Current Views of Climate Change: the general public versus top presidential candidates

I crossed the country last weekend to participate in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. It’s the biggest general science meeting of the year in the U.S., and I was excited to attend along with thousands of other scientists, science writers, science policy experts, and educators. I darted from session to session to see as many interesting sessions and talks that I could, including ones about gravitational waves (of course!), science in Iran, communicating science with humor, and grand visions of the future of science—presented by the heads of NASA and the National Science Foundation, among others.

But I’d like to share some other findings presented at the AAAS meeting, about public opinion on science and technology issues. Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center warned that journalists should not oversimplify the state of affairs. “There are a mix of factors underlying public attitudes toward science-related topics,” she said.

What do people think?

Based on Pew and Gallup surveys, it seems that people’s views on climate change vary with political ideology or party affiliation, with age, and to some extent with geographic location. Their views don’t seem to vary as much with gender, race, religion or education level.

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

It turns out that views of climate change are different around the world. In particular, Latin Americans and Africans, more than people elsewhere, think that climate change is a very serious problem and that it’s harming people now, and they’re more concerned that climate change will harm them personally. In contrast, people from the U.S. and China—the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters—expressed much less concern.

“Overall, people in countries with high levels of carbon dioxide emissions per capita tend to express less anxiety about climate change than those in nations with lower per-capita emissions,” the 2015 Pew report said.

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

This probably won’t surprise you, but Lydia Saad and her fellow researchers at Gallup see a huge political divide among those who identify as “Republican” and “Democrat” when it comes to: how much people worry about global warming; whether they consider global warming a serious threat; believe the effects of global warming are already occurring; believe that there is a scientific consensus; and believe that global warming is caused by human activity.

The chasm widened after 2008—when President Obama took office—in spite of the fact that the Obama administration did almost nothing to address climate change until two years ago. (Saad didn’t say that; that’s me editorializing.)

The political gap has also widened for people who "think scientists believe global warming is occurring." (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political gap has also widened for people who “think scientists believe global warming is occurring.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The 2015 Pew survey finds the people have similar political differences on: fracking, prioritizing wind and solar energy over fossil fuels, offshore drilling, and regulating power plant emissions.

And here’s the kicker: during an election year and following the warmest January on record, climate change currently ranks only #14 on the list of voters’ priorities, according to a Gallup poll this month. (The economy, jobs, and national security topped the list.) Nearly half of people surveyed considered climate change extremely or very important in their vote for president though, so we should still ask what the top presidential candidates have to say about these issues.

What do the presidential candidates think?

Now that the relentless, ceaseless, interminable, monotonous and tedious political campaign nears its end—with nine months to go before it gives birth to a fledgling president—it seems to be a good time to review the candidates’ positions on important issues relevant to science, especially climate change and energy policy. This takes on extra importance now, as the Supreme Court has complicated or delayed efforts to implement the Clean Power Plan. Depending on who replaces Scalia, completing this plan and building on it may be the charge of Obama’s successor.

I’ve ordered these candidates alphabetically by party and then by last name.

Hillary Clinton (Democrat, former Senator and Secretary of State)

Clinton says that she will expand clean energy, especially solar; create clean energy jobs; improve energy efficiency in homes and other buildings; increase fuel efficiency of cars and trucks; and since last fall she has expressed opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. (She had not taken a position one way or the other before that.) Clinton also has a $30 billion plan to “revitalize coal communities” and help them transition toward an economy based on cleaner energy sources.

She has a modest goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Note that, like Obama, Clinton has changed the goalposts, as they say, from the standard baseline: relative to 1990 emissions, this would amount to a reduction of less than 4%, which is tiny compared to plans proposed by European countries and Russia.

Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Senator)

Like Clinton, Sanders supports improving energy efficiency in buildings, electricity grids and cars; investing in renewable energies—especially solar and wind; and aims to create many green jobs. In contrast with Clinton, he opposes fracking and offshore drilling. He recently (in December) released a climate action plan, in which he advocates for a carbon tax and for steeper carbon emission cuts by 2030.

Dr. Jill Stein (Green, Physician)

Stein also has an ambitious climate action plan, and her stance on many energy and climate issues is similar to Sanders’s. Her plan includes a “Green New Deal” to promote the creation millions of green living-wage jobs by investing in clean energy infrastructure, public transit, and more sustainable agriculture. But unique among all the candidates, she aims to achieve 100% clean energy for the U.S. by 2030.

Gary Johnson (Libertarian, former Governor of New Mexico)

Johnson, a leading Libertarian candidate, does not appear to have a climate plan or a detailed energy policy. He accepts that climate change is human-caused. He favors natural gas and to some extent coal power plants, and he emphasizes a free-market approach and opposes cap-and-trade systems.

Ted Cruz (Republican, Senator)

Cruz, like all of the leading Republican candidates but unlike candidates from any other party, does not believe that climate change is happening. He opposes “climate change alarmism.” He is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, and he believes that there is no consensus among scientists about climate change. Cruz supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling.

Marco Rubio (Republican, Senator)

Rubio’s positions appear to be similar to Cruz’s. It’s not clear to me whether he believes climate change is occurring, but he has clearly stated that it is not human-caused. Like Cruz, he supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling, and he opposes cap-and-trade programs.

Donald Trump (Republican, Businessman)

Trump does not have a climate or energy policy. He believes that climate change is not happening; it’s just the weather.

Exciting and Controversial Science: Gravitational Waves and a New Ninth Planet?

We’ve had some fantastic astronomical news this month. Last week, we encountered evidence of a “new ninth planet” lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system—170 years after the discovery of Neptune. And earlier in January, we heard a cacophony of whispers about minute gravitational waves being detected for the first time ever. Either one, if true, would be amazing to both astrophysicists and space lovers and would be the biggest discovery of 2016. We should be excited about them, but we should be careful about getting our hopes up so soon.

A New Planet, Far, Far Away?

A couple fellow science writers and I went hiking at Castle Rock State Park in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains yesterday, and along the trail, we encountered a variety of people. On our way down, we happened to overhear a conversation: “What’s your favorite planet?” followed by a reply, “Did you hear about the new planet scientists discovered?” Isn’t that great? I’m glad that the story got so much media attention and made it to the front pages of newspapers. It intrigued people, and they’re talking about it.

By studying the strangely aligned orbits of Kuiper Belt Objects far beyond Pluto’s realm, astronomers may have inferred evidence of a planet up to 10 times bigger than Earth. It would be much, much farther than Pluto, making it hard to spot. And from that distance, our sun would look almost like any other star. But if it exists, a new world (dubbed “Planet X”) joining our solar system’s family, even such an estranged cousin, would be exciting indeed.

Eric Hand (Science magazine) points out that the Subaru Telescope could search for Planet X. (Data) JPL; Batygin and Brown/Caltech; (Diagram) A. Cuadra/Science

Eric Hand (Science magazine) points out that the Subaru Telescope could search for Planet X. (Data) JPL; Batygin and Brown/Caltech; (Diagram) A. Cuadra/Science

Nevertheless, we should be concerned that the results are still very uncertain. The authors of the paper in Astronomical Journal, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown (both at Caltech), argue that there’s only a 0.007% chance, about one in 15,000, that the clustering of the distant objects’ orbits could be a coincidence. But it’s possible that the behavior of the orbits could have other possibly more likely explanations, such as other unseen Kuiper Belt Objects with orbits aligned in the opposite way. (Other astronomers, like Scott Sheppard and Greg Laughlin, estimate the chance of a planet really being out there at 60-70%. I wouldn’t bank on those odds.)

For that reason, we should remain skeptical for now. Some reporters and editors were a bit more careful than others. For example, while some headlines used appropriately hedging words like “suggest” and “may,” papers like the Denver Post and Washington Post had “The New No. 9” or “Welcome to Planet Nine.” This is already an exciting story to tell though, and we don’t need to exaggerate to get readers’ attention. If the planet turns out not to exist, people who read overblown headlines like those will be frustrated and confused.

Finally, we should all recall that Mike Brown was the main force behind Pluto’s demotion by the International Astronomical Union ten years ago. Since he calls himself the “Pluto Killer” (and wrote a book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming”), it would be ironic if he helped discover a new ninth planet, replacing Pluto. But he and the Caltech news office seem to have hyped up his paper’s findings more than they deserved, given all the uncertainties involved.

Gravitational Waves Discovered?

While procrastinating and flipping through Twitter earlier this month, I came across some juicy gossip. I heard what sounded like the tantalizing detection of gravitational waves—an unprecedented achievement. These tiny ripples in space-time, predicted by Albert Einstein and thought to be produced by collisions of black holes or neutron stars, had been too small to measure before. Gravity is the weakest of forces, after all.

But it turns out that Lawrence Krauss, a well-known cosmologist and provocateur at Arizona State University, had caused the hullabaloo with some ill-advised tweets. He once again drew the media’s limelight to himself by spreading rumors that scientists in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration had detected gravitational waves for the first time. In the process, he put those scientists in a tough spot, as I’m sure they faced pressure to make sensitive statements about their ongoing research.

The LIGO Laboratory operates two detector sites, one near Hanford in eastern Washington (pictured here) and another near Livingston, Louisiana. (Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

The LIGO Laboratory operates two detector sites, one near Hanford in eastern Washington (pictured here) and another near Livingston, Louisiana. (Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

The LIGO team is still working on their analysis using a pair of detectors in Louisiana and Washington state, and they haven’t yet produced conclusive results. From what I can tell, they may have evidence but the situation is far from clear. There is nothing wrong with waiting a while until you’ve thoroughly investigated all the relevant issues and sources of error before announcing a momentous discovery. The alternative is to prematurely declare it, only to face the embarrassing possibility of retracting it later (which sort of happened to BICEP2 scientists with their supposed discovery of primordial gravitational waves).

Gravitational waves will have to remain elusive for now. And if and when LIGO physicists do have convincing evidence of gravitational waves, they need not share any of the glory or credit with Krauss.

Fortunately, in spite of this excitement, science writers and editors kept their cool and soberly pointed to Krauss’s rumors before digging into the fascinating and painstaking work LIGO scientists are doing. Here’s some excellent coverage by Clara Moskowitz in Scientific American and by Lisa Grossman in New Scientist.

[26 Jan. update: I decided to tone down my criticism of Mike Brown, but not of Lawrence Krauss.]

The Return of Persian Science

Like many multiethnic multicultural people, I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with my multifaceted yet fragmented identity. As a half-Iranian in the midst of Americans, I’ve lacked key cultural influences and a US-centric worldview, while in Iran I feel like an outsider at times.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to visit twice so far—once as a teenager and once more recently as a physicist. Each time, I’ve been very observant in the hopes of better understanding an important side of myself. I’ve explored its fascinatingly unique cities, including the massive capital, Tehran, and its huge bazaars; Esfahan, with its spectacular architecture and Jahan Square, a national landmark; and Shiraz, with its tombs of poet giants, Hafez and Saadi. I’ve also looked for signs of how the country appears to be changing as it becomes more open to the international community.

Me and Sohrab Rahvar outside the physics department of University of Sharif, May 13, 2008. (Photo: Forood Daneshbad.)

Me and Sohrab Rahvar outside the physics department of University of Sharif, May 13, 2008. (Photo: Forood Daneshbad.)

At the invitation of Sohrab Rahvar, physics professor at the University of Sharif, I gave two seminars, one there and another at the University of Tehran. I presented postdoctoral research I was doing at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, investigating connections between observations of galaxies and theories of dark matter.

I introduced myself in Farsi and gave the talks in English—the usual second language there. I had learned Farsi from my mother in the US, and I had a pretty good accent too, but I lacked the vocabulary to communicate astrophysics in the language. I found out though that, for example, like in English, Iranians use the same word for a “cluster of galaxies” and a “cluster of grapes”.

After my presentations, the students asked challenging questions about my work—both in English and Farsi. One student asked me for advice, as she was preparing a job application for the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, near Nuremberg.

For all their talent and promise, students and scientists like her face many difficulties under the tough nuclear-related sanctions imposed on Iran. Many have a hard time traveling to conferences, obtaining student visas, or meeting with international colleagues. Even the Iranian physicists who played an integral role in the CERN Large Hadron Collider collaboration ran into restrictions. Obtaining professional journals and lab equipment can be prohibitively expensive for Iranian scientists too. Perhaps for these reasons, many scientists shifted to theoretical rather than experimental work; for example, I met surprisingly many string theory researchers there.

Science, medicine and mathematics have a long and glorious history in Iran and Persia. Six centuries before Galileo, the physicist Biruni was the first scientist to propose that the speed of light is finite. Ibn al-Haytham developed the field of optics, Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) made important contributions to medicine and philosophy, and the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam—author of The Rubaiyat—also happened to figure out the principles of algebra and devised an accurate solar calendar. Observatories proliferated throughout Persia then, and precise planetary records collected at Maragheh observatory, in what is now northwestern Iran, likely influenced Copernicus’s hypothesis that the Earth revolves around the sun.

A thousand years later, Iran is a nation of 78 million people, almost as populous as Germany. More than half the population is under the age of 35—many of them politically active—and male and female young adults have a literacy rate of 97 percent. According to the Institute of International Education, 10,200 Iranian students and nearly 1,400 scholars studied at US colleges and universities, making it the 12th leading country to send students to the US. In 1979, however, more than 51,000 students enrolled in U.S. universities—the biggest source of overseas students. The large Iranian diaspora have been known for their accomplished work in science and other fields, but according to the International Monetary Fund, this has fueled the highest “brain drain” among developing and developed countries, with 150,000 to 180,000 educated people emigrating every year. But now that may change.

As the international sanctions will be gradually lifted, students and scientists in Iran and their colleagues abroad have much to look forward to. As part of the historic nuclear deal, the uranium enrichment facility in Fordo, between Tehran and Esfahan, will be converted into an international nuclear physics and technology center.

Iranians have other plans in the works too. Within the next 4 or 5 years, astronomers are working on building a new observatory, a 3.4-meter optical telescope, on a 12,000-foot peak in central Iran at a site comparable to Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Once it’s completed, the international community will be invited to use up to 70 percent of the observing time to study planets outside the solar system, gamma-ray bursts, distant galaxies and elusive dark matter. I hope to see the telescope the next time I travel there.

In addition, Iranian physicists plan to construct an ambitious $300 million “synchrotron” particle accelerator. Like the telescope, it would be difficult to complete on schedule, if at all, were the sanctions not removed. Iranian scientists and their international partners excitedly anticipate new experiments on a wide range of subjects, from research on biological molecules to advanced materials. “Big Science” is not limited to the West.

Other sciences also look forward to a changing environment, as described in a Science special issue on science in Iran.

Rahvar seems optimistic about the post-sanctions situation. “We hope to reestablish our previous scientific relations and make new collaborations,” he says. It will take time, but the prospect of an improving research climate in Iran could herald a new era of scientific achievements in the country, especially in the physical sciences.

I think that a more open political environment in Iran won’t just invigorate science in the country and in the international community; with time, it will stimulate a more open exchange of ideas and cultural understanding. I’m proud of my Iranian blood, and I excitedly await Iran’s renewal and resurgence.

[I’m cross-posting this from the Last Word on Nothing blog, where this was originally published. Thanks to Jessa Gamble and other LWON members for their editing assistance and helpful advice.]

Nuclear Risk Reduction After the Iran Deal: Take Nukes Off Hair-Trigger Alert

By Ramin Skibba and Stephen Young

Following weeks of intense debate in the United States, the international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, supported by all California Senators and Bay Area Representatives, will go forward. It is an historic arrangement that demonstrates the world’s resolve to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. However, it will not solve all the nuclear threats that face the world.

With the Iran agreement now entering its implementation phase, it’s important to ask what other steps can be made to reduce the still considerable risks posed by nuclear weapons. The place to start is with countries already possessing nuclear weapons, pressing them to reduce the threat that their massive stockpiles still represent. Removing nuclear weapons from “hair-trigger alert” would be an important first step.

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

Continue reading

Dispute Continues between Astronomers and Native Hawaiians about Thirty Meter Telescope

The conflict over Mauna Kea, where astronomers seek to build one of the world’s largest telescopes and where Native Hawaiians consider sacred ground, continues. The situation escalated in early April when protesters, defending their land and angry about their concerns being ignored, managed to stop construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which was planned to be built by 2024 and begin detailed observations of distant galaxies and other objects at optical-infrared wavelengths.

Native Hawaiians protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: AP Photo/Anne Keala Kelly)

Native Hawaiians protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: AP Photo/Anne Keala Kelly)

After police arrested 31 peaceful protesters for blocking the road to the summit, the new Hawaii governor, David Ige, called for a temporary halt to construction of the telescope on 7 April. “This will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward,” Ige said. The situation remains at an impasse, and he extended the construction moratorium multiple times since then.

Artist's rendition of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: TMT/Associated Press)

Artist’s rendition of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: TMT/Associated Press)

This is only the latest battle in an ongoing dispute. (See my previous post on the TMT and protests last fall.) Astronomers have found that Mauna Kea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, is an ideal place to build ground-based telescopes because of its “seeing” statistics. Optical and infrared images are less distorted by light traveling through the atmosphere here than in many other places. Although many indigenous Hawaiians have allowed smaller telescopes to be built on the mountain, it becomes more controversial as astronomers try to construct more and larger telescopes on these protected lands which hold a great cultural importance for them. The TMT also drew opposition from celebrities of Native Hawaiian descent, including Jason Mamoa (Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones), who encouraged others to join the protests.

In addition, the protests drew more media attention than the last time, during the ground-breaking. For example, see these excellent articles by Azeen Ghorayshi on Buzzfeed and Alexandra Witze in Nature, as well as other articles in Science, New Scientist, and NPR. George Johnson also discussed the protests in the New York Times, though his column clearly sides with the TMT.

Supported by US and international universities as well as the National Science Foundation (in the form of “partnership-planning activities”), the TMT is the primary 30-meter-class telescope given priority by the US astronomical community in the 2010 Decadal Survey and highlighted in a recent National Research Council report. The other two planned telescopes in that class include the European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) led by the European Southern Observatory and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) led by an international consortium of universities, both of which are under construction in northern Chile. All three telescopes are scheduled to have “first light” in the early 2020s. During the planning phase of the TMT, in addition to Mauna Kea, astronomers considered other possible locations as well, also including northern Chile and Baja California, Mexico.

The Native Hawaiian position is not monolithic, but some groups oppose the construction of the TMT and others would support it if negotiations took place in good faith and with respect and not only in Western spaces. The protesters are not a small minority, and they don’t believe that their voices have been heard. Many Hawaiians make it clear that they are not against science or astronomy; for example, the Mauna Kea Protectors “[take] a stand specifically against scientific practices that do a lot of damage—to our planet, to traditional native cultures, and to public health and safety.”

They and others make arguments on cultural, environmental, and legal grounds. If built, the TMT would dominate the landscape as it would rise 18 stories above the mountain, at an elevation of 4200m, and would disturb a large area of its slope. Moreover, the Mauna Kea summit lies within a conservation district, and therefore according to Hawaiian law certain (arguably unsatisfied) criteria must be met before construction there. Finally and most importantly, many believe that Mauna Kea is a sacred and special place that must be protected, and those beliefs have not been sufficiently respected by the authorities. (For more information, see here and here.)

The official position can be found on the TMT website and at Mauna Kea and TMT. Furthermore, Claire Max, Interim Director of UC Observatories, recently made an official statement promoting the latter as a source for information “with links to balanced news stories about the project and the protests” and that “TMT…[has] profound regard for Hawaii’s culture, environment and people.”

The TMT does have support among some native Hawaiians, and TMT authorities have set up a $1 million annual scholarship fund, named The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund, which will be administered by the Hawaii Community Foundation. They have initiated a Workforce Pipeline Program in Hawaii as well. Like the Hawaiian organizations, they insist that they have the law on their side, but unlike them, they refer to the TMT as a done deal and fait accompli rather than as the subject of an ongoing dispute. According to the University of Hawaii position, “more than 20 public hearings have been held during the process and the project has been approved by then Governor Neil Abercrombie, the UH Board of Regents and the Board of Land and Natural Resources…The project has also cleared legal challenges and was upheld in the Third Circuit Court.”

From what I have seen, this dispute has generated heated debates in the astronomical community in various social media. For example, in the “Diversity in Physics and Astronomy” Facebook group (with 1700 members), astronomers made more posts and comments about the TMT and protests than about any other issue over the past few months. Astronomers expressed a wide range of views on Twitter as well, some of which were highlighted recently by Emily Lakdawalla’s Storify timeline, “Astronomy Progress is Not Universal.”

Like many astronomers and astrophysicists, I’m torn. While the TMT would be a boon for science and scientists, especially those who study galaxies, supernovae, stars, and planets, that is not the only criterion by which such a project should be evaluated. The state of Hawaii and the United States in general have a long history of colonialism and disrespect for indigenous peoples and cultures, and unfortunately the TMT risks falling onto the wrong side of that history. For now, I think that the moratorium on construction should continue and substantial negotiations should take place, and if that delays the schedule, so be it. If more native Hawaiians and organizations do not decide to support the TMT, the astronomical community should consider a different site or even terminate the telescope altogether. I realize that the cost of either action would be great, considering the huge international investment that has already taken place, but the price of desecrating native Hawaiians’ sacred and protected land is much higher.

I see strong opinions on each side, and many have distributed petitions and sought to gain more public and media support. How will astronomers and Hawaiians proceed? I hope that they will use this time to discuss the situation with respect and as equals, and they may determine whether a resolution that satisfies many eventually can be achieved.

Physics Diplomacy and the Iran Nuclear Deal

After much anticipation and cautious optimism, US, European, and Iranian negotiators managed to put together a nuclear framework in Lausanne, Switzerland earlier this month. It sets the stage for a final detailed agreement to be developed in June, which will transform Iran’s nuclear program and reduce sanctions against Iran that have weakened its economy. It appears that diplomats have nearly bridged a formidable foreign policy impasse that plagued their respective governments for over a decade.

Perhaps more importantly, a rapprochement with Iran could gradually end the country’s international isolation since 1979 following the revolution. In addition, from the perspective of Iran and some other Middle East countries, Iran’s improved relations with the US and its fair treatment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would make the US appear less hypocritical and less a source of instability. As an historical aside, it’s also worth noting that Iran started its nuclear program in 1967 with US help as part of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, and unlike Iran, three countries in the region with nuclear programs (Israel, Pakistan, and India) have not signed and ratified the NPT.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and US Secretary of State Kerry in Paris on 16 Jan. 2015. (Source: US State Department)

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and US Secretary of State Kerry in Paris on 16 Jan. 2015. (Source: US State Department)

Important Characters

Many interesting aspects of this agreement and situation are worth discussing. First, much credit for this historic achievement goes to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, US Secretary of State Kerry, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, though of course all of the negotiating teams put in a lot of hard and stressful work to make it happen. Both Kerry and Zarif now face a difficult balancing act: staying true to the framework and focusing on delivering a final agreement while navigating domestic political concerns.

The latter may reflect the different messages and emphases in the statements made by Kerry and Zarif as they returned to their home countries. For example, Zarif and President Rouhani spoke more about relief from sanctions and freedom to enrich uranium while Kerry and President Obama spoke about the limits and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, while some influential Iranian “hard-liners” like Hossein Shariatmadari criticized the deal, US senators in the Foreign Relations Committee led by Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) sought to pass a bill that would incorporate Congressional oversight but also had the potential to jeopardize diplomatic efforts.

US Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization also are important characters in this story. As pointed out in the New York Times and the Guardian, both had studied nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s, and they became No. 2 negotiators and “atomic diplomats” during the nuclear talks. Perhaps having experienced physicists involved helped cooler heads to prevail? (I’m half-joking; remember the Manhattan Project?)

Technical Details

Let’s explore some of the technical elements of the nuclear framework. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and US intelligence, Iran ended any weapons research it may have had in 2003. However, because of its power plant in Bushehr, its enrichment facilities in Natanz and Fordo, and its heave water reactor under construction near Arak, Iran has the capability to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Only 0.3% of natural uranium is in the form of the 235U isotope. For power reactors, 3.5% enrichment is needed, while 20% is considered a threshold for “weapons-usable” uranium, and 90% enrichment is weapons-grade. Moreover, when uranium is burned, the spent fuel can be processed to extract plutonium. (And as we know from Fukushima, those spent fuel pools can be dangerous.)

Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, and they are operating only 9,000 of them. If Iran wanted to, analysts predict that they are 2-3 months away from acquiring enough fissile material for one weapon; the US and Europe seek to prevent a nuclear “breakout” by extending this to at least one year, for a duration of at least 10 years. In addition, the international community will set up strict inspection and transparency measures that would allow it to detect any Iranian efforts to violate the accord.

For more information, see the US State Department’s detailed fact sheet and these Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Science Insider articles. The UCS also recently held a webinar with directors and members of its Global Security Program: Drs. Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, and Edwin Lyman.

The agreement’s key provisions may be summarized as follows. The first one involves inspections and transparency: the IAEA will have access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, supply chain, uranium mines, centrifuge production, storage facilities, as well as any suspicious sites. Second, US and EU nuclear sanctions will be lifted after the IAEA verifies key steps, and they will “snap back” if necessary. Also, the UN Security Council will pass a new resolution and will set up a dispute resolution program. Third, for the enrichment, the number of centrifuges will be reduced to 6,104 IR-1s (1st-generation centrifuges), and Iran is not allowed to enrich uranium beyond 3.67% for at least 15 years or build new enrichment facilities during that time. Enrichment R&D will be limited as well, and there are plans to convert Fordo facility to an international research center. Fourth, Iran will modify the Arak research reactor to reduce plutonium production, ship spent fuel out of the country, and they are not allowed to engage in reprocessing or reprocessing R&D indefinitely.

The Fordo facility, built below a mountain, will be turned into a research lab. (Credit: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

The Fordo facility, built below a mountain, will be turned into a research lab. (Credit: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

According an interview with Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former ambassador and nuclear negotiator for Iran, the US and world powers got what they wanted: Iran has accepted the maximum level of transparency and verification, including confidence-building measures that would ensure there would be no breakout or diversion toward weaponization. For Iran, negotiators can say that their rights for peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT was accepted, and all unilateral and multi-lateral nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted.


This historic diplomatic achievement, assuming that it comes to fruition with a final detailed agreement in June, will satisfy many concerns on both sides. It likely will result in improved relations and more respect for Iran. Importantly, it will also aid scientists and scientific research in Iran. Over a history of thousands of years, Persians have contributed fundamental scientific discoveries, including for example, by 10th century luminaries, the physicist Alhazen and astronomer Biruni. Now Persian scientists can engage in more international collaboration, and the new physics laboratory in Fordo will be an excellent start. (For more, see these articles in Science, Nature, and NY Review of Books.)

Finally, this has implications for the region. If relations between Iran and world powers improve, Iran could play a much more important role in Middle Eastern affairs. I think this is as it should be, but those who see these relations as a zero-sum game, including some in Saudi Arabia and Israel, oppose the deal for that reason. Leaders of another regional power, Turkey, have not opposed it, however. Furthermore, the success of diplomacy helps to continue nonproliferation efforts under the NPT around the world. We should also acknowledge though, as long as people view nuclear power as the primary alternative to fossil fuels, many countries will invest in it, and the risk of nuclear breakout and proliferation will remain, in spite of IAEA efforts and the NPT.

Geoengineering and Climate Interventions: Too Risky or Needs More Research?

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in San Jose in February, scientists from the US National Research Council released two high-profile reports on climate interventions and geoengineering techniques. The most thorough evaluation of its kind, this pair of studies assesses proposed climate intervention approaches including their cost, technological capacities, uncertainties, impacts, challenges, and risks. As the Earth and its inhabitants experience a changing climate nothing like any in recorded human history, and as concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise, scientists are interested in considering all possible responses.

The research committee consists of an impressive array of experts from a variety of institutions and universities, including Ken Caldeira (Carnegie Inst. for Science), Lynn Russell (Scripps Inst. of Oceanography) and David Titley (Penn State), and it is chaired by Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science and former director of the US Geological Survey, and they are informed by numerous analysts and staff. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the US intelligence community, NASA, NOAA, and the Dept. of Energy sponsored the studies. One can access both full reports and a 4-page summary at the NAS website.

Photograph: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Photograph: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

The authors avoid the more commonly-used term “geoengineering,” which they also used in previous reports, because they consider the atmosphere and not just the Earth and because engineering “implies a greater degree of precision and control than might be possible.” Instead, they propose the term “intervention,” with its connotation of “an action intended to improve a situation.”

Through these reports, the committee makes three main recommendations and conclusions. First, the authors argue that there is no substitute for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Second, they recommend research and development investment to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal and disposal at scales that would have a significant global climate impact. Third, they oppose deployment of albedo-modification techniques but recommend further research.

Carbon dioxide removal and sequestration

NAS report: "Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration"

NAS report: “Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration”

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies involve capturing carbon in the terrestrial biosphere or the ocean after it’s been emitted. These approaches are intended to mimic or accelerate processes that are already occurring as part of the natural carbon cycle. The authors consider five types of CDR techniques: land-management approaches such as forest restoration; accelerated weathering techniques (allowing the oceans to absorb more CO2 than normal); ocean iron fertilization (so that more microorganisms such as plankton consume CO2, like a “biological pump”); bioenergy (using biomass) followed by CO2 capture and sequestration; and direct air capture of carbon.

The authors describe ocean fertilization and direct air capture as “immature technologies,” while land management and weathering processes have only been carried out on a limited scale, and bioenergy is limited by the availability of land for biomass and by the need to transport it to processing facilities. The barriers to CDR deployment involve slow implementation, limited capacity, policy considerations, and high costs of currently available technologies. The committee concludes the report with the following recommendation:

Recommendation 2: The Committee recommends research and development investment to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal and disposal at scales that would have a global impact on reducing greenhouse warming, in particular to minimize energy and materials consumption, identify and quantify risks, lower costs, and develop reliable sequestration and monitoring.

Albedo-modification research

NAS report: "Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth"

NAS report: “Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth”

Albedo-modification techniques ignore the greenhouse gases and instead seek to avoid global warming by blocking the sun to prevent light from reaching the Earth’s surface. Such methods could lower average global temperatures in a couple years, like the effects of volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. The authors mainly consider two methods for scattering sunlight: injecting millions of tons of aerosol-forming gases into the stratosphere; or marine cloud brightening, increasing the efficiency with which the ocean clouds reflect sunlight. They also briefly consider other techniques including: space-based methods, placing scatterers or reflectors in the atmosphere; and cirrus cloud modification, such that more long-wave radiation can flow up into space.

The authors acknowledge that albedo-modification techniques only temporarily mask the warming effect of greenhouse gases and would be needed to be sustained indefinitely. In addition, there could be unanticipated and unmanageable risks and consequences, “including political, social, legal, economic, and ethical dimensions.” Therefore, the committee comes to the following simple conclusion:

Recommendation 3: Albedo modification at scales sufficient to alter climate should not be deployed at this time.

Media Response

It’s interesting that with the same pair of reports, journalists at different media outlets present the study’s results in a variety of ways, demonstrating the many perspectives with which people approach these issues. For example, journalists and editors at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Science, and National Geographic point to the need for more research, primarily on carbon dioxide removal techniques. On the other hand, Suzanne Goldenberg at The Guardian writes that the consideration of planetary-scale interventions shows how concerned scientists have become about advancing climate change, while Alexandra Witze at Nature writes about how these reports legitimize geoengineering, though many of the climate intervention approaches are deemed too risky.

I would argue that most of these journalists describe the study correctly, but since the study has multiple recommendations that are somewhat at odds with each other and since the committee includes people with different views and backgrounds, it’s inevitable that some people would be more responsive to some aspects of the report over others. You may also be interested in critical responses by people blogging with the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Association of Science Writers.

Moving Ahead

Finally, I’ll end with my view of this study and of climate interventions. I’m not sure that the term “climate interventions” itself is an improvement over “geoengineering”: I think that the former amounts to re-branding the issue and that it sounds less serious. Make no mistake, what scientists consider in these reports are serious stuff indeed. And as some have mentioned before, such a scheme has been imagined before—by “The Simpsons” villain Mr. Burns.

The study’s authors state that there is no substitute for climate mitigation and that we should focus on the root cause of climate change, which is the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the carbon emissions are themselves caused by human society’s growing energy demand and the widespread use of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas.

The authors point out that most geoengineering schemes are too risky, involve immature technologies, have high costs, and could have unknown consequences on a planet-wide scale. Is it really worthwhile to invest in more research of them? The only exception is forest restoration and other land management methods, which would help when combined with reduced carbon emissions, and I wouldn’t group them with these other carbon-capture climate interventions.

I worry that this report would pave the way for wasting large investments of funding and effort researching these schemes, rather than focusing on the goal of slowing and eventually stopping climate change by transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Moreover, if people believe that a technological solution is possible in the distant future, they will not strive so hard to reduce carbon emissions today and will continue with business-as-usual. Above all, we should be focusing on expanding climate mitigation efforts. We should also work on climate adaptation, since the carbon already in the atmosphere will cause some warming in the coming decades no matter what.

Thoughts on “Interstellar” and Questions it Raises

I finally went and saw Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar a couple days ago. It’s definitely an entertaining and thought-provoking movie, and it’s worth seeing in a theater. This post won’t really be a review of the film, but I’ll give you a few of my thoughts about it and implications of it for our role in the universe. I’m interested in hearing your response to the movie as well. It raised some big and important questions that we humans should explore further. (Note: this post includes a few “spoilers,” so consider yourself warned.)

First of all, if you haven’t seen 2001 or Contact already, then you should rectify that immediately! They’re both excellent, and Interstellar was made with many connections and homages to them…so turn off your computer or tablet or brain implant or whatever you’re reading this with, and go check out those movies! You can come back to this blog later.

Also, if you’re interested in checking out other astronomers’ responses to the movie, you can read the excessively critical review and mea culpa by Phil Plait, the interesting tweets and more tweets by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and this article in Wired magazine by Adam Rogers (and thanks to Lynne Friedmann for giving it to me).


Why are astrophysicists discussing or questioning some aspects of the film? It’s because the filmmakers consulted Kip Thorne and did attempt to get the physics right, and because it’s the big space movie of the year, like Gravity was last year. In my opinion, they did do a pretty good job on many issues, though I wasn’t so sure about a couple others: for example, I’m not sure whether all the time dilation effects were calculated accurately (though their take on the “twin paradox” was interesting), and I’m skeptical about Matt McConaughey’s character’s experience in the black hole (which is the circular saw-shaped image above). And deGrasse Tyson made an accurate and important observation that bothered me too: “Mysteries of #Interstellar: Stars vastly outnumber Black Holes. Why is the best Earthlike planet one that orbits a Black Hole”?

I’m not going to get into these physics issues much here. (I’m happy to try to answer any questions you might have though—just post a comment or contact me on Twitter.) Instead, I’m more interested in exploring questions the movie raised. For example, how much of a priority is space exploration to us as a society? How difficult would it be to find another potentially habitable planet—and what are our criteria for “potentially habitable”? How would we traverse these great distances? How do we transport people (and necessary equipment and supplies) so that they can survive for long periods far from Earth—in spacecraft, space stations, or colonies? How vulnerable is our own planet and which vulnerabilities should we be trying to address? How might we eventually contact or even meet alien species, and what would we tell or ask them? Who would do the talking or asking? Will we behave with empathy or will we act like conquerors? What are own roles and responsibilities as Earthlings and citizens of the cosmos?

(We also learned a few fun things from the movie, such as: wormholes can be convenient; books get pushed off of shelves by space ghosts; NASA will survive even during the worst of times; and watch out if you land on an ice planet and find Matt Damon.)

It’s easy to become focused and fixated on short-term and local problems, as they can seem the most pressing. That’s totally understandable, but we as a society can’t forget the big long-term picture. What are our objectives and priorities as a global community? What do we want to achieve, and how can we work toward those goals and help future generations to realize them?

In the movie, a runaway Dust Bowl—presumably due to climate change—or some kind of “nuclear winter” devastates the world’s food supplies. Though this might seem far-fetched, it’s not out of the question for our planet. People had to struggle just to get through each day and to feed their families, such that exploration was the furthest from their minds and people started believe that the Apollo program was a hoax. But the drive to explore the unknown and see what’s out there is an inherently human trait. Carl Sagan once wrote, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” What are other planets, solar systems, or even other galaxies like, and what do their differences tell us about our own? Just today a Scientific American article came out, where the author discusses the thousands of exoplanets observed so far and argues that “Planets More Habitable than Earth may be Common in Our Galaxy.” These are issues we can’t stop thinking about.

One problem is that space is big. “Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is” (to quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Planets that support life are extremely rare, though we don’t know exactly how rare yet. It’s difficult to learn about planets far away, and it won’t be easy to find out which ones humans could visit or which ones might support alien life. Contacting those aliens is more complicated. And then visiting other planets and solar systems, or even setting up colonies on them is literally a multi-generational project. For example, Alpha Centauri is about 4.4 light years away. If astronauts could travel as fast as the Voyager spacecraft…it would take them 77,000 years to get there! They’d wake up from hibernation in their spaceship after all that time, and they wouldn’t even know whether other humans were still alive.

Finally, one of the main points I think we should take away from the movie is that we must take care of our own planet. Earth is rare, and it’s our home. We face many dangers and threats throughout the world, including global warming, drought, floods, famine, air pollution, natural disasters, pandemics, ozone depletion, killer asteroids, and war. We should note that these problems and their effects are related to poverty and inequality too, and that’s not to mention threats to other species on Earth. We might not survive for thousands of years—which is like a blink of an eye for our universe—but we have to try. We have to work together and plan for the future.

On that note, I’ll leave you with the ending of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:

We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Rosetta and the Time-scale of Science

Over the past couple weeks, you have surely seen Rosetta and its dusty comet all over the internet, in the news, or on Twitter and other social media sites. It has definitely captured the public imagination. But where did Rosetta come from? How did scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) manage to accomplish the feat of putting a lander on the surface of a comet hurtling through space? The answer: through a lot of hard work by many people and investment of many resources for many years.

#CometLanding may have been the meme of the week, but it was decades in the making. After Halley’s Comet (1P/Halley) flew by the Earth and was studied by ESA’s Giotto probe, scientists there and at NASA realized that more ambitious missions would be necessary to obtain more detailed information about comets, which contain water and organic materials and could have influenced the origin of life on Earth. ESA’s Science Programme Committee approved the Rosetta mission in November 1993, about 21 years ago. Design and construction took teams of scientists a decade to complete, and then they launched the €1.3 billion flagship spacecraft in 2005 (which was a few months before NASA’s Deep Impact mission sent a probe to collide with a different comet). Following four gravity assists, slingshotting once by Mars and three times by Earth, Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko earlier this year. After orbiting for two months, Rosetta was in a position and trajectory to eject Philae, which successfully landed on the comet and made history on 12th November. (See my recent post for more.)

To give another example, for my astrophysics research, I have frequently used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), an optical telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The SDSS was first planned in the 1980s, and data collection finally began in 2000. Some have
described the SDSS as one of the most ambitious and influential surveys in the history of astronomy, as it has observed millions of galaxies and quasars, transforming many fields of research, including work on cosmology and the large-scale structure of the universe. It also witnessed the rise of Galaxy Zoo, which with more than 250,000 active “citizen scientists,” has become perhaps the greatest mass participation project ever conceived. Now we prepare for the successors to the SDSS, including ESA’s Euclid mission and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which are expected to have “first light” in the 2020s.

Scientific research operates on a long time-scale, sometimes longer than the careers of scientists themselves. Scientists make mistakes sometimes, and some projects, large and small, may fail or produce inaccurate results. At times, it may take awhile for scientists to abandon a theory or interpretation insufficiently supported by evidence, and it can be difficult to determine which investigations to pursue that could yield new and fruitful research. Nevertheless, over many years the “self-correcting” nature of the scientific enterprise tends to prevail.

In addition, while the US Congress makes decisions about federal budgets every fiscal year, American scientists depend on predictable stable funding over longer periods in order to successfully complete their research programs. Moreover, school and university students depend on funding and resources for their education. Quality scientific education helps people to become scientifically literate and critical thinkers; as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “center line of science literacy…is how you think.” Plus, some students will be inspired by Rosetta and other achievements to pursue careers in science, and we should give them every opportunity to do so.

Events can change rapidly in the 24-hour news cycle, but science and scientists work over years to produce big results like the comet landing. Future missions and ambitious projects for the next few decades are being planned now and need continued support. And to ensure more scientific advancements after that, we need to keep investing in the education of our students—the next generation of scientists.

[Note that this op-ed-like piece is adapted from an assignment I wrote for a science writing class with Lynne Friedmann at UC San Diego.]

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):

photo 1

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!

photo 7

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.


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!