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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

February 4, 2013



Gladstone scientists at the Academy

The Academy’s collaboration with the Gladstone Institutes, Brilliant!Science: Decoding Human Health, ended last week with a sold-out event at the Herbst Theatre featuring Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in conversation with Thomas Goetz. In fact, all of the events that were part of Brilliant!Science were highly attended, including the art mingle at the Intersection for the Arts on January 25 and the weekend festival at the Academy on January 26-27. The piazza was packed with scientists from the Gladstone and the Academy, and it was packed with visitors engaging with them.

Science is fascinating. The people who do it all their lives, real scientists, are fascinated by the problems they are working on. Otherwise they would do something else. They also can be really effective in sharing their fascination, in telling others the stories they themselves are writing through their work. When they discover people who are interested in what they are doing, they light up and are eager to share their excitement. It works. Everyone wins. People are the best engagers, especially those who are eager to talk and listen, to capture the imagination and share what fascinates them.

The Bay Area is a world center for scientific creativity. We are surrounded by amazing laboratories working at the forefront of so many fields, life and sustainability in particular. Most are closed to the public. They must be. But the Academy is a public stage that welcomes everyone. One of our most important challenges is to bridge the closed and the public worlds, and bring fascinating people who are working on some of the most important problems of our day onto our stage and share them with everyone else.

That is the core concept of Brilliant!Science. It’s the Academy playing the role of a Public Stage for Science. Our first experiment worked splendidly. Stay tuned for the next one.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 1:14 pm

December 27, 2012

Holiday Book Recommendations



At the request of a loyal reader, here are some book recommendations you might want to look into. You can even access them on that historic information storage technology known as paper. Imagine, no batteries. No switches. You can read a paper book during take-off and landing. It’s remarkable when you think about it and soooo retro. For the record, Mrs. Penguin provided most (not all, but most) of this content.

Spine of the Continent by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Mary Ellen wrote the text for Evidence of Evolution about the Academy’s specimen collections, and her new book details the ambitious project to create connected wildlife preserves from Alaska to Mexico through the Rockies.

If you saw Daniel Day Lewis’ stupendous performance as Abraham Lincoln in the film Lincoln, you might be intrigued enough to want to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, about Seward and Lincoln and others in his cabinet.

And to continue the political theme, history is made up of personalities. What are presidents like after they are out of office? How do their quirks and foibles manifest themselves when they try to stay involved and be on stage when they should be off? The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy provides a fascinating angle on American history since WWII.

Humans are remarkably resilient and resourceful. Katharine Boo’s portrait of individuals who live in the slum abutting the Mumbai airport is simultaneously painful, haunting and elegantly written. It’s called Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Also on the wish list:

Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Flight Behavior, which purports to tackle climate change.

The Yellow Birds, a first novel about soldiers in Iraq, by veteran Kevin Powers.

If you want to tuck into a really good read about the history of the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War from a domestic perspective, you will really love Freedom from Fear by David Kennedy. It won the Pulitizer Prize. You will see why. It’s totally engaging and superbly written.

And so, with the warmest greetings to you and your families for the holidays and my hope that you will enjoy a happy and healthy New Year, the Chief Penguin signs off for 2012.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 3:36 pm

November 30, 2012

Volunteer Heroes


Docent at the Lagoon

We would have a much smaller Academy in programmatic terms if it were not for our hundreds of volunteers. Since 2008, over 900 volunteers have donated over 300,000 hours of their time and considerable skills to every department and every program. They bring enthusiasm, creativity and a sense of fun to their jobs. They contribute to a better Academy on an ocean of goodwill.

We are grateful for their efforts as: orienteers, staff in exhibits and education, library assistants, water quality monitors, living roof horticulturalists, specimen preparators, specimen envelope-makers, divers, husbandry assistants, research generalists, clerks, special events participants, outreach and tabling event participants, and field workers.

In addition, our engagement volunteers—the great 360-strong team of docents—are often the first people our visitors meet. They welcome our guests into the world of science, and inspire them with demonstrations of earthquakes, volcanoes, and skulls. Fully 91% of our guests recently surveyed rate their interaction with the docents as excellent.

As you know, I believe that people are the best educators—the best inspirers. When I first visited the Academy—anonymously on Howard Street—I spoke with the volunteer docents who were on the public floor and interacting with visitors like me at the time. I felt they were doing such a good job that I became really interested in joining the Academy.

Thank you docents. Thank you volunteers. You help bring this place to life.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:00 am

November 9, 2012

Science: Engine of Economic Growth


Project Lab

Here is a piece authored by Neal Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation, that appeared in the New York Times on October 28, 2012. Dr. Lane’s point is that the economic future of the U.S. depends on vigorous and creative scientific research, which in turn depends on robust funding for basic research from the federal government.

The direct connection between fundamental research and national economic competitiveness has not been lost on other countries. They are racing to compete—and compete hard—with the U.S. in this critical area of achievement. It’s not a traditional arms race, but rather a creativity and entrepreneurship race that is every bit as important. We ignore reality at our national peril. Science matters. Research matters. Brains matter.


Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 6:03 pm

October 25, 2012

Thomas Jefferson, Patriot and Science Advocate



Thomas Jefferson has long been a hero of mine. Besides all his other pursuits, he was a man of science. If you visit the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, America’s first natural history institution, you can see some of the bones that he collected in his role as citizen paleontologist. Here is a piece from Archiving Early America which describes Jefferson’s life as an amateur scientist. As he wrote to Dupont de Nemours, “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.”

And here’s a blog post on Scientific American about Jefferson’s connection to citizen science:

That’s it for this week. The maples in Golden Gate Park are aflame with autumn’s colors. Roadside farm stands groan with bushels of apples and fresh pumpkins. There’s a chill in the air with flurries of snow to follow soon. Fall is here in all its pageantry.

Oops, wrong coast. Outside it’s sunny and green, and the air is delightful. No apples, however.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:23 pm

October 18, 2012

The Great Shakeout

Did you participate in the Great Shakeout earthquake drill today? We did.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:31 pm

October 12, 2012

Annual Fellows Gathering at the Academy


David Wake

Nearly 200 Academy Fellows and their guests attended the annual meeting and dinner held on October 9. Academy Fellows comprise a governing group of distinguished scientists who have made notable contributions to the natural sciences.

The evening included a talk entitled, “Crisis Biology: Can we control a deadly infectious amphibian disease before it is too late?” by Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State University. Tweet summary? It’s a risky time to be a frog. If you are a frog, choose a Yosemite pond to hang out in.

During dinner, David B. Wake, Professor Emeritus at Berkeley, was honored with the Fellows Medal. His tribute to his wife Marvalee, who was an earlier winner of the Fellows Medal, was a heartfelt salute to their life-long professional collaboration and 50 years of marriage. From his comments, it would seem that life really works out well sometimes.

George Bell, volunteer diver at the Academy, was awarded the Distinguished Service Award for giving over 1,000 hours each year to the diving program. George was escorted by a duo of divers dressed formally in “drysuits.” Thank you to George and all the other volunteers who help make the Academy work.

Connor Lockridge, who obviously has a career as a new Tom Lehrer, serenaded dinner guests with a tribute to amphibians with ukulele accompaniment. You ain’t never heard nothing like it, that’s for sure. You may never again. But just in case, here’s a link the song: http://thewigglytendrils.bandcamp.com/track/7000-kinds-of-amphibians-a7k

And finally, ten new Academy Fellows were inducted. It’s a great group. Click here to see their bios.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 1:02 pm

October 4, 2012

A Very Different World


Some recent news got me thinking about the National Science Foundation, and the great success that federal funding of research has enjoyed during the post-World War II period. The world we live in today would be very different if research funding had been left to private corporations over the past six decades. “Very different” does not mean better. Rather, we would likely be much less advanced in our science, health care, technology, innovation, wealth creation, and strength as a nation. To my mind, NSF research is one of our nation’s most powerful and effective investments. It’s really inexpensive on a cost-benefit basis. We underfund the NSF to our future peril.

How did the NSF come into being? It happened after World War II. Major advances in science and technology were made during World War II because the federal government actively sponsored a wide variety of research and technology development projects. There really was no alternative. After all, it was wartime. But the science and technology that were developed didn’t just help win the war; they transformed the peace that followed and catalyzed the age of science and technology that we live in today.

After the war, the National Science Foundation was set up to continue and expand government funding for research, and ensure that the projects supported would be awarded on the basis of merit and not politics. Advanced research funding has proven to be one of the smartest investments our country has made. If we were to get out of the business of funding research, or to dramatically decrease it, we would be making one of the dumbest choices this country could make. We would be surrendering our future economy and national strength to other countries.

Lest you have any doubt, much of the post-war explosion of medical advances, scientific understanding, and high-tech industry—and the jobs, wealth, and health they have generated—has grown out of research funded by the NSF and its sister federal agencies like the NIH, DARPA, and a variety of others. Even if the titles of individual grants are incomprehensible to many, they mean a lot to people who know the subjects and why they are important to the advancement of science. Federally funded research has built much of the world we enjoy today. If funding had been left to private sources, progress would have been much slower.

As just one example, think about Wall Street and the modern financial industry it represents. The financial industry is based on high-speed computers. Computers are based on electronics. Electronics is based on a fundamental understanding of the solid state. Understanding solid state conduction involves explanations like, “Extra holes in the band gap allow excitation of valence band electrons, leaving mobile holes in the valence band.” That’s gobbledy-gook to most people. To physicists and electrical engineers, however, it’s really important and as natural as saying that rain falls down and not up. I used to teach this material to sophomores at the University of Pennsylvania, and the phenomenon it describes lies at the heart of the Macintosh on which I am typing, my iPhone, the Internet, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. As Yul Brenner, that great King of Siam, said many times, “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

Fortunately, during the post-war period, successive U.S. administrations at the national and state levels have continued to make major government investments in education and advanced research. They have had the good sense to understand the utterly vital importance of education and science. One result has been the growth of our great universities, both public and private, along with dozens of major research laboratories, such as Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia Labs, and many more. These engines of education, innovation, and human liberation have produced the educated individuals and basic knowledge from which Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, and thousands of other wealth- and job-generating companies have sprung. American higher education also has been a beacon to the world, a magnet that has attracted some of the finest minds to become immigrants to our shores. As a result, the U.S. has led the world in education and research, and thus in job and wealth creation.

Success has come from the national community, the social fabric, the investment of governments, and the power of individual creativity, drive, and initiative. Success has not been simply the product of so-called rugged individuals living on real or virtual islands. If scientific research had been restricted to commercial laboratories, and the results had been kept secret, our technological and economic development would have been much slower. Scientists at different institutions would have had to “invent the wheel” over and over again, instead of learning what others had done from research—research that was funded by society and published openly for everyone’s benefit.

By the way, continued American leadership in the future is not guaranteed. It will depend on whether we remain competitive. We don’t have a world monopoly on education and research. Other countries know the secrets of success. Some are trying very hard to catch up with us. They are smart. Make no mistake. We have to compete harder and harder. Hello Red Queen.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 3:22 pm

September 27, 2012

Happy Birthday

Today is the new Academy’s fourth birthday.

Four years ago today, on a brilliantly sunny day, the new Academy opened. After the speeches, the doors swung open and we were in business. It was an amazing feeling.

Thank you to all who have visited us over the past four years. The new building inspires us to make what goes on in the building the very best.

Now…on to a great fifth birthday…
opening day

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 3:18 pm

September 21, 2012

Conversations with Real Scientists


Chat with a Scientist

What do Jill Tarter, Bruce Conklin, John Hafernik, and Shannon Bennett have in common? They all do world-class research, and they’ve all shared their work with visitors at the Academy this past summer. The “Chat with an Academy Scientist” program is a live, daytime program at the Science in Action exhibit, available for all Academy visitors.

The program features casual conversations between a Public Programs presenter and a guest researcher in an intimate, un-intimidating space. This model offers a personal and accessible way for our curious visitors to meet the people who drive scientific research. We talk to a different researcher each week, and the ever-fresh subject matter has encouraged the growth of a member fan base, with some members returning for every program. The scientists share their stories of exploration or innovation and the excitement of discovery, and their curiosity and love of engagement with the natural world become contagious.

This fall will feature more researchers including Farallones explorer Rebecca Johnson (Oct. 6), shark scientist Dave Ebert (Oct. 13), ornithologist Jack Dumbacher (Oct. 20), and ocean filmmaker David McGuire (Oct. 27). The program takes place every Saturday at 12:30 pm.

The programs are filmed and streamed live online. You can view archived videos here:

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:40 am
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