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August 30, 2012

Mind Change about Climate Change: Science in Action

 

Our comfy blue dot

Richard A. Muller is a professor of physics at UC Berkeley, and his story (from the New York Times of July 28, 2012) is a great example of science in action. Muller was a public skeptic about climate change who changed his mind because his research didn’t support his skepticism. As a scientist, when his results didn’t support his opinions, he had no alternative but to change his mind, and he did. Publicly. That’s science at its best. The core of the scientific method is that whatever an individual or an organization prefers to believe, truth is that which is demonstrated by repeated observation and measurement.
 

The global climatic system is dauntingly complex, and we have only begun to understand it. However, a clear consensus has emerged that climate change, whatever its details, truly is happening. By burning fossil fuel deposits and releasing enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a geological blink of time, we are doing a large-scale experiment in the one and only test tube that is our world. We are taunting Mother Nature, big time. Years will pass before we know the consequences, and they are unlikely all to be good. Trashing the neighborhood is risky. We have no other neighborhood to move to.
 

Then there are the ethical issues. No one reading this sentence will be alive in a short 100 years from now. We are only passing through, and we pass through very quickly. What world do we want to leave behind? As the Boy Scouts advocate, “Always leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.” Their advice applies to planets as well, particularly when there isn’t a spare one available for our grandchildren and their children. Do we want to be remembered as responsible stewards of our one and only comfy blue dot in the vast void of the Universe, or as the generation that heedlessly (greedily?) drilled, burned, fiddled, and danced…and left the check for the kids?


Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 1:21 pm

August 23, 2012

The Next Generation of Scientists

 

SSI intern

The Academy’s Summer Systematics Institute (SSI) just concluded its 17th season. SSI provides hands-on research experiences for undergraduates from colleges across the country. This year’s cohort hailed from as far away as Duke and the University of Hawaii, to places next door like the College of San Mateo.
 

SSI interns engage in a curriculum of lectures and labs that inform about the type of science that is done in a collections-based setting. They also take part in a variety of community-building events and field trips. But most importantly, participants take ownership of and help design a research project in the lab, under the guidance of an Academy mentor. Each year, SSI interns demonstrate their special abilities to launch into a full trajectory from program design, through data-gathering, and then to analysis. The crowning event of the SSI is a presentation at the end of the program by each of the interns to a diverse audience of peers, scientists, and even friends and relatives. These are not just “what I did on my summer vacation,” but full-blown research talks, the likes of which one might see at an international conference of professionals already well-established in their fields. We are fond of saying that by the end of the program, the SSI interns are no longer students. They are colleagues. In fact, they are the world’s experts on their chosen topics of investigation, and their work is, without exception, fully publishable. Many will go on to do just that…publish their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals, or present them at large meetings such as the annual gathering of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology (which just happens to be in San Francisco this coming January).
 

Every year, we are astonished how quickly these fantastic interns “get it” about the science we do here. We should all be so lucky to emulate that capacity. It’s what keeps us coming back to the program as advisors, lecturers, and administrators: to see the research lights come on in these fertile minds, and to know that the future of evolutionary biology will be safe in the hands of this next generation of scientists.


Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 10:47 am

August 17, 2012

Galileo: One of the True Greats of Science

 

Earth and Sun

I have been thinking about Galileo recently, because the other day I saw a note in the paper saying that a very important document of his will go on display next year in Rome. Thinking about Galileo got me thinking once again about science, how it all got started, and how controversial it has been, century after century.
 

The core of the scientific method is its reliance on observation. Science establishes what is true through observing, measuring, constructing models, and testing them against reality. When there is a conflict between what we observe and what we might want to believe or others might prefer that we believed, reality wins.
 

Science is not dull and desiccated. The process by which science evolves is very human, even rowdy. It’s full of passion and emotion. Anyone who has ever gone to a scientific meeting has seen scientists get into loud and heated debates as they advocate their particular viewpoints. But in the end, measurement, observation, and repeatability are the referees that determine what is true and what is not.
 

Galileo was one of the true Greats of science. He also is a poster child for what can happen when science and human institutions come into conflict. Faced with death by slow burning for his scientific views of the cosmos, Galileo recanted. You really can’t blame him. He had more life to live and wanted to live it. Regardless, he knew that what he had published about the planets and the sun was true, and that eventually the truth would come out and be recognized by all. And so it was.
 

This summer’s news reported that the document in which Galileo recanted and to which he affixed his signature, “Galileo Galilei,” will go on display in Rome next year, from February to September, in the Capitoline Museums. It’s a major punctuation point in the history of science, human thought, and freedom.
 

Galileo is one of my personal heroes. So, as “Penguin One” of an institution that is devoted to doing and sharing and learning about science, I encourage us to pause and pay homage to Galileo Galilei. He deserves our admiration and our gratitude. He did a great deal to birth the modern world we live in.


Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:32 am

August 2, 2012

Listening for Life “Out There”

 

Jill Tarter

Today (August 2) at 12:30 pm, Academy Fellow Jill Tarter will be speaking on the museum floor as part of our weekly “Chat with an Academy Scientist” program. She is the real-life inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the 1997 film Contact. If you can’t make it to the Academy today, don’t fret—watch the program live or after the fact on our Ustream channel.
 

Jill recently announced that she is stepping down as director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) at NASA Ames Research Center. Fortunately, she will remain active as a scientist in the center.
 

It’s a labor of patience and determination. She and her colleagues are searching for what many feel must be “out there,” which is life of some kind, extra-terrestrial life. Whether it is life like us is entirely a matter of speculation. After all, life on Earth was green slime long before it evolved to the point when it started chattering on cellphones. But, to me at least, it just seems intuitive that with all the planets in the Universe, surely more than one harbors life of some kind.
 

Earthlings tend to think that our spaceship is special. Earth IS special, of course. It’s home for all of us, and we don’t have anywhere else to go. If we trash our neighborhood, our pale blue dot, we will have big problems.
 

All these thoughts remind me of the famous line from Casablanca, said by Rick (Bogie) of Ilse (Ingrid Bergman): “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
 

Maybe life is like that, and we just happen to live in the right joint. Then again, maybe “they” have been watching already but decided to go visit someplace else.
 

Science is all about wondering, exploring, and (in time) understanding. Searching for extra-terrestrial life is wondering of the most profound sort. Personally, I take particular delight that one of OUR Academy family has helped to lead the search.
 

I admire Jill for it, given what may be the odds. Join me in hoping that a really regular and distinctive signal will be heard sometime soon. It will be the most significant beep ever heard in human history. Nothing, nothing at all, will be the same after it is detected. What fun it will be. What good fortune it would be to live at the time of such a discovery. Even more fun to make the discovery. Go Jill and colleagues. Please keep listening.


Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:23 am

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