Category Archives: People

Original Fiction: “Conference” (final draft)

I had been trying to sell this story for a while now, but was not successful. There’s a bit of a catch-22 to selling a short story for the first time: without any feedback from editors and readers, there is no way for me to tell whether a rejection was because the story didn’t align with a publication’s interest at the time, or whether they didn’t think the story was very good. (And if it wasn’t very good…what it did wrong.)

This makes me sad, because I got lots of positive feedback from people who went to graduate school in a technical field. I think that maybe that’s the problem: the story appeals to too much of a niche crowd.

Anyway, here it is, the version of the story I most recently tried to sell. It’s about a young scientist presenting her findings at a research conference, and the unexpected reception she encounters there. It was inspired by some of my own experiences in grad school.


The numbers didn’t match up. Ceren Aydomi tapped her desk, frowning at the resonance spectra before her. The projections cast pale purple and green light over Ceren’s face, spilling down the front of her body and glinting from the polished glass surface of her desk. The peaks of each spectrum marched onward, rapidly deviating from her calculations. And the Three Hundred Seventy-Eighth Channel Interstice Studies Meeting was only two days away. Continue reading Original Fiction: “Conference” (final draft)


A reporter from This American Life did something interesting for today’s broadcast: she brought together a ninth-grade global warming skeptic and the executive director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association together in the show studio for a discussion. (Audio available here.) The dialogue was reasoned and civil. In quick summary: the scientist presented the skeptic with the best evidence available and went through the logical arguments, from temperature/CO2 correlations to ice core measurements. The skeptic then asked, “well, what about the following things?” – and presented some common climate-change-skeptic arguments (for example, why has there been higher snowfall in recent years in some places). The scientist went through each, point by point, and explained the science behind each and whether or not that science was relevant to the overall climate picture (for example, warmer temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more water vapor, giving the higher snowfall – and, besides, our day-to-day weather experience is separable from the trend of the climate).

At the end, the reporter asked the skeptic how convincing the evidence was. Did she buy it? In short: no. She said that she could see how the scientist’s explanations could account for all the data, but… The ninth-grader then said something very astute here. This is a similar situation to the debates between scientists and educators and creationists. You have some people who can be convinced, and some who accept the theory, but then there are also some people who won’t buy the scientific results no matter what. In other words, when we want to believe something, we tend to believe it. Regardless of evidence.

Next, the reporter asked the ninth-grader if the scientist could do something to sway her opinion, and what that would be. The ninth-grader thought for a moment, and decided that if she just had all the arguments from both sides laid out in front of her, and she got to make her own decision, then she would be more likely to accept the scientific consensus.

I have mixed feelings about that conclusion. On the one hand, I would like to laud this ninth-grader for her desire to weigh all the evidence and arguments and make an informed decision. (I definitely want to laud her for her presence and attitude on the radio. She was quite reasonable and did a great job expressing herself.) But, on the other hand, the scientist was right to point out that when we are trying to account for the behavior of the universe, our belief has no bearing on reality. And, if this ninth-grader really wants to make all her decisions and form all her opinions this way…she’s got several lifetimes of study, schooling, and degree programs ahead of her.

I wonder to what extent this sort of attitude is systemic in American society. Politicians and pundits challenge scientific findings on the basis of belief, politics, “common sense,” and “gut feelings.” School board candidates get elected by saying that they will “stand up to the experts.” We are supposed to feel that we live in a free country, that everybody’s opinion is valid, and that anyone can make a decision on any issue. While I think that everyone has (and should have) that potential, I am not comfortable with the recent anti-expertise trend that I think may result from that philosophy.

Let me provide a concrete example: suppose I go to the emergency room because there is something going dramatically wrong with my body. I don’t want to try to suss out a diagnosis using only common sense, and I don’t want a doctor who will base his medical decisions on similarly fuzzy impressions. I want the best doctor. I want an expert doctor. I want a doctor who knows all the details of the human body, how drugs and lab tests and surgical procedures work and interact, and how all that knowledge applies to my situation. Similarly, if I have a legal problem, I want an expert defense lawyer – because, though I have the right to defend myself and I’m decent at expressing my opinions, I know that a competent prosecutor could run circles around me. Heck, if I have a car problem, even though I’m an engineer for a living and I learned all about combustion cycles and the principles of mechanics in my physics classes, I want an expert mechanic to fix my problems. I’m a smart and capable guy, but I don’t have the time or desire to become an expert in all these things – so I rely on other people.

“Common sense” is great for some things, such as solving interpersonal problems. But common sense didn’t get us to the Moon, or win the World Wars, or invent the modern computer, or eradicate smallpox. Expertise did those things, and many more.

In the case of climate change, the expert scientists have long held a consensus conclusion. Most of the arguments denying global warming come from politicians and commentators. If we all were willing to go through the effort of learning the scientific process, learning the techniques and tricks that scientists use to produce their results, combing through and analyzing the data, and weighing our conclusions against other studies, then this debate wouldn’t be happening the way it is. Nor would it be happening so if we accepted the conclusions of those experts who did devote their lives to all that data analysis and research. But it seems that Americans all want to make their own decisions on the matter – that they want to think that their beliefs, rather than data-driven conclusions, describe the way the universe works.

After the data is analyzed, though, there is an important role for common sense to play: determining the policy actions, if any, informed by expert conclusions. If economic conservatives want to accept that climate change is happening, but adopt the position that we should not take any action to prevent it, then I can respect that viewpoint as intellectually honest even if I disagree. But when such people deny climate change entirely, well…I wonder what kinds of doctors they want treating them.

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.


Tonight, a friend of a friend came over to my apartment so we could all make chili together. During this process, we came to a point when we needed to defrost a bunch of ground beef. When I moved to the microwave to get that going, Friend-of-a-Friend says to me, “You know, you can also defrost meat in a bowl of warm water. That’s healthier for you.”

Usually the method I choose by which to defrost meat is governed by how long I feel like waiting for dinner, and how much I am thinking ahead. But I was curious about this new rationale, so I asked Friend-of-a-Friend to explain how the warm-water method is healthier than punching the “defrost” button on my microwave. “Well,” this person says, “one is cooking with radiation, and one isn’t.” Then they shrug and make a waffling gesture with their hands. “Ehhhh…” The implication was clear.

Something about this situation bugs me. Here is a person who has enough scientific knowledge to see that there is a connection between microwaves, radiation, and certain health concerns – but not enough knowledge about these things to realize that they have constructed a problem or fear that has no justification.

Microwave ovens work by bouncing radiation with a wavelength of a few centimeters or so around in a cavity. This wavelength lines up nicely with some of the vibration modes of water molecules, and the vibrations thus excited get passed along to food as heat.

Ionizing radiation can cause health risks in a number of ways, including killing things outright at high enough doses. However, the more relevant concern at the low levels of radiation found in a household appliance would be that the radiation could damage the structure of some cells’ DNA, and those cells would run amok – becoming cancer.

However, microwave radiation is non-ionizing: it is not energetic enough to do much more than excite molecular modes or maybe kick a few electrons into a valence band. It can’t cause any more direct damage to you than a walkie-talkie does by blasting you with radio waves, or a household radiator does by bathing you in infrared radiation. Furthermore, it can’t cause any damage to the DNA or cell membranes in the steak or pork chop or broccoli cut or baked potato or whatever else you put in your microwave oven. Even with ionizing radiation, irradiating the steak doesn’t make it radioactive. The result you get is a hot steak, not a carcinogen.

So, here is a person who knows that microwaves work by radiation, and that radiation causes cancer. But this person doesn’t realize that the physical mechanisms in each case are different, that the food cannot transfer the effects of radiation to you by being eaten, and that there is no syllogism here. But I wonder just how pervasive this kind of thing is: would this person be surprised if I shined a flashlight on them, and then announced – accurately and truthfully – that I was irradiating them? And how many other people are out there with similar misconceptions?

It strikes me that this sort of incomplete knowledge is a little dangerous, because it creates fear where none should exist. And there are many forces out there that would love for us to receive only partial knowledge, because then we can be driven by those constructed fears. If only more people could be motivated to pursue a fuller understanding of science…

Good to See

Jon Stewart, and the 215,000 ± 10% people who came with him, make me very happy for America.

This clip was a desperately needed break from the political cycle that has been going on since the 2008 election season.

These are hard times – not end times.

If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats – but those are titles that must be earned.

– Jon Stewart

Embedded in his comedy shtick, Stewart has made a tremendous point: that Americans do not fit the description of the polarized picture of “Americans” that we’ve seen on TV – because, of course, reasonable Americans do not make for good TV ratings.

This is a country that has come together to do tremendous things. Thirteen completely different states, founded on different principles, banded together in a revolution that founded a country we called a “Great Experiment.” The American people have united to accomplish the defeat of fascism. They have founded institutions and established conventions that govern the way the world operates today. They have united to put human beings on other worlds.

Our differences enrich us and empower us to do great things. And our enemies are not those different from ourselves – they are those who would exploit those differences in order to divide us.

Remember that.

Science vs Religion on The Daily Show

Normally, I have great respect for Jon Stewart as an interviewer. On The Daily Show, he knows when to be serious and let his guests say their piece, but he’s also primarily a comedian rather than a journalist and so he has the freedom to call them like he sees them when he feels like it. For a great example of one of his better interviews, I like this wonderful mid-Obama-Administration talk with David Axelrod: 1, 2, and 3. However, Thursday I was rather stymied by his interview with Marilynne Robinson, about her new book on religion vs. science.

First, let me say that I thought Robinson did a terrible job making her thesis clear. It sounded to me like she was trying to say, basically, that Big Science and Big Religion are at each others’ throats when they don’t have to be. (This is, aside from the implied existence of Big Science and Big Religion, a fine idea – though not a very new one.) However, she would say things like,

people on one side of the argument have claimed the authority of science, but they have not construed an argument that satisfies the standards of science.

As soon as I heard her say that, I thought her statement begged the question: What’s “the argument?” Who, representing capital-S Science, had made an Argument to or about capital-R Religion? So far as I know, the scientific method and body of scientific knowledge is not diametrically opposed in any way to religious belief. Certainly, a scientific theory could contradict a religious tenet, but “science” and “religion” themselves are not the mutually exclusive poles of any spectrum I can think of. Nor can I think of any “argument” that the entire scientific community or body of knowledge have with the very idea of religion. I waited with bated breath to hear Stewart immediately voice my thoughts (“And what argument would that be?”), but sat in frustration as he nodded along with her, letting her define this imagined Science vs Religion debate on her own terms.

This struck me as dangerous. Continue reading Science vs Religion on The Daily Show

Impressions of Scientists: Before and After

Ten years ago, a seventh-grade class did an intriguing project. The students drew pictures and wrote descriptions of what they thought scientists were like. Then the entire class visited Fermilab, a US accelerator physics lab. After the visit, the students created a new set of drawings and descriptions of scientists.

The results are here, on a Fermilab outreach page.

Almost all of the “before” pictures drawn by these students show a man in a white lab coat holding a test tube. Many of the scientists depicted are balding, wearing glasses, and have a shirt pocket stuffed full of pens. The accompanying written descriptions talk about people who are “kind of crazy, talking always quickly,” “a very simple person . . . simple clothes, simple house, simple personality;” someone who “never got into sports as a child; he was always trying to get his straight A grades even higher,” is “brainy and very weird,” and “has pockets full of pens and pencils.” The descriptions from female students are particularly fixated on the stereotyped image of a geeky guy in a lab coat. Many of the students described someone who does try to do good things, who tries to make the world a better place, but they are still a person who is ultra-smart in some obscure way that does not relate to the students.

The “after” drawings and descriptions were quite different. Gone were the lab coats, test tubes, and glasses. Some of the background items like desks or computers remained, but the students drew men in jeans and tee shirts and women in ordinary blouses. Suddenly, “scientists” are people who “are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball” and “are just like a normal person who has kids and life.” The scientist “doesn’t wear a lab coat” and “got normal grades in school.” Scientists “come in all shapes and forms,” “aren’t very different from everyone else,” “played sports, still play some sports or still watch and go to games,” “are really nice and funny people.” One of these seventh graders “even saw a person with a Bulls shirt on.”

In the new descriptions, I saw that many of the students realized that scientists were not driven to science by their intelligence, by social rejection, or by an innate need to best everyone around them in intellectual gamesmanship; but by a passion to discover, to create, to invent, to explain, and to improve our everyday lives. Scientists chose their careers because they love science and are dedicated to answering the questions they pose. And that love remains with them. They are pursuing a dream, doing what they want to do and have wanted to do for much of their lives. In the words of one student, “if you want to be a scientist, be like these wonderful people and live up to your dreams.”

Many of these students also came away with a new sense that with this passion and dedication, they could be scientists, too. While few of them put the idea in those words, a number of descriptions echoed the phrase “they are just like you and me.” Some thought that “a scientist’s job looks like a lot of fun” because “they can do whatever they want and they still get paid for it.” One girl in the class even went so far as to say “Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist!” I was particularly glad to see the work of the  girls like Amy, who started with a fairly stereotyped image of the balding, nearsighted man in a white coat, but ended up with a woman in ordinary street clothes who has a full set of hobbies along with her love of science. Even if Amy didn’t write “I could be a scientist, too,” her after-visit picture probably looks a lot more like she thought of herself in seventh grade.

The “Who’s a Scientist?” page was last updated in May 2000. Now that those students are old enough to have graduated from college, I’d love to see someone get back in touch with them to see how many pursued science in college and how many of them have gone on to advanced studies or to scientific careers!

I love the idea of this project, and I wish more schools in this country would do similar things. It would be incredibly valuable for our students to see that it’s not just brains that make a scientist, and the required brains don’t crowd out all the other qualities that make people interesting or friendly or outdoorsy or social or anything else these students might want to be. We physicists and chemists and astronomers and biologists and geologists are not merely adult versions of the stereotypical middle-school nerds!

(Those are the computer scientists.)

In Which I Disagree with the Smartest Man on the Planet

Stephen Hawking has been in the news recently for saying that aliens will likely be hostile to us poor Earthlings.

In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was “perfectly rational” to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

That last statement is the source of my disagreement with him. Aliens are going to be, well, alien compared to us. They will have completely different evolutionary and cultural histories from us. They probably care about entirely different things than we do. Just about the only thing we are likely to share with aliens would be the assortments of atoms that make us up (and maybe not even that). Hawking’s last statement pertains more to the possible human reactions to finding alien species. As I said to my roommate, I can only speak for humans. In fact, I can really only speak for one human.

This is especially important because human history is littered with examples of different cultures having radically different beliefs, holding different things to be important. For example, looks at the Native Americans and their interactions with colonial Europeans. The issue wasn’t really that the colonists were more technologically advanced – in many ways, the Native cultures had superior technologies for their environment. But they had entirely different cultural values, and disease decimated the natives early on in the interaction. With aliens, we won’t even have the disease element.

So, I’m not comfortable making any statements about how aliens are likely to behave – even given human history as an example. And if the aliens do want to just pillage our Solar System for resources, they could scour 99% of them on planets other than this rock filled with spunky creatures who would be hell-bent on making life difficult for them.

Astronauts in space

STS-131 / Exp 23 group photo
STS-131 / Exp 23 group photo

The Space Shuttle mission which just undocked from the International Space Station, STS-131, has beamed down from orbit some great photos of astronauts in space. This is a wonderful chance for us stuck planetside to remind ourselves that we have people living and working in spaceships!

The Discovery crew in the Cupola
The Discovery crew in the Cupola

And, of course, this mission is historic for having the largest number of women simultaneously in space – four out of the thirteen total crew. Considering small-number statistics, that is pretty close to a fifty-fifty split! Here is the orbiting Bay Stater, Stephanie Wilson:

MS Wilson in the Kibo laboratory
MS Wilson in the Kibo laboratory

And here’s JAXA’s Naoko Yamazaki in the Destiny laboratory at a robotics console made of lots of ThinkPads taped to the ISS wall,

MS Yamazaki in Destiny
MS Yamazaki in Destiny

although I think this is my favorite picture of Yamazaki!

In the Cupola!
In the Cupola!

That’s where JAXA astronaut Soich Noguchi has been taking and Twittering down amazing Earth-observation and Space Station photos. (That is the single best application of Twitter I have ever seen, and is not likely to be surpassed, ever.)

Finally, I will leave you with astronaut family dinner!

I love astronauts (PS - obey the speed limit: 28,000 kph!)
I love astronauts (PS - obey the speed limit: 28,000 kph!)

Scott Brown has failed his constituents

Depending who you ask, freshman Senator Scott Brown got himself elected on a platform of populist rage against health care reform, a reaction of populist frustration with the health care reform process on Capitol Hill, or a flood of insurance-company money. In those two cases that involve Bay Stater constituents, Sen. Brown styles himself as a faithful representative of his people. In all three cases, he is an elected representative of Massachusetts to the national government. He has constituents. And he styles himself as a leader in Washington.

However, Sen. Brown has made it very difficult for his constituents to contact him. His web site, which despite being up for a month still says “temporary” on the front page, lists no email address for him, and some Boston Globe readers have in the past written letters to the editor on how hard it is to contact his office by other means. Now that health care reform is safely passed his vote – and the Democrats are not likely to bring the issue up again – I suspect that his Senate email address will magically pop into existence in short order.

Sen. Brown has certainly made his priorities in Washington very clear. One of the first things he did was get campaigning for Sen. John McCain’s reelection. And he spent some time with Republican leaders getting cushy committee appointments. And he went to extra effort to look immediately like a leader in Congress. But for his constituents in Massachusetts, no email address. (Message to American voters: “I’m a Washington outsider!” is campaign code for “I want to be a Washington insider!“)

It took me, oh, about a week to code up my own personal web site from scratch. That’s me, one person, working in my off hours. I’m guessing Sen. Brown hired someone to make his Senate web site, so there’s no reason it should still say “temporary.”

I worked for the federal government over the summer, and it took them one day to give me a working email address. (Pretty funny IT training, too: “When you get your email, please don’t go emailing all your friends and relatives because it says your name”) Does he really not have an address for voters to write to him yet?

It’s the Internet age, Senator Brown, and you have constituents. Time to give up the campaign truck and get on the ball.