-ray bursts, one a particle-transfer reaction looking at parameters important for nuclear structure, and one a commissioning run for the large, complicated piece of equipment I just finished installing and testing. It wasn't originally supposed to all happen at once, but in a fluke of scheduling, all three experiments ended up being scheduled within the same month. Plus a week or so either side to set up and tear down, and what you get is a really really long stay.
Add to that the fact that weekends were usually spent in the lab, trying to fix something that had broken on Friday, and even your slim chances for a day's escape to somewhere interesting nearby is stolen from you. It's too much to ask of someone.
I think the worst part is that this trip has been so completely exhausting, it has ruined my desire to travel anywhere else. I could attend some conferences in Europe this summer, take a vacation to the beach, who knows? But (at least right at this moment) I don't want to ever look at a suitcase again, so how can I go? I don't even want to leave the house to go grocery shopping, not really.
Travel shouldn't have to be such a chore. I know traveling for work isn't as great as traveling for yourself, but you should at least be able to get something positive out of it.
I don't actually know how to end this post, to be honest. I spent too much time away from home, in a place that is no substitute, and it has addled my brain. I answered the question "how are you?" today with "not too much." I can't think. I need to recover.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Science Bowl

First of all, I'd like to say congratulations to all of the students who participated in the East Tennessee Middle School Science Bowl - you're all very bright!
I had the good fortune to be a Scientific Judge for the past couple years at the Science Bowl competition. Along with the moderator, my job was to read questions, acknowledge responses, and determine (in cases where there could be some ambiguity, such as short answer questions) whether the answer given by the student was sufficiently correct.
This year, the moderator I worked alongside was a veteran of the Science Bowl in many respects: he had not only moderated for many years, but also had been a question writer, a question reviewer, and before that was one of those very students who sat, in teams of four, across from us. Someone asked, at the end of the day, whether his participation in the Science Bowl competitions as a student had made a difference to his choice of career as an engineer.
I was glad, however, that no one asked me the same question, because I never participated in anything like Science Bowl. Sure, we had physics club in high school, but that was really just an organized way of working collaboratively on homework. I didn't do Math Olympiad or Science Bowl or any robotics competitions. Instead, I went to the Latin Olympics.
Yes, that's a thing. It happens all over the US, in fact, though the only website I could find was for the Chicago Public Schools' competition.
Instead of answering multiple choice questions about geology and physics, I was practicing oratory in a dead language.
In honor of that colorfully competitive past, I share with you this: the story of Minerva and Medusa which I had to memorize. I remember getting some sort of medal, but whether it was for this, I can't recall.
Olim Medusa, puella pulchra, in terra obscura habitabat ubi neque sol neque luna apparebat. Terra obscura puellae grata non erat. Medusa Minervam adoravit.
"Dea sapientiae, audi me," puella misera oravit. "Juva me! Terra obscura, ubi habito, mihi grata non est. Pulchra sum; pulchram comam atque faciem pulchram habeo. Nemo autem in terra obscura me videre potest. Desidero in terra clara habitare."
Dea autem Medusam juvare recusavit. Tum puella irata Minervae dixit, "Invidiosa es quod tam pulchra sum! Populum me videre non desideras!"
Tum dea irata pulchram comam puellae mutavit.
"Tu fuisti superba propter comam pulchram atque faciem pulchram. Ego comam tuam in serpentes mutavi," dea dixit irata. "Non jam tua coma erit pulchra. Tua facies erit pulchra, sed nemo te spectare poterit. In saxa tua facies viros mutabit."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Warring Worldviews - Or Not

So Christmas this year resulted in a pretty significant stack of new books to read, and I'm ready to report on the first of these: the joint venture between Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow, War of the Worldviews.
Suffice it to say, the only war is the one we artificially construct.
Much of the issue, as is typically the case with such things, is one of ignorance - neither party has sufficient knowledge of the subjects to discuss them in a meaningful way. Thus Scientist Mlodinow ignores philosophy because he basically doesn't get it (trying to apply the rules of mathematics to philosophy is like trying to use one cake recipe to derive the importance of food), and Spiritualist Chopra makes the dangerous mistake of trying to fit a metaphysics into the currently existing physics. They both discuss the difference between mind and brain without once mentioning the phrase "emergent behavior." Mlodinow compares a spiritual worldview to Victorian seances, cites optical illusions as proof that an immaterial realm cannot exist (surely if one was looking for a connection between the immaterial realm of "mind" and the material realm of "brain," the very brain scans he cites as proof that no such connection exists are exactly that connection), and uses Richard Dawkins' "Methinks it is like a weasel" computer code as though it makes his point (a note to the uninformed: the idea is that randomness plus a process like natural selection can make evolution proceed faster than randomness alone; while this is generally true, Dawkins' example is fundamentally flawed in that he directs the process, making the end result, the sentence "methinks it is like a weasel," the goal of the process - completely unlike natural selection, which has no "goal"). Not to mention his consistent complaining about Chopra's imprecise use of terminology, which he subsequently ignores when using his own imprecise terminology. There's even an eerily close approach to Godwin's Law on page 62 (who brings up Nazis in a discussion on whether the universe is evolving?).
Similarly misdirected, Chopra tries to imbue positive meaning into the quantum world, instead of just indeterminacy. However, he doesn't ignore science or discount it, but embraces it - a supremely important step - and asks us to not change the materialistic worldview so much as expand it; he wants science to be directed by spirituality, if you will, partially in how it approaches the world (not a great idea) but also partially in how it is applied to the world (a great idea). Oddly enough, Mlodinow doesn't straight-off discount spirituality, either, but he uses fuzzy terms to talk about how people should be spiritual without being spiritual. The material world is all that exists, but you should still be nice to people. It's no wonder it took me four days to get through this nonsense.
One of the really irritating things about this book, actually, is Scientist Mlodinow's misrepresentation of science. I suppose I should have known already that I wouldn't be very sympathetic after the last debacle, but I wanted to give it a shot. He somehow misses the point entirely when he discusses, toward the end of the book, the fact that our perception of the universe is necessarily - by being filtered through our senses and our brains - subjective, yet clings unapologetically to the claim that science is truly objective and the only real way to understand the universe. In the same breath, he will denounce people's blind acceptance of a spiritual or religious teaching, then bid us trust everything he says about scientific results. (It makes you wonder if he ever actually listens to himself talk.) Similarly, he'll cite correlations as proof of causation, without so much as a single footnote on how this is actually outside of the scientific process (science is all there is, indeed!). He claims that science does not answer to authority, as these foolish religious traditions do, and yet he continually references Einstein's opinions on religion (on a related note, can I just complain that this is a weak and useless argument for science and against spirituality... claiming that science is better than the ancient wisdom traditions because it is continually updated is not only blind worship of progress, but it also ignores that the ancient wisdom traditions have had no need to change. A person is as driven by conflicting desires now as he was 6000 years ago. Basic human nature remains constant, and thus our knowledge of it needs no update). And at one point, he makes the horrific mistake (please let it be a mistake!) of saying that in science, we seek to both prove and disprove things. We never, ever, ever can prove something in science. That's fundamental to science's nature. Science wouldn't continue to progress and improve, as Mlodinow so insistently reminds us, if we were able to prove something to be absolutely scientifically true.
Now, I appreciate the difficulty in explaining science, broadly, to a non-scientific audience. This is why I argue that people need to be science-literate just as much as they need to be English-literate, regardless of whether they want a career in STEM. There are things we say to one another as scientists, words that have slightly varied meanings from the usual lexicon, phrases that indicate something to us but which mean nothing, or worse are misinterpreted as meaning something else, to those outside of our field. I get that. When we say "prove," what we really mean is "show to be within 97% certainty" or the like. And when I joke with my fellow physicists that "science is subjective," I mean something slightly different than what this statement appears on the surface; of course science gains some level of objectivity through its focus on repetition and reproduction of results. So when I complain about Mlodinow's misrepresentation of science, it is in this context: he is making science sound like more than it actually is to an audience outside of science. As a scientist, I understand why he makes a point of explaining that the term "evolution" can't be applied equally to biological systems and to physical systems like the universe, but at the same time, I don't understand why he then turns around and uses the term "prove" to describe a sweeping conclusion drawn from a few, barely statistically significant measurements of brain activity in patients suffering from damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
In the end, neither of them succeed fully in making their point. If there is really a "war of the worldviews," it isn't between science and spirituality, no matter how much the book's reviewers (their war cries printed all over the cover and inside the flaps) froth at the mouth. The real conflict is between subjectivity and objectivity, and in truth, only one of these can win. Science relies on objectivity, which works reasonably well enough when the view is turned outward, toward objects (it's painfully obvious, I know). But that objectivity will completely break down when turned inward, toward the source of the subjectivity from which the objectivity is trying to break free (it also breaks down at the quantum level). One simply cannot "know thyself" when "thyself" has been purposefully removed. (As Schroedinger wrote in Mind and Matter, "No personal god can form part of a world model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it... I do not find God anywhere in space and time - that is what the honest naturalist tells you. For this he incurs blame from him in whose catechism is written: God is spirit.") Science (just as religion) is the product of minds which are, and always will be, subjective; hence its objectivity will always be tinged with subjectivity. We are part of that which we are observing. We cannot divorce ourselves entirely from the universe, and if we try to operate under the assumption that we can, we will find ourselves running up time and again against tremendous inconsistencies (both scientifically and spiritually). Subjectivity rules.
But the truth is, the ancient wisdom traditions have known this all along. Tat tvam asi - that art thou - we are connected to everything, or, more accurately, we are everything, and everything is us. We are not disconnected, nor can we ever be. Thus science can only be one way of seeing the world, but it is not the way. We don't have to be mystics to understand that. We can tell simply by the fact that science insists that "we" don't factor into science (a scientific worldview implies, but purposely ignores, a viewer).
The really telling portion for me, though, came only a third of the way into the book. Scientist Mlodinow, in his essay on "what is life?," begins his final paragraph with the following:
I spoke to my father while writing this book. For as long as I can remember I have feared for his health. When I spoke to him the other night he reassured me that he is alive and well, in the same way he has reassured me each time I've seen him over the last twenty years - in my dreams. My father died two decades ago but I'd obviously rather not accept it. I'd rather believe that he has rejoined the universe, or gone on living in some other form. Unfortunately, for me the desire is not strong enough to outweigh the skepticism....
I'm sorry, what?!? I'd say your subconscious brain has a $%*^&$%@$#*% lot to tell you about how strong your desire for closure is!
Expletives aside, the candid admission is meant to show that it takes more strength to believe that "we again become one with the dust" than to accept a "reassuring" metaphysical answer. That might be true. But does that make you a better human being? And isn't the betterment of human beings the entire point of discussing which type of worldview to adopt? In the Foreward, it even says that "No one can ignore the question of how to perceive the world.... What else could be more important?" It seems to me like this anecdote, meant to show strength, actually demonstrates a vast - but thankfully curable - weakness. If to adopt the purely scientific worldview means that I cannot properly grieve and come to terms with death, if to adopt the purely scientific worldview means that I become incapable of being a well-rounded and well-adjusted human being, then I reject it. If, on the other hand, the spiritual worldview gives me those things, allows me to accept death and adjust to life, then this is my obvious choice. It is also presumably the choice of every other sensible person who reads this book. You, Scientist Mlodinow, have conceded the argument without even fully presenting your side of the debate, thanks to one overwhelming fact: I would rather not be like you.
Please understand that I do not mean to be harsh. The loss of a loved one is a tremendous psychological (spiritual) burden, and one that not every person bears the same way. But if this scientific worldview, at least as presented here, offers me no solace, then what reason do I have to choose it? Scientist Mlodinow, as if anticipating his debate defeat, leaves us with one more anecdote, this one about a friend who believed in God and the soul.
I expected her to disagree about the absence of evidence, but she didn't.... Can you enjoy a film even if you'd be at a loss to describe its merits [she asked]? Can it speak truth to you even if it is not a cinematic masterpiece? Why is it wrong to believe in a higher power even if you don't have proof? Then she told me of a book published in German, a collection of notes and letters written by people about to be executed for helping Jews survive during World War II. All were written either by people deeply involved in their faith or by children. There was only one exception, she said - a nineteen-year-old secular man who got involved in the resistance movement as a sort of adventure. His letters were different from all the others, she said. He was the only one who feared death.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

What we can learn from Einstein

Everyone knows Albert Einstein - yes, that Einstein, the famous physicist, the man in the Swiss patent office who shattered the Newtonian ideals of fixed space and time. But even as we recite the stories, recalling the now familiar image of a wild-haired, wrinkle-browed old man, there are things that we miss. Here are a few.

1) Einstein won the Nobel Prize, but that's not what he's most famous for.
Einstein's Nobel was for his work on the photoelectric effect, which describes how materials struck by certain types of light can emit electrons. It's worth noting that while most people don't even know what the photoelectric effect is (or Brownian motion, for that matter), they can correctly link Einstein with "the theory of relativity." Both endeavors were important to physics, but only one was able to capture the public's attention. In other words, what review committees might view as "Nobel-worthy" may not be popular (interesting to a wider audience), and vice versa. When funding is based solely on one of these criteria, it can lead to a loss of good science.

2) Einstein's H-index probably wasn't all that high (during his lifetime).
Sure, Einstein published some really seminal papers, especially in 1905. He published lots of papers over his entire career (though not as many as some frighteningly prolific researchers), though many of those papers he did publish weren't necessarily peer-reviewed. But it's whether people properly cite your work that counts where the H-index is concerned, and despite his brilliance, many of Einstein's papers were greeted with nods of agreement and nothing more. If you only consider the "miracle year," in fact, Einstein's calculated H-index - often used as a means of determining whether you deserve a job - would have been in the measly single digits. Using metrics like the H-index may be interesting, but they're not the penultimate indication of how good you are at science.

3) Einstein struggled to find a faculty job.
Getting tenured (or at least tenure-track) jobs in academia is hard enough when you're not Einstein, so it's always scary to consider that the man himself had trouble finding a job that would allow him to work on theoretical physics. Two frustrating years after he graduated, he managed to get the position at the patent office (with the assistance of his friend's dad); not what he wanted, but at least something to pay the bills and allow him a little free time to pursue his work. Einstein's first lecturer position didn't come until more than three years after the 1905 "miracle year." Imagine how the history of physics might be different had someone in academia recognized Einstein's potential earlier.

4) Einstein was a trouble-maker.
It's a common misconception that Einstein, as a kid, was bad at school - in fact, his grades were exceptional. However, he had a massive distrust for what he considered to be "arbitrary" authority, and he hated the general form of early schooling. Memorization and recitation bored him, and eventually he would take his teacher's advice and leave school (so as not to disrupt the classroom any further). It was only at the Swiss school in Aarau that teachers recognized Einstein's gift and allowed him the freedom to pursue his own studies - eventually allowing him to become one of the most prominent physicists of all time. That student in your class, who doesn't do the homework and would rather make snide observations than listen quietly, could be acting out of boredom, or a longing for freedom and purpose; that student could be the next Einstein.

If Einstein really is our role model, our categorical scientist, then we would do well to learn everything we can from his life.