Science Tuesday

Still thinking about the World Science Festival. Sounded like it was a rousing success; NY Times’ Dennis Overbye gave a good report:

That was the World Science Festival in New York City this past weekend: 46 shows, debates, demonstrations and parties spread over five days and 22 sites between Harlem and Greenwich Village, organized by Dr. Greene, the Columbia physicist and author, and his wife, Ms. Day, a former ABC-TV producer. Jugglers and philosophers, magicians and biologists, musicians and dancers — a feast one couldn’t hope to sample fairly.

Of course, I cannot fault Dr. Greene and Ms. Day for doing such a good job that I wanted to see much more than space and time permitted. In fact, you cannot help loving them. They are the first couple of New York science. And by their boldness and energy, they seem to have created a new cultural institution.

[…] Every event sold out — confirmation, as Dr. Greene said, of “the public’s desire to connect with science.”

It hardly came off without a hitch. Tales were rampant in the weeks leading up to the festival of disorganization, programs planned, canceled and resurrected. The ticket lines were confusing. But the organizers got a lot of things right. The panel discussions, many of them guided by pros like Charlie Rose and Alan Alda, were for the most part actual discussions, or, better, arguments, and not a series of lectures.

There were flashy graphics everywhere.

I knew it was all working when my 6-year-old daughter, Mira, grabbed my notebook at a magic and “brain tricks” show and started taking notes.

What follows is a hop, skip and jump through that notebook, vivid impressions that leap out of a blur of 13 very different events. [….]

I didn’t know quite what to expect at the Moth, an organization devoted to live storytelling, where scientists and others bravely volunteered to tell tales of experiments gone wrong. But there was James Gates, an imposing string theorist from the University of Maryland with a silvered Afro who folded his entire life as a black man and a physicist into a 10-minute tale of almost falling to his death on a mountain in Iceland. Falling off a mountain, he recalled thinking with some dismay, would be a stereotypical death for a physicist, just as being shot by the police would be for a young black, something that almost happened to him on a stroll one night through Pasadena, Calif.

“Make your own trail,” came the voice over the Icelandic mountainside when he called for help. Dr. Gates said he still doesn’t know whose voice it was.

I should have seen more; I managed to catch “Q.E.D.,” the play where Alan Alda plays physicist Richard Feynman. You get to understand the scientist – the man – and the thinking he did. Great stuff!

Plus, a great op-ed piece from Brian Greene about how “our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.” He opens his article about a letter he received from a soldier in Iraq who was enthusiastic about a Greene book. Greene further writes:

The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don’t have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up as I’ve told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I’ve spoken with high school dropouts who’ve stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we’re all a part.

It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.

If science isn’t your strong suit — and for many it’s not — this side of science is something you may have rarely if ever experienced. I’ve spoken with so many people over the years whose encounters with science in school left them thinking of it as cold, distant and intimidating. They happily use the innovations that science makes possible, but feel that the science itself is just not relevant to their lives. What a shame.

Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension. [….]

But science is so much more than its technical details. And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.

It’s the birthright of every child, it’s a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world, as the soldier in Iraq did, and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us.

The science of sarcasm – in last week’s Science Times.

Oh, God: physicists who are Congressmen!

Speaking of scientific thinking, consider some experimenting in life: The NY Times recently did this article about the Buddhist couple who were never more than 15 feet apart (while remaining celibate, because they were still Buddhist clergy people, somehow); so Slate’s Deputy Editor David Plotz (whose book on the history of this particular sperm bank was quite hysterical and fascinating journalism) and his journalist wife Hanna Rosin tried out their own experiment. Funny and illuminating stuff – plus a Slate video on experience of the RosinPlotzes (Plotz’s own term).

In a non-science related note: Plotz is going to be the new editor of Slate, succeeding Jacob Weisberg, who succeeded the founder of Slate, Michael Kinsley (who still contributes).

The technical nature of moving a 200 year old house: NY Times has this awesome graphic feature that recreates how the moving of Alexander Hamilton’s house is being down; quite a feat, just to move it one block!

Oh goody – the astronauts in the space station has a working toilet again. Plus a lab called “Hope.” But, I’m sure the fact that the immediate concern has been resolved relieved (uh, oops – pun!) the astronauts based in the space station…

A June Heat Wave

Ah, it’s hot, and I’m too sluggish to care about much.

Saturday – friend and I went to Brooklyn Botanic Garden and later saw the Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Loved the roses, hated the heat, and still bemused by the otaku / anime subcultures – and certainly a little uncomfortable about the erotic nature of some of Murakami’s pieces. Oh well.

The changes in NYC (putting aside the heat thing) –

I had seen the new “Train in Thought” prose in a subway some time ago, but I’m already missing “Poetry in Motion” – so sad that it’s no longer around. NY Times’ Jim Dwyer has an article that gives the transition of the poetry in the subway some perspective.

Some politics:

Fascinating profile on Barack Obama – particularly found these lines of Michael Powell’s article most interesting:

“[Obama] has the gift of making people see themselves in him and offers an enigmatic smile when asked about his multiracial appeal.

“‘I am like a Rorschach test,’ he said in an interview with The New York Times. ‘Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.'”

NY Times’ Bob Herbert raises a great point – we still have a long way to go, whether we may ever have a black president or a woman president, but we ought to savor this time, because this is really something. It’ll be a quite the dream if we may ever reach a point that having either scenario isn’t too extraordinary at all (just running for presidency is a feat regardless of race or gender, I’d daresay).

I think this is the key quote in Dahlia Lithwick’s article, regarding the generational differences between feminists:

Yes, my generation grew up in the plush comfort of academic equality and equal access to jobs. It’s true that far fewer of us have bumped our foreheads on a rigid glass ceiling. But we’re not blind to sexism and we don’t tolerate it any more than our moms did. We’ve worked very hard to broaden our definition of feminism to include women of different classes and races and we are proud that the men we date and marry have met us halfway on the little things. We don’t think our choices are frivolous. We think they are complicated.

As Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter notes, the calculus in trying to see who could be Obama’s VP is ridiculously complicated (or not that complicated – just really hard to choose). Alter’s Newsweek colleague Howard Fineman writes how it’s no less easier for McCain to select a VP.

Ooh – found this lovely time-lapse video of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s cherry blossoms:

Last but not least: the passing of Jim McKay, who will forever be remembered for the lines: “the thrill of victory… the agony of defeat.” Modern broadcast sports owes much to McKay.