My Surprising and Exciting Journey from Scientist to Science Writer

I’ve been drawn to science since I was a kid. I had many excellent and creative teachers along the way, including one who taught us students to be more observant and to think critically and another who smashed bowling balls into desks and who ran into a wall (while wearing pads and a helmet, of course) to demonstrate momentum conservation. I grew up in Colorado, and I enjoyed gaping at the Milky Way and the beautiful night sky while in the Rockies, even if I couldn’t name many constellations. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos program and the Star Trek TV shows also inspired me to explore astrophysics later in life.

Milky Way over Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. (Photo by Carl Fredrickson)

Milky Way over Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. (Photo by Carl Fredrickson)

But my head isn’t always in the stars. I have many other interests too, including sociology, political science and philosophy of science, and I’ve always enjoyed literature and poetry too. I’m not just interested in doing science and analyzing datasets and phenomena; that, by itself, is not enough. I also desire to use science and critical thinking to help people and connect with them. Since science plays such an important role in human society, I’d like to communicate scientists’ research and debates and the scientific process as well as I can. While the behavior of neutrinos, ice sheets and red pandas might sound interesting, for example, we always have to ask, why are they important? What do scientists claim to have learned about them and how did they learn it? What are the broader implications and context for the research?

Ever the lifetime student, a couple years ago I thought I might become an absent-minded, nerdy, activist professor, maybe widening my scope beyond astronomy and physics into interdisciplinary research and public outreach. But then I realized that I wanted to do more. I examined many interconnections between science and policy—often posting about them on this blog—and I investigated ways I could utilize and develop my science writing skills. I earned fellowship opportunities in both science writing and science policy, and I considered going on both directions. As the head of our astrophysics and space sciences department told me while I mulled over the options, “Those aren’t actually that different. They both involve communicating science to people who might not understand it well.”

In the end, after fifteen years working as a Ph.D. student, teaching and research assistant, postdoctoral researcher, research scientist and lecturer, I decided that I would make the shift and become a science writer! It’s a big step, and I felt a bit nervous about it. Now that I’ve made the decision, I am happy and excited to be trying something new, and I look forward to improving my skills and working on it full-time.

For those of you considering working in science writing or science policy, or for those of you just interested in learning more, I am happy to help. In any case, here are a few suggestions and pieces of advice, which will be particularly relevant for you if you’re coming from a science background as I did.

First, I recommend becoming involved in public outreach and education programs. You may even decide to organize your own events. Just connect to people in whatever ways work well for you, such as speaking in local school classrooms, making demonstrations for students at your university, mentoring prospective students, interacting with members of the public at museums and planetaria, talking to people at cafes and pubs (such as Two Scientists Walk into a Bar, Astronomy on Tap, and other programs), etc.

Second, become more involved in and volunteer for the relevant professional scientific societies, such as the American Astronomical Society, American Physical Society, American Geophysical Union, etc. Be more than just a card-carrying member. All of these societies, and especially the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), have many useful resources, scholarships and internships at your disposal.

Third, it is crucially important to talk to a variety of people who work in science writing or science policy (or whatever you might be interested in), get involved and try it yourself. Make sure that you don’t merely like the concept of it but that you actually enjoy and excel at doing it. You will need to make the time to do this. You may find new people in your own college, university or community working in these professions who have much to teach you. Try a variety of media and styles too, possibly including social media, blogs, podcasts, news articles, feature stories, videos, etc. If you’re curious about what I’ve done over the past year or so, look here.

Fourth, check out professional science writing organizations. In particular, I recommend looking up the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Association of Healthcare Journalists. Furthermore, you might find useful local organizations too. (We have the San Diego Press Club here, for example). Science writing workshops, such as those in Santa Fe, New Mexico and in Banff, Alberta, could be beneficial for you and could introduce you to others like yourself who are also just starting to venture into the profession. Finally, if you are interested, the AAAS has mass media and science policy fellowships, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, MIT, NYU, and other universities have graduate programs you may consider, though these involve an investment of time and money.

Before diving in, consider the job prospects. Although we have our ideals, we also want to work for a livable salary with sufficient job security. Staff writers, editors, freelancers and public information officers (PIOs) all have pros and cons to their jobs, and it’s important to understand them well.

I’ll make it official: I decided to head to the UC Santa Cruz science communication program, and I’m looking forward to it! In a few days I will be on my way north to Santa Cruz. I plan to try my hand working with a local newspaper, magazine, and an online news outlet, and this fall I will be working with PIOs at Stanford Engineering. Stay tuned for my new articles!

Coming from a science background, I have many challenging things to learn, but I think I’m up to it. I’m trying to learn to write more creatively and evocatively, while identifying compelling characters. I’m learning to assess which scientific discoveries and developments make for the most intriguing stories. Moreover, scientists and science writers have different ways of thinking, and bridging the gap between them involves more steps than you might think it does. Perhaps most importantly, after thinking of myself as a scientist for so many years, it’s hard to craft a new identity. It turns out that while I am an astronomer and a physicist, I am many other things too. I’m continuing to explore the universe, just in a myriad different ways than before. I’m boldly going where I haven’t gone before, and the sky’s the limit!

Tussles in Brussels: How Einstein vs Bohr Shaped Modern Science Debates

In one corner, we have a German-born theoretical physicist famous for his discovery of the photoelectric effect and his groundbreaking research on relativity theory. In the opposite corner, hailing from Denmark, we have a theoretical physicist famous for his transformational work on quantum theory and atomic structure. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr frequently butted heads over the interpretation of quantum mechanics and even over the scope and purpose of physics, and their debates still resonate today.

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein (photo by Paul Ehrenfest, 1925).

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein (photo by Paul Ehrenfest, 1925).

In a class on “Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics,” I am teaching my students fundamentals about quantum physics, and I try to incorporate some of this important history too. In the early 20th century, physicists gradually adopted new concepts such as discrete quantum energy states and wave-particle duality, in which under certain conditions light and matter exhibit both wave and particle behavior. Nevertheless, other quantum concepts proposed by Bohr and his colleagues, such as non-locality and a probabilistic view of the wave function, proved more controversial. These are not mere details, as more was at stake—whether one can retain scientific realism and determinism, as was the case with classical physics, if Bohr’s interpretation turns out to be correct.

Bohr had many younger followers trying to make names for themselves, including Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and others. As experimental physicists explored small-scale physics, new phenomena required explanations. One could argue that some of Bohr and his followers’ discoveries and controversial hypotheses were to some extent just developments of models that managed to fit the data, and the models needed a coherent theoretical framework to base them on. On the other hand, Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and Louis de Broglie were skeptical or critical about some of these proposals.

The debates between Einstein and Bohr came to a head as they clashed in Brussels in 1927 at the Fifth Solvay Conference and at the next conference three years later. It seems like all of the major physics figures of the day were present, including Einstein, Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Pauli, Schrödinger, de Broglie, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Paul Dirac, and others. (Curie was the only woman there, as physics had an even bigger diversity problem back then. The nuclear physicist Lise Meitner came on the scene a couple years later.)

Conference participants, October 1927. Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels.

Conference participants, October 1927. Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels.

Einstein tried to argue, with limited success, that quantum mechanics is inconsistent. He also argued, with much more success in my opinion, that (Bohr’s interpretation of) quantum mechanics is incomplete. Ultimately, however, Bohr’s interpretation carried the day and became physicists’ “standard” view of quantum mechanics, in spite of later developments by David Bohm supporting Einstein’s realist interpretation.

Although the scientific process leads us in fruitful directions and encourages us to explore important questions, it does not take us directly and inevitably toward a unique “truth.” It’s a messy nonlinear process, and since scientists are humans too, the resolution of scientific debates can depend on historically contingent social and cultural factors. James T. Cushing (my favorite professor when I was an undergraduate) argued as much in his book, Quantum Mechanics: Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony.

Why do the Einstein vs Bohr debates still fascinate us—as well as historians, philosophers, and sociologists—today? People keep discussing and writing about them because these two brilliant and compelling characters confronted each other about issues with implications about the scope and purpose of physics and how we view the physical world. Furthermore, considering the historically contingent aspects of these developments, we should look at current scientific debates with a bit more skepticism or caution.

Implications for Today’s Scientific Debates

In recent years, we have witnessed many intriguing disagreements about important issues in physics and astrophysics and in many other fields of science. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, scientists debated whether the motions, masses, and distributions of galaxies were consistent with the existence of dark matter particles or whether gravitational laws must be modified. Now cosmologists disagree about the likely nature of dark energy and about the implications of inflation for the multiverse and parallel universes. And string theory is a separate yet tenuously connected debate. On smaller scales, we have seen debates between astrobiologists about the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets, about whether to send missions to other planets, and even disagreements about the nature of planets, which came to the fore with Pluto‘s diminished status.

Scientists play major roles in each case and sometimes become public figures, including Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, Max Tegmark, Mike Brown, Carolyn Porco, and others. Moreover, many scientists are also science communicators and actively participate in social media, as conferences aren’t the only venues for debates anymore. For example, 14 of the top 50 science stars on Twitter are physicists or astronomers. Many scientists communicate their views to the public, and people want to hear them weigh in on important issues and on “what it all means.” (Contrary to an opinion expressed by deGrasse Tyson, physicists are philosophers too.)

In any case, as scientific debates unfold, we should keep in mind that sometimes we cannot find a unique elegant explanation to a phenomenon, or if such an explanation exists, it may remain beyond our grasp for a long time. Furthermore, we should keep our minds open to the possibility that our own interpretation of a scientific phenomenon could be incomplete, incoherent, or even incorrect.

Comet Update! Rosetta’s Philae landed, but not as planned

Now here’s what you’ve been waiting for! You really need more comet, like Christopher Walken/Bruce Dickinson needs more cowbell, so here you go…

In a blog post few months ago, I told you about the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Rosetta mission. Nine years after its launch and after four gravity assists, Rosetta reached the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and began to orbit it. On 11th November, Rosetta maneuvered its position and trajectory to eject its washing machine-sized lander, Philae, which sallied forth and landed on the comet the next day, and MADE HISTORY! (Wired‘s apt headline, “Holy Shit We Landed a Spacecraft on a Comet,” beat The Onion, which is known for that sort of thing.) Its landing was confirmed at ESA’s Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany at 17:03 CET that day.

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Above you can see Philae on its fateful journey, and below you can see its first image of the comet, both courtesy of ESA. The landing happened to take place while friends of mine were at a Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson, Arizona, and we and others discussed the Philae landing at Friday’s Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today. And if you’re interested in more information than what I’ve written here, then check out the ESA Rosetta blog and posts by Emily Lakdawalla, Matthew Francis, and Phil Plait.

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From what we can tell, Philae did initially touch down in its predicted landing ellipse (its planned landing zone) but its harpoons—which were supposed to latch onto the surface—failed to fire, and it bounced! Considering how small the comet is and how weak its gravitational force (about 100,000 weaker than on the Earth), this could have been the end as the lander could then have floated away, never to be seen again. However, after nearly two hours, it landed again…and bounced again, and a few minutes later finally settled on the surface and dug in its ice screws, about 1 km from its intended landing spot on a comet 4 km in diameter. (This would be like trying to land a plane in Honolulu and ending up on another island—it’s unfortunate but at least you didn’t drown.)

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At first, it wasn’t clear exactly where Philae actually was; it could have dropped into a crater where it would be nearly impossible to find. But then based on images from the OSIRIS camera and NavCam (navigational camera) on Rosetta, ESA scientists were finally able to locate it a couple days ago. The mosaicked images above came from the OSIRIS Team, and the NavCam image below as annotated by Emily Lakdawalla, to give the larger-scale context. After its last bounce, Philae rotated and headed “east”, finally becoming settled among dust-covered ice at the bottom of a shadowed cliff. It’s not an ideal position but at least it’s not totally precarious. (They considered securing the position with the harpoons, but the momentum from firing them could push the lander back up into space, which would be “highly embarrassing” according to Stephan Ulamec, head of the lander team.)

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But the cliff situation is a problem. Philae’s battery had a little more than two days of juice in it, and once that ran out, it would be dependent on its solar panels. However, Philae’s current position only receives about 1.5 hours of light per 12-hour rotation of the comet, much less than hoped. Philae did attempt to run some of its experiments and activities during the time allotted, the battery ran late on Friday. This was @Philae2014’s last tweet: “My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I’ll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzzz #CometLanding”

Before Philae dreamt of electric sheep, it managed to collect some data using instruments on board. (See this Nature news article.) For example, Philae deployed its drilling system (SD2) as planned, in order to deliver samples to the COSAC and Ptolemy instruments, which probe organic molecules and water (and which I described in my previous Rosetta post). But ESA scientists don’t know how much material SD2 actually delivered to the lander; if the ground is very dense, it’s possible that since Philae isn’t totally anchored, it could have moved the lander rather than drilling into the surface. We do know for sure that some instruments operated successfully, such as the downward-looking ROLIS camera and ROMAP, the magnetic field mapping system.

In any case, scientists have obtained some data already while other data stuck on the snoozing lander will be retrieved later. In the meantime, Rosetta is keeping busy and continues to take observations. Philae has already been a success, and who knowsmaybe it will “wake up” when its solar panels absorb enough sunlight to recharge the batteries.

[Note that the NavCam images we’ve seen so far are pretty good, but I have heard that Rosetta scientists have much better resolution color images that are embargoed and won’t be released for six months. I haven’t confirmed this fact yet, so if you have more up-to-date info, please let me know.]

Finally, I’ll end with some comments about what some people are referring to as #shirtstorm or #shirtgate. (For more info, see this Guardian article and this blog post and this one.) On the day of the worldwide live-stream broadcast last week, Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Project Scientist, wore a shirt covered with scantily clad women. I get the impression that Taylor is a cool guy and wants to get away from the scientist stereotypes people have, but this is completely inappropriate. (And he’s worn this shirt to work before. Apparently none of his colleagues told him to leave it at home.) But it’s not just the shirt; during the middle of his broadcast, Taylor referred to Rosetta as the “sexiest” mission. “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”

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We debated many aspects of this on astronomers’ official and unofficial social media, and for the most part, our community is very unhappy about this. You may say that we should focus on the science, and who cares about what this scientist wears or says when he’s excited about his mission’s success. But we have been working really hard to increase diversity in STEM fields and to achieve gender equality in science. Many aspects to working in the current scientific establishment are not particularly welcoming to women, and Matt Taylor’s shirt and poor choice of words are part of the problem. A few days later, Taylor made a heartfelt apology. As far as I know, ESA itself has not issued an official apology yet. The American Astronomical Society made a statement today (Wednesday) that “We wish to express our support for members of the community who rightly brought this issue to the fore, and we condemn the unreasonable attacks they experienced as a result, which caused deep distress in our community. We do appreciate the scientist’s sincere and unqualified apology.”

In any case, our focus is on the science and on this amazing scientific achievement. But Science is for everyone.

Reporting from the National Science Writers Meeting in Columbus, Ohio

As someone who’s still learning the ropes, I was excited to attend my first science writers meeting in Columbus this weekend. The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) organized the meeting, which included a nice variety of professional development workshops, briefings on the latest scientific research, and some field trips. It included a couple parties at a nearby brewery too, so I knew I was in good company, and I was happy to make some new friends and contacts. Here’s my name tag, which was a convenient little book of the program (and you can guess who I wrote down as my science hero):

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I’ll give you some highlights of a couple sessions that interested me. People “live-tweeted” most of the sessions too at #sciwri14.

NASW Meeting

One of the most useful sessions for me was the “pitch slam,” where writers had a single minute to pitch a story idea to editors, who gave feedback in real time. (The editors came from Slate, NPR, Popular Science, Discover, NOVA, Scientific American, and New York Times.) Speaking in front of the microphone understandably made people nervous, but I think I heard some pretty good pitches. Since I’m trained as a scientist, my approach to a science story or issue is to keep asking questions, but it sounds like editors want answers too! It’s important to be concise and clearly state at the beginning what the narrative thrust is and why the story is interesting. One should also describe the implications of the scientific result are why they’re surprising or new. Science stories need characters too, but that can come afterward. And one should keep in mind the audience of readers who would most likely read it, since some stories are more appropriate in particular news outlets rather than others. For example, Popular Science usually publishes “forward-looking” stories, so they’d be less interested in pieces focused on historical scientific advances.

The session on “diving into controversy and politics” was popular too, and it included Coral Davenport (New York Times), David Malakoff (Science Insider), and Nancy Shute (NPR). They spoke about hot-button topics in the news today—mainly climate change and Ebola. Davenport argued that climate change (along with energy and environment policy) is now a top-tier election issue and that this is mainly due to President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for coal-fired power plants, Tom Steyer’s money, and current weather events. She made a fairly convincing argument, but I think she overstated how new this development is, as fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline have been polarizing issues well before this midterm election campaign. Malakoff spoke about related topics and suggested that one should never pitch a “science policy” story (that is, one should frame the story differently). He pointed out that some stories are about a disagreement while others are about setting priorities. It’s important to state as clearly as possible who believes what and what their agenda is. We should ask whether the data and scientific results lead us to a particular policy prescription, and we should distinguish between scientists’ research and their opinions about which policy to advocate. We should write about the effects and impacts of particular policies, and then the reader can make his/her own decision.

The awards night took place on Saturday, and I was inspired to see so many excellent award-winning science writers. The winners included Azeen Ghorayshi for the Clark/Payne Award, Elisabeth Rosenthal for the Cohn Prize in medical science reporting, and the following Science in Society Journalism Award winners: Sheri Fink, Amy Harmon, Phil McKenna, Cally Carswell, and Charles Seife.

CASW Meeting

Getting back to climate change, on Sunday we toured the impressive Byrd Polar Research Center of Ohio State University. Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson, who have published numerous influential papers in Science and Nature, showed us the center and explained their research to us, which involves many fields but especially ice core climatology. Since the 1970s, they have conducted research at the poles as well as on mountains near the equator (in Peru and Tibet), where they drill down and pull up the ice cores, then bring them down the mountain on yaks and trucks and eventually store them in a huge freezer, which you can see below. (Our brief tour of the freezer was the only time I wore my hat on this trip.) Drs. Thompson and Mosley-Thompson use the ice cores to infer details about the climate and history of a particular regionTEXTsort of like using tree rings. For example, from ice cores taken from Kilimanjaro, they found evidence of a 300-year drought 4000 years ago (evidenced by less snow and ice accumulation), which would have had a dramatic effect on societies at the time. With rapid climate change, unfortunately the glaciers are rapidly retreating, but a silver lining is that they’ve uncovered 5000 to 6000-year-old plants!

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Finally, I had looked forward to the discussions of the ongoing BICEP2 controversy, and I was not disappointed. Marc Kamionkowski (Johns Hopkins University) gave an excellent overview of the basics of cosmology, the expanding universe, cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), which is sort of an “afterglow of the Big Bang.” Many collaborations using different telescopes (including researchers at UC San Diego) seek to detect CMB “B-mode” polarization of the CMB due to primordial gravitational waves, which would constitute evidence supporting the rapid “inflation” of the early universe and would be a momentous discovery! At the BICEP2’s press conference in March at Harvard and in the preprint, the scientists did say “if confirmed…”, but of course everyone was excited about the implications of the result. However, new measurements from the Planck collaboration (see below) suggest that the polarization might not be due to the CMB’s gravitational waves but to foreground emission from dust grains in our own galaxy, though their calculation of the dust contribution is highly uncertain.

Map

A short discussion with Matthew Francis (freelance) and Betsy Mason (Wired) followed Kamionkowski’s talk, where they tackled questions that scientists and science communicators frequently face. Scientists want press attention and news outlets want headlines, so how should one describe and report caveats and uncertainties, especially when the implications (if confirmed) are so exciting? What is the best way to express skepticism of a particular aspect of a scientific result? And a question that I often ask: how can we communicate the messiness or “self-correcting” nature of science? In any case, we’ll all continue to follow the ongoing CMB debate in the scientific community and the media.

Now I’m looking forward to doing much more writing (and reading) and to participating in next year’s meeting!

Journalism and Science Groups Criticize EPA’s Policy Muzzling Science Advisers

As reported by the Associated Press and The Hill, a coalition of journalism and science groups are criticizing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to end a policy of restricting independent science advisers from contacting and communicating with media outlets, Congress, and others, without permission. The organizations include the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), American Geophysical Union, Society of Professional Journalists, Society for Conservation Biology, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Full disclosure: I am a UCS member and obtained some of my information from them.)

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In a letter sent to the agency last week, they said that the new policy

requir[es] advisory committee members who receive requests from the public and the press ‘to refrain from responding in an individual capacity’ regarding issues before the committee. The policy requires all requests…to be routed through EPA officials. This prevents many of our nations top independent environmental science experts from sharing their expertise, unfiltered, with the public…The new policy undermines EPA’s efforts to increase transparency. It also contradicts the EPA’s new scientific integrity policy…[It] only reinforces any perception that the agency prioritizes message control over the ability of scientists who advise the agency to share their expertise with the public. On July 8, 38 journalism and good government organizations wrote the president expressing concern about ‘the stifling of free expression’ across many agencies, including the EPA.

The language of the policy is sufficiently vague that it would be easy for a scientist to interpret it such that she or he can’t speak publicly about any scientific issue under consideration. In addition, as pointed out by Andrew Rosenberg, scientists who work for the EPA also face barrier in communicating with the public.

What are the implications of this and why is it important? As the letter points out, this is clearly related to the issue of scientific integrity. We need scientists to serve on advisory committees, work with agencies and policy-makers, and speak transparently about their work and expertise, but such policies will discourage some from participating and will make the EPA less democratic. Government agencies, journalists, and the public deserve access to independent advice and free speech of scientists. (However, we scientists should be careful about speaking about issues beyond our expertise.) That way agencies can make informed decisions when developing or reforming relevant policies and regulations, and journalists and the public can form their own opinions about them as well.

In an update on the situation, the EPA Chief of Staff Gwendolyn Keyes-Fleming responded to say that their Science Advisor, Dr. Bob Kavlock, would review the matter and engage with people in the organizations involved. Let’s hope that the dialogue results in changing the policy.

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Finally, in recent related news, political scientist James Doyle says that he was fired from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico after publishing a scholarly article questioning US nuclear weapons doctrine. They claimed that the article, criticizing the political theories behind the nuclear arms race and a defense of President Obama’s embrace of a nuclear weapons-free future, contained classified information. (We should note though that unfortunately the DOE’s policy on scientific integrity is much shorter and may be more restrictive than the EPA’s.) I’ll keep you updated on this situation, and time permitting, I may write about it further in another post.

Exploring the “Multiverse” and the Origin of Life

After two weeks away from the blog, I’m back! At the end of July, I attended an interesting event at UC San Diego’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. (Yes, that’s what it’s called!) The event was a panel discussion entitled, “How Big is the World?: Exploring the Multiverse in Modern Astrophysics, Cosmology, and Beyond” (and you can watch the event here). The three speakers included Andrew Friedman (postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at MIT), Brian Keating (professor of physics in my department at UCSD), and David Brin (Hugo & Nebula Award Winning Author).

The Clarke Center seems to be a unique place with an ambitious program that incorporates a variety of “transdisciplinary” activities. This event fits with their nebulous theme, and the talks and discussions frequently overlapped between science, philosophy of science, and science fiction. I think science and philosophy of science go well together especially when we’re exploring the edges of scientific knowledge, including cosmological astrophysics and the origins of human life. (See my previous post and this recent article on Salon.) Too often astrophysicists, myself included, become very specialized and neglect the “big questions.” Nonetheless, I think we should be careful when we traverse the border between science and science fiction: while it’s exciting to connect them and useful for public outreach, we should mind the gap.

Andrew Friedman focused on the “multiverse”. What is a multiverse, you ask? I’m not entirely clear on it myself, but I’ll try to explain. In the first fraction of a second of the Big Bag, the universe appears to have gone through a phase of accelerated, exponential expansion (called “inflation”) driven by the vacuum energy of one or more quantum fields. The gravitational waves that were recently detected by BICEP2 (in which Brian Keating was involved) appear to support particular inflationary models in which once inflation starts, the process happens repeatedly and in multiple ways. In other words, there may be not one but many universes, including parallel universes—a popular topic in science fiction.

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Inflationary theory solves some problems involving the initial conditions of the Big Bang cosmology, but I’m not so sure that we have—or can ever have—evidence clearly pointing to the existence of multiverses. In addition, in my opinion, Friedman stretched the concept of “universe” to try to argue for the multiverse. He spoke about the fact that there are parts of the universe that are completely inaccessible even if we could go the speed of light, but that doesn’t mean that the inaccessible regions are another universe. It’s fun to think about a “quantum divergence of worlds,” as David Brin referred to it, but quantum mechanics (with the standard Copenhagen interpretation; see this book by Notre Dame professor Jim Cushing) don’t imply a multiverse either: Schrödinger’s live cat and dead cat are not in separate universes. As far as I know, I’m not creating new universes every time I barely miss or catch the train.

The speakers did bring up some interesting questions though about the “anthropic principle” and “fine tuning.” The anthropic principle is a contentious topic that has attracted wide interest and criticism, and if you’re interested, read this review of the literature by Pittsburgh professor John Earman. The anthropic principle is the idea that the physical universe we observe must be compatible with conscious life. It’s a cosmic coincidence that the density of vacuum energy and matter are nearly equal and that the universe’s expansion rate is nearly equal to the critical rate which separates eternal expansion from recontraction, and if the universe were significantly different, it would be impossible to develop conscious life such as humans who can contemplate their own universe. (In the context of the multiverse, there may be numerous universes but only a tiny fraction of them could support life.) It’s important to study the various coincidences and (im)probabilities in physics and cosmology in our universe, but it’s not clear what these considerations explain.

David Brin spoke differently than the others, since he’s more a writer than a scientist, and his part of the discussion was always interesting. He frequently made interesting connections to fiction (such as a legitimate criticism of Walt Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer“) and he had a poetic way of speaking; when talking about the possibility of life beyond Earth, he said “If there are living creatures on Titan, they will be made of wax.” He also brought up the “Drake equation,” which is relevant in the context of the topics above. The Drake equation is a probabilistic expression for estimating the number of active, communicating civilizations in our galaxy. It involves a multiplication of many highly uncertain quantities (see this xkcd comic), but it’s nonetheless interesting to think about. The problem is that space is really big—”vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big,” according to Douglas Adams—so even if there are Vulcans or Klingons or dozens or millions of other civilizations out there, it would take a really really really long time to find them and attempt to communicate with them. We could send people from Earth in a long shuttle ride to visit another civilization, but there’s no guarantee that humanity will still be around when they try to call back. It’s unfortunate, but this is the universe we live in.

Extreme Space Weather Event #23072012

You may have seen some dramatic headlines in the news last week: “‘Extreme solar storm’ could have pulled the plug on Earth” (Guardian); “Solar ‘superstorm’ just missed Earth in 2012” (CBS); “How a solar storm two years ago nearly caused a catastrophe on Earth” (Washington Post blog). Also see this Physics Today article, which was published online today and reviewed the press attention to the event.

Though journalists and editors often write hyperbolic headlines, the danger from solar storms is very real, though extreme ones are as rare as massive earthquakes. When you think of solar flares and eruptions threatening humans, it may evoke Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris or the Doctor Who episode 42, but at least our sun isn’t sentient (as far as we know)!

A less threatening solar storm on the Sun

The solar storm in question occurred two years ago on 23 July 2012, and the media reported on it following a NASA public-information release and accompanying four-minute YouTube video (see below). It seems that those of us who live on Earth and use electronic technology were lucky that this was a near miss. The threat of solar storms is also relevant to “space security”, which I wrote about in a previous post.

The paper itself was published last fall in the Space Weather journal by Daniel Baker, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, and six colleagues from NASA, Catholic University, and the University of New Hampshire. Its full title is “A major solar eruptive event in July 2012: Defining extreme space weather scenarios,” and here is their abstract (abridged):

A key goal for space weather studies is to define severe and extreme conditions that might plausibly afflict human technology. On 23 July 2012, solar active region 1520 (141°W heliographic longitude) gave rise to a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) with an initial speed that was determined to be 2500 ± 500 km/s [5.6 million miles/hr!]… In this paper, we address the question of what would have happened if this powerful interplanetary event had been Earthward directed. Using a well-proven geomagnetic storm forecast model, we find that the 23–24 July event would certainly have produced a geomagnetic storm that was comparable to the largest events of the twentieth century…This finding has far reaching implications because it demonstrates that extreme space weather conditions such as those during March of 1989 or September of 1859 can happen even during a modest solar activity cycle such as the one presently underway. We argue that this extreme event should immediately be employed by the space weather community to model severe space weather effects on technological systems such as the electric power grid.

The solar storm missed the Earth but hit NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft, which was safely outside the Earth’s magnetosphere and was able to measure and observe the approaching CME, a billion-ton cloud of magnetized plasma. “I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” says Baker. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.” According to the simulations in their follow-up paper by Chigomezyo Ngwira et al., had the 2012 CME hit the Earth, it could have produced comparable or larger geomagnetically induced electric fields to those produced by previously observed Earth-directed events and would have put electrical power grids, global navigation systems, orbiting satellites, etc. at risk.

Pete Riley, a physicist at Predictive Science Inc., published a paper in 2012 in the same journal entitled “On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events.” He analyzed historical records of solar storms, and by extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm (which occurred in 1859) would hit Earth in the next ten years is between 8.5 and 12%!

NASA has calculated that the cost of the 2012 CME hitting the Earth would have been twenty times the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina—on the order of $2tn. The storm would have begun with a solar flare, which itself can cause radio blackouts and GPS navigation failures, and then it would have been followed by the CME a few minutes later, potentially causing widespread havoc with global technological infrastructure. Anything that uses electricity, including water supplies, hospital equipment, and radio and television broadcasts could be shut down. How do we prepare as a society for an event like that?

More from the AAAS meeting

The second half of the AAAS meeting in Chicago was interesting too. (I wrote about the first half in my previous post.)

alda-160x220

Probably the best and most popular event at the meeting was Alan Alda’s presentation. You’ll know Alan Alda as the actor from M*A*S*H (and recently, 30 Rock), but he’s also a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He gave an inspiring talk to a few thousand people about how to communicate science clearly and effectively in a way that people can understand. He talked about how one should avoid or be careful about using jargon. Interaction with the audience is important, and one can do that by telling a personalized story (with a hero, goal, and an obstacle, which develops an emotional connection), or by engaging with the audience so that they become participants. It’s also important to communicate what is most interesting or exciting or curiosity-piquing about the science, but in the end, the words you use don’t matter as much as your body language and tone of voice. It’s also good to develop improvisation skills, so when a particular explanation or analogy doesn’t appear to work well with the audience, you can adapt to the situation. He referred to the “curse of knowledge”, such that as scientists we forget what it’s like not to be experts in our particular field of research. That can be an obstacle when interacting with most segments of the public, Congress members and other politicians (most of whom aren’t scientists or haven’t the time to become familiar with the science), and even with scientists in other fields. Most of all, one needs to be clear, engaged, and connected with one’s audience. Finally, Alda told us about the “flame challenge
–challenging scientists to explain flames and other concepts for 11-year olds to understand. (The kids are also the judges of the competition.) If the video of Alda’s talk becomes available online, I’ll link to it here for you.

I attended an interesting session on climate change and whether/how it’s possible to reduce 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from energy by 2050. As pointed out by the chair, Jane Long (who is one of the authors of this report), our energy needs will likely double or even triple by then, while we must be simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. Peter Loftus discussed this issue as well, and showed the primary energy demand as well as energy intensity (energy used per unit GDP) have been rapidly increasing over the past twenty years, partly due to China. But to obtain substantial carbon reductions, the intensity needs to drop below what we’ve had for the past 40 years! We need to massively add to power generation capacity (10 times more rapidly than our previous rates), and it might not be feasible to exclude both nuclear and “carbon capture” in the process. Karen Palmer gave an interesting talk about the importance of energy efficiency as part of the solution, but she says that one problem is that it’s still hard to evaluate which policies best promote energy efficiency as well as ultimately energy savings and carbon emission reductions. Richard Lester made strong arguments about the need for nuclear power, since renewables might not be up for the task of meeting rising energy demands in the near future. This was disputed by Mark Jacobson, who pointed out that nuclear power has 9-25 times more pollution per kW-hour than wind (due to mining and refining) and it takes longer to construct a plant than the 2-5 years it takes to build wind or solar farms. Jacobson also discussed state-by-state plans: California benefits from many solar devices, for example, while some places in the northeast could use offshore wind farms. In addition, such offshore arrays could withstand and dissipate hurricanes (depending on their strength), and WWS (wind, water, solar) could generate about 1.5 million new jobs in the U.S. in construction alone. Different countries have very different economic situations and carbon footprints, so different solutions may be needed.
CO2em_percapita

I caught part of a session on “citizen science” (see my previous post). Chris Lintott spoke about the history of citizen science and about how the internet has allowed for unprecedented growth and breadth of projects, including the numerous Zooniverse projects. Caren Cooper discussed social benefits of citizen science, and Carsten Østerlund discussed what motivates the citizen scientists themselves and how they learn as they participate. Lastly, Stuart Lynn spoke about how the next generation of citizen science systems can be developed, so that they can accommodate larger communities and larger amounts of data and so that people can classify billions of galaxies with the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, for example.

Finally, there was another interesting session on how scientists can work with Congress and on the challenges they face, but more on that later…

Reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting

I’d like to tell you about the AAAS meeting I’m attending. (Look here for the program.) It’s in Chicago, which is definitely much colder than southern California! I know it might sounds strange, but it’s nice to experience a real winter again.

There were some astrophysics sessions (such as on galaxy evolution in the early universe and dark matter particles) but that wasn’t my focus here. I took some brief notes, and this is based on them…

There were a few sessions about science communication, outreach, and media. These are very important things: for example, according to Rabiah Mayas, the best indicator of whether people participate in science or become scientists as adults is the extent to which they engaged in science-related activities outside of school as kids. One person discussed the importance of fact-checking for producing high-quality and robust science writing, but it takes time; one should note that peer-review in scientific research is supposed to perform a similar purpose, though it can be time-consuming as well. In any case, many people agreed that scientists and journalists need to interact better and more frequently. (As a side note, I heard two high-profile science journalists mispronounce “arXiv”, which is pronounced exactly like “archive”.) In addition, it’s worth noting that smaller regional newspapers often don’t have dedicated science desks, though this could provide opportunities for young writers to contribute. There was also an excellent talk by Danielle Lee about “Raising STEM Awareness Among Under-Served and Under-Represented Audiences,” who talked about ways to take advantage of social media.

There were interesting presentations about scientists’ role in policy-making, but I’ll get back to that later. Someone made an important point that scientists should be extremely clear about when they are just trying to provide information versus when they are presenting (or advocating) policy options. I should be clearer about that myself.

I also saw interesting talks by people about public opinion surveys in the U.S. and internationally of knowledge and opinions of science and technology. According to these polls, although some Americans are worried about global warming/climate change, people are more worried about toxic waste, water and air pollution. According to Lydia Saad (of Gallup), 58% of Americans worry a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, 57% think human activities are the main cause, 56% think it’s possible to take action to slow its effects, while only 34% think it will affect them or their way of life. In addition, she and Cary Funk (of Pew) found huge partisan gaps between self-identified Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. As one person pointed out, climate change is not just a science issue but has become a political one. Americans in polls had pretty high opinions of scientists, engineers, and medical doctors, but people had the best views of those in the military. There is a wide range of knowledge of science, especially when it comes to issues such as evolution. (Note that fewer Republicans believe in evolution by natural processes, due to a drop in those who are not evangelicals, who already had a low fraction.) Also note that the numbers depend on how poll questions are asked: for example, ~40% agree to, “The universe began with a huge explosion”, and when you add “according to astronomers”, then the proportion jumps up to 60%. (If you’re curious, this image basically describes astronomers’ current view of the Big Bang.)

bigbang

There was an interesting session dedicated to climate change science, which included scientists that contributed to the IPCC’s recent 5th Assessment Report (which we talked about in an earlier blog). Note the language they’re required to use to quantify their un/certainty: “virtually certain” means 99% certain, and then there’s “very likely” (90%), “likely” (67%), and “more likely than not” (>50%). Michael Wehner discussed applications of “extreme value statistics” (which are sometimes used analyze extremely luminous galaxies or large structures in astronomy: see this and this) on extreme temperatures. Extremely cold days will be less cold, while extremely hot days will be more common and hotter. For particular extreme weather events, one can’t say whether they’re due to climate change, but one can ask “How has the risk of this event changed because of climate change?” or “How did climate change affect the magnitude of this event?” It seems very likely that the there will be heavier heavy rainy days, longer dry seasons, and more consecutive dry days between precipitation events. There will be more droughts in the west (west of the Rockies) and southeast, and more floods in the midwest and northeast.

The plenary speaker today was Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy until last year, who gave an excellent talk. He compared convincing people about climate change to earlier campaigns to convince people about the dangers of tobacco use and its connection to lung cancer; both issues have had industry-promoted disinformation as well. On rising temperatures with climate change, he channeled Yogi Berra when he said, “If we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we’re heading.” He talked a little about the role of natural gas (see also these NYT and Science blogs), and he discussed carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS). Finally, he talked about how one might determine an appropriate price of carbon. He advocated a revenue-neutral tax, starting at $10/ton and over ~12 years raising it to $50/ton, and then giving the money raised from this directly back to the public. He also talked about wind turbines, which are now more reliable, efficient, and bigger, and he predicted a 20-30% decline in price in the next 10-15 years. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules is also dropping, but installation costs and licensing fees (“soft costs”) should be reduced. I definitely had the impression that, now that Chu is no longer Energy Secretary, he could be more frank than before about his views on contentious issues.