Category Archives: General Science

Science in the Time of Trump

First and foremost, I want to state baldly that the election of Trump is the beginning of a fascist state. Hitler gets bandied about a lot, but Trump is behaving exactly how decades of totalitarians and dictators have when they are put in power: gaslight the population, concentrate power in their immediate circles, appoint sycophants with plans to destroy the institutions they are asked to administer, fueling hate crimes and hate speech. Lots of people didn’t think it would happen in Germany (or Romania, or Yugoslavia, or Iraq, or ….) But then it does, and it has, and appallingly there are lots of people and press outlets bending over backwards to normalize Trump and his election. White supremacists are literally throwing parades for Trump. THIS IS NOT NORMAL OR TOLERABLE.

Obviously this is a disaster for pretty much American who isn’t an affluent, cisgender heterosexual able-bodied white male, and it’ll be a disaster for plenty of them too. There’s a straight line between social justice and environmental justice, and as much as I am fearful for what will happen to marginalized people in the US, Trump’s election has pretty much sealed our collective fate to a dangerously overheated planet. There are some things that can be fixed with improved policy after a disasterous president, but we as a planet will not be able to fully recover from four years of decimated environmental protections and measures, four years of unchecked oil and gas exploration and extraction, four years of inaction at best and harmful actions at worst. We barely had time to fix this mess as it was.


The role for Canada and Canadian science community is straightforward: HOLD THE FORT. Be the beacon of progressive, expansive, tolerant inclusion that we like to think exemplifies Canada. Be the unwavering voice that stands up for human rights and civil liberties. Be the leader pushing for stronger environmental standards, reduced emissions, a carbon tax. Be the squeaky wheel on the international stage. Keep reporting, keep talking, keep the lights on. Do not capitulate.

Here, specifically, is what I think the Canadian scientific community should do:

  • Actively look out for our colleagues, here and abroad. Check in, ask how they’re faring, listen. Behave in such a way that your colleagues will answer honestly when you ask how they are rather than reply with platitudes and niceties. Actively intervene when people say racist / sexist / homophobic / transphobic / ableist / etc things, and not just when someone’s looking. Press your professional organizations to actively support human and civil rights movements. When organizing conferences or meetings, make sure that they are inclusive, and make that clear in the conference paperwork. Don’t hold meetings in places that are actively hostile to minority scientists. Science is a challenging enough profession without having to fight tooth and nail to assert your full humanity. This is already hard for many scientists, and is about to get a lot harder: as people not living in a soon-to-be fascist state, we non-minority Canadian scientists need to make it easier to be a minority scientist in our (international) professional circles.
  • As teachers, talk about this in the classroom. Draw the connections between civil rights and environmental activism. Don’t ignore this. Science does not occur in a vacuum, and Trump’s election will have a very real and very harmful impact on how science is conducted in the US and possibly abroad. Teaching science effectively means teaching how it fits into a broader social context, and the many hidden ways in which basic, applied, and regulatory science make our lives safer and more productive. Actively make your classroom and office an open and welcoming place for your students, and reach out to the organizations on campus who’re providing support for marginalized students.
  • Start talking about your science with the public, or at least actively support those who do. Climate change is putting science squarely in the middle of discussions about economics, foreign policy, international trade, and public health, and for those discussions to be effective we need a basic level of science literacy amongst the populous. I’ve seen a lot of sniffy attitude directed towards people who take the time to talk about science to non-scientists, and this needs to stop. There are increasing resources and platforms for scientists to build their non-expert communication skills, including Science Borealis. Support your colleagues who are undertaking this important work, rather than denigrating their efforts.
  • We finally have a government that at least acknowledges that science is important. We now know not to take that for granted, and we need to continue to press for evidence-informed policy. It will be easy to ignore science in favour of stability and good relations, and we need to push back hard against that urge. The scientific community learned a bitter lesson under the Harper governments, and we cannot become complacent because now the Prime Minister reels off a prepared bit about string theory. We’ve marched on Parliament Hill before, we should be prepared to do it again (and again, and again) as necessary. Climate agreements don’t magically ratify themselves.
  • Support the organizations that are on the front lines fighting for marginalized folks. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Mother Jones, Planned Parenthood, etc will need all the help they can get.
  • Read the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s report and recommendations. Part of stepping up to the international plate to lead is getting our own house in order, and there is a distressingly long way to go towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples. As the Dakota Access Pipeline shows, indigenous communities bear much of the brunt of environmental harm, and lack the lobbying power of settler communities and resource extraction corporations. Indigenous peoples are dramatically underrepresented in the scientific community, and the scientific community has much to answer for how we have historically treated indigenous peoples. More scholars are engaging with traditional knowledge, but the scientific community as a whole needs to be very careful not to treat traditional knowledge as another resource to be extracted for settler use. Reading the TRC is a way to start to understand the context for settler – indigenous relations.

We as scientists should be doing much of this already, but it will become far more difficult for our American colleagues to be outspoken. As Canadians, however, we must keep pushing for sound science, environmental justice, and human rights, here, in the US, and around the world.

Pacific Rim: Not Entirely What It Looks Like On The Metaphorical Box

I know everyone and their sisters have already written about Pacific Rim (alternate title: Impossibly Scaled And Impressively Choreographed Fisticuffs: Robot And Alien Edition), but there’s a few aspects of it that haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, been exhaustively hashed out. So this is part movie review, part meditation on questionable physics in movies, part grousing about archetypes of scientists, and part contemplation on the portrayal of technological culture in Pacific Rim. Spoilers abound, so if you’ve yet to see the movie I’d suggest you come back to this once you’ve seen it; it’ll probably make much more sense if you’ve already seen it.

clunk clunk kssshthunk RAAAWR

Robot hands are surprisingly difficult to draw.

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No Matter How You Slice It, Printing Objects is Really Nifty

3D printers are revolutionizing the way we make things. The technology is fairly new — most of the technology has been designed and built in the last ten years, though the first 3D printer was built in the mid 1980’s — and is still in it’s infancy. While it’s not generally cost effective to use a 3D printer to make many ordinary items, the technology is very useful for repeatably creating very precise objects, like machine parts. Due to the 3D printer’s flexibility, it may be able to replace a variety of machining tools needed to create parts to maintain industrial machines.

3D printers work much the same way that ordinary printers work: they take digital information of a pattern to be printed, and deposit material on a surface in that pattern. Conventional printers take text and image information and deposit ink on a page, while 3D printers have an extra step. They take a three dimensional digital rendering of the object to be printed (via a computer-assisted design, or CAD, software program), slice it very thinly into parallel sheets, and reproduce the full design sheet by sheet. 3D printers typically use one of two methods: either a thin tube of polymer is used as an ink, or a powdered medium is fused together with a glue that’s distributed like an ink.

The “tube of polymer” method was the first type of 3D printer to be developed, and the analogy between it and 2D printers is very clear. Instead of a liquid ink deposited on a page in thin rows, a nozzle pipes a very thin wire of polymer across the printing bin in parallel rows. The polymer is hot, so it fuses together, creating a three dimensional object.

Schematic of a vertical cross section of a 3D printer output.

A vertical cross section of a 3D printer in action. The green nozzle head moves into (or out of) the page, piping pinkish-red material in lines. The piped material stacks on top of each other, creating a complex shape.

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