Skip to main content

Thanks a lot, science...



Personally, I'm still holding out for the unicorns.

But seriously, this is a pretty entertaining way of thinking about science. Humans are good at coming up with stories to explain things. These stories often revolve around us, as human beings. So in this way we often fool ourselves. I trip on the sidewalk, and I look back at the crack as if it was personal. It rains on a day that I forgot my umbrella, and I sigh as if nature has it out for me. I get lucky and find a front-row parking space and I'm tempted to make up a story about how it was "meant to be" or that I have good parking mojo (I kinda think I do). The athlete's team wins the game and it was because a higher power intervened (I always wonder about the other team...).

Science is a handy tool (or set of tools, really) that prevents us from fooling ourselves---in the event that we are really curious about how the universe works. If not, then the stories work just fine: our fates lie in the chance alignment of stars in the sky along the ecliptic. The magnets in our bracelet really have healing powers. God helped you win your basketball game. Fine, I won't try to take that away from you.

But if one is really interested in understanding how the Universe works---are there planets around other stars? What happens if I fall into a black hole? Are there more stars in the visible universe or more grains of sand on all of the beaches of the world?---then I have just the tool set for you. Check out my Intro Astro class. There are answers to all of these sorts of questions (Hint: there are more stars, by a long shot). The miracle isn't the existence of black holes or planets or galaxies. The miracle is that we as tiny human beings can possibly comprehend these astronomical objects . The miracle isn't the Big Bang. The miracle is that we can know so much about that singular event in the universe's history and make predictions about what we'll find when we observe the cosmic sky (this is based on an Einstein or Feynman quote that I can't find).

I mean, seriously, look at the plot below. The cosmological prediction is the red, solid line. The data, measured by a satellite called COBE, are the black squares that lie on that line like beads on a string. Those data don't exist unless the Universe sprang forth into existence 13.75 +/- 0.11 billion years ago and expanded rapidly thereafter.


Figure 1 - Science: It works.
At its base, this is the same science that allows our smart phone screens to shine: invisible, point particles called electrons undergo quantum transitions and release quantized bundles of energy called photons that react with nerves in our eye, sending an electrical impulse to our brain, allowing us to read a text message from our friend telling us "lol, ur funny!" But what I just described is way less intuitive and far more complicated than the physics that gave rise to the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Here's where I often find myself frustrated. I see on the news politicians who deny parts of science has revealed, while claiming to support technological advances in the U.S. And there are entire groups of people who follow these politicians, and indeed will only vote for them if they deny certain aspects of scientific inquiry---all while enjoying the benefits of science. They'll deny the understanding of our origins afforded by scientific pursuits in cosmology and biology, but they'll be all for science when it comes to healing a tumor. They'll claim that climate science is a giant hoax, perpetrated by millions of scientists world wide. But electrons making their TVs glow. Heck yeah!

I used to think, "Fine, these people aren't curious about the world around them, so it's okay if they close off their minds. Whatever." The real problem comes in when these belief systems permeate society at large, thereby affecting science funding and dictating what is taught to the next generation of potential scientists. Both of these effects can be disastrous for science going forward. A political party that rests their platform on scientific ignorance? I once figured it didn't matter, I've seen crazier things in politics. But this political movement is giving rise to a generation of students who fundamentally distrust science. Being skeptical is one thing. But dismissing giants swaths of biological science in favor of a 5000 year old origins story told by nomadic shepherds? Hmmm. This is problematic from a teaching standpoint, to say the least.

Then it gets worse. This sentiment, that science is a buffet in which one can select some things and discard others, starts to pervade society with drastic effects on the pursuit of all areas of science. If global warming is a hoax, then why not any other aspect of science? And if its all really that arbitrary, if truth is linked to political affiliation or religious belief, why not discard any of it when it reveals inconvenient realities? It's all very discretionary. As we've learned in the past five years, discretionary pursuits can be cut with impunity. Trillions for defense spending? Don't touch that! A billion dollars for science (1000 times less than a trillion)? Throw it on the chopping block!

Take for example the funding of astronomy through NASA. Here's the decision letter for my most recent federal grant proposal:

Dear Dr. J. Johnson,

I regret to inform you that your pending proposal entitled "Both Near and
Far: Doppler-Based Detection and Characterization of Giant Exoplanets,"
submitted to the Origins of Solar Systems (OSS),  has been declined for
funding, solely due to funding constraints.

Your proposal was outstanding, but due to FY12 limited available funding it was not selected at this time.  I encourage you to consider the evaluation
comments and please resubmit your proposal to OSS before the deadline on May
25, 2012.

If you have questions concerning the evaluation of your proposal, please
contact me.

Sincerely,

Mario R. Perez
Cosmic Origins Lead Program Scientist, Astrophysics Division
Science Mission Directorate
(My emphasis added)

Is this me complaining that my research wasn't funded by NASA? Yup, sure is. But this is also a frightening harbinger of things to come. It's my impression that there was a time when science was held in high esteem, along with scientists. They were the ones who sent us to the Moon, cured diseases and showed us the wonders of the heavens. But now I think science is widely regarded with suspicion by large parts of society (one political party in particular). And if one doesn't trust evolutionary biologists, cosmologists, climate scientists or... immunologists(!), why does any of this science stuff hold value? Why not doubt it all and start searching for unicorns?

So what to do? Scientists need to understand that we have a responsibility to clearly describe what it is that we do and why it matters to the public. Professor friends: have you recently received an invitation to give a public lecture at some small university or school, and turned it down in order to "get more work done"? I know I have. We need to start seeing these opportunities as a major part of our job. Communication with the public is the work. Further, we need to be careful about insulating ourselves from the greater society. Again, I'm guilty of this. We need to engage the rest of society, share our science and listen to their concerns. Don't condescend, dismiss or marginalize people's beliefs. Empathize and educate. That creationist kid in the audience might be the next professor of astrophysics at Caltech (ehem...).

On the other hand, what if you don't believe in some aspect of science? Well, you need to realize that it's not a buffet. There's a real universe out there that daily and nightly reveals itself to us. Recognize the miracle---the gift---that we can actually understand how this world around us works. It didn't have to be this way. For example, the sky could be opaque (and it might turn out this way in a few decades if we keep it up!).

Also recognize that you can't have one part without the other. The climate models that tell us the Earth is warming are very much related to the models that predict hurricanes. They're also related to the models astronomers use to understand weather on exoplanets (yeah, we can do that!). The basics of evolutionary biology (genetics, phylogenetics, molecular biology), are used daily by enthusiastic yet underpaid graduate students to study cures for diseases.

The Big Bang? Again, there are postdocs and grad students running telescopes at the South Pole that observe the effects of the universe's expansion. The NSF funding that supports those observatories also supports the work of climate scientists studying ice cores in Antarctica, and the paleontologists studying ancient fossils of tropical creatures embedded in rocks down there, who rely on measurements of the age of the moon to know how long the Earth has been around, which can be cross-checked against the age of the Sun, which agrees with the age of the universe measured by telescopes at the South Pole and is based on the stellar astrophysics that I rely on in order to characterize exoplanets. Check out the planets below that my group recently found, aided by a basic understanding of stellar astrophysics:


Basically, if you deny part of science shows us, you deny all of it, from exoplanets to smart phones to cancer cures. You can't ask for your house to be built, but only if its without hammers or concrete. Science is a toolkit and all the tools have a function and depend on one another.

----------
This all started with just a simple posting of the picture at the top of the page. But all that I just wrote has been rattling around in my head for some time now. Thanks for hearing me out. And thanks for supporting your local scientist!

For those of you reading this on Facebook, please treat each other with kindness and respect in the comments section. Those are real people on the other end, with real beliefs, hopes, curiosity and fears.  Keep it collegial and we'll all learn something, I'm sure. Turn it into a flame war and everyone loses.

Comments

astrophyschyk said…
We need to find the quote! It reminded me of:

"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." --J. B. S. Haldane

but that's a slightly different idea...
astrophyschyk said…
We need to find the quote! It reminded me of:

"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." --J. B. S. Haldane

but that's a slightly different idea...
mama mia said…
vote those bad guys out!
mama mia said…
loved that article on Turig, too.

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 
Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)
Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts …