Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

Stories from a Race Called Humans

by Shane L. Larson

On a forgotten autumn day long ago, I sat amidst hundreds of strangers in the far-away ballroom of a convention center in Oregon. I was younger than I am now, younger than most of those who were sitting around me. Yet somehow, I had been chosen. I had been waiting. I had rolled that singular moment of time around in my head, over and over again. Out of all the hundreds of hands in the air, mine was chosen, and I stood to ask a question.

My palms were sweaty, my heart raced. I took the microphone, and thankfully didn’t drop it. In those days, I had yet to ever speak in front of more than a small group of my friends in class, but here I was, and damnit I was going to ask my question!  Five hundred pairs of eyes stared right at me, and from the stage, the cool gaze of our guest, encouraging and expectant. I’m sure I squeaked; I must have squeaked. But out came my question: “What is the responsibility of science fiction to bring plausible visions of the future to us?

shatnerThe person I had directed my inquiry to was William Shatner, who had been regaling the crowd of Trekkers with tales of life in the Big Chair, and answering questions about how to properly act out a Star Trek Fight Scene, whether he really thought Kirk should have let the Gorn survive, and whether Spock ever just burst out laughing on set.  And then I stood up to ask my question.

What is the responsibility of science fiction to bring plausible visions of the future to us?

For all the ribbing that Shatner takes for being Shatner, I think he responded in a way that might surprise many people. He smiled, he didn’t laugh. He looked me straight in the eye and told me this: “Science fiction is like all art — it is a medium for telling stories about our humanity. Visions of the future are just stories about us.”  It was a brilliant and thoughtful answer, and I’ve always remembered it.

Now, many years later, I practice science.  I still watch a lot of Star Trek, and I absorb a lot of science fiction, and every time I reach the end of a novel or movie, I know Bill was right — the best stories are the ones that use the future as a backdrop to tell human stories.


Larry Yando as the titular character in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s 2014 production of King Lear.

That’s a very interesting thought when I drape it across the tapestry of art, literature, and theatre. All forms of art are explorations of what it means to be human, attempts to understand on a very deep level who we are. Just this past weekend, sitting in the darkened theatre of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, I was bludgeoned by that simple fact once again watching King Lear. Though the story is set long ago, and though the language is not all together our own, we sat there enraptured. The tale is full of intrigue and betrayal, but at the core is the King. Watching the play reflected the dark pools of shadowed eyes, you could see an audience tearfully and painfully aware that the tragedy unfolding from the King’s descent into madness was an all too relevant tale for those of us who have suffered the loss of elderly friends and relatives to the ravages of age.  Our humanity was laid out, naked and bare on the stage, in a tale written more than 400 years ago. The core message is as relevant and pertinent today as it was when the Bard penned it those long centuries ago.

The exploration of the nature of the human spirit has long been the purview of all forms of art, especially performance. The whole point in acting out stories is to tell stories about people.  Even when the characters aren’t people, they still talk and act like people, anthropomorphized by their actions, their thoughts, and their words in the tapestry of story on the stage or screen.  And so I suppose it should not have surprised me that Shatner did not think of tales from the far future any differently — the stories are still stories about us. They still are stories about our triumphs, our tragedies, our frailties, and our fallacies.

But that younger version of myself carried a particular conceit — I wasn’t clear about it then, but I still harbor it today: I fundamentally believe that art and science have exactly the same purpose — to discover the stories of who we are, and what our place in the Cosmos is. The truth of this is hidden in every science book and every textbook you have ever picked up and thumbed through.  How?  Very seldom is science explained without the context, the wrapper, of the human story around it.

Newton witnessed the falling of an apple when visiting his mother's farm, inspiring him to think about gravity. It almost certain is apocryphal that it hit him on the head! But art gives the story a certain reality!

Newton witnessed the falling of an apple when visiting his mother’s farm, inspiring him to think about gravity. It is almost certainly apocryphal that it hit him on the head! But art gives the story a certain reality!

When we are first taught about the Universal Law of Gravitation, very seldom are you simply told the equation that relates mass and distance to gravitational force. Instead, we cast our minds back to a late summer day in the 17th Century. On a warm evening after dinner, Isaac Newton was sitting in his mother’s garden, on her farm in Lincolnshire and was witness to an ordinary event: an apple falling to the ground. A simple, ordinary event, part of a tree’s ever-repeating cycle of reproduction. But witnessing the event sparked a thought in Newton’s mind that ultimately blossomed into the first modern Law of Nature. The tale inspires a deep sense of awe in us. How many everyday events have we witnessed, but never taken the time to heed? How many secrets of Nature have passed us by, because we never connected the dots the Cosmos so patiently lays out before us?

Marie Curie in her laboratory.

Marie Curie in her laboratory.

When we first learn about the discovery of radioactivity, very seldom are we only told the mass of polonium and the half-life of uranium.  Instead, we relive the discovery of radioactive decay alongside Marie Curie, who unaware of the dangers of radiation, handled samples with her bare hands and carried test tubes full of the stuff around in her pockets. We know that she developed the first mobile x-ray units, used in World War I, a brilliant realization of mobile medical technology at the dawn of our modern age. But we also know that Curie perished from aplastic anemia, brought on by radiation exposure. Today, her notebooks and her belongings are still radioactive and unsafe to be around for long periods of time. Curie’s death is a tragic tale of how the road to discovery is fraught with unknown dangers. While we mourn her loss we celebrate also the wonder that our species has such brilliant minds as Marie Skłodowska-Curie, the only person ever to win TWO Nobel Prizes in different sciences (Chemistry and Physics)

Alexander Fleming in his lab.

Alexander Fleming in his lab.

When we learn about antibiotics, seldom do we begin in the lab with petri dishes full of agar. Instead, we are taught the value of serendipity through the tale of Alexander Fleming. In late September of 1928 he returned to the laboratory to find that he had accidentally left a bacterial culture plate uncovered and it had developed a mold growth. You can imagine a visceral emotional reaction — anger! Another days-long experiment ruined! By sheer carelessness! It happens to all of us every day when we burn a carefully prepared dinner, or break a favorite coffee mug, or accidentally drop a smartphone down an elevator shaft. But through the haze of aggravation, Fleming noticed something subtle and peculiar — there were no bacterial growths in the small halo around the mold. The mold, known as Penicillium rubens, could stop a bacteria in its tracks. That single moment of clarity launched the development of antibiotics, so crucial in modern medical care. What world would we inhabit today, if Fleming had thrown that petri dish away in disgust, without a second glance? Surely a tragedy of world-girdling proportions.

All of these stories illustrate a subtle but singular truth about our species: we are different from all the other lifeforms on our planet.  Not in sciencey ways — we have the same biochemical machinery as sunflowers, opossums and earthworms — but in less tangible abstract ways.  What separates us from all the other plants and animals is the way we respond to the neurological signals from our brains. Our brains are wired to do two interesting things: they imagine and they create. The truth is we don’t fully understand how our brains do these things, or why there is an apparent biological imperative to do either. But the result of those combined traits is an insatiable curiosity to know and understand ourselves and the world around us, and an uncontrollable urge to express what we discover.

Sometimes those expressions burst out of us in moments of creation that lead to lightbulbs, intermittent windshield wipers, kidney dialysis machines, and iPads. Sometimes those same expressions burst out of us in moments of creation that lead to Jean van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, or Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, or Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapine Agile,” or Ridley Scott’s desolate future in “Blade Runner.”

(Top L) Jean van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait; (Top R) Rodin's The Kiss; (Bottom) The urban dystopia of the future in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

(Top L) Jean van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait; (Top R) Rodin’s The Kiss; (Bottom) The urban dystopia of the future in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Art is like science. Imagination expressed through long hours of practice, many instances of trial and error, and moments of elation that punctuate the long drudgery of trying to create something new.  Science is like art. Trying to understand the world by constantly bringing some new creative approach to the lab bench in an attempt to do something no one else has ever done before.

Both science and art are acts of creation with one express goal: to tell our stories. Both require deep reservoirs of creativity. Both require vast amounts of imagination. Both require great risks to be taken. But in the end, the scientist/artist creates something new that changes who we are and how we fit into the world. And wrapped all around them are all-together human tales of the struggles encountered along the road to discovery.

It is not entirely the way we are taught to think about scientists and artists. Isaac Asimov famously noted this in his 1983 book Roving Mind: “How often people speak of art and science as though they were two entirely different things, with no interconnection. An artist is emotional, they think, and uses only his intuition; he sees all at once and has no need of reason. A scientist is cold, they think, and uses only his reason; he argues carefully step by step, and needs no imagination. That is all wrong. The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers.” An interesting thought to ruminate on the next time you are preparing DNA samples or soldering stained glass mosaics.

I have to go now. The crew of the Enterprise have some moments of humanity to show me. See you in an hour.

Equality in the Market of Ideas

by Shane L. Larson

Science is a beautiful and inspiring endeavour that has many facets. It satiates a deep and abiding curiosity about the world around us. It expands the boundaries of knowledge. It resolves powerful mysteries about the machinery of the Cosmos. It provides solutions to daunting problems, both abstract and concrete. It teaches us about cause and effect, about predicting the future from the past and the now. It inspires us to think deeply about our place in the Cosmos, and our role in the future of our small planet.

All of these things that science can do are uplifting, and in the end serve to condition our brains to accept the most important feature of science: that science can help us improve the human condition. Medical imaging allows us to diagnose and prepare treatments for conditions that killed our ancestors. Modern vaccines have almost wiped out diseases like smallpox and polio. Clean drinking water is available to millions of people around the planet. Disaster relief supplies can be flown around the world in less than a day, to any locale on the planet. Massive dikes and levee systems can protect cities from seasonal flooding, and bank water for future agricultural use. There are millions of examples of how science touches our lives, every single day.

Science directed at the human condition. (Top L) Non-invasive medical imaging. (Top C) Iron lungs keeping victims alive during a 1952 polio outbreak. (Top R) Clean water supplies. (Lower L) Dikes and levees to manage water. (Lower R) Transportation technology connects the world, especially in times of need.

Science directed at the human condition. (Top L) Non-invasive medical imaging. (Top C) Iron lungs keeping victims alive during a 1952 polio outbreak. (Top R) Clean water supplies. (Lower L) Dikes and levees to manage water. (Lower R) Transportation technology connects the world, especially in times of need.

Perhaps one of the most recognized ways that science has improved our lives is through the connectivity of the modern world. We live in an age where the world is inter-connected in exquisite and instantaneous ways. Technology has democratized the collection and distribution of information. The internet, the great marvel of the modern age, changed information from a commodity into a pervasive entity that many of us take for granted, in the same way we take electricity and air for granted. Digital communications technology allows us to be instantly in contact with colleagues, family and friends on opposite ends of the planet, and it puts every bit of human knowledge instantly at the fingertips of everyone who has a link to the pulsing network of information exchange that now girdles the Earth.

But the global information network has an unappreciated shadowy side, namely that everyone can post/blog/tweet anytime they want, and can post/blog/tweet anything they want. Gone are the days when produced newspaper and television and radio were the only sources of information. Not everything you see now has been carefully thought out, researched, or vetted. Much of the information we receive today is spat out in the moment, as events are happening, and colored by whatever emotionally charged state we find ourselves in at the moment we post/blog/tweet.  Additionally, information gets compressed into easily digestible soundbites (something that is not always easy to do with difficult concepts!).

The currency of the day is not expertise in a particular area of human knowledge. No, that idea would preclude the central tenet of the information age: the web is an egalitarian medium, where every voice has an equal chance to garner attention. The currency of the day is influence — the number of followers you have, who listen to what you have to say and repeat it to those who listen to them.  And therein lies the hidden seed sown with the idea of equal access to information. In this web of the information age, any opinion is and can be expressed.

This simple fact has one enormous consequence on the world: ideas from the fringe (sometimes dangerous ideas, if dangerous ideas do exist) gain traction in our society.

If you have a lot of social influence in the electronic sphere of information that cradles our society, then it is easy for you to promote ideas that support your agendas and ideals. The global network allows you to connect with like-minded people in a way that was never possible before, and those connections will help amplify your agenda. Soon, your ideas have been repeated so often and seen by so many people, that it gains status as a “fact.”

There is no stronger lobby in this respect than the growing anti-science movement. Science created the web, and as it turns out, is falling victim to it as well. Every day, the long slow gains our species has made against the darkness, the triumphs that have been excruciatingly won from Nature, are roundly challenged in the wild frontiers of the information age. Climate change denialism; anti-vaccination propaganda; moon-landing hoaxers. It is at best, misunderstood ideological differences that could easily be resolved over beers and pizza. It is at worst, willful ignorance being promoted to prop up other ideological, economic, and social agendas. But it is enabled — powered — by the notion that every idea has equal validity and deserves equal voice in the electronic medium of our time.

IsaacAsimov[1]This willful promotion of ignorance is nothing new. It has always been a weapon used by those with their own agendas to sow discord among the masses. Isaac Asimov famously noted this in a 1980 essay for Newsweek (21 Jan 1980), that is an almost eerily prescient assessment of the world today. He wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ 

At the heart of Asimov’s point is the meaning of the all important commodity of science: knowledge. As scientists, we must accept any ideas as valid points for consideration — science is founded on the equality of ideas. All points of view are deserving of investigation and consideration. However with that open and egalitarian philosophy about ideas comes the hammer of science: scrutiny. There are no aspects of an idea that are off-limits for investigation; no implications are left unconsidered, no question is left unasked, there are no weak spots in ideas that are left unpoked and unprodded. The analysis of all ideas in science is ruthless and unforgiving — as much as possible, it is dispassionate and detached. Sometimes the outcome of our investigations are uncomfortable, but as scientists we must accept that fact courageously and move forward, no matter what the implications might be. In this sense, not all ideas are created equal. Notions about the world that fail to explain or predict what we see going on around us must be abandoned and discarded.

Knowledge is nothing more than our current best understanding of the world, based on everything we see around us. Science is the tool we continually use to cast self-doubt on our knowledge, to ask “Is this right? Are we still sure it is right? Have I seen anything that convinces me this is wrong?”  If we see something new, that conflicts with what we previously believed, then we update our beliefs — we update our knowledge.  Science is not politics — flip-flopping is a required part of the game.

This idea makes people uncomfortable and nervous. If knowledge can evolve, how can we believe anything? The problem with this perception is that most of us have been raised to put knowledge on the highest pedestal of importance. In reality, however, there are two pillars in science: knowledge and data. And they are NOT on equal footing.

Data is what we see around us, observations of the world. Data is immutable; it can be added to, but never changed. By and large, there are not huge shifts in scientific thinking because for the most part we’ve been observing the world for 40,000 generations, and Nature seems pretty well behaved. Gravity on the Earth doesn’t suddenly start pulling upward instead of downward. Cups of coffee don’t sit on your kitchen counter and start spontaneously heating up. Squirrels don’t suddenly develop fangs capable of delivering venom more deadly than a cobra’s. The preponderance of millennia of observations assure us none of these crazy things will happen. But if they did, we would have to explain them!

Knowledge is how we explain the world.  “Knowledge” is malleable, constantly evolving to reflect new data. It seldom changes dramatically, because of the preponderance of data that exists. Any knew observation of the world has little, if any chance, of invalidating the millions and millions of things we’ve seen before. If we see something new — a new particle in Nature, a new kind of cloud, or evidence of water on Mars — we update our knowledge in such a way as fully explain everything that we knew before, but explain the new data as well.

signEqualityYou and I do this every day.  For instance, consider color. You think you know what you mean when you say “green” and when you say “yellow.” So what color is this sign? If you had never seen this sign before, you probably wouldn’t have a name for it. Now go show it to several of your friends, and ask them what color it is — you’ll probably get several different answers. In the end, you have to update your “knowledge” (your list of colors) to accommodate your observations of the world (whacky colored signs). The data (a new colored sign) was more important than your previous knowledge (a limited number of colors).

There are many examples of this kind of “updating” of knowledge that have occurred in the course of history. The transition from Newtonian gravity to general relativity, which is now used in every GPS device on Earth. The mathematical development of quantum mechanics and its subsequent experimental validation, ultimately leading to the development of diodes and transistors in the computer you are reading this blog post on. The discovery of Mendelian inheritance in genetics, and its use in the cross-breeding of agricultural crops to develop foodstocks that are high-yield and resistant to disease and drought. Knowledge evolves, and the consequence of that evolution is the improvement of the human condition.

In the end, the epic battle of our age is a struggle to explain and communicate ideas as subtle and conflated as “data” and “knowledge” because they are central to the scientific underpinning of our modern world. They are notions that every scientist has to be comfortable with. But in the parliament of the the global information network, not everyone has the same background and training and vocabulary as your garden variety scientist — it makes communication difficult at best, and it makes understanding even harder. But the effort must be made, lest we condemn our society and planet to an uncertain, if not bleak, future. The efforts must be ongoing, relentless, understanding, and compassionate. Beliefs about the world are dearly held, and difficult to let go of. It is easy to ignore or dismiss ideas that are difficult to understand. It is uncomfortable to feel confused, it is disconcerting to not know who to trust or what to believe.

sagan01Carl Sagan, ever a great humanist, commented on those arrayed against science in his 1995 book, The Demon Haunted World, writing, “In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”

None of us comes fully equipped.


This post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2014, whose theme this year was #inequality. #bad2014

Knowing something about everything

by Shane L. Larson

During the early 1970’s, a yellow cab crawled up Park Avenue in New York City. By all accounts, this was an innocuous happenstance, repeated thousands of times a day before and since.  But this cab ride was special, because it gave rise to one of the greatest treaties in human history, the so-called “Park Avenue Treaty.” The signatories were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who agreed that Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second best for himself).  The treaty was famously referred to by Clarke in the dedication to his novel, Report on Planet Three, which read “In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer”.

Arthur C. Clarke (left) and Isaac Asimov (right), the signatories of the Park Avenue Treaty.

The treaty is indicative of one of lost truths of those by-gone days — Asimov was widely regarded as one of the finest communicators of science, though he is most often remembered for his science fiction (if you haven’t read the original Foundation Trilogy, stop reading this now and go find a copy; this blog post will be here when you get back).  He became a proficient and popular science writer in the years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, when there was widespread concern about the “science gap” between Americans and the rest of the world (an earlier incarnation of the current growing science gap in our country).  Asimov’s writings were wide ranging, accessible to broad audiences, and enormously popular. Kurt Vonnegut once famously asked Asimov how it felt to know everything.  Asimov replied that he was uneasy with his reputation for omniscience.

Despite his play at modesty, Asimov’s reputation was not ill-deserved.  He was, by all accounts, a polymath — a person whose intellect and expertise span a vast number of areas in the entire body of human knowledge. There have been many polymaths throughout history, many of their names are well known in our popular culture.  Perhaps the most famous, was Leonardo da Vinci, widely regarded as one of the finest mechanical geniuses and artists who has ever lived. Apprenticed as a young boy to the artist Verrocchio in Firenze, Leonardo was immersed and trained in artistic and technical skills of the day: drafting, metalwork, drawing, sculpting, and painting.  Leonardo’s skill manifested itself even at this early age.  Anecdotal stories tell that when he began painting under the tutelage of Verrocchio, the young Leonardo’s skill was so great that Verrocchio swore to never paint again.  In his life, Leonardo produced stunning works of art that have survived and are revered today — the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man.  One of my favorites works is the first sketch that we are certain is a work of Leonardo, of the Arno Valley from 1473. It is a simple line sketch that somehow captures the effervescent beauty of that far away Italian countryside, though I have never been there.

“Study of a Tuscan Landscape.” This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the young Leonardo sitting on a grassy hillside, his pen and paper in hand, recording the image of his home in quick lines and shades. As the shape of the Arno Valley emerged and the walls of the Castle Montelupo sprang up on the page, his mind must have wandered in the fertile ground of imagination, exploring new seeds and thoughts planted by the sun and the landscape. Leonardo was not one to let seeds go untended. His genius and creativity are well known, spawning not only some of the most famous works of art in western culture, but also straying to ideas about flight and helicopters, harnessing the Sun’s energy by concentrating it, and the possibility that the Earth’s surface moved (something geologists today call plate-tectonics). No topic was too mundane, nor of little interest to Leonardo. He was a true polymath.

It is a funny fact of human nature that we discourage the behaviour that we so often value.  Polymaths dominate the ranks of the most revered scientists of all time: Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Feynman, Dyson. But in academic circles, polymathism is discouraged. University professors are often encouraged to be narrow minded, to focus their attention and efforts in narrow back-waters of science so they are the world’s single expert in very rigidly defined and narrow boxes of knowledge.  Somewhat surprisingly then, the most awesome applications of human imagination to science are efforts that are highly interdisciplinary, requiring expertise from hundreds of scientists in an astonishing variety of fields.

Approximately a hour to the west of Vinci, on the outskirts of Pisa, one of the greatest miracles of the modern age is taking shape.  Astronomers and physicists, in collaboration with computer scientists and engineers and laser technologists, are constructing an enormous, multi-kilometer long laser interferometer called Virgo (http://goo.gl/maps/CYzrE).  A similar, but smaller observatory called Geo has been constructed in the farmlands outside of Hannover, Germany (http://goo.gl/maps/Ozlco).  The Japanese are constructing another facility called Karga underground at the famed Kamioka Observatory in western Japan.  Two larger observatories have also been built in the United States, called LIGO — one in the high desert of eastern Washington near the Hanford Reservation (http://goo.gl/maps/C1QEj), and one in the verdant cypress forests of Louisiana near Livingston (http://goo.gl/maps/pifQn).

These massive scientific instruments are the cousins of interferometers that have been used in physics laboratories for the past century, simply enlarged by a factor of 4000 and instrumented with state of the art lasers, seismic isolation systems, the world’s largest vacuum system, 30,000 environmental sensors and one of the most powerful linked computer networks ever created for scientific analysis.  The goal is to detect one of the holy grails of physics: gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are a completely new way of looking at the Universe, not with light, but with gravity.  Virtually everything you know about the Cosmos — everything you’ve ever been taught, everything you’ve ever read in a textbook or seen on the news, has been discovered with light using telescopes.

The Hubble Space Telescope (left) extends our vision deep into the Cosmos, providing views like this one of the Carina Nebula (right), showing us a secret birthplace of stars.

It is a time honored tradition that has passed down to us from another great polymath, Galileo Galilei who built the first telescope in 1609 and wrote about his experiences the following year in the celebrated Sidereus Nuncius (”The Starry Messenger”).  The descendants of that first modest spyglass are simple telescopes you might use in your backyard, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope.  The telescope has taught us much about the Cosmos and our place in it.  But there are new frontiers to be explored by changing our perspective.  The detection of gravitational waves will revolutionize our understanding of compact astrophysical systems. We will be able to directly probe the interior structure of neutron stars (the densest objects known) as they tear themselves apart in titanic collisions; we will watch black holes merge and ringdown, revealing their size and spin; we will see stars plummeting in chaotic spiraling orbits around black holes that will map out the gravitational field to reveal the structure and shape of the hole.  And, if we are lucky, we may even detect the faint echoes of gravitational waves from the Big Bang, whispers across time from an era 400,000 years earlier than any ordinary telescope will ever be able to see.

It was Einstein himself who discovered the idea of gravitational waves in 1916, but he almost immediately discarded the notion of detecting them because the physical effect that has to be measured was, in his estimation, beyond our abilities. Fast-forward to the modern era, and technology has changed.  Not just a single technology, but many technologies.  The instruments we build to detect gravitational waves are a complex synthesis of ideas requiring people of broad mind and discipline.

The enormous arms of these interferometers had to be laid out by our best construction contractors, because the arms are long enough that the curvature of the Earth matters!  The 1 meter diameter vacuum pipes had to be manufactured then spiral welded without any leaks or cracks over the entire 4 kilometers of the instrument arm.  Thermal engineers had to design expansion baffles on the beamtubes that contract and expand with the heating and cooling of the arms with the rising and setting of the Sun. Seismologists and meteorologists and electrical engineers had to create a network of some 30,000 environmental sensors that monitor and report on the health and environment of the observatory.  Exquisite isolation engineers had to build suspension systems capable of filtering out vibrations from everything — people walking down the hall, the echoing tremors of ground motion on the other side of the world, and the rumble of car tires on a highway ten miles away.  Computer scientists and network engineers have designed a computing and data acquisition system that has thousands of individual links, stores and processes data, and delivers that data to a collaboration of nearly 1000 scientists spread around the world.  Master optical engineers and laser physicists have built a laser injection and control system that takes as input a single infrared laser beam, circulates it over 1600 kilometers during 400 trips up and down the vacuum beam line, and brings the laser light all back together to measure minuscule changes in distances that herald the arrival of gravitational wave signals from remote corners of the Cosmos.

LIGO is an awesome machine, whether you are looking down one of the 4 km arms (left), or staring into the guts of the computer system interlinking the instrument and all of its vast sensor network (right).

Standing at the vertex of one of these great instruments, staring down the arm to the distant end stations 4 kilometers away, it is easy to be amazed by the ingenuity of our scientists and engineers — large teams who have butted heads, argued, designed, tested, and ultimately built the most sensitive scientific instruments our species has ever created.  A pool of talented people who had the where-with-all to imagine every possible problem that might be encountered along the way and design a solution.  Talented people who encountered unforeseen problems, ferreted out the cause of the trouble, then built a solution that allowed us to continue down the long road toward discovery.  These great machines, and ultimately the discoveries we make with them, are a testament to their dedication and perseverance, a legacy as great as that of Newton, and Huygens, and Leonardo.  We polymathed our way to these instruments, not through the intellect of a single person, but through the linked abilities of a vast team of people spanning multiple decades of work.  As a result of those efforts, we find ourselves poised on the brink of discovery: breathless with anticipation, and rightfully proud of our accomplishment.

The LIGO-Hanford interferometer, seen from the air.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by two things. The first is the awe-inspiring example of what we can engineer through sheer ingenuity and perseverance. Instruments like LIGO will fundamentally change the way we view the Cosmos, pushing us to look beyond the simple prejudices imposed by the limitations of our physical senses and listen to the grandeur of a Universal symphony we’ve never been able to hear before. The second is that this machine is only the beginning of so much more than just astrophysics. New technology and new insights always flow back to society and are used in startling and unexpected ways, propelling our young species forward. This was true with Apollo, and as many others have pointed out, is true for LIGO.  The LIGO laser technology is already making its way into the carbon composites industry where it is being used to test aircraft parts. Einstein@Home (like it’s big sister, Seti@Home) was one of the first projects to use your home computer to do scientific crowd-computing while your computer was sitting idle during Monday Night Football, turning the world into a vast supercomputer. LIGO’s advanced laser control systems are demonstrating the precise methods needed to shape and control lasers in applications ranging from laser welding, to high precision laser cutting systems, to advanced laser weapon systems.  None of this was intended, but it all sprang from the same fertile ground — the seeds of ideas planted and nurtured from an exquisite mix of ideas stirred together with reckless abandon.  Polymathism in the large.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, the joy in our accomplishment is pierced by an unerring certainty that we should be doing more of this.  We need more polymathism in the world, on scales both large and small.  We should unfetter our young scientists, and let their minds stray to the far reaches of wonderfully crazy ideas and fantastic imaginings about what our future could be.  It is hard to imagine that good things can and will result from allowing such freedom, particularly in trying times of economic woe and political discord.  It is even harder for the vanguard of scientific leaders (the “greybeards”, as I call them) to encourage big expansive thinking among our young scientists when the great discoveries could easily overshadow our own seemingly meager contributions to the state of human knowledge; the egos of scientists (despite their outward bravado) are fragile. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need more polymaths, not just to inspire us by charging down the frontiers of discovery, but to address serious problems with new and creative connections and solutions that narrow box thinking will never discover.  The world has serious problems, and we need creative thinking to address those problems.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, I wonder what Leonardo would have thought if he was right here with me?  I can imagine him sitting here next to me, with a parchment and a pen in hand, sketching the long lines of LIGO’s arm, the scrub desert of eastern Washington and the distant shadow of Rattlesnake Mountain, and my mind strays into imagination, wondering all the things that could be.

Paper Airplanes, Forks, and the Scientific Method

by Shane L. Larson

I was in the shower this morning thinking about paper airplanes, particularly the Nakamura Lock (instructions from the Exploratorium can be found here), which I have long championed as one of the finest paper planes that can easily be folded.

Two Nakamura Locks I keep on my desk to entertain students, parents, University administrators, and other visitors.

I discovered my love for the Nakamura Lock when I was in fifth grade, when a paper plane craze swept my school, and everyone in my class (boys and girls alike) spent several months carrying shoeboxes out to the playground filled with our best airplane designs.  The Nakamura Lock is an excellent glider, staying aloft for long periods, gliding straight and true; it has won every gliding competition with my friends hands down.

I discovered the wonders of the Nakamura Lock like most kids do, by trial and error.  I had learned many designs from friends, taught them many of my own, then we threw them all about 10 zillion times. Each flight was a revelation.  If you wanted long glides, some designs were better than others.  If you wanted fancy loops or returns to you, other designs were better.  You could increase the performance by changing the wing area, or changing the camber. You could correct a left-plummeting doomsday flight by making sure the wings were identical and your folds were straight and true.

In the back of my head, I can hear my eighth grade science teacher, Mr. Jagdeo, speaking.  “You were just using the scientific method.” We’ve all been taught the scientific method.  It went something like this:  (1) Make a hypothesis (2) Test and Experiment. (3) Revise Hypothesis. (4) Draw Conclusions.  Now, I have very fond memories of Mr. Jagdeo; he was a formative figure in my scientific youth.  But I have have no loss of love for the scientific method.  It accurately captures the basic philosophy of science, but it lacks the passion and engaging mystery of how we actually do science.  Every time I hear or see someone describe the scientific method I want to scream “BORING!”, gag myself with my finger and vomit.  Let’s do it together — scientific method!

BORING!  *gag, gag* Bleerrchhh.

Yes, science is a process, yes science is the best tool we have to objectively quantify Nature.  But is also one of the quintessential expressions of the delight we glean in indulging our curiosity.  The truth of the scientific method is that science, like solving a sudoku puzzle or or painting your own imitation Jackson Pollock, is a meandering but fun game of trying to become unconfused, punctuated by moments of inspiration and elation.

When I talk to people about the scientific method, I usually use a diagram like the one below.  It more accurately reflects what I think about the process, but is still a pale effigy of what I think I actually experience every day.  Sometimes though, I wonder if we would keep more people interested in science if we taught them the process this way.

There is no well defined procedure here; no standard forms and sections of a report that must be filled out, no bibliographies and reference citations and essays about the previous experiments and implications for the outcome of your own dalliances with science.  This is much more akin to what every single one of us does every day when confronted by some conundrum in our lives.  You hear a rattle when you are driving your car.  You stop the car, you look under the hood, but don’t see anything obvious.  Maybe it only happens when you are accelerating.  You get home and have your husband stick his head under the hood while you rev the engine but to no avail; neither of you hear the rattling. You turn the air conditioning on, nothing.  You turn the 8-Track player on, nothing. So you go out driving together, and decide that you only hear the rattling when you are on bumpy roads, and the sound is coming from the back seat. An investigation turns up that your 4 year old had dropped a fork (“Where did she get a fork?”) into the door panel through the slot the window rolls into.  Observation… Confusion… Inspiration… Fiddling… Observation… A cycle of investigation that ultimately solves a problem, imparts new wisdom on you, or leads to new questions.  That is the essence of science; that is the scientific method. And you do it every day!

The reason I was thinking about this was the Nakamura Lock. I was imagining having to explain why it flies so well and it suddenly struck me that I had never asked this question before.  I have flown these planes since the fifth grade, and I constantly put new designs up against it, but I had never before bothered to try and figure out why it flies so well.  This too is part of the process of science — noticing something about the world around you, even if that something seems completely obvious and commonplace.  Isaac Asimov, who was widely regarded as one of the finest science writers of the past fifty years, is said to have remarked  “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…’”  An eloquent statement of something every scientist would likely agree is true.

Why was I suddenly struck with the question of why the Nakamura Lock flies so well?  I was considering having a day in my 400 person general physics class where we built paper airplanes.

You can imagine the scene of mayhem with 400 college kids throwing paper airplanes all over the place, but that is exactly what I want. People who don’t know how to fold planes would learn from someone nearby.  People who do know how fold planes would teach people nearby. The whole while, everyone would be talking about how to make planes that fly, and how to make planes fly better.  Then we throw them and the mayhem erupts!  Some glide long distances, some fly loops, some crash gracelessly to the ground.  From the mayhem of 400 experiments, we would try to understand what makes a good plane!

We know that engagement, active learning, is the most successful way for people to have a memorable and rewarding experience in science. I think a day of paper airplanes in class may do the trick, and teach them some of my philosophy of the scientific method as well.  Sure, it will be part of their training as  young scientists and engineers; but more importantly, it will be some good life-skills training.  Science, whether we know it or not, is the way we all interact with the world around us.  Because like it or not, sometimes your kids have forks (or bowls of oatmeal) you didn’t even know they had, and do weird things with them (“Hey hon?  Why isn’t the BluRay player working?”).


PS: The reason I’ve decided the Nakamura Lock flies so well is the shape of the wings, shown below.

A view of the Nakamura Lock from the rear, showing the shape of the wings and body. The inverted “V” shape captures the air under the plane.

Airplanes fly because the wings provide lift. Air trapped under the wings is high pressure, while air streaming over the top of the wings is low pressure (a consequence of something called the Bernoulli effect).  Just as the high pressure air in a balloon wants to get out and tries to force itself through the neck into the low pressure air, the high pressure air under the wing is trying to get to the low pressure air, but the wing is in the way so it presses up on the wing.

In the Nakamura Lock, the wings aren’t flat, they have a bend in them (we say the wings are polyhedral) making a large pocket of high pressure air, providing a lot of lift. Mr. Jagdeo, if you are out there somewhere reading this, that is my hypothesis.  Now I have to figure out a way to test it!  Guess I’ll go fold some more paper airplanes.  🙂