Category Archives: Social commentary

I don’t know what we want to be any more

My job is to explore space. The work I do, day to day, involves figuring out how to get space probes to exotic parts of our Solar System, so that scientists can investigate the inner workings of the planets and flesh out their understanding of humans’ place in it.

One of the strangest things to me about my job is that I agree with almost none of the reasons popular in space media for why this is an important and worthwhile endeavor. National prestige? No, I would be happy to work with scientists who aren’t funded by the US government. Finding resources in space for us to exploit on Earth? Nope, not only is that not what science is doing but I think it would be ultimately unproductive. Inspiring the next generation to pursue STEM careers and fill a supposed “STEM gap?” Heck no — I was inspired to study STEM in order to explore space, not to help a tech company sell surveillance or to fill up jobs in the military-industrial complex.

I explore space, I want to explore space, because I want to be part of something greater than myself. I want my work to help build a monument of scientific achievement that will stand for generations. I want to reach, to dream, to aspire, to learn, and to create. I want to explore space for the same reasons an artist or a poet wants to do what they do.

I think people in my field are afraid to say that. The reason is, I suspect, because we fear the obvious rejoinder: why are you wasting time and resources on that when we have so many problems to solve here on Earth?

My answer has been that it’s not a binary choice: We can feed the hungry, and have poets. We can heal the sick, and have art. We can make a better life for people on Earth, and explore space. But more than that, I think it is part of the measure of a society what we aspire to do and create for tomorrow, not just how we react to the events of yesterday. That’s why I explore space, and why I think it’s important that we — our nation, our society — continue to explore space.

But looking back over the last few years, I have a problem.

I have been completely caught off guard, emotionally and intellectually, by the approach my society is actually taking.

We faced a national disaster in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we collectively decided, nah, we’re just not going to bother to do anything about this. A million people died as a result, most of them easily preventable deaths.

The looming crisis of catastrophic climate change is turning into a global disaster before our eyes, with wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, floods, and other events rapidly racking up body counts and property damage, threatening our way of life in the near future with everything from decreased production to reduced military effectiveness to food shortages to logistical challenges that will dwarf anything we saw in 2020, and we collectively decided, well, I guess you’ve just got to get what you can while you can. So much for the next generation.

Inequity is a scourge on our national economic effectiveness, not to mention inhumane to those experiencing it, and we have collectively decided, if the worst-off among us have no bread to eat, then it’s on them to find cake. Just so long as the rest of us can’t see them.

Madmen enter our schools with devices designed to make human bodies explode, kill innocent children and young adults, and our society has decided, oh, well, too bad, and we hold a moment of silence while we wait for the next one to happen. Meanwhile, we traumatize kids with intrusive security measures and drills that will remain ineffective so long as we keep fetishizing access to violence. The recurring Onion headline is so biting because it is an exact measure of the depth of our failure.

We are, to put it simply, no longer a nation that tries to solve its problems at all. What solution-oriented programs we have continue only on inertia, not because we are trying to improve the parts of our society that need attention. What aspirational efforts we have also seem to continue on inertia, not because of a national drive to be better. So here I am, attached to a vestigial aspirational effort and arguing that we could do both while our society around me is deciding to do neither.

We got here because one of America’s major political parties has spent decades pushing a message that boils down to the insistence that government should not solve problems, or heck, government should not do anything except for a few legacy activities that benefit the relatively privileged. As a result, we have built a system where we don’t help the sick, we don’t help the poor, we don’t plan for the future, we don’t create opportunities, we don’t innovate, we don’t address the root causes of crime or oppression, we don’t educate our kids, we don’t even keep our kids safe from harm. And these things seem to have become our national values, so that enough voters feel a patriotic and political obligation to continue not solving the problems that face all of us. Now, only those of us who started with money have a chance.

I fear for the future because we live in a nation where that same party can win most state and federal representation with less than half the vote, is actively working to secure power regardless of future vote outcomes, and is willing to deploy violence and intimidation if it doesn’t get its way. For a brief window, though, we have a chance to ask ourselves: Is this really the kind of society we want to be? We really want to be the society who rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic, because oh, well, this is what being ‘Merican is, and we don’t want to see the iceberg so we just won’t?

It didn’t used to be.

I wish we could aspire again.

I wish we could solve basic national problems again.

The fact that we have collectively decided not to is so frustrating to me because it cuts right to my self-image.

The only thing I know of to do in response is vote for Democrats, and press them to safeguard our democracy.

Scientists Should March

Scientists are planning a “March for Science” in Washington, DC and many other cities on 22 April 2017. Some commentators seem to think this is a bad idea, because it would politicize science.

Before I continue, let me suggest the form an intellectually honest debate about global warming would take:


Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.


Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.


Okay. We think that the impact to certain market sectors would be too great to pay the $X up front. We think we are better able to pay installments of the larger cost $Y later on, as those various problems crop up.

Now, allow me to summarize the form the actual debate about global warming seems to be taking in the United States:


Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.


Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.


Global warming is not happening.


But we just told you that it is, and presented our evidence, and told you the cost of ignoring–


Stop doing science.

It’s easy to say that scientists should keep themselves in the business of producing scientific evidence and scientific conclusions, and stay out of the business of figuring out how to act on those conclusions. Science, after all, doesn’t tell us anything about morality or ideals, it just describes what happens in the world.

What does someone do, though, if they hold a particular position, and science produces definitive evidence suggesting that their position does not give them the result they want? In my field of engineering, the correct response to this scenario is to redesign my system so that I do get the result I want. I have to trust that the most up-to-date scientific theory is the most accurate description available of how my design will actually work, regardless of what I want my design to do. However, more and more, we are seeing a different strategy emerge in the field of politics: attack the science itself. Cast aspersions on the scientists. Talk about presenting “alternative facts,” as though physics behaves differently depending on one’s ideals. Cut off the ability of scientists to conduct their work, if one thinks that they will uncover evidence disfavoring one’s suggested course of action.

This is not a good way to solve problems.

What I believe scientists are standing up for in their march is simply the idea that decisions should be based on evidence. Conclusions should be based on a strong argument. Engineers know this. Businesspeople know this. Doctors know this. Scientists know this. Politicians should, too.

Scientists may not be perfect people, and an individual scientist’s conclusions may not be completely correct. Lots of factors feed into this: the tenure process, aggressive university publishing policies, limited funding, and severe competition leading to hype. But that is why we conduct science as a community, and as part of a larger iterative process. Scientists as a whole are always improving the state of knowledge. Others follow to correct and refine previous knowledge. As such, the current state of the art does represent the best available scientific description of the world. And, in many cases, that description has been converging. So, I can say with confidence: Global warming is happening, and human-caused, and has real economic costs. Vaccines don’t cause autism. GMOs are fine to grow and eat. The collapse of the bee population is going to cause big problems for agriculture. Coal power is just more expensive than natural gas (and, soon, wind and solar). Tax cuts for the wealthy are not as effective at stimulating the economy as government investment. No refugee from the Middle East has committed a terrorist attack in the United States. American police shoot black people at a disproportionately high rate. These are all things we can measure, facts based on evidence. There are no alternatives.

What do we do about these things? Do we do anything about them? Yes, those are questions for politicians to debate. But I can tell you this definitively: cutting off support for the science that produced evidence of a problem does not make things better. Politicians who advocate doing so are not going to help solve those problems, and we all need to remember who they are and how they are exacerbating our problems.

That is why scientists should call attention to their work and to their efforts. They need to remind everyone that evidence matters and decisions based on evidence matter. They need to remind people that experts have expertise. This march is not just about science, it is about the very idea that we can observe the world and use our observations to inform our expectations about the future. It’s about stating the reality of reality as opposed to “alternative facts.”

The idea that scientific evidence is a description of reality is not a political statement. I can understand how that might be hard to grasp, though, for a party whose paragon once took an incorrect position and said, “my heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

Guess what? The facts and evidence were right.

What is the nature of the STEM crisis?

There is a recent National Science Foundation report out that says, over the decade from 1993 to 2013, the number of college graduates in science and engineering fields grew faster than the number of graduates in any other fields. By 2013, we got up to 27% of college graduates getting their degrees in science or engineering. Hooray! STEM crisis solved, right?

I actually see something in this report that I find quite worrying, and a sad commentary on the state of science and engineering in the United States.

The report says that only 10% of all college graduates got jobs in science or engineering fields. That statistic means that, although 27% of our graduates are in STEM fields, at least 17% of graduates got their degree in science or engineering but couldn’t find a job in any scientific or engineering field. Put another way, at least 63% of STEM graduates couldn’t get a job in STEM fields!

The STEM crisis, in my opinion, isn’t about the number of graduates. It’s about the support our country and society gives to science and engineering. Our government has forsaken basic research in favor of maintenance-level defense tasks and austerity. Our companies have forsaken applied research in favor of “killer apps” and next-quarter profits. In light of those actions, it’s no wonder that we’re now worried that other nations might leapfrog us technologically.

If we want to get out of this hole we dug, we need to dramatically increase our support for science, engineering, and innovation.

Vhonn/Brawn (what could we do?)


Wernher von Braun is one of the lions of the early American space program: a pioneer who engineered our initial forays into orbit, our steps onto the surface of the moon, and our designs for space stations and Martian colonies. He developed or directed the development of the technology to enable those feats. Without him, the United States might not have a space program as we know it.

But all technology is only as good as the people who use it. If von Braun had a personal failing, it was being willing to embrace the use of his devices for nefarious purposes, so long as he could work on them at all. His part in aerospace history began in Nazi Germany, with slave labor and vengeance weapons. Then, after he surrendered to the Americans, he secured a place at the US Army not by promising it the moon – but by promising it the intercontinental ballistic missile. The dual use of this technology was not lost on von Braun. As he famously said of the V2, “the rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” Since then, every single government to come into contact with von Braun’s work has first thought not of space exploration, but of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of terror.


Two worlds. The reckless denizens of Brawn choose to use their technology for destructive ends. In their insecurity, they ultimately realized their driving fears. Now, all that remains of them is technological detritus: shattered pipelines, broken chain-link fences, and cracked bunkers; all are monuments to warnings ignored.


On another world, the policymakers kept their engineers focused on exploration, enriching and enhancing their culture. They ultimately landed an expedition on the neighboring planet Vhonn – a place harsh in its alienness, but full of scientific treasure troves, including keys to understanding life as they knew it. Their citizens are confident and inspired. They strive forward into the cosmos, and will eventually stake claims throughout their star system.

Today was once celebrated as Armistice Day, a day when the world laid down its arms to end the greatest war it had ever felt – a war that saw the development of weapons so terrible that an international convention gathered to forbid their use. Now, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, may we do so again. I hope that, one day, we live in a nation worthy of our veterans’ sacrifices.


The Space Review has a fantastic article that invaded my whole way of thinking this morning while I was trying to get into my groove for work. It casts the golden age of space exploration – the Space Race – as a contest of two visionary dreamers against their employing superpowers. It also goes a long way towards explaining the allure of SpaceX! The arguments presented therein may or may not be right, but they certainly form an interesting view to read.

It’s a fantastic and different historical perspective. Plus, some of the author’s writing includes delicious indictments of the use of space technology for evil.

Despite tactical errors, Bill Nye is right

Tuesday night, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) had a webcast debate with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. In many respects, this was a silly idea. Nye wasn’t going to change any minds, and I think he fell into the traps creationists try to set: distracting him into side issues, for example, or redefining the terms of the debate. Moreover, the Creation Museum benefited monetarily from the event.

I admire Nye for being willing to make the attempt, but in the end, I think the event was a wasted opportunity. The whole reason for the debate was not to contest the relative merits of creationism versus science. Rather, the spark for the event was Nye’s contention that teaching creationism in schools is dangerous. And I agree with him – for two fundamental reasons that Ham illustrated beautifully throughout the debate, but I don’t think Nye ever articulated. Continue reading Despite tactical errors, Bill Nye is right


It seems that being at Williams College again for only a weekend is enough to prompt a little self-reflection.

Hopkins Gate
Hopkins Gate

I returned to my alma mater for the 2013 commencement exercises. The graduating seniors seemed like a powerhouse of innovation, leadership, and social change. The commencement speaker, Billie Jean King, stood up for gender equality through her career in professional sports. One of the honorary degree recipients, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, went from being a refugee to founding hospitals that provide medical care in impoverished nations. Another honorary degree went to Annie Lennox, who, at a pre-commencement event, condemned material and celebrity culture and spoke about how her visits to Africa inspired her to HIV/AIDS activism.

What, I thought, am I doing to improve the world we live in? Sure, I don’t have the influence power of Lennox – who did acknowledge the irony that her celebrity status and material security enable her to drive activism – but my chosen career is all about building spaceships. What does that do to make the Earth a better place?

I truly believe that it helps. That I am serving a fundamental good.

Imagine this: a group of people have fallen into a hole in the ground. The hole is too deep to get out of, and resources at the bottom of the hole are very scarce. The situation is bleak. What are they to do? Those with liberal inclinations may feel that they can best solve their problems by banding together and coordinating their efforts: cultivating moss and vines on the wall of the hole for sustenance, helping each other out when sickness strikes, and sharing the water that collects in nooks and crannies. The conservatively minded among them might instead think that each denizen of the hole should try to improve their lot individually – if some parts of the hole get more sunlight and water than others, and so some of the people are richer than others, then so be it – because that improves the standing of the people as a whole and the well-off individuals may devote some of their hard-won resources to assist others.

I think that both of these approaches are important ways to improve conditions in the hole. But I also think that there’s another thing that the people in the hole can do.

They can climb out.

They can get together and hoist a representative from among their number higher, and higher, until that person can plant his or her hands on the lip of the hole and breach the horizon.

The struggle to climb out is crucial to meaningful existence inside the hole. Without the idea that the people can climb out, what are they improving life inside the hole for? There needs to be a goal – but more than that, the goal needs to advance. It helps to set the goal high, because in striving to achieve it, we might learn more about our environs and ourselves, and find other ways to improve conditions – ways that we might not have seen at all if we hadn’t started to climb. The people in the hole don’t know what lies above, so they will need to give their climber provisions – and so might develop new and improved ways to cultivate, prepare, or preserve food. They might need hoists to get their climber up to ground level – and so might design mechanisms and machines that save labor in other activities.

Most important of all: once out of the hole, the climber can come back to relate what they see…or to help others follow.

I build spacecraft. I don’t feed the hungry, or clothe the needy, or heal the sick – at least, not to much more or less an extent than the average middle-class person does. I don’t volunteer in the Peace Corps, or tutor in sub-Saharan Africa, or assist in impoverished clinics. I build space ships.

Because of spacecraft and the space industry, though, we have a global positioning system that allows those aid workers to get where they need to go. We have a global communications network that allows those volunteers to coordinate their activities from the most wired national capitals to the remotest wastelands. We have weather data that improves our ability to predict storms, droughts, floods, and climate. We have pictures of the Earth that show us the lay of the land, and how the land is changing.

Because of spacecraft and the space industry, we learn how to make more efficient solar power generators. We learn how to stretch out thin resources into expanded capabilities. We learn basic scientific facts about other worlds, giving us more lenses through which we can look at our own. We learn to build more and more precise scientific instruments. We learn to build more robust and effective machines. Sometimes, we put a human being on one of our spacecraft, and we learn even more. We learn to be better climbers.

I’m only one person, and I can’t do everything to help. I do what I can. One thing I can do is to keep moving the goalposts outward. I can keep us climbing.

To see the fruits of these efforts, I can look everywhere: from the precision medical device on my belt to the way we fundamentally think about the Earth as a planet, the influence of space exploration and industry manifests itself.

We need problem-solvers on Earth. I’m glad to see them. Alongside them, though, to keep making the world a better place, we need climbers.

I know I’m not the first person to say this. I also hope I’m not the last. But, you know, sometimes it needs saying.

Quantitative Revolution

We’re going through an interesting sort of revolution in America. One after another, various disciplines are realizing (or, it’s coming out publicly that they have realized) that math is useful for stuff.

Wherever there is data available, a scientific, quantitative approach allows people to do two things. First, they can use existing data to develop a model which fits all the available observations. Next, they can in turn use the model to predict future behavior. And if people can make predictions, they can try to make decisions. Influence outcomes. Optimize certain results.

An obvious place for such an approach is the world of high finance, a discipline which is totally steeped in numbers and data – and completely focused on the very quantitative problem of maximizing a return and minimizing loss – but for a long time apparently ignored statistical modeling. People successfully applied statistical analysis, and ended up doing very well…but there was a backlash. Here’s an interview where a reporter complains that trying to optimize stock market gains somehow mis-values the stock market, at least according to his conception of value.

Geez. Those…those…physicists. They use models based on data of past performance, then try and predict future performance…and worst of all, they keep getting their predictions right!

(I want to note that if someone has a problem with the idea that these “quants” have privatized tremendous gains and socialized tremendous losses, that’s not a problem with their approach. It’s an issue with the goals of their models, and whether those goals are morally justified is a separate question from whether the approach works to satisfy the goals.)

We also have a ton of data available in the world of professional sports. Commentators make it their business to know – and inform viewers – whether or not this is the guy who gets on base with a ground-rule double on an overcast Tuesday more than any other player with an odd jersey number when the pitcher throws a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. In fact, this revolution I’m referring to might even be called the Moneyball effect. After all, that movie brought this idea forward in the popular consciousness.

Most recently – and certainly most dramatically – we have people who build statistical models on political poll data. Despite a constant media barrage insisting that the 2012 election was a dead-heat horse-race fifty-fifty hyphenated-adjective toss-up, these poll wonks stubbornly viewed their data scientifically, constructed careful algorithmic models, and predicted a much more certain, though far less entertaining, outcome. There was quite a backlash against these predictive models, at first, though the backlash seems to have been driven by either ideological preconceptions or a misunderstanding of the statistics: a poll showing two candidates with a 51-49% split doesn’t mean that the likelihood of each candidate winning is 51% or 49%. In true Hari Seldon-like fashion, the models aren’t predicting what single voters do or making decisions for us; but with an aggregate of people, they can make astonishingly good predictions. In many ways, this was the biggest story to come out of the 2012 American elections: scientific thinking and mathematical methods actually work!

This notion seems revolutionary, in each field it has touched so far. That appearance is what I find most surprising! Science has given humanity an entire body of knowledge. We can predict the behavior of quantum particles. We can determine whether there are planets orbiting other stars. We can forecast snowfall to within a few inches of accuracy a week in advance. We can find out what the feathers on a dinosaur look like. We can reconstruct Pangaea in a computer. And all the predictive mathematical models that allow scientists to do those things also give us cell phones, Angry Birds, medications, contact lenses, and all sorts of other goodies. Science isn’t just something that happens in isolated labs – it gets out into the world. And quantitative thinking isn’t magical wizardry – it is a tool that anyone with the will to apply themselves can learn.

This is a lesson that I hope we take to heart.

The Most Important Issue

I’ve seen some political surveys recently that ask respondents to pick the most important issue to them from a predefined list, and I’ve never had any of these lists include what I think is the most important issue facing our country right now. This is probably because it’s hard to condense my issue into a pithy phrase. Generally, I would go for a choice such as “science and technology policy” or “research, innovation, and education,” but items like those almost never appear in the poll options.

We live in a fast-moving world, and I am concerned about the United States’ ability to keep up. Perennial stories crop up in the news of how US students’ test scores are falling in science and math, how high technology is moving to India and China, how other countries are committing increasing resources to clean energy, space stations, or Moon probes. Companies in the US are much more focused on next-quarter profits than they are on research and development. Congressmembers routinely attack the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health for wasting taxpayer money by spending it on basic research. In such a climate, I am worried about whether, in the next decade or two, the US will cede global leadership to other countries. The problem isn’t just money, but also the level of public awareness, understanding, and engagement of the work coming out of places like the NSF and NASA.

This is not just an idealistic policy issue – it’s also an education issue, economic issue, and national security issue. Do we want to create high-paying, rewarding jobs? We can do so by investing in high-tech infrastructure. Do we want American companies to innovate? We need to make sure they have incentives for longer-term R&D. Do we want our transportation systems to be safe from terrorist threats? Then we need intensive research on efficient and sensible ways to identify concealed weapons. Do we want true energy security for the long haul? Then we need to pursue technological solutions for renewable or clean energy sources. Do we want our military to remain effective and safe? Then we need to give our soldiers, sailors, and airmen the latest technologies. Do we want our children to be able to compete in the global marketplace when they grow up and start looking for work? We need to equip them with the best tools we can. And do we want our policymakers to make informed and well-considered decisions about all these issues? Then we need to make sure they are well-educated about science and technology, too!

I want candidates for office to advocate enhanced support for the NSF, NIH, Department of Energy, and NASA. I want them to stand for infrastructure investments. I want them to speak highly of science and engineering scholarship or fellowship programs. I want them to care about basic research. I want them to commit federal dollars to programs that clearly enhance our capabilities and quality of life, but corporations won’t pursue because of their myopic short-term goals. I want them to openly consult the smartest people they can find when considering these issues.

That’s what I think is the most important issue in America. Science and technology policy. Science and math education. High-tech infrastructure. Secure energy. The value of intelligence and critical thinking. In short: the future. Continue reading The Most Important Issue

They’ve Still Got It

I pulled my car into my lot today, and as I walked over to the mailbox, I passed three young kids from the apartment complex. One of them asks me, “do you work for NASA?!

(There’s a NASA meatball sticker on my car bumper.)

“I used to,” I told them.

“Wow! What did you do when you worked for NASA?”

“You know the new Moon rover?” I reply. “It has six legs with wheels on the ends, and a bubble on top for the astronauts to sit in.”


“I helped work on the suspension system for those wheels – so the rover can climb over big rocks while it drives.” My hands were crabbing their way over imaginary Moon boulders.

“That is so cool!

People in this country generally fall into two categories: those who love NASA, and those who think NASA needs to be even more ambitious and capable than it already is. In media, the phrase “NASA scientist” lends a researcher more weight than the simple moniker “scientist.” NASA means achievement, technical wizardry, and the impossible made possible. The entire organization is about the best and brightest coming together to make small steps into giant leaps.

NASA doesn’t fly people on its own spacecraft any more, and one of the greatest NASA heroes just departed the Earth for the last time. But the mere mention of the Space Agency still enthralls these kids in my parking lot. Let’s make sure that legacy continues.