Category Archives: op-ed

non-prompted space for op-ed pieces that might be timely, either because it replies to current happenings or because you might explode if you don’t get it out

Why you SHOULD respond to student requests

by Shane L. Larson

To my colleagues in professional science:

There has been a tremendous and acerbic backlash over the last week against a current popular practice of K-12 students emailing professional scientists with a list of questions they would like the scientists to comment on. I too have received these emails, and I have to very clearly state (in case you haven’t already been in one of these debates with me) that I have an unpopular view on this issue: I vehemently reject the view that we cannot respond to these emails. It is part of our professional obligation to society to respond to these notes.

In the spirit of intellectual debate, which is the purported hallmark of our discipline, let me recount some of the many aspects of the arguments that have been swirling around.

The Scenario. Emails will sail into our inboxes from (usually) middle-school science students, that asks the scientist if they could answer a series of questions.  Here is a typical one that made its way into my inbox.


These emails are often clearly part of a classroom activity assigned by a teacher. There are those of us who diligently respond to as many of these as we can; we share them among our colleagues when we can’t get to them ourselves. But many of my colleagues simply don’t see the point in engaging scientists this way; they feel like they cannot or do not have the ability to respond to these requests.  Which is where the debate begins to swirl.

(*) They can just look this up on Wikipedia!  Perhaps. But even a casual inspection of science pages on Wikipedia will reveal that it has become an increasingly difficult resource to use, particularly for non-scientists. Wikipedians have taken the viewpoint that entries on the site should contain all the information one could traditionally find in a book. Many entries, especially those related to science, have wide ranging and rambling connections from all branches of science and more often than not divert into mathematical rambling. One earnest sixth grader asked me “Can you explain what a black hole is?” I would say the Wikipedia page on black holes is decidedly NOT for a sixth grader!

(*) These are thoughtless stream of consciousness questions about topics that they just picked out of a hat. They didn’t put any thought into these.  Perhaps in some cases that is true. But it is understandable — we’re talking about middle-schoolers.  For example, almost everyone has heard of black holes, but very few know enough to ask better questions than “what are they really?” But a carefully constructed answer from you can (and will) spark deeper interest, and can (and will) provide a better foundation for the next time they have a chance to ask a scientist a question — perhaps in class, perhaps in a public lecture, perhaps as part of an organized interface activity (like Adopt A Physicist).

(*) They should learn to read and process information from online and print sources; it’s a necessary skill.  That’s right, it is and they should. But they are perhaps 12 years old, and you are saying that from the far end of a PhD in modern science. Learning to read and process information, and more importantly learning how to find reliable sources of information, is something I spend time teaching my undergraduates and my graduate students. It is not as easy as you make it sound when you speak from behind your PhD. I’m sure if you talked to their teachers, you would find that they are doing activities to practice learning the skill you so ardently insist they must learn. But when you are a K-12 student, it is hard to exercise whatever mastery you have of that skill to glean something important about the modern frontiers of science.

(*) I don’t have time to respond to all the requests I get.  Does responding to a lot of emails from students and random members of the public take time? Of course it does. Just like answering your own students. Just like answering your collaborators. Just like answering your department chair or dean. Just like doing research. Just like writing grant proposals. We all have tremendous pressure on our time; that is a fact of life and simply the state that modern science finds itself in. And the truth is that we all spend time on what we value and prioritize; if you don’t value something, then you don’t do it or you don’t spend time on it. If you do value something, you make room for it and devalue something else — it all boils down to priorities and the calculus of not being able to do everything. If you aren’t doing something because it takes too much of your time to do it, you have to be willing to say, “this isn’t important enough for me to spend my time doing. I have other things that I think are more important.”

I get a handful of these requests, but not so many that I can’t answer them; far fewer than I get from my own students, to be perfectly honest. If I do get too many, I share them among colleagues. Given that our lives as scientists are dedicated to solving the hardest problems known to our species, I find it hard to believe that someone inundated by an unanswerably large number of these requests cannot figure out a way to get responses to these students.

(*) I don’t see the pedagogical value of having students email a scientist. Students shouldn’t have answers hand fed to them.  It is NOT for you to decide what is pedagogically useful, it is for the teacher who made the assignment. They have their own learning goals and their own objectives for everything they assign their students, just like you do in your own classroom. It is NOT for you to judge what they do in their classroom any more than it is for me to judge what you do in your classroom.

You should take one of the sets of questions you get, and try to find the answers on your own. Try not to view webpages and books through the lens of your professional degrees; if you find that hard, ask your own kids or a neighbors kids to evaluate a resource you think is useful.  I think you will be surprised — while there is much good science out there for people to find, there is a lot of not so good explanations as well. The signal to noise ratio is very low; you and I have been explicitly trained to work through that.

But the most important reason for me to respond to a student inquiry is they will get something different in a response from me and you than they can get from any book. Perspective, experience, personal reflection — the human side of science, the personal side of science, an illustration of what I think is important as a scientist, the history and heroes that I think are important that aren’t always described in books.

When I answered the questions above, what did I add that couldn’t be had elsewhere?

How long does it take to produce a star? Sure, you can look up the collapse time for a molecular cloud to stars, but I also talked about the scope of the question, pointing out that one could have also thought about the previous generations of stars that made the material that is needed to create a star system like ours.

Do stars have color? I made sure in my answer that the student heard the names Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Do I believe in life elsewhere? An opportunity to talk about a personal belief, and where that interfaces with research science on the topic — a chance to illustrate the all too human part of science. I also pointed at one of the finest explorations of the question I have ever seen — Peter Mulvey’s song, “Vlad, the Astrophysicist” (YouTube video here); the intersection of science and society at its finest.

In the end, I think it boils down to this: we like to make loud noises about the current state of public understanding of science, but tucking our heads down is part of the reason the world is in the state it is in. It may have been okay 40 years ago to keep your attention narrowly focused on research; but 40 years ago the Cold War and the military-industrial complex allowed science to enjoy unprecedented support in the form of funding and societal tolerance.  That is not the world today; science is regularly challenged and questioned, in society and in the halls of government, much to the detriment of our civilization and the future of our planet.

But all is not lost. There is tremendous interest on the part of students and the public about science, in large part because of the very prominent and inspiring successes of our experiments that society has invested in: LIGO, the LHC, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many, many others. A few of our august bunch are very prominent in the public eye: Brian Cox, Lisa Randall, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before them there was Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, and (still!) David Attenborough. They have set a fire in the minds of your neighbors and in the minds of every science teacher on the planet who are now trying to light that same fire in the minds of their students. They will do their best to light an ember, but only you and I can fan the flames. There is something unique and special about communicating directly with someone who has seen the Cosmos through the eyes of the Hale Telescope, or someone who has stood over the arm of LIGO, or watched a vista of Mars slowly unfold as Curiosity sends us a picture from over the next rise.

Out of an entire class of 7th graders, will you move and inspire all of them to a life of science? Of course not, and you don’t need to. But many of them will remember later in life that they once talked to a scientist who took time out of their schedule to respond to them.  And a few will be inspired.

In one of the many dilapidated boxes that my mother has carefully preserved is a bundle of letters I received in my childhood. One is a letter I received in 7th grade from an astronomer (physicist?) at the University of British Columbia, who took time to write a paper letter in response to an earnest inquiry from a young boy who wanted to know what it took to become an astronomer. I have another letter (undoubtedly a form letter?) from someone at NASA in 1986, assuring a worried and spiritually crushed young boy that NASA would, eventually, return to space in the wake of the Challenger disaster. These are paper responses, with stamps and envelopes and everything; not even as easy as an email.

These were scientists who made the time in their busy schedules to respond to a inquiry from a student, and in the end I think it made all the difference in the world.

A Rant Among Friends

by Shane L. Larson


When you grow up and get a job, there is inevitably a Saturday night when you are talking on the phone with your mom, or enjoying a glass of Chianti with your date, and you have to answer The Question: “So what exactly is your job?” Then you fumble around for a few minutes trying to explain actuarial tables, or managing the supply line for a 7-11, or what a Toyota service manager actually does. Most careers are not reducible to a simple, one sentence sound bite understandable to relatives or members of the opposite sex. Almost certainly every job has different parts and pieces, each of which are worthy of their own sound bite!  If you love your job, then you want it sound exciting and sexy; you want your sound bite to be a sales pitch that might convince someone else to join your profession.

What's in the Fear Closet?

What’s in the Fear Closet?

As scientists, in particular scientists who are also university professors, my colleagues and I spend a lot of brain power thinking about this last part — how do you make sure people adopt science as a profession? I’m not yet besectacled and grey; my hair hasn’t yet gone the way of Big Al Einstein’s, so maybe I don’t yet have the wisdom (cynicism?) of my more elderly colleagues.  But late at night, when the world is slumbering and my grading is done, I like to open the Fear Closet in the back of my mind. Very seldom are Mike and Sully there to greet me; instead I usually find a big elephant that we scientists like to ignore: we often suck at making our profession appealing to anyone. Furthermore, we have an idealized model of who makes a good scientist that, like an unrealisticly proportioned Barbie doll, is not a good approximation of any person (or scientist) I know. The fears in the Closet all add up to one inescapable possibility: that like the dinosaurs of yore, who never became intelligent enough to save their race from impending doom, scientists could become extinct.

I'm a bit worried about the radio astronomers...

I’m a bit worried about the radio astronomers...

Now I don’t think that is a realistic fear; there are always going to be scientists.  But the landscape of our modern civilization is such that if scientists don’t evolve, we will become relegated to the backwaters of our society, currently occupied by mimes, disco, and Elvis impersonators.

This door of the Fear Closet has been open a lot lately, because scientists have an annoying habit of thinking they know everything, which means we (the scientists) think we know how to make other people love and revere science. I’ve been staring into the Closet with this in mind, and thinking back to my high school consumer affairs class where I was taught the Very Important Lesson: customers have all the power, because they have the choice to spend their money on your product or not.  If the consumers hate your product, they won’t buy it, and your business will fold. If the way you do business becomes obsolete, you won’t have any customers, and again your business will fold. Do you still have a Blockbuster down the street from your house? How about any product from Kodak? Maybe you still watch the XFL?  No? These ventures all failed to respond to the external demands placed on them by their consumer base; they failed to evolve.

Some notable examples of failing to evolve in response to customer needs and desires. Recognize any of these?

Some notable examples of failing to evolve in response to customer needs and desires. Recognize any of these?

This must be true in science too — if people don’t like the way we present and promote and sell science, they will ignore us.  An interesting case study on this point is a very pointed article a colleague of mine linked to the other day, written by Maura Charette (an eighth grader!), reflecting on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers (link to article).

Ms. Charette’s essay is brilliant, and as STEM professionals we should take many of her points to heart. I don’t disagree with anything she says.  But in the interest of inciting discussion, why don’t I summarize what I took away from the article (for future reference, when examining the contents of the Fear Closet):

(0) Ms. Charette writes, “while we hear science and math careers are fun, interesting, and well-paying, the actual scientists and engineers who visit our schools seem very one-dimensional.”  Despite the ascendance of geekdom into the mainstream of popular culture, scientists still maintain a stranglehold on being the opposite of cool; we are the George MacFly’s of the geeks. Not to say that there aren’t superstars among us — the public adores Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. People like Brian Greene and Lisa Randall are at least commonly known names in some circles.  But the vast majority of us exude the exact opposite of what we want to inspire — excitement and fun.  We are, as Ms. Charette so aptly observes, one dimensional. Now it is not possible, nor desireable, for all of us to become great public personalities. But what we must stop doing is discouraging, disdaining, and ostracizing our colleagues who are good at this. Elitism abounds in science; we place far more value (as a group) on the trappings of science — research, discovery, appearing smart — than we do on the interfaces with science — teaching, writing, communicating. Many of those who act in the interface roles are not afforded the same encouragement or respect as those who act in the “popular” roles (this is in fact, a common occurrence in all academic fields, particularly at universities).  Communicating our science to the society that funds (and tolerates) us is as noble a cause as any bench science you care to name, and as it turns out, just as important.

(1) Let’s be blunt — we don’t make science exciting. If I may be a bit bold and exhibit one of the annoying traits of adults, let me rephrase Ms. Charette’s message in my own words (a classic classroom exercise!): scientists suck. Particularly at teaching.  Not all of us; many of us are great teachers (my colleagues at Weber State University Physics come to mind).  But all too often what we teach lacks the fire, the passion, the core of what drew every one of us into the field.

How we teach adversely affects opinions about our craft. We need to consider perspectives that draw people into what we want them to know...

How we teach adversely affects opinions about our craft. We need to consider perspectives that draw people into what we want them to know…

Why did YOU get into science?  I got into science because black holes are freakin’ AWESOME (and pretty much every 9 year old on the planet agrees with me). When I lay awake at night, staring at the patterns of light on my bedroom ceiling and thinking about black holes, I don’t push tensors around in my head and think about geodesic deviation and metric functions. I think about black holes tearing stars apart; I think of black holes lying in wait at the bottom of the galactic core, waiting to suck up unsuspecting stars and gas clouds.  These are the things to talk to people about and to teach about.  The technical matters are important — no doubt about it — but what people need is that deep seated sense of wonder about the world around them that makes them lay awake at night pondering how high grasshoppers jump compared to their body length, and why the Great Lakes don’t have huge tides like the ocean, and how long it will take the Rocky Mountains to wear down into sad little nubbins like the Appalachians.  You and I stay in science for those reasons, for the wonder of it. We’ve learned the technical tools, and we use them to illuminate the world and make our understanding more remarkable and enjoyable.  But we didn’t come to science because of the technical stuff.  Teach to the passions that draw people.

(2) Scientists place an over-emphasis on good grades. One of the most disturbing things (to me) that Ms. Charette wrote is this: “to pursue and succeed in those one-dimensional jobs, you have to study very hard and get good grades in the most difficult subjects.”  As near as I can tell, someone in eighth grade is already considering giving up on science because of grades.  Getting good grades is the conventional folklore, which scientists loudly advocate, and it makes me want to puke at night worrying about how many kids we drive away from science because of it.  Does having good grades help be a good STEM professional? Of course it does, but it is no substitute for hard work and a good work ethic.  Some of the people I know with the most flawless report cards in math and science SUCK at being a STEM professional!  Why? Because they are good at doing homework, finding out the “right” answer using well known conventional thinking.  But they completely lack any creativity, imagination, intuition, or ability to make brilliant leaps of logic that are so crucial to making important advances in science.

(2.5) Just to prove you don’t need good grades to be a successful scientist, let me bare my soul to the flames of the Internet. I got a C in thermal physics as an undergraduate.  I took Calculus II twice (on purpose) because I didn’t understand it the first time; the second time I decided I wasn’t meant to understand integration by parts and moved on (and I still can’t recognize when to do it). I got a LOT of B’s (and at least one C), and only a handful of A’s in graduate physics.  After my first year of graduate school, the department head in Physics called me into his office and told me I didn’t have a future in science, and I should drop out and go do something else with my life.  To encourage me to see the world his way, he didn’t provide any summer support for me (but did for the rest of my classmates). I ignored him, of course. That summer I went out and found another job and met two of the great scientific mentors in my life (Dr. Kimberly Obbink, and Dr. Gerry Wheeler). I finished my courses, and I completed my Ph.D. without difficulty. In the years since, I like to think that I’ve been a reasonably successful scientist by most of the measures of my professional community.  I had postdocs at some of the best institutions in the world (JPL, Caltech, and Penn State); I’m a tenured professor; I have 50 some-odd publications; I’ve successfully acquired multiple federal grants to support my students and my research; I was “Professor of the Year” one year.  CLEARLY he was right; you have to have perfect grades to be a good scientist. WTF was I thinking?!

My fort!

My fort!

(3) Lastly, let’s review the title of Ms. Charette’s essay: “Is a Career in STEM Really for Me?” Really?  Have we stooped to the point where 8th graders have to be cognizant and concerned with their careers?  In 8th grade I was 13; I didn’t enter graduate school until I was 21 and I didn’t get my PhD until I was 29.  When I was 13, I wanted to be an astronaut, not a relativistic gravitational astrophysicist. When I was that age, I didn’t worry about careers yet; I was BUILDING FORTS!  If you look at my fort, it is clear that there was some STEM in there — obviously some math, as well as some attempts at engineering. 🙂  I was doing “STEMy” kinds of things (as were both my brothers — one is now a diesel mechanic, the other a crop scientist — both STEM professionals).  We know that middle school years are the years where kids lose interest in science, but making them think about STEM careers is NOT the way to keep them engaged!  Neither are marshmallows and straws.  Kids are smart, intelligent, and capable. They live in a world filled with modern marvels that are commonplace to them: smartphones, streaming digital media, microwave popcorn. We need to field science that is engaging enough to compete in that marketplace and we need to do it sooner rather than later (just ask Blockbuster and Kodak how easy it was to catch up…).

Me and Xeno.

Me and Xeno.

So what to do about all of this?  My mother taught me that one cannot simply complain about the world without offering solutions. Be a problem solver, not a trouble maker. Yes, Ma; I remember.  I’m just not sure what to do about it yet; I promise to work on this.

My therapist (Xeno) says ranting is not good for my blood pressure, so I’ll stop now.  But if you have any great ideas, by all means let me buy you a beer and a pizza so we can figure out what to do next!


Pipelines: Why metaphors matter

by Adam Johnston

In all of my meetings and conversations with him, my dean — the head administrator of the College of Science in which I am gainfully employed — is fond of talking about the “STEM pipeline.” Let me be immediately clear on one point: I can’t fault him for this, nor is he alone, nor is this necessarily a deliberately wrong, bad, malicious, or erroneous phrasing. It’s the collective and addictive word choice of our field, and the verbiage is particularly prevalent with those who have to converse on a national stage. (I’d go so far as to say that the higher up you are on an org chart in my business of science education, or the closer you are to the center of some government agency, the more likely you are to evoke the phrase.) Take a moment to google the term, and you’ll find an array of legitimate and even passionate webpages and citations.

And yet, any time I hear the phrase, “STEM pipeline,” I wince. Not just internally, mind you. My reaction has become physical. While I’m readily admitting that I could be alone in this reaction, I’m also telling you that my loathing is real.

“STEM” is the acronym (pronounced just like it looks) for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” There are stories about why it’s “STEM” now instead of “METS,” and there are those who could add medicine to make it “STEMM” and maintain the current pronunciation, or include arts of various form and create “STEAM”. Other iterations and stories exist as well, but the central storyline is that the acronym represents scientific fields, applied and pure, of various persuasions, especially in the context of our educational system.

Simply as an acronym, STEM doesn’t move my soul, but it doesn’t give me any ulcers, either. It’s the equivalent of folks in the South referring to a group as “y’all” in order to address them all at once, and with commonalities presumed. It’s efficient, bordering on charming.

It’s the “pipeline” piece that creases my brow. If we are to have STEM professionals in the adult world, then there needs to be some kind of preparation for them. Insert, somewhere in here, a literature review for a doctoral dissertation in science education to describe this process, its shortcomings, and what we might propose to do about it. Somewhere there is the output of these science professionals, and somewhere back in time there are those same individuals as children. The question of “How do we get more qualified STEM professionals” is echoed as “How do we get more kids to fit into the other side of the tube?” And, “How do we get them to stay in there until they get to the other side?” The vision of the pipeline is one in which we make that proverbial tube both wide and long enough, create the right amount of pressure, and assure ourselves that there is as little possibility of leaking as possible. This is where I have my problem.

I have a really clear image of pipes. My dad, himself an engineer, always admired culverts as we drove on logging roads when I was a kid. A good culvert preserves a dirt road by maintaining a flow of water from one side to the other. It keeps things clean and orderly, prevents erosion and keeps the status quo of the road in tact. Other pipes twist and turn under the ground and by the miracle of fluid dynamics displace water from one place to another. We make sure that the pipe is clear of debris and the joints are sealed, and everything works out. We don’t even have to see what’s happening inside those pipes.

Pipes are what we use to drain wastewater or to transport petroleum. Pipes are the rudimentary and passive pathways that get fluids from point A to point B. With the right engineering and cross sectional area, pipes move seawater, sludge, or sewage. The thing is, the pipe and the fluid don’t really do anything. Water, or whatever else you put in a properly designed pipe, is practically predetermined to come out on the other end. Pipes are wonderful at getting out what you put in.

That’s exactly the problem with the pipeline metaphor. On the reality side of the analogy, we’re dealing with people, my children included. True, I could lighten up; it’s a metaphor. Nothing really is “just like riding a bicycle” or “like falling off a log.” We still know what we mean by these phrases in the common vernacular. But I don’t think we really know what we’re talking about with our “pipeline” metaphor, and we may even be deluding ourselves. The problem with our plumbing is not that it has leaks, but because it may be just too passive. On one end of the pipeline there are children, and on the other end we’re imagining scientists. This is no simple work of fluid dynamics. Instead of putting pressure on one side and looking for the drips that come out on the other, we should take out the pipe entirely. We should think of something in which we’re not simply thinking about what the static transport system looks like in its completed form. Instead, we should think not just about the ends of this transport, but about the in-betweens. Moreover, we need to imagine that 13-year-old outside of our constrained pipe. We all know they’re looking around and roaming about. They are living and breathing, and even more important, they are changing right before our eyes.

A child doesn’t just move through our system, but grows in it. Children and young adults need to get out of a pipeline, find a different lane, try on a new hat. Let them spill out and interact with more than some predetermined track. Maybe they need to be on a train, deliberately getting on board, finding new destinations and opportunities at each intersection and transfer to a new route. Maybe we should build a trail system. Perhaps there should be a guided tour. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, I think that we need to re-envision our track to STEM so that it fosters students’ understanding not just within the path, but allows students to jump in and out of it. Let them leak, so to speak, and foster new talents that we don’t stereotypically imagine for our future STEM professionals. We would do well to look for STEM talent beyond our traditional pipeline. We should have a system that doesn’t feel as if it has to prevent leaks, but instead is motivating enough that it draws people into the natural flow.

Perhaps, in the spirit of the STEM acronym itself, an appropriate metaphor could be a garden. Rather than push particles through, efficiently but passively, we could think of our next generation of STEM professionals and citizens to have been grown. After all, the people in the pipeline we keep talking about are, in all ways, growing. We could do well to recognize this and, rather than constraining growth of a child and hoping that they make it through, provide rich soil, devoted gardeners, and the right amount of water. Most of all, we need to pay attention to more than just the boundary conditions on each end of the pipe. We need to value the dynamic person and all the potential changes, experiments, and curiosities they could develop. We just need to make sure they have the room to do so, and we need to provide them with the support to do this to their greatest potential.

“hard” science

I’m confused and at least a little troubled.

My job is, on the whole, wonderful. In fact, with the exception of when I need to do some accounting, I’m willing to bet that I have one of the best careers imaginable. I get to teach science, as well as work closely with science teachers, research science learning, and just generally promote science education. On the whole, you can imagine that I really like science and teaching, and on any given day they battle for first place in my list of favorite things — with the exception of my family, my dog, and some close friends.

So, you can imagine that I enjoy reading about how we can better promote science and science education with students and the public at large. I wave the Tuesday science insert of the New York Times at my students, rave about work my colleagues are engaged in, and I make them wrestle with their own difficult problems. (Yesterday, for example, we measured a molecule with some cork dust and a ruler.) I subscribe to a variety of posts and feeds along these lines, so it was natural to be referred to this Adam Frank blog piece by NPR as well as several friends. I was intrigued by the title and what scrolled beneath:

I’ve engaged with pieces of this general argument before. It goes something like this: We lose a lot of potential science and engineering majors in their first few years of programs because science is hard, and often we do a poor job of really engaging students in authentic ways. As a result, many of these students get seduced by other fields along the way. It could be that science coursework is too hard or poorly instructed. Or, as this particular argument goes, it could be that science should be hard and we should be getting students to celebrate this. Frank puts it this way:

I let them know they are engaged in a sacred task that connects them to millennia of human effort encoded in their genes. If they can fight their way to the truth, the truth will make them free, just as it did for me …

To a large extent, I’ll cheer on the idea that science and scientific fields are hard, intensive, difficult, exhausting, and the like, as well as being rewarding and emancipating. Science does fight its way towards truth, and yes, science is hard, and it should be. After all, a scientist is trying to figure out details of nature that she can’t directly see. Nature doesn’t give us the answers straight out, but rather gives us just enough hints for us to stay hot on the trail, turning around every once in a while when it goes cold and we’ve realized we made a wrong turn. And, I prefer my neurosurgeons and rocket launchers to have some patience, persistence, and scientific pedigree. We should earn our stripes before we cut into another human being or pull at the loose ends of all the knowledge that’s been knit together already.

However, it is easy to take this too far, and I’m given pause when I read a piece like Frank’s. I deplore the argument of “science is hard” as a way to suggest that other fields are easier. If you’d like hard, try writing. If you want really hard, go into education. Physics, in contrast, is a cake walk. I don’t think this is what authors of these arguments mean to say, necessarily. It’s important, however, to make it clear that we aren’t drawing a line between some elite studies and the others. Implicitly doing so may actually be part of our problem.

But this isn’t the main issue I have with this “hard” science argument. I suppose the primary source of this little writing fit has to do with where we point our fingers when we’re making this argument. Implicitly, if we say that “science is hard and students should celebrate this,” we’re putting the burden of our scientific literacy failings on our students. We, the scientists, are further alienating students who are already scratching their heads at us — even if for the wrong reasons. We need to start pointing the finger the other direction. We need to be sure that we’re taking responsibility for our students’ attitudes towards science. No one else will.

The project, “This is what a Scientist Looks Like,” is one example of this kind of effort. It’s a small drop in the bucket, but it’s at least aiming at having scientists contribute to something to help personify and endorse their discipline as something that is human and inviting. Scientists are doing some hard things, as well as some whimsical and fun and serious and even really hard (and still harder!) things. The basic message is that “you” can be a scientist, because just look at all of the examples of those who already are — surely there’s lots of room for a lot of diverse folks, white males, black females, bike riding astrobiologists, and green haired botanists.

It strikes me, though, that projects like this one tend to emphasize the people that these scientists are, rather than the science they’re doing. This isn’t a critique, because it’s all important. But we should also be paying attention to how we’re encouraging scientific disciplines and the work that scientists do. In that “science is hard” argument, the statement generally gets made that “science is power,” or something along these lines. And, yes, this is true, in so many important ways. Yet this is what falls so very very short for me. This power argument is only motivating to those who have a sense of power already. What about those who are just striving for some kind of equality? What about holistic enlightenment? What about a voice? I think in the “science is power” statement we’re unwittingly speaking to ourselves rather than to the diverse sets of others out there. And we wonder why it’s a bunch of competitive white guys from upper-middle class families in our science classes. Because they’re smarter? No. Because they’d make better doctors? Absolutely not. Because we market science to them with statements like “science is hard”? Perhaps. We need to be careful, at least.

All I ask is that we think carefully about our promotion of science. Don’t water it down; don’t make it something less than what it is; don’t diminish its power or enlightenment or thrill of discovery. At the same time, make sure we’re touting it as more than any of these things. Science is for all. It is, like art, music, and democracy, one thing that distinguishes us as humans, for the better. Let’s make sure that we’re inviting, with wide open doors, more than just the choir of scientists already in. We not only need more scientific thinkers, we need a more diverse pool of them. We need to continue to find ways to make this scientific invitation explicitly open and welcoming to all.

The Science Behind the Press Release

Every morning I receive the most up-to-the-minute NASA press releases. Being an astrobiologist, I got particularly excited when the press release headline read:

NASA’s Kepler Confirms Its First Planet In Habitable Zone

I immediately posted to Facebook that we had found an earth-like planet in habitable zone and that this was the beginning of host of such discoveries.

However, by the end of the day, my mailbox was full of analyses from my research group about how this planet was a little too big to be an Earth twin and since it was also a little closer to the star, it was probably more like a Venus twin, and that we didn’t know the cloud cover or composition so making claims about habitability was really premature. And so on.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, my colleagues and I are heaving a collective heavy sigh because we are all a little tired of the press releases that promise such amazing discoveries, that, in the end, turn out to be not quite what we were looking for. While Kepler-22B is the closest thing yet, I’m thinking of the dust-up around the unconfirmed (and likely nonexistent) Gliese 581 g, but there have been others in the extrasolar planetary science community.

The funny bit? On closer reading of the press release, the researchers are very clear that they did not find an Earth-like planet, only a planet that was nearly the size of the Earth in the habitable zone.  They make no claims about habitability, only stating, as Kepler program scientist Douglas Hudgins did, that “this is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin.”

But who reads the press release in detail? I certainly didn’t and I immediately told Facebook, my friends, and my doctor that Kepler had just discovered its first Earth-like planet in habitable zone. Because I am enthusiastic like that.

I am also pretty sure the general public didn’t read the press release. And, judging by a list of recent headlines…

New planet Kepler22b could already be inhabited with lifeform

US military pays SETI to check Kepler22b for aliens

Newly discovered planet ‘Kepler22b‘ is eerily similar to Earth, NASA says 

…the bloggers and the press didn’t either.

But the “press release as scientific dissemination tool” is a growing phenomenon, especially when communicating science to the general public. NASA, to its credit,  has very solid press releases that are based on scientific evidence, recent images, or published papers or proceedings. But often, there is also a layer of enthusiasm that cynics would call “hype”. Why? Because the scientists are very excited about what they find, especially if it is new or controversial.

A nearly ancient example, from my students’ perspective, is the findings by David McKay and his team of evidence for ancient life in the martian meteorite ALH84001. To be sure, this was a published and solid peer-reviewed piece of scientific work by McKay and his co-authors. They had discovered three pieces of evidence indicated the possibility that microbial life had inhabited the rock. They outlined their methods and findings in a peer-reviewed journal, and invited the scientific community to weigh in on the issue.

The real problem? The press conference was announced by The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and his address was so full of hyperbole they used some of it for the announcement that SETI had found evidence for an intelligent signal from space in the movie Contact.

The NASA press conference announcing arsenic loving bacteria is a more recent example. NASA followed the same pattern of presenting scientific results from peer-reviewed work, even going so far as to dedicate nearly half of the press conference to a scientist who didn’t believe the conclusions of the authors. But, again, the hyperbole of the press release caused a backlash from scientists condemning the work, and the authors, for shoddy science.

Not that such condemnation shouldn’t take place. I have received some bitter rebuttals to some of my published work, but those have come in the form of referees’ comments or, more commonly, new papers that dispassionately refute my findings. Such is the way of science.

But the press release deluge piped directly into an eager blogosphere is creating a climate where even scientists forget that peer review for publication is but the first thin veneer of scientific review. Papers, even bad ones, even ones that contain shoddy lab work or crummy models, get published. They should get published. How else is the scientific community going to get a crack at tearing them apart or building up supporting evidence?

This idea that publication is the first and last line of scientific review even leads people I respect, like Joel Salatin, to condemn scientific studies as containing the biases of the researchers and, thus, should not be trusted.  Of course scientific studies are biased by the ideas of the researchers. Of course they should not be trusted. That is why they invented journal clubs for grad students, where we learn to tear apart peer-reviewed and published scientific papers for the utter dreck that most of them are. I only need to go back and read a small collection of my own work to find cringe-worthy errors that have later been pointed out to me after publication in a peer reviewed journal. To my credit, we’ve published a fair number of our our such rebuttals. What goes around comes around.

But I know why my fellow scientists get so outraged when a press release results in news stories that mislead the public. We have one of the least scientifically literate populations on the planet and the really funny part is this: most of them read a lot of science news! My students eat up space related stories on the web. My dentist, after recounting an accurate analysis of special relativity he’d read about online, went on to tell me how Einstein’s ideas proved that you could invent the universe just by thinking about it.

What should we do about this? We have a primed engine, in the form of public relations officers, who routinely write accurate press releases for NASA and other university research groups. We have a skilled scientific community who are not interested in misleading anyone, let alone the public. And, I believe, we have a talented press corp and nascent group of science bloggers who are intelligent, thorough, and interested in communicating the wonders of science to the world.

And yet half of my students think the space shuttle (still) routinely visits the Moon and the other half believe we never put men on the Moon in the first place.

But at least they are pretty sure there is an Earth-like twin orbiting a sun-like star in the galaxy. And someday we might actually find it.

Global Energy Growth, the Drake Equation, and Fermi’s Paradox

A friend and colleague of mine, Tom Murphy, has started a new blog about climate change, peak oil, future energy consumption, and other stuff related to what some have coined “The Long Emergency”. His blog, called “Do the Math”, is unique in that he takes a physics approach to calculate from first principles many aspects of the problems that face us.

I strongly suggest taking a look if you have ever worried about the future of civilization and don’t just want to wring your hands about it, but look at the problems from a physics perspective…the one that says ‘hey, I’m a physicist, how hard could the problem be?’

Turns out, pretty hard. But I like Tom’s approach. Many of his analyses have that Fermi Problem approach that are used in my field of astrobiology to either predict that aliens are everywhere (Drake Equation) or to wonder why they aren’t seen anywhere (Fermi’s Paradox).

One my favorite posts of Tom’s is this one.  In it he extrapolates our current growth rate of energy usage (2.3%) and looks at potential energy sources for future humans.  The punch line is pretty dramatic.  According to Tom, a civilization like ours should be harnessing (and re-emitting) all of the energy incident on the surface of the Earth in a mere 400 years from now at the current rate of growth.   Of course, he is assuming in 400 years we have learned how to harness that energy and dissapate it into space without concern to the state of the climate or the habitability of the planet, but perhaps that is the topic of another post.

Rather than reflected light, the vast majority of this will be emitted in infrared wavelengths as waste heat.  Based on some quick internet research, a typical CCD camera has a dynamic range of about 90 dB, which gives a power ratio of 1 billion.  If the star and the planet differ in total power output by this much, in principle we should be able to see it, provided we can resolve the components on the sky.  Hubble has an angular resolution to see a object in an Earth-like orbit around a Sun-like star out to about 60 light years, provided that object is bright enough.  Since most of that power would be radiating in the infrared rather than visible light, it is likely such an object would be observable with current technology or the next generation of space telescopes.  Looking at the graph, the moment we start using all of the incident radiation on the Earth (the 100% Earth Solar point, at 400 years) we are using (an re-emitting) roughly 1 billionth the total power of the Sun.  Thus, in 400 years, the waste energy of our civilization is observable from space from a distant of about 60 light years using current or near-future technology.

It occurs to me that Tom may have unintentionally answered one of the greatest questions in astrobiology by putting a hard limit on the maximum value of L in the Drake Equation.  Regardless of the other parameters in the Drake Equation (which multiplied together are of order 1 regardless of your pessimism or optimism) L  in large part determines the number of potential civilizations in the galaxy.  Large L predicts lots of civilizations whereas a small L ensures we are alone in the Universe.  According to Tom’s calculations, L = 500 years (our current run of 100 years plus another 400 years).

Inadvertently, Tom may have also linked the Hubbard Peak  to the solution of Fermi’s Paradox, since it is very likely that the end of fossil fuels will preclude us from building the solar arrays necessary to be visible from deep space.

So, in addition to solving the world’s problems through physics, he is pinch hitting for astrobiology and clearing up a few pressing details.  Nice work, Tom!

not everyone grows up to be an astronaut

by Adam Johnston

As the space shuttle Atlantis landed a few days ago, it marked the completion of the final mission of the program. Depending on how you think and what you read, this is either a sure sign of the collapse of America, or the best innovation that NASA has made since its inception. Being me, I’m somewhere in the conflicted middle. Further spurning my conflict are headlines like this one from NPR:

“A child born today will never see an American space shuttle blast off from the Kennedy Space Center.” (

A child born today will not see a lot of things, including Golden Grizzlies in California (the state’s mascot, in spite of its extinction so long ago we no longer realize it is something to be missed), a rotary telephone, or an old-fashioned merry-go-round on a gravel playground. I’ll lament all of these losses, but I didn’t know how to think about the end of the space shuttle program until marking this moment of extinction. It gave me a chance to look back and realize that I was especially aware of the shuttle program from beginning to end. When I was a second grader, I remember that the cover of my school’s yearbook featured an image something like this one:


The image I remember was probably of Columbia, marking the inaugural flight of the NASA program. I don’t remember which image it was exactly, but surely it’s the only cover of any yearbook that I have any memory of. I suppose this is because the shuttle and this program captured my imagination; it was the new mode for space travel, and it was just close enough to my image of an X-wing fighter that I embraced its image and its mission — even if I didn’t really understand what it was for.

As I’ve grown older, a bit more insightful if not more mature, I’ve witnessed the program’s celebrations (Hubble Space Telescope’s initiation and subsequent repair) and disasters (I know exactly where I was when the Challenger disaster occurred, and it was the subject of a high school research paper I can still picture the font and spacing of). So, when I think of the NPR headline and the potential impact that the space shuttle program has had on me, I wonder if the end of this chapter in human exploration is also a stab in the heart of science education. What enduring image will today’s second grader have on her yearbook? Perhaps it will be one of a lonely janitor sweeping up the last remaining dustballs of an empty hangar at Cape Canaveral.

But, there are many more images than those of moon landings, shuttle launches, or even Hubble Space Telescope images. There are french fries:


This graphic represented October, I think, on a wall calendar of mine a few years ago. In spite of the fact that it flew in the face of my attitude that science is for everyone and all people have capacity to succeed, it tickled the cynic in me. To make the image that much more indelible, I once had the interaction with a student from someone else’s class when he’d come looking for some help with his physics homework. Sitting down, we stared at a problem that he’d clearly misunderstood and I started to diagnose and prescribe new routes. Without any obvious prompt other than his own frustration, he turned his head and stared up at this image on my wall. His face twisted and his brow wrinkled, and then admitted, “I don’t get it.” I tried to explain, and yet it seemed clear that the author of the image had this very student in mind when the caption was inked.

I giggle when I tell this story, but really it was just an unfortunate intersection of a frustrated physics student with an overly satirical message. I took the photo down later, and replaced it with another that represented university committee work. I had a wide range to choose from.

Here’s where all this leaves me: The imagery of the space shuttle versus the despair associated with asking “do you want fries with that?” is a false choice. There are lots of options in between — my own career path being one of them. In fact, maybe NASA, space shuttles, astronauts, and all that we associate with these things all represent the opposite of what we should be trying to promote to our public, especially our youth. Currently, the options might be presented as “you could be an astronaut,” but without any fallback or intermediate. When was the last time that we created a poster that stated “not everyone gets to be a geologist when he grows up?” Why is a research scientist who tries to understand the scale of nature at the microscopic cellular level not admired as much as those we launch only so far into space that we can still see them — with an unaided eye — when they’re in orbit? Why didn’t any of my yearbook covers have an image of a particle accelerator, a newly discovered arthropod, or a map of the Martian surface? Why had I never even heard of the possibility of medical physics until I was looking into graduate schools?

I think it may be that we don’t know how to represent science, either as a personal endeavor or as a professional pursuit. You can be an astronaut or you can serve fries, we seem to say. So, maybe, just maybe, if we take advantage of this new opportunity, we can push other science to center stage. Not everyone gets to be an astronaut, and that’s a good thing. There is much more to science than jet propulsion and a manifest destiny kind of attitude towards staking claims, a canine-esque marking of our territory. There are so many other extraordinary existences we all have the potential to create for ourselves — especially those which create new understandings that can be shared with all others among us. We should celebrate and promote these.