Our elected representatives are busy at work coming up with misguided laws. Leading the charge once again is Lamar Smith, this time proposing to replace peer review of NSF grants with congressional criteria (Congress of course is not exactly known for its scientists). Now that is not to say that we shouldn’t look into how NSF funding works and propose changes to it. For instance, with crowdfunding platforms for science like Mircoryza emerging, it would be interesting to see if these can be used to make the NSF process more transparent and even route some NSF money through these types of platforms.
Another misguided effort comes from a state senator in California who is proposing to require registration of 3D printers because they could be used to print guns. This comes on the heels of the US government requiring a website to remove the files for a 3D printable gun. Why is this misguided even though I have been calling in general for more regulation of gun ownership? Because regulation should be about making it harder on the margin to obtain high performance weapons for the average person, not a one off weapon for the determined. It is the same reason why locking your front door makes sense even though you have a large glass window next to it.
I am somewhat hopeful that neither one of these will go anywhere. Still the rate at which legislation like this gets suggested or actually introduced is a good argument for having shorter sessions or otherwise limiting how many bills lawmakers can propose!
One accusation that has been leveled at social media and those who invest in it is that it won’t help us solve the tough problems because those require science (Steve Blank provides one example of this view and at least somewhat ironically so does Founders Fund). I wholeheartedly agree that we need more science but I believe we will get there in a peer produced and funded model that will be quite different from what we have today. Research networks such as Research Gate, Academia.edu and Mendelay are putting scientists directly in touch with each other. And emerging funding sites such as Petridish and Microryza point the way to how a much more diverse portfolio of research will get funded than through the existing sources. These efforts are small today compared to traditional science publishing and the research grant machinery but so was Kickstarter just a relatively short time ago. These emerging systems are a type of specialized social media and their spread and growth will be enabled by the more genera social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I am convinced that given enough time these will dwarf traditional venture capital as a funding source for science.
Yesterday, Felix Baumgartner jumped from 24 miles up, briefly traveled at supersonic speed and landed safely with a parachute. While it’s highly debatable whether this stunt did anything to advance science, it makes for utterly awesome science teaching. In fact this is so rich that it made me wish we were still home schooling our kids because science class in school is beholden to the curriculum.
So I was reduced to a walk to school with my youngest but here are some of the things we talked about. Why is it so cold up there? Why does he need an oxygen supply? Why does he need a pressurized suit? We didn’t even get around to talking about the speed of sound or breaking the sound barrier. It’s been a while since I have had quite so much attention to questions of science — our son was simply enthralled by all that could have gone wrong with this jump.
And there is so much more that one could dig into. Neil deGrasse Tyson had a great tweet pointing out that 24 miles is not very high up — when scaled to the size of a classroom globe it would be about one millimeter. While that makes the jump seem short it points out just how little atmosphere we really have available to us. Which in turn could be a terrific lead in to talking about the environment.
I hope that science teachers who don’t feel entirely bound by the curriculum make use of this unique teaching opportunity before the kids move on to the next Youtube video.
For the end of her 5th grade, my daughter had to complete something called the “capstone project” — meant to be a first original research project. She came up with what I thought was a rather original project: she wanted to look into “how does ESP work?” Her teacher didn’t seem to think so and suggested she find another topic. Katie batted around a few other ideas but it was clear that she wasn’t excited about any of them. I felt pretty strongly that her being excited about the topic was more important than pretty much anything else and wrote to the teacher to make that point. The teacher relented and Katie got to look into ESP.
It turns out that looking into ESP is a hugely fun topic that can teach kids a ton about science! That started with working on the question itself. With a bit of prodding, Katie came to realize that the way she had phrased the question had a huge assumption in it: that ESP exists and is a real phenomenon. So she wound up looking instead into how one might determine whether ESP exists. Here are some of the fun things she got to do along the way: read up on famous ESP frauds (she thought the idea of spoon bending was particularly funny), notice how deeply ingrained some idea of ESP is in culture (words such as “premonition,” tons of books, movies, etc), learn about probability (how easily can you guess a Zener card?), run her own experiment, participate in an experiment and interview a professor who has done some research on precognition.
The interview was with Prof. Daryl Bem who is emeritus at Cornell University. He took her interest seriously and spent an hour answering her questions. He did a terrific job explaining to an 11-year old the difference between questions that can be tested scientifically and those that cannot. I personally came away thinking that (a) the design of his precognition experiment is rather ingenious and (b) meets the requirements of a scientific experiment. One can argue about the outcome and how to interpret it, but this is a repeatable experiment and if I ever come up for some air (maybe this summer), I’ll code up a web version of it so that lot’s of people can take it.
The whole project further confirmed my belief that more than anything what kids need to learn is to be excited about a topic. So if your kids are looking for a research project and get excited about something offbeat such as ESP, I say roll with it!
The New York Times has a great article today on Edward O. Wilson. Since my undergraduate days I have been fascinated by his work on evolution. I loved his book Consilience which is incredibly thought provoking. But the real reason to read the article is to get a sense of how slowly the wheels of science can turn. For instance, it refers to Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology which had ideas in it that more than three decades later are still contested. There are many reasons for this rate of progress and they are all worth reflecting on. Two that stand out for me are our great difficulty in accepting scientific results that go against the grain of century (millenia?) old believes and the lack of process transparency for much research (where only positive conclusions are published but not the failed experiments and discarded theories). The closer research is to applied products the less these factors matter because commercial markets are such efficient selectors. But these markets cannot be connected to fundamental questions, such as how evolution shapes behavior or what matter is made of.
A while ago I called the Large Hadron Collider a “Sucker’s Bet.” It’s time for an update because the LHC Safety Assessment Group (or LSAG) has published its long awaited report on the safety of the collider. I am clearly completely unqualified to argue any of this on the substance, but the process is broken. This is yet another paper by a bunch of scientists (in this case five) who present their findings in a static PDF, at the end of having spent considerable time looking at the potential risks. As a result, we can only see their final paper. Any traces of process have been completely obliterated. What arguments did they have internally? Where do they disagree?
The right way to have done this would have been through an open process, ideally using a wiki, that would let all of those concerned contribute and engage. I will provide just one example of how this would have resulted in a better end product. The LSAG provides some detail on why they feel that cosmic rays provide “natural experiments” at greater energies than those that will be carried out in the LHC. But they do not address a question that has been raised repeatedly by the critics, which is that cosmic rays are unlikely to provide head on collissions between particles moving at exactly the opposite direction. Now as a lay person with a bit of understanding of Newtonian physics that seems like a reasonable question. It would probably take the scientists all of 5 minutes to answer why it doesn’t matter or apply here. By doing that on an official CERN wiki with their names signed to it we would get an accretive public record.
Bottomline, it’s nice to have the LSAG report out, but it’s ironic that the Web was invented at CERN and all they can muster is to put up a PDF instead of using the Web to its full power.
CERN is getting ready to start operating the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). A couple of guys have sued in Hawaii (for lack of funds) to stop it. They have been depicted as kooks and they certainly are not renowned scientists. But even though I am a technology optimist, I believe they have a point.
Most of the coverage has focused on scientists disagreeing on the likelihood of various disastrous outcomes which involve the complete destruction of earth (creation of a stable black hole, emergence of a strangelet). While there is disagreement on probabilities there is agreement on the basic fact that there is a probability distribution which in the tail includes the destruction of Earth. But nobody seems to be asking the upside question. What can we really learn from this that is meaningful to the people on Earth? Compared to the problems we are facing with regard to pollution, disease, poverty, I believe the answer is - next to nothing. Yes we will learn something new almost certainly, but of no reasonable term impact on life.
So this is a sucker’s bet - small upside with the potential for a huge downside. We just spent some time making sure that our portfolio companies were not taking such bets with their cash - trying to squeeze out a point of interest but putting the whole principal at risk. It’s upsetting to see scientists take such a bet not with a bunch of cash but with all of our lives.