Category Archives: design

a prompt from Adam, November 2010

Could you tell the difference…

by John Armstrong

I am a big fan of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  SETI‘s job is to search for artificial – dare I say “designed” – signals in the Universe.  To probe the cosmos for any hint of intelligence, some artifact in nature that clearly indicates the existence of another creative species like us.

I’m teaching an honors astrobiology course this term, and the students – much to my joy – chose to study Carl Sagan’s Contact for our final projects.  During the last several weeks, we’ve been reading the book, watching the movie, solving Fermi problems about the number of civilizations and the cost of interstellar communication and transportation.  We’ve been asking the question “Are we alone?” and finding that the answer is really, really important.  If ETI are common, perhaps there is some hope for us.  If they aren’t there, then…well, then what?

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the implications of “contact” on society.  The answers range from “Incredible” to “None”.  From “Independence Day” to “District 9”.  Would it change your life?  And, if not, what scientific result ever could?

As a final project, students can choose to write about ETI in a number of ways.  They can choose a position paper or a research paper.  They can write a poem or a story.  They can choose to write a feature article for a magazine.  But my favorite is the interview/survey.  Several of my students want to ask other people questions about ETI and probe their responses, relating those back to the impact on our society.

One student will survey clergy from various denominations in the area to see if “The Signal”, scientifically realized, would be distinguishable from a message from God.  What would convince them?  The content of the message?  The method of delivery?  As I think about it, this is an important question.

Consider: the world’s religions have been receiving signals from space for thousands of years.  They may have come in the form of blind oracles or a burning bush, but the message is clearly from “beyond”.  How are radio signals from space distinguishable, for your average person, from a statue that bleeds?  Does it come down to an evaluation of the data?  Are we to expect people to “believe” scientists because we can show them wiggly lines on a graph?  How, as a nonscientist, can you tell the difference?

As a kid, I became enamored with the idea that God (or, earlier, gods) were really aliens from another planet visiting Earth.  This made a lot of sense to my little kid mind.  Interstellar space travel is very hard, so they visited 10,000 years ago, and we interpreted their visits from the animistic perspective.  The visited 5,000 years ago, and we saw them as gods from on high, interacting directly with humans.  A couple (or perhaps just one) visited 2,000 years ago.  Even as a kid in junior high, when I read in Exodus God’s commandment to “not have any other gods before me”, that implied that there must be other gods.  And these gods were other aliens.

Crazy, I know.  As I got older, and learned about scientific exploration, I found it more likely that humans just made up stories about gods and God, in order to help us understand the Universe.  That is a much simpler explanation.

But, if tomorrow – or Thursday, during NASA’s big press conference – the signal finally came from “on high”, is it really simpler to attribute it to an alien species?  Or would it be far more likely, in the mind of 90% of the people on the planet, that the message came from “God”.

And how on Earth would you convince them otherwise?

Pervasive Design

by Michelle B. Larson

I wake, I see
cubic block glass window – privacy.

I shower, cold smacks
concentric circle shower head – relax.

Hot coffee, add cream
convection cell pattern – and steam.

Outside, I run
cubic block snow fort – how fun.

Dark clouds, all huddle
concentric circle rain drops – in puddle.

The Sun, what joy
convection cell pattern – Voronoi.

Construction site, new buyer
cubic block buildings – rising higher.

Classroom, kids learn
concentric circle solar system – Kepler.

Lunchtime, large group
convection cell pattern – good soup.

Walk home, new path
pervasive design – physics and math.

whimsical design

by Adam Johnston

I believe that any man who has looked at himself, naked, in a full length mirror, can’t believe in “intelligent design.” Intelligent design is creationism with a new jacket and a shiny pair of shoes. The notion I don’t have problems with necessarily, although I fight it in public spheres and in preparing teachers. When it gets infused into discussions of science, the premise is no longer merited. Science unravels the Natural world, so seeing into the mind of the Supernatural is out of bounds. Moreover, you shouldn’t insult your god by suggesting that we can.

But there’s more to it than just the philosophical, epistemological basis of science versus non-science. There’s the naked man standing in the mirror. Because, that is one of the funniest things we should ever have to face, eye to eye, man to man — symmetrical yet baggy, hairy but not furry, upright but hunched as though there’s an evolutionary memory of some ancestor without the opposable thumbs. And we’re not alone in our absurdity. There’s the platypus, volcanic pumice, the banana slug, music, lava tubes, brine shrimp, sandstone arches, sea cucumbers, hail, tides, viruses, pi, gray whales, and love. It’s all ridiculously improbable, and if you try to convince me that there’s intelligence, planning, or logic behind any of this I scoff. Again, I’m not sure I’d want to insult the intelligent of whatever deity you’d subscribe to.

Last week in my class, a science teaching preparatory course, one of my biology students brought up the fact that, of all the cells actually inside the human body, perhaps a tenth of them are human cells. The rest, the vast majority, the ruling party who could surely outvote the rest of my body in any kind of democratic decision, are microbial. We are mostly bacteria. They’re helping us, and us them, though mostly I think we just make the best of it. We’re a convenient hull in which they have a constant temperature, and they don’t kill us immediately. What kind of a crazy idea is this? Surely, if you really wanted to design something, especially something as “highly” evolved as the human, you could imagine something much more independent, less reliant and hospitable to foreigners.*

I think about places I love like Arches National Park, and a jaunt into Fiery Furnace in particular, and I’m fascinated and moved. Red stone walls give way to slots that we navigate in single file. Rock formations like “Surprise Arch” and “Kissing Turtles” emerge out of quiet, seeping water, and geologic time. The arid desert and sterile cracks give way to a slot where water collects to host a garden of poison ivy, surprising the visitor who was only wary of rattlesnakes, sheer drop offs, and heat stroke. There’s the immensity of the stone, sharply contrasted with the ridiculousness of individual grains of sand, responsible for the staggeringly slow pace of the grain by grain drip by drip process of it all. It creates something that is not only explained by a story but pours out the subjects and imagery of the theater. From kissing turtles to craggy juniper to sheer red walls reaching up into blue space, it all seems to smile back at me. It’s as though it were all there just waiting for it to be seen.

To me, all this is waiting, not intelligently designed, but whimsically designed. It isn’t there to do something, but to be laughed at and to laugh back at us.

It’s the same whimsy as that in the eyes of a visitor looking up at Sand Dune Arch, just north of Fiery Furnace, or the whimsy of my daughters playing in the sand there that forgives the rock for trapping it, climbing on the sandstone that was built grain by grain. This sandy chasm between fins is a destination of choice when I’m here with my family. Each visit we make is a bit of a return to some Mecca, where we stare at a thin ribbon of stone that spans the sky. Eventually, though, we find ourselves playing in the sand, climbing on the rocks.

It’s fun to imagine the creator behind sandstone arches, the result of sand eroded out of stone that was cemented out of sand. Too, there’s the Teddy Bear Cactus, cuddly looking but with needles that pierce tender flesh, green and bulbous with water in a place void of the stuff. There are things with scales, things with slime, things with venom, and things with whiskers. And then there’s brains. Kurt Vonnegut put it best in Galapagos: “I am still full of rage at a natural order which would have permitted the evolution of something as distracting and irrelevant and disruptive as those great big brains . . .” A natural “order,” or perhaps it’s the natural disorder of things. We have the intelligence to be just aware enough of ourselves to imagine where we come from.

It’s ironic that we are a product of whatever source of the design there may have been. Intelligent enough to be able to imagine some intelligence in the design, and then even go so far as to look for it. Of course, this just won’t work. It just isn’t what science does. It seems that we’re just intelligent enough to fool ourselves. Some whimsical source of it all is laughing, not with us, but at us. If only we got the joke, it would be pretty funny. There is so much around us and within us that simply defies intelligence, and in attributing an architecture to a logical and planful designer, we’re looking for the wrong author of it all. The designer is a poet and an artist, but not a scientist. That’s our our own job. And that’s fine with me.


* I can imagine political implications: How do we consider the issue of illegal immigration if we, our very physical independent selves, are hosts to completely alien species?

Perturbations on Nature’s Design

by Shane L. Larson

At the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago, a rock from space roughly 10 kilometers in diameter crashed into the Earth.  The result of that impact was an energy release equivalent to 100 million megatons of TNT and the excavation of a 180 kilometer diameter crater on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, known as the Chicxulub Impact Crater.  The outcome of that single astronomical event was the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, in which nearly 75% of all plant and animal species that inhabited the planet died off, vanished from the face of the Earth forever.

This is not the only extinction in the Earth’s history, it is simply the most recent.  Based on fossil evidence, over 98% of all species that have ever been documented are extinct, exterminated from the Earth by the long slow march of history.  Looking around the Earth today, the planet is rippling with life, every nook and cranny of every ecosystem filled with plants, animals and microbes.  One can hardly believe that only 65 million years ago, a blink of an eye in geologic history, life on this planet had been decimated.  But biological systems are designed to evolve, trading entire species for mutation experiments in adaptability.

By all accounts, the Chicxulub impact was a serious event.  The deposition of 100 million megatons of TNT in equivalent energy into the environment had serious ramifications for the design of the Earth’s biosphere: the reptilian lifeforms that had ruled the planet for millions of years were snuffed out and replaced by a new experiment that has since had millions of years to expand and flourish.  We are living in a between time, going about our lifey-business until the next catastrophe pushes Nature toward a new design.  Fortunately for us, huge depositions of energy like the Chicxulub event are rare.  Right?

The prospects of another Chicxulub Impact Event are terrifying to ponder, but remote in prospect.  Based on the historical occurence of impact events on the Earth and the Moon, it seems the likelihood of a similar impact is roughly one per hundred million years.  But the Laws of Nature are broad in scope and aspect; it may be that all the Earth’s biosphere cares about is energy in any form, whether is comes in the shape of a rare astrophysical impact event, or some other seemingly benign trend.

Consider the loss in Arctic sea ice.  There is a concerted worldwide effort to monitor the change in ice levels in the Arctic and Antarctic, and the results are disturbing to many scientists.  Why?  One recent study reported the loss of 1400 cubic kilometers of the (formerly) permanent Arctic ice (Kwok & Cunningham, GRL 37, L20501 [2010]).  For a 1 kilometer thick ice sheet, this is an area roughly the size of Salt Lake City, seemingly small in comparison to the entire Arctic.  But how much energy did it take to melt 1400 cubic kilometers of ice?  An energy equivalent of 100 million megatons of TNT — the energy that was released in the Chicxulub impact.  Worldwide, there are ice melts of this magnitude in the glaciers, on the Greenland ice sheet, and on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  Worldwide, the warming of the coldest areas of the planet are indicative of energy shifts equivalent to many times that of the Chicxulub Impact.

By physical accounts, the Chicxulub impact made a small perturbation to the Earth, but in doing so wiped out the dinosaurs, creatures that had inhabited the Earth for hundreds of millions of years, unchallenged in their superiority and adaptability.  They are now all gone.  But Nature is adaptable in design, and replaced the failed ecosystem of the dinosaurs with a new one, the one we inhabit today.  Now humans are making similar subtle perturbations to the world.  Nature will have no qualms about wiping us from the face of the planet, a failed iteration in the 4 billion year old experiment in evolution.  The system is designed to discard the old, and replace it with something more adaptable. Who will our successors be?  What traits will Nature design to make them survive the new ecosystem we are creating?  Will intelligence be one of them?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  The robustness of Nature’s evolutionary machinery is awesome in scope, but ruthless in operation.  Looking at humans as one cog in the great wheel of evolution, it is unclear that Nature will decide that this thing that we call intelligence is a superior trait for survivability.


Designing Science Fair

by Stacy Palen

The other day, I was sitting in a meeting, listening to a science fair alumnus explain about the design of a science fair project. In the realm of science fair, there are science projects, engineering projects, and computer science projects. Telling them apart is not always easy, but it almost always involves evaluating the design of the project itself. Listening to this discussion was enlightening for me, for two reasons. First, I never really thought about how different types of science fair projects require a different type of design. To be truthful, I’ve not thought much about science fair at all since my own grade school days, when it was a demoralizing experience for everyone I knew, except Tom Schell. Second, I found that the things I’m doing in my non-physicist life at the moment are deeply reminiscent of engineering projects. But I never thought of them as ‘design’. I just thought of them as ‘doing it wrong, and then doing it again’.

The design of a science project almost always involves repetition. The student is expected to repeat the experiment 3 (for 6th graders) or 10 (for 8th graders) or 100 (for 12th graders) times, performing the same experiment with different individuals, if it’s a biology-type experiment, or with conditions as closely the same as possible, if it’s a physics or chemistry-type experiment. One of the primary criteria for judging a science project is to look at the number of trials. We expect to see some understanding of statistics, errors and the law of averages.

The design of an engineering or computer science project, on the other hand, involves assessing a need, building a prototype, studying how it meets expectations, modifying, building and testing a next-generation machine, instrument or program. The test of the prototype is designed, and the results of the test inform the design of the next generation. But it’s not the same type of repetitive process. Each iteration is different. This is what I do now, in my non-physics life. Actually, even in my physics life.

Consider, as a physics-life example, teaching my classes. I almost never give the same assignment twice. Instead, I modify it each time, based on prior results, (which I sometimes even take notes about), and then I give a next-generation assignment to a new group of students. This is engineering my teaching. Each assignment is an improvement on the last, and I slowly, slowly iterate to perfection. In 15 years of teaching astronomy, I have developed maybe four assignments that I never tweak anymore. They do precisely what I want them to do, every time, without fail, no matter which students are using them. The others are all still works in progress, still being optimized, by design.

In non-physics life, I’m currently working on solar-heated water troughs for the horse pastures. I have a prototype mostly built. I have a set of design criteria. I have testing equipment, and a list of tests to run. I have a list of potential modifications that may or may not improve the design, but need to be tested in the actual deployment situation, not just by calculating what the thermal properties of black paint should be. It’s ridiculously fun to have my notebook, my research notes, my designs, my modified designs, my further research notes, notes in the margins about what might work better, ‘back of the envelope’ calculations about what I might expect. And then I get to use my miter saw, and actually build the thing! I find that the thing that makes it fun is that it will NOT be judged in the end, by anyone but me, the horses, and the weather.

And that makes me question the whole design of science fair. I’m not sure that, when it began, anyone had a list of goals or design criteria. I’m not sure they had a list of tests to run. I’m not sure they ran those tests, and then modified the event and ran it again to see if it was better or worse. I’m not sure it has been ‘designed’ in this sense. And I don’t just mean our local regional fair. I mean the entire concept. What are we trying to do? How do we know if it’s working? I conducted an unscientific bit of research, googling ‘What is the purpose of science fair?’. This query returns primarily sites that explain how to write a purpose statement (‘it should explain what it is you are trying to discover or prove’ Oof. I won’t say where that’s from, to protect the probably pure of heart.) It also turns up this 9 bullet point list of goals:

‘To encourage student, parents and teachers to take a more active interest in the study of science by providing a curricular opportunity for students to conduct and publicly present an independent scientific inquiry.
To provide an opportunity for students who are interested in science to do science.
To encourage and highlight the use of “scientific” process and the fundamental principles of science as students are guided in their development of a topic, complete the required research, and conduct an experiment or inquiry that shows an understanding for many of the processes of science.
To encourage parents, teachers and the greater scientific community in the guidance of science students.
To make available an opportunity to recognize “student” scientists.
To awaken the interest of the public in the scientific ability of its youngest members.
To encourage excellence in science and engineering.
To present an educational experience for top student participants through exposure to expert judges.
To engage the corporate community in recognizing outstanding students in technological and scientific fields.’ (

(I love the quotes around “scientific” in “”scientific” process”.) Nine bullet points seems like a lot for one project to do.

ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair) states it more simply: ‘Inform. Educate. Inspire.’

I went looking for studies that show that science fair actually does these things. Even the ISEF folks don’t have anything of the sort, and you would think they’d plaster it all over their materials. It’s possible I’m just missing it, because it’s hard to find, even though I ‘asked ERIC’. Or because the research was done in 1956 (The National Science Fair: Purposes and Program, Joseph H. Kraus, The High School Journal, Vol. 39, No. 5 (Feb., 1956), pp. 265-269), and so now we all know science fair is good, right? Right?

I suppose I should design a project. Spend some time doing research at the library. Establish some criteria. Create some tests. Study 3 or 10 or 100 participants.

Where’s my notebook?


Here’s the first prompt. A writing submission for this topic is due by the end of November. Questions or issues or clarifications? Just comment on this post and then everyone should be able to see.

My prompt for November: “Design”.

That’s it. I imagine other prompts will be more specific. There’s no other guidance nor regulation. Write something, anytime during the month, and the rest of us get to read, enjoy, and comment. Your post should be in the category “design,” with any tags you choose. This keeps things organized.

I have to admit that I already have something in mind for this, but I guess this is where most prompts will come from.

I propose that we have Brad assign the prompt for December, continuing in alphabetical order of first names. This further justifies why I, Adam, get to go first.