Category Archives: Social commentary

People’s Reactions to the MSL Landing System Bother Me

On 5 August, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity will attempt its landing on the Red Planet.

MSL is an exciting mission, the biggest rover we’ve ever sent to Mars, packed full of science experiments and capabilities, and it’s going to start things off with a daring landing detailed in this NASA PR video:

I highly recommend fullscreen...

For more information about MSL, I strongly suggest these blogs.

Something that bugs me about MSL, though, is how every time the Internet hears about it, there’s a slew of commentary about how terrible an idea the landing system is. (For a good example, look at the comments on Gizmodo’s blurb about the above video.) People wonder why the system has to be so complex, sometimes asking what happened to the “KISS” (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!”) philosophy of engineering. Others lament how risky the landing system seems. Still more wonder why Curiosity can’t bounce down like the Sojourner or MER rovers did. I’ve even heard some of the mission scientists express reservations about the “skycrane” part of the landing process.

This thing is, each stage of this landing system was driven by engineering requirements. The guys at JPL didn’t just think one day, “hey, you know what would be cool? Landing by rappelling from a jetpack!” This is, in fact, the best solution that the engineers came up with for landing something as massive as the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Let’s look for a moment each successive step in the process:

  1. The heat shield. A lander screams in towards Mars at several kilometers per second – more than orbital velocity. Then we want to get it through an atmosphere, and, really, there’s no choice in the matter: as soon as we hit the atmosphere, we get friction with air molecules. A lot of friction. Friction that superheats our spacecraft. So, we’d better put a heat shield on our vehicle!
  2. The parachute. The heat shield gets our spacecraft down to about Mach 2, but if we were to rely on it the whole time we wouldn’t slow down enough before smacking into the Martian surface. We’ve got to get the speed of our vehicle down, and one of the obvious (and lightweight!) ways to do this is by deploying a parachute. (This is actually the part of the process that boggles my mind the most. Deploying a parachute at Mach 2! Yikes! Yet this is what our last three Martian rovers have all done, successfully.)
  3. Jettisoning things. After we deploy the parachute, the heat shield is just dead weight pulling us down. We want to get the most out of our parachute that we can, so we drop the heat shield away with some pyrotechnic charges. When we don’t need the parachute any more, we’ll similarly cut it loose.
  4. Retro-rockets. Mars’ atmosphere is so thin that even the combination of a capsule heat shield and a parachute doesn’t slow the probe down enough to land safely! Earth’s atmosphere – about a hundred times thicker than Mars’ – is fine for this. We can stuff astronauts in a capsule that rides the parachute all the way down, and doesn’t even need to drop its heat shield. But on Mars, even after the parachute gets our falling vehicle to terminal velocity, we still need to do something to slow it down! So we fire some rockets downward, killing off the rest of our speed. And the rover hangs in midair, about twenty meters above the planet surface. Up until this point, the MSL and MER landing sequences are basically the same.
  5. Rappelling. Finally, we need a way to get down that last few meters to the surface. On the Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity vehicles, we popped airbags out on all sides of the lander and just let them go, inspiring egg-drop competition participants everywhere. But Curiosity is simply too big for this to work: it would be like taking our egg drop and substituting a paperweight for the egg. The rover would squish the balloons, still smashing itself against the hard ground. Another option might have been to have MSL sitting on a platform which descends on rockets all the way to the surface, like Phoenix or the Viking landers did. But the platform you would need to do that properly would end up being big enough that you’d have to go tell the JPL robot-builders to make a smaller rover. So instead, we just lower the rover down on a rope, and as soon as the rover registers touchdown, we fly the rocket platform away.

The controllers we will need to get the skycrane to work are really nothing to fear. They are not fundamentally different from the controllers that keep launch rockets pointing up when our probes leave Earth in the first place. But beyond the general terms, analogous robotic piloting happens all over on Earth – from military drones to quadrotors in research labs. As a dynamics and control engineer, I think this design would have been a challenge – but easily within our capabilities. And in terms of overall complexity, this isn’t any worse than, say, a Space Shuttle launch, or the entirely robotic X37-B.

More fundamentally, though, what bothers me about all the criticism and concern about the MSL landing system is one of philosophy. We should be giving wild ideas a shot – experimental technologies, unconventional science experiments, risky missions. That is how we advance the state of the art: by pushing the envelope. If that means that once in a while our rockets explodes or our space probe smashes into a planet, then so be it. I have no problem with seeing NASA try something innovative a fail once in a while!

You see, we didn’t ever start with the Right Stuff. We learn the Right Stuff. And this is how we learn. We simply need to be willing to accept that fact if we want to go forwards.

What’s the Value of Liberal Arts?

There was an NPR article today about how the pressures of the economy are casting some doubt on the value of liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education.

I have a bit of an opinion on this, since I went to the best liberal arts college in the nation and I found gainful employment in my field immediately after I finished with graduate school.

To me, the argument about the value of a liberal arts college seems a bit silly. After all, a huge percentage – if not the majority – of the members of my Williams class majored in physics, biology, chemistry, math, psychology, computer science, or economics – all very practical things that translate directly to various industries and enterprises. A liberal arts college is a tremendous place to study those disciplines: science is a collaborative and inquisitive endeavor, and learning to work with an expert to thoroughly understand scientific principles gave me a much better experience than I think I would have received in the back of a hundreds-seat auditorium getting lectured by a TA.

But Williams did more than give me an incredibly solid grounding in physics, which I could then take towards a doctorate and career in spacecraft engineering. While I studied physics, in very demanding and rigorous classes, I also studied linguistics. And studio art. And history. And even political science. All these things did more than make me a “more well-rounded person.” Study of these subjects gave me exposure to ideas, concepts, and frameworks to help me put all sorts of things in context. So now, when I hear political candidates talk about America’s founders, or invading Iran, or health policy, I have a relevant understanding to evaluate their statements against. When I read about the economy, I have a basic understanding of the principles that govern the situation we face. When I read a good book, or see an engaging film, or view a piece of artwork, I can appreciate the efforts the artists put into those things and understand how they have the effects they do on me. In short: I have gained more than a narrow, vocational perspective on the world – I can approach many subjects from many angles. This is not merely a good thing for its own sake, but it also helps me in my chosen vocation. I’ve used my rudimentary skills as an artist and my experience with writing (Williams grads know what I’m talking about!) quite frequently as an engineer. If this also means that I have a few still lives and unfinished manuscripts in my apartment, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

For the same reasons that I appreciate having a liberal arts background in my academic training, I also appreciate that we have “pure” liberal arts majors in our society. We need historians, writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians in our society. We need them to remember, curate, create, and teach their liberal arts so that we can keep churning out well-rounded, multi-talented workers instead of narrowly focused drones.


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.

The Science is Real

It worries me when I see public figures, or aspiring public figures, disparaging scientific work because it is not compatible with their personal positions. The public gets to hear phrases like, “that’s only a theory,” or “that scientific theory has holes in it,” or “it’s not proven, we don’t know for sure yet;” all of which are meant to cast doubt on the validity of one scientific conclusion or another. The problem (and this is, of course, a point of subtlety that often causes proponents of science to look like they have a weaker argument in the public’s eyes) is that all those things are true for scientific findings. The good thing, though, is that none of those statements should be disparaging – if only lay people had a better understanding of the scientific process.

Scientific theories are “only” theories, yes…but “theory” is actually one of the highest terms of honor an idea can attain in the world of science. A “theory” is only accepted as such if it has graduated from the world of hypotheses after rigorous testing. A scientific theory represents the best possible idea humans can conceive of how part of the world works. And if a new theory comes along, in order to be better than the old theory, it still has to explain the same phenomena and fit the same data. Old theories often remain as subsets of new ones, rather than being discarded entirely.

Even then, when a theory represents the best understanding we have of the world, to say that it “has holes” or is “not conclusively proven” is not to say anything at all. Science is not a process of logical argument from immutable premises – it is a process of induction from observable data. We observe new data all the time, and our theories must adapt to that data if they cannot account for new observations. The most fundamental scientific theories still leave some phenomena unexplained, but that does not make them totally invalid. The theories of Newtonian or Einsteinian gravity don’t account for quantum behaviors, but knowing that does not mean that the next time I jump in the air I won’t come down to Earth again. Our best theories cannot be “proven” and cannot be “airtight” – but we can look at their track records to figure out how confident we should be in those theories. Every single time I have jumped in the air, I have fallen downward again. While the amount of observations I have are finite, and I cannot prove with 100% certainty that the next time I jump I won’t fly off into space, the best human understanding of the way the universe works says that I will be disappointed. This sort of thing – a “theory” – is what non-scientists often call a “fact.”

What I see from some public figures these days is a campaign of anti-intellectualism that I think could be extremely damaging to our society. Don’t let those scientists or experts tell you what to do; they don’t know what your problems are! Never mind that they dedicate their entire lives to studying and gaining a more complete understanding of highly specific things…so that you don’t have to. If we as a society tried to solve every problem with “common sense” and common sense alone (assume enough people have common sense to attempt that strategy…) then we would never have invented vaccines, or automobiles, or light bulbs, or computers. We would never have been able to navigate ships, cultivate barren lands, deal with chronic illnesses, or travel to the Moon. (The same thing, by the way, is true for religion.) No, to do those things requires an methodical accumulation of knowledge that stretches beyond a single lifetime…and so our society invented experts. Good thing, too!

Hand in hand with their anti-intellectualism, I see some speakers getting top billing on hungry 24-hour news networks by making intellectually dishonest  arguments. The difference between a scientist and an ideologue, as I see it, is this: When a scientist sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with the best scientific theories, then the theory has to be changed to account for all the data, both old and new, because the observations happened the way they did. But when an ideologue sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with his or her best worldview, then the worldview remains immutable and the data point is called into question. In their speech, ideologues make data and observations into matters of belief, so that eventually it sounds like the scientific theories those data support are also matters of belief. Thus, individuals can choose to make up their mind to believe, or not, in climate change, or evolution, or medicine, or gravity, or thermodynamics, or electrons. And somehow, we are to suppose that the universe will bend itself to the worldview that we choose to believe in.

By implying that scientific theories are things we can believe in or not, ideologues accomplish two important goals: first, they make the debate about the existence of the theory or even the existence of the supporting data, instead of about how our society should use or respond to the consequences of the theory; second, they turn the theory into something that they can dismiss in a few words: “oh, I don’t believe in X,” or “I’m waiting for scientists to prove Y,” without having to make a rigorous argument. How much scientific work would it take to prove a theory to an ideologue who doesn’t like its implications? Impossibly much, I think. Continue reading The Science is Real

It’s How You Use It

A couple years ago, I was at a house party in Ithaca where I met a first-year grad student who asked me what I was studying.

“Aerospace engineering,” I said.

“Cool,” he replied. “Just don’t ever work for Lockheed Martin.”

(Ha.) I asked him why not. His answer: “They build weapons.”

This student was also extremely frightened of the “Big Dog” robot, which had just exploded onto the Internet in a series of awesome demonstration videos on YouTube. Why? “Just imagine what the military will be doing with that. They’re funding it, you know.” Did he have any specific examples or concerns? No. And I pointed out how invaluable such a robot would be in, say, rugged-terrain search and rescue or disaster response efforts. But none of that mattered, this student insisted, because the project received military funding. Somehow, in his mind, if the Red Cross shelled out millions for the development of Big Dog, it would be okay – but not if that money came from the US Army.

This attitude struck me as extremely naive. (And not just because this first-year was wearing a chai.) Some of the best work in science, engineering, and medicine gets funding from the military, because the military is naturally interested in those things. But I don’t think that means that even the pacifists among us should abandon all those lines of inquiry. You see, I believe in the adage that technology is neither good nor evil – it’s how we choose to use it that defines our goodness or evilness.

I have long since come to terms with the fact that many of the engineering challenges and scientific problems that I want to solve have both military and civilian applications. I want to, for example, land robots on Europa or Titan. Doing such a thing will require precision guidance and pointing systems – exactly the same kinds of systems that could control ballistic missiles or smart bombs. Some of the same technologies that let us aim the Hubble telescope precisely enough to image galaxies billions of light-years away can aim the airborne cannons on an AC-130. The rockets that bring astronauts to the International Space Station, a peaceful, collaborative venture between many nations, operate on the same principles and use the same fuels and control systems that go into ballistic missiles. The key difference in all of these cases is in where we, the human operators of such devices, point them to go.

To take an extreme example: the most devastating weapon we are capable of producing is the nuclear warhead. It is a terrible weapon, and nobody in their right mind would tell you otherwise. Some activists out there are so vehemently set against this weapon that they oppose all use of nuclear power and all refinement of nuclear isotopes. But here’s the thing: high-grade plutonium isotopes are what power all interplanetary probes to the outer Solar System! (Beyond about Mars orbit, sunlight is too weak for solar panels to provide enough power for a spacecraft.) Our country has stopped refining high-grade plutonium, and this is actually a big problem in the planetary science community. Again, I want my Europa and Titan landers…and I can’t have them without a stash of plutonium-238!

(For those astute readers who point out that Pu-238 isn’t weapons-grade plutonium, I would argue that the refining techniques are the same. And, for good measure, here’s one of the most peaceful people ever to walk the face of the Earth explaining a constructive use of the nuclear weapons themselves. Though nowadays we view that concept as not very practical, the next iteration might be antimatter-powered rockets capable of taking humans across light-years – but these would be even more destructive if used as weapons.)

In my doctoral research, I worked on new technologies for spacecraft. Fortunately for my moral ideals, flux-pinning interfaces for modular spacecraft are something that we had a hard time coming up with direct military applications for. Nevertheless, they may exist: we thought of looking for a way to develop a device that uses flux pinning to grab onto a target spacecraft without touching it – tractor-beam style. That I am sure that DARPA would be interested in. We did even end up pursuing that idea down a related, non-flux-pinning line to a small-scale proof-of-concept demo. (Our target application was rescuing derelict or malfunctioning satellites.)

Recently, I heard an Air Force colonel refer to GPS, which is a military-developed technology, as a “weapons system.” Now that I’ve gone from university research into the commercial spacecraft industry, I contribute to systems like GPS satellites, so this observation hits close to home. How many people out there using Garmins or iPhones or Google Maps would have thought that they were using something that the military considers to be a weapons system? GPS guides aircraft, boats, and cars throughout the civilian community. It gives researchers a powerful tool to advance geoscience. (Did you know that nowadays we directly measure continental drift speeds with GPS?!) And keep in mind that GPS is what gives us the capability for automated farm equipment to efficiently produce more food, or aid workers to reach remote destinations, or emergency responders to locate missing people and map out disaster zones. I am more than happy to contribute to those endeavors!

So, do we use our knowledge of particle physics to make the most devastating weapons the world has ever known, or do we use it to power the probes that will help explain our origins and find our place in the universe? For me, the answer is clear; but it is also clear that science isn’t necessarily good or evil. (Neither are scientists, for that matter.) Making it one or the other is entirely up to human decisions.

Call Me Dr. Twit

After much pressure from my girlfriend, I’ve signed up for a Twitter account. I’m going to use the account to echo posts here on Quantum Rocketry.

It’s not a communication medium I really see a lot of value in; if I want to convey information I would much, much, much, much rather do so here, where I have more than 140 characters to develop an idea, in context, without conforming to the soundbite-based, ultra-distilled, headline-only view of things that seems to be the current trend on the Internet. (There goes my liberal arts background, shouting opinions at anyone who will listen!)  And if I feel like being silly and inane, I’d rather do that on a narrowcast medium like Facebook, where my silliness will go to my friends who know what to expect and how to interpret such activity, instead of a broadcast medium like Twitter.

But, though I shall continue my rebellion, I finally got an account anyway. (And I just have to continue my rebellion against all the people who instantly must check everything on their smartphones instead of interacting with me when I’m right in front of their faces!) It is jpshoer. This is 10% to allow further Twitter-based interaction with ‘netizens who read this blog, and 90% because a Twitter account is a requisite for NASA Tweet-ups.

Just remember, kids: one of the few things I think are more stupid than Twitter is the word “tweep,” so don’t call me that.

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.

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.