A Little Ode to Winter

I love winter. Maybe it’s just my New England heritage, but you know, I really enjoy it when the temperature drops below freezing outside and there are eight or ten inches of snow on the ground.

Suited up to ski!

I love when it’s cold enough outside that I can taste the air as I breathe in, and I have to bundle up in layers of sweatshirts, snow pants, parkas, boots, hats, scarves, and gloves to go outside. It adds a sense of adventure to the mundane: the need for extra preparations makes even familiar locales more exotic! It’s like outfitting for a hike in the desert, or (for me, growing up) preparing to explore a strange alien planet.

Wachusett Reservoir

In fact, snow and ice does turn the world into something new – something unpredictable, something different every time, with snowfall determined chaotically, water iced over, and winds sculpting the shape of these temporary surfaces. There can be places to explore that seem like exciting new discoveries which, in summer, might be only the usual woods or paths or buildings. Everyday objects in the snow take on a new aspect. All my senses are affected: the chill of wind on my cheeks, the soft white snow, the utter stillness of places deep in the woods, the muffled crunch of snow under my boots all make an impression.


Extraordinary locations, too, take on a completely new character in winter. That which I enjoy in summer or fall becomes something else, entirely – adding to the value I place on it during the warmer months of the year. When the snow is gone, the rain and mud has washed away, and green things begin to come out again, I can appreciate springtime even more.

Ithaca Falls as an Ice Fortress

Winter brings with it a whole new gamut of things to do: from skiing and skating to just running out to the backyard and shoving, building, or sculpting with snow. These things cannot be done any other time of year, and during winter, they come right to my backyard!

Egyptian Snow-Ruins

Even the chores – the shoveling, the ice-scraping – are cause for me to take a moment outside and enjoy the sights and sounds of winter, savor the process of going out the door and coming back in, or just focus on physical exertion for a time.

And when the outdoor activities are finished, what could be better than to come inside, strip off all the layers, and sit someplace with some hot chocolate or tea? It’s a perfect time for board games or movies or idle chats. Winter drives people together.

Cornell arch and clocktower at night

I love all the seasons – maybe with the sole exception of that time between when the snow starts melting and the flowers come out, when the world consists of rain and mud – but winter always carries a little bit of extra excitement for me. I suspect I may be destined to start my career in California, and a New England winter is one thing I will certainly miss!

Inventing New Uses for Dropbox

After buying my third computer (I have a work desktop in my office, a personal laptop, and a personal tablet), I became a big fan of Dropbox. The service is a paradigm of cloud computing: I get a folder on all my computers that acts like a normal Windows folder, but syncs up with a remote server every time a file changes. I immediately started using the service for, say, my dissertation-related files – which are now accessible from all three computers. As a plus, Dropbox downloads and keeps a local copy of all files in the folder, so my dissertation exists in four identical copies (all my computers plus the Dropbox server – which gets backed up on its own!) so I don’t ever have to worry about that work disappearing into some black hole if my hard drive crashes. And since I got a Droid Incredible, I can even access files in my Dropbox from there. Yippee!

I just came up with a devious new use of the software to add to all that. I do a lot of Matlab simulations these days, and they run fastest on my work desktop. However, these simulations take a long time, so I’d like to be able to set them up and get their results in short, intermittent checks while I’m traveling for the holidays. (Hey, I’m trying to move my research along efficiently and finish up my degree! Really!) But I haven’t been able to get Windows Remote Desktop to work – it seems that my department at Cornell keeps those ports closed and I haven’t been able to find a way around it.

So here’s what I did: I wrote a Matlab script that checks for the presence of other Matlab scripts in an input folder in my Dropbox. It then runs any scripts it finds, captures their output, and deposits that into another folder in my Dropbox. (I encapsulated the run command inside a try/catch block which also plops any errors into the output folder.) The script then deletes the file from the input folder and loops. If I put a file named “stop” in the input folder, the script cuts itself off. I think next I will add some code looking for a file named “clean” and responding to that by clearing all variables except those used in the wrapper loop.

From any of my computers, I can now write a Matlab script to do some simulations and copy it into the “input” folder. When my work desktop syncs up with Dropbox, the Matlab loop catches the script and runs it. I can check the Dropbox output folder later, again on any of my computers, to see what happened!

Maybe this little trick will be useful to someone else out there, so I decided to share it. Happy Hanukkah, grad students of the world!

House Republicans Hate Science

I wish I were kidding. I really, really, do. I recognize that the way political parties supposedly work is to offer different solutions to problems – not “good” or “bad” solutions: they are all patriotic, and none of them are evil. They’re just different.

However, when it comes to things like this, I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating: Congressman Adrian Smith is launching a “citizen review” of “wasteful” NSF projects.

The way incoming Republican Whip Eric Cantor’s web site explains the idea is:

We are launching an experiment – the first YouCut Citizen Review of a government agency. Together, we will identify wasteful spending that should be cut and begin to hold agencies accountable for how they are spending your money.

First, we will take a look at the National Science Foundation (NSF) – Congress created the NSF in 1950 to promote the progress of science. For this purpose, NSF makes more than 10,000 new grant awards annually, many of these grants fund worthy research in the hard sciences. Recently, however NSF has funded some more questionable projects – $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry. Help us identify grants that are wasteful or that you don’t think are a good use of taxpayer dollars.

(And, of course, Rep. Smith’s introductory video makes reference to those terrible “university academics” who receive this money. But the whole issue of why learning, academia, and universities are becoming more and more vilified in the political arena is a discussion for another day.)

At the bottom of the web site, there’s a form in which you can enter an NSF award number and comment on how that award is wasting your money. Anyone with an email address can do this. The thing is, while I do believe that transparency is a good thing, I don’t think that the average citizen is going to give any NSF grants the full consideration that they would need to devote to them before decreeing the grant a “waste” or not. They are more likely to make snap judgments based on descriptions like “$750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players.”

What do I find so objectionable and anti-science about this?

First and foremost, this is a gross oversimplification. Scientific findings can have applications across many different fields that may or may not have anything to do with the original study or proposal. So, it’s entirely possible that the $750k grant had nothing to do with soccer, but the study turned out to have applications to analyzing soccer-player dynamics. And it’s entirely possible that a materials science group was interested in mechanical models of acoustic waves, but that research was more likely to be funded if done in partnership with a Hollywood effects studio than not, so they got $1.2 million to investigate the sounds of breaking objects. But even if the grants were explicitly for the study of soccer players or improved smashing noises in movies, they still might be worth doing because those findings might have applications to something that matters in our everyday lives, cures disease, enables new technologies, or opens up some other field of endeavor. In fact, every NSF grant proposal must include a substantial section on the “broader impacts” of the research in question, and many proposals get rejected for suggesting research that is too narrowly focused. Rep. Smith is asking people with a few minutes to kill to evaluate what NSF committees with many more qualifications have already evaluated and judged sufficiently broad-ranging.

Here’s an example of research that sounds crazy but has useful applications: a group of collaborators in Canada published a paper on the mathematical modeling of a zombie outbreak. (The paper is available online here, and is a hilarious read for anyone familiar with scientific writing!) Your first thought might be that this is a terrible waste of money, effort, and university resources; or perhaps that the journal ought to be discredited for publishing such a paper; or perhaps you think that this was a total failure of the peer-review process and that all scientists have lost their sense of perspective. But here’s the thing: the zombie modeling research actually has real-world applications. From the paper’s discussion section:

The key difference between the models presented here and other models of infectious disease is that the dead can come back to life. Clearly, this is an unlikely scenario if taken literally, but possible real-life applications may include allegiance to political parties, or diseases with a dormant infection.

This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first mathematical analysis of an outbreak of zombie infection. While the scenarios considered are obviously not realistic, it is nevertheless instructive to develop mathematical models for an unusual outbreak. This demonstrates the flexibility of mathematical modelling and shows how modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in ‘biology’.

[Munz, Hudea, Imad, and Smith, “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection,” Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, 2009]

So, yes: these scientists recognize that they worked on a project that is, on the face of it, somewhat silly. The important thing, though, is that these researchers got together, thought it would be interesting to apply their methods to a problem, and got results that have multidisciplinary impacts.

Another great example is the study of synchronicity. Scientists in the fields of mathematics, biology, physics, engineering, and computer graphics have been interested in synchronicity among many discrete entities and how it could arise without central control, just from a few simple rules that each entity follows. An example is “flocking” behavior, exhibited by groups of birds or fish. A computer graphics expert named Craig Reynolds published a paper in 1987 explaining how three simple rules could explain how birds flock together. One of the dramatic consequences of this research was better computer modeling of large groups of animals, which, of course, found its way straight into the special effects industry. Here’s a famous example that uses computer simulation of flocking behaviors to make more realistic animated animals:

So, by Rep. Smith’s logic, if any synchronicity research received NSF funding, he could put it up on the Republican Whip’s web site and say, “university academics got hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to develop computer graphics of a wildebeest herd for a Disney movie.” Shameful, right? The thing is, this application is one aspect of the research. There are many more, ranging from behavioral biology to architecture to sociology to crystallography. Yes, applications include better computer renderings of schools of fish in “Finding Nemo.” Yes, applications include being able to explain how humans at a concert can all clap in time with one another. But this research also gives us better bridges, self-assembling chemical structures, and more capable robotics. You don’t have to take my word for it – here’s a fantastic TED video of Cornell Prof. Steve Strogatz, a gifted communicator, talking about the study of synchronicity and its many applications.

Second, people submitting NSF awards to the Republicans through this program are going to end up nominating as “wasteful” awards that have to do with policies they disagree with. One of the tricky things about science is that scientists don’t get to choose what results they get; sometimes they get results that they – or politicians – don’t like. But that doesn’t mean that those areas of study aren’t deserving of scientific attention!

Anyone with an email address can submit an NSF award to this Republican web site. It would take about 30 seconds for a lobbying corporation to get a Hotmail or Gmail address that wouldn’t be traced back to the company and submit all kinds of grants that have the potential to damage them politically. How many fast food chains do you think will nominate NSF-sponsored studies relevant for obesity prevention? How many oil and gas companies will nominate research into solar cell technologies or further confirmation of climate change? How many religious nutcases will nominate research that impacts evolutionary biology? How many companies will use this as a means to try to shut down research that might make their products obsolete or less desirable?

Humans have a natural tendency to try to ignore problems unless they pose a clear and present danger. This is probably a survival instinct: focus on what’s in front of you, solve the problems you can, and whatever goes on over there is someone else’s issue. However, at some point, we do have to recognize when an issue goes from “not our problem” to “we need to solve this.” Climate change is a perfect example: among the scientific community, there is no doubt that it is happening (though there may be disagreements about the details). But for a politician, it would be unwise to say, “yes, climate change is real; no, I don’t think we should do anything about it.” A statement like that would run the risk of sending voters the message, “I don’t care about you.” Much easier (and safer at the polls) to say, “no, it’s not happening at all.” As such, these politicians will latch on to any tiny weakness in the scientific work, so that they don’t have to commit to a course of action. So how many NSF-sponsored projects into determining what the impacts of climate change might or might not be get submitted to this web site, not because we shouldn’t find out about those impacts, but because some people don’t want to know that a problem exists?

Asteroid impact!

On a related note, one thing that NSF does is fund some of our programs to identify near-Earth asteroids. These are the kinds of asteroids that we have to worry about – the kind that could crash into our planet and destroy things in a cataclysmic way. What are the chances that that could happen? Any astronomer will tell you that they are, well, astronomically tiny. Still, there is value in the search – because if an asteroid is on its way to impact the Earth, we had better know about it! If we ignore the problem, then there’s a large chance that nothing happens but a small chance that we all die. If we address it, then we can try to mitigate the issue. But how many ordinary citizens will look at these programs and think, “I don’t even know what asteroids are. Are they real? What is this? My tax dollars are paying for this. Why should they?”

Third, NSF-funded research pays for graduate students! We cost money – not just our meager stipends, but also our university tuition, university overhead, and mandatory health insurance for those of us who work in labs. We also need capable computers and precise equipment to do our research. And we need to present our findings to the scientific community at research conferences. Even if our current project happens to be on better modeling of the sound things make when they break, and even if the obvious applications are in the movie and gaming industries, that’s not what we’re going to spend our whole career on. We’re learning advanced skills – skills this country desperately needs to develop. We’re pushing the boundaries in advanced fields – fields that are relevant to a wide range of applications.

What if the grad student modeling the sounds of breaking objects goes on to develop software that can analyze a terrorist’s tape of demands to determine what other activities are going on in his cave, and lets us pinpoint him and stop him? (Yeah, that’s right, I just called House Republicans soft on defense because of this NSF-skewering project!) What if the grad student modeling soccer players is talking with a friend who is doing medical research, and finds out that his soccer-player algorithms could help his friend develop a cure for cancer?

Even if our research project has limited applications, it still has the function of giving us grad students the skills, tools, and abilities that we need to become fully-functional scientists and engineers in our own right. Today, I work on algorithms to control reconfigurable modular spacecraft. But if I never touch another spacecraft-related problem again in my life, I have still learned a lot about computer programming, mathematical modeling, control strategies, physics, critical thinking, project management, systems engineering, technical paper-writing, and communication. Whether or not I keep working on spacecraft, all those things will continue to be useful. Maybe someday I will even become a professor and start making little baby scientists of my very own. And regardless of what research projects they work on, no matter how silly it seems, there is value in simply teaching them to be scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and thinkers.

For science to work properly, scientists need to be able to proceed with free and open inquiries. They need to be able to exercise their wits and apply their knowledge to all sorts of problems. Science is about looking at something in the world, watching it, and thinking, “if I put my mind to it, I can figure that out! It doesn’t matter if the phenomenon in question is how soccer players move on the field, why things make the sounds they do when they break, why fish school together, or even how hypothetical zombies spread their infection. It also doesn’t matter if the research has immediate applications to movies, video games, sports, or anything else. We can explain the phenomena of the universe. Working to expand the scope of our knowledge enriches us, little by little, for as long as the human race exists.

That is a philosophy that the House Republican leadership opposes with this NSF review site. If your congressperson has anything to do with it, I urge you to write them about it.

How to Watch Some Sci-Fi Shows: A Quick Guide

Babylon 5

Don’t watch the first or last seasons. Also don’t watch the season 4 finale.

Battlestar Galactica

When they escape from the planet at the beginning of the third season, HUMANS WIN. End of show.

Doctor Who

It’s supposed to be cheesy, but whenever you see something so stupidly cheesy that it totally rips apart suspension of disbelief (e.g. main characters getting abducted onto 2000s reality TV shows, ’60s robots chanting “DELETE DELETE DELETE,” etc), hold “fast forward” until it looks like something serious is happening.


Put up with the first season until it gets under your skin. John Crichton is just as confused as you are. 4th season is optional.


Fortunately, it got cancelled before it had a chance to go bad! Movie very optional.


Watch it all a zillion times.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Pay attention after Riker grows a beard. (This is a well-known effect.)

Sailing into Light

This week, the NanoSail-D mission successfully deployed from FASTSAT. This is, apparently, the first time a nanosatellite has ejected from a microsatellite.

(In spacecraft lingo, engineers grabbed the term “microsatellite” to just mean “a small satellite,” where “small” was in comparison to the spacecraft with masses of thousands of kilograms. But they kept the relationship between the metric prefixes. So a “microsatellite” is about 100 kg or less, and a “nanosatellite” is about 10 kg or less. This is unfortunate for, say, my research group, because our proposed millimeter- or micron- scale spacecraft would have to be named something inconvenient to say, like “yoctosatellites.” Anyway.)

I think NanoSail-D is exciting for two reasons. First, it’s only the second solar sail mission to not explode on launch, after JAXA’s ICAROS mission. (The Planetary Society tried to launch a solar sail five years ago, but the converted ICBM launch vehicle malfunctioned.) Solar sails are a propulsion system that could allow spacecraft to move around the Solar System without expending propellant, so they would be a great technology for getting from planet to planet efficiently. The downside is that solar sailing takes a long time, but fortunately, robots can have long lives and a lot of patience. More solar sails may mean more robotic missions to planets, asteroids, and moons all over the place, which is a good thing for science!

The other reason why NanoSail-D is cool is this microsatellite-deploying-a-nanosatellite idea. Microsatellites are small and low-cost enough to have a pretty rapid development cycle, and spacecraft engineers are less averse to trying out riskier, newer technologies on microsatellites. FASTSAT is a great example: it’s a technology demonstrator mission, a spacecraft devoted entirely to trying out new things. Nanosatellites can be even faster and cheaper to build, so much so that it’s pretty common for universities to build CubeSat projects and you can buy components to build a fully-functional CubeSat off the internet for $100,000 or less.

So with FASTSAT and NanoSail-D, we have a relatively cheap spacecraft with a rapid development cycle that includes cool new technologies – and it launches an even cheaper spacecraft with even riskier technologies, including one that could allow interplanetary trajectories.

These are the ingredients we need to get probes all over the Solar System, and these are the design philosophies that push the envelope of spacecraft engineering.

Space Access Gap: Closed!

SpaceX’s second successful Falcon 9 launch has just inserted the Dragon capsule into Earth orbit!

First Falcon 9 launch (SpaceX)

The Dragon vehicle will perform a series of check-outs over the next few orbits before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. If all goes well, then this is a major success for SpaceX and NASA’s COTS program – which seeks to contract International Space Station supply missions to private companies after the Space Shuttle retires, so that ISS has more resupply mechanisms than the Russian Progress vehicle and European ATV. SpaceX wants to human-rate the capsule, as well, to provide astronaut transportation to orbit and even space tourism!

Today's launch (NASA)

Again, if all goes well, this mission ought to be vindication for President Obama’s vision for NASA: use commercial providers to get into Earth orbit, and then let NASA focus on the real envelope-pushing exploration. If the Falcon 9 gets to orbit, and the Dragon could take cargo or people up, then why don’t we just buy those for a fraction of the cost of the Ares 1/Orion system? Especially since that system would take many more years of development to become available to NASA. The Falcon 9 and Dragon will be ready much, much sooner!

Best of luck to the SpaceX team. And may the Congresspeople holding NASA’s purse-strings get their heads out of their pork barrels.

Update 1600 8 Dec 10: At the post-flight press conference, Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX gave an overview of the mission and a rosy assessment of its success. Apparently, the Falcon 9 second stage reached a very health apogee – well above the ISS orbit – the Dragon performed well enough in space to maintain a good lock on the TDRSS relay satellite, and it successfully splashed down within 10 km of its target and within a minute of its projected landing time. Musk stated a couple times that his “mind was blown” and pointed out that, had there been people on the Dragon spacecraft, they would have had “a very nice ride.” He thinks that all (“all”) Dragon needs to be human-rated are seats and an escape system, though he did admit that launch-escape system testing is both crucial and very hard. Apparently NASA officials told SpaceX that, if this flight went well, they would consider allowing an ISS rendezvous and docking on the next Dragon flight, so that may be a possibility for next year. Another Musk gem, on the politics of SpaceX’s activities: “any politician who wants to increase the deficit and reduce American access to space, go ahead and cut [the NASA Commercial Crew program].”

Atheist Vuvuzelas Making Noise in Texas

I sometimes find myself a visitor to College Station, TX and have, over the course of those visits, made a few acquaintances. Today, I checked out an item from the Bryan/College Station local news that involved one such acquaintance: Keri Bean, who has organized the Brazos Valley Atheist Vuvuzela Marching Band and done something…rather adventurous, shall we say? Video below.

What really struck me about this story was the first quote that was critical of Keri and her compatriots. From the web article:

“Wasn’t exactly happy about the Christmas Parade this year, I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don’t feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade,” said Tina Corgey, who is a lifelong Bryan resident.

I’m not surprised that there were people in Texas who were disturbed by an atheist group marching through town. However, I couldn’t help but get hung up on the statement, “I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people…I don’t feel they should be influenced in any other way,” because this unhappy Bryan resident then went on to criticize the beliefs of other people and criticize that they had expressed those beliefs.  The Atheist Vuvuzela Band wasn’t antagonistic or offensive in exercising their First Amendment rights; they went about this with a healthy dose of humor and respect. So is Corgey saying one thing and doing another?

The thing is, I agree with Corgey’s sentiment – at least, her spoken one. I am happy that she’s taught her children to love and respect other people. I also think it would be wonderful if nobody ever influences her children to dislike or disrespect others. If she believes that these ideals derive from all people being children of God, that’s okay, too.

A marching band advertising themselves as atheists (or one playing vuvuzelas, for that matter) does not encourage her children to be disrespectful, or even encourage them to turn away from God. It merely announces that atheists exist. Corgey went on to say:

“If you have younger children they weren’t going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don’t believe in God,” Corgey said.

It is hard to acknowledge and understand ideas, theories, and beliefs that aren’t compatible with those that we accept. And it is also hard to explain to young or inexperienced minds that it’s okay for other people to believe something other than what you believe, as long as they treat others with respect and their beliefs don’t lead them to harm others. (That’s an ideal I celebrate about America!)

It’s hard, but not impossible. It’s hard, but not unnecessary. In our modern, free, and open society, it is essential that we accept differences of opinion without reducing them to tit-for-tat soundbytes. We must grapple with difficult issues in a considerate, respectful, and open-minded way.

That’s the reason why I’m glad that Keri and the Brazos Valley Atheist Vuvuzela Marching Band did what they did: because it caused Corgey’s children to be curious. They asked some questions to find out about other viewpoints than their own. Corgey may have struggled to answer their questions, and that’s okay – they are hard questions to answer. But the most important thing is that we keep asking them! Sometimes, questioning our ideas is the best way to strengthen or understand them. Sometimes, questioning our ideas leads us to something better. And sometimes, questioning our ideas leads us to something that is simply…different. But if we do not question, then we go nowhere. Curiosity should be celebrated! If the Athiest Vuvuzela Marching Band caused Corgey’s children to be curious enough to wrestle with questions that adults find difficult to engage, then they did a very good thing.