Category Archives: Science and Society

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.

Maybe Not Everything is Terrible?

Here’s four quick things that have floated by on the internet recently that offer a smidge of optimism that we are not wholly and entirely doomed. (Of course, the usual caveats that half of these are still in the research stage, lab conditions are not real world conditions, etc etc.)

1.) Someone figured out how to turn CO2 into ethanol. The researchers found that by applying a voltage to a solution of water and carbon dioxide in the presence of plates covered in nano-scale spikes, the CO2 is converted into ethanol. The spikes on the electrode constrain the reaction so that only ethanol is produced. The notion that the waste product of carbon-based fuels can then be converted back into fuel (to be burnt, to be converted to fuel, …) is amazing and promising. Here’s hoping it works when scaled up.

2.) Someone else figured out how to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria by busting up their cell membranes. Other than climate change, the thing I lose the most sleep worrying about is antibiotic resistance: it’s staggering and distressing to think that in the span of one life time, we’ve entered the antibiotic era and the post-antibiotic era. We found a way to avoid dying from an infected scratch, and we collectively mismanaged that gift so egregiously in a race to make chicken cheaper than socks that scrapes may well be potentially lethal again soon. Drug companies aren’t spending much money to go looking for new antibiotics, and even if they were, we need to overhaul how we use antibiotics for that to do anything other than push the end of the antibiotic era back a decade or two. However, these polymers kill the bacteria by physically ripping it apart, rather than poisoning it, and so it does not carry the same resistance issues as traditional bacteria do. I slept soundly the night after I read this.

(Also, while we’re on the subject, phage therapy is fascinating and I’m baffled that the West has largely ignored it.)

3.) Tasmanian devils are developing resistance to the contagious cancer that is devastating their population. The contagious face tumor was thought to be lethal in all cases (with the devils starving as a result of the tumor interfering with jaw mobility), though some individuals have developed ways to fight the cancer and survive. Since 80% of the devil population is infected, they are in serious danger of becoming extinct. If a significant portion of the population develops resistance, hopefully the species will be able to stabilize.

4.) Renewable energy methods now provide more global energy than coal. This is excellent news, and we need to keep it up. It may be possible to convert CO2 into ethanol in a lab, but we’re a very long way from being able to scrub our emissions effectively, and ultimately the only way we’re going to at least slow climate change is by pumping drastically less CO2 into the atmosphere.

Another argument for overhauling the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prizes were announced last week, and the physics prize went to three scientists for “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” (I admit that even as a physicist that I have only a vague idea what that actually means, so I’m not going into it.) The Nobels are the premier award for science, but the scientific context in which they were conceived is vastly different than how science is done in the modern world: Alfred Nobel’s will (which sets out the framework for the prizes) was drawn up in 1895, two years before J.J. Thomson discovered the electron. (He got a Nobel for this in 1906.) The science world is fundamentally different today than it was around the turn of the 20th century.

This is not to say that the turn of the 20th century was a dull time in science: on the contrary, science was exploding with activity, and whole new fields were opening up. In physics alone, x-rays, radioactivity, the electron, and black body radiation were all discovered within five years (1895-1900). But the model of the scientist at this time was still very much the solitary figure toiling in a lab, perhaps with assistants or a collaborator or two, but not with the highly collaborative lab system that is ubiquitous today. To borrow a phrase from historiography, the traditional model of science is very much a Great Man model, where individual men (and only men, even though there have always been women doing extraordinary scientific work with little to no support or acknowledgement) profoundly shape the scientific era through their work and influence. The Nobels, then, are modelled in this same fashion: no more than three winners can be named, it cannot be awarded to groups or posthumously, and the award must be given for a specific contribution to science.

This is no longer a viable framework by which to reward excellence in science. There have been criticisms levelled at the Nobels for decades, and certainly there are many pieces of extraordinary science that have been overlooked for the prize. Women and people of colour have been drastically underrepresented: only two women have won Nobels in physics (Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963) and about 10% of physics laureates are people (men) of colour, although who is racialized has certainly not been constant throughout the history of the Nobels. No-one from Africa or South America has won the physics Nobel.

Lots of people have made these arguments before, and made specific note of people whose work has been overlooked (*cough*VeraRubin*cough*). These are all robust arguments and I feel I have little to add to those: the structure of the Nobels heavily favours Western men in prestigious facilities, and making the Nobels more inclusive requires a lot of work from a lot of levels of the scientific realm. However, even if the prize is awarded to a more diverse group of laureates in coming years, it still operates under the premise that extraordinary science is done by individuals rather than groups, and one look at the author list of any big paper from CERN or TRIUMF should tell you that that’s not the case.

Focusing on individuals rather than grounds means that work that is rewarded is somewhat misrepresented. While science in the early 1900’s was growing by the sorts of leaps and bounds that the Nobel was designed to reward, even the groundbreaking work of today is in some senses incremental. There were decades of work put in in understanding gravitational waves computationally, theoretically, and analytically, and all that work was necessary to both build LIGO and be able to intepret data from it. While the discovery of GW150914 was a singular shift in our ability to understand the universe, that discovery was the culmination of a mountain of scientific research and literally thousands of peoples’ contribution. Isolating only the final discovery from the context of preceding work makes no sense, and is a fundamentally inaccurate narrative to write about the scientific process.

It also, incidentally, reinforces the traditional model of Scientist as Devoted Monastic Scholar, where science is a calling only accessible to the most brilliant and devoted among us. This is nonsense: insisting that the Proper Way To Do Science a) exists in the singular b) is in isolation and drudgery and c) is imperatively all-consuming is a protocol for burnout. This model is regressive, extremely exclusionary, conducive to bad science and worse mental health, and a terrible yardstick by which to evaluate scientists and their work.

As well as failing to recognize the contributions of labs and collaborations, the focus on singular discoveries has lead to whole swaths of physics are un(der)represented in the Nobels. I’ve tallied up the fields listed with each Nobel physics laureate, and plotted the data below. For each prize awarded, multiple categories listed are considered individually, but if two or three scientists split the prize for the same work, each category is counted only once. Categories that were used to describe only one Nobel are applied electromagnetism, applied mechanics, applied optical physics, cosmic radiation, cosmology, critical phenomena, electron optics, electronics technology, fiber technology, interferometry, mechanics, metals, neutrino astrophysics, plasma physics, quantum optics, space physics, and theoretical physics; none of these are included in the plot for brevity.

Number of Nobels awarded for each subfield of physics.  Categories with only one Nobel listed are not included for brevity.

Number of Nobels awarded for each subfield of physics. Categories with only one Nobel listed are not included for brevity.

I’m surprised that there is so few awards given for work in the astrophysics / cosmological / gravitational physics, ie, work concerning the huge scales of the universe. Instead, the significant majority of the Nobels have been given for discoveries at the atomic level or smaller. The defining frameworks for the study of the universe at the largest scales (general relativity) and smallest scales (quantum mechanics) have been developed since the Nobels have been awarded, so both areas of physics have been rich with discoveries and breakthroughs throughout the past hundred years.

There’s also a dearth of Nobels given for research that falls in the range of scales where classical mechanics are sufficient: aside from a few prizes awarded for superfluidity, there have been no Nobels awarded for fluid mechanics. There’s nothing relating to environmental, planetary, geological, solar, or atmospheric physics, and nothing that can be considered interdisciplinary beyond the overlap with chemistry. Applied physics is almost entirely ignored, and the prizes listed as being experimental physics are largely also categorized as atomic or particle physics.

Here’s my theory about why this is the case: the Nobels are set up to reward single, defining discoveries, and the nature of small scale physics (especially particle physics) meshes better with that focus than many other fields. It’s straightforward to point to “we discovered a new particle” as a groundbreaking discovery, but it’s a little fuzzier to say “we figured out how to measure cosmological distances” and fuzzier yet to say “we understand the structure and circulation of the atmosphere.” There is a lot of work that leads to the discovery of a new particle, certainly, but one day there was no J/psi meson and then the next day there was. But describing the structure of the atmosphere was (and is) done in incremental pieces: there’s no clear single instance in time when the discovery happened. Understanding the structure of the atmosphere is extremely important, but it is difficult to point to a single prominent discovery or development that stands above the rest of the body of work.

(Also, the physics of the extremely small is tantalizing, since it is frequently weird and entirely inaccessible in everyday life. Since this is also the case for the physics of the extremely large, I have no satisfying explanation for why astrophysics and cosmology are so underrepresented.)

Ultimately, I think this is why we should overhaul the Nobels: clearcut discoveries typically involve hundreds or thousands of people, and individual people typically push the frontier of science by increments rather than by revolution. I have no knowledge whatsoever of Swedish law, and so I have no idea how legally entrenched the award criteria are; obviously it’s not nothing to overhaul a prominent international award rooted in a legal will. It’s quite possible that there is no legal way to adjust the number of possible laureates, and it’s quite possible that there is no legal way to permanently cease awarding the prize. But I think it’s time that those options are considered in depth by the Nobel Foundation, because the model of the Nobels is fundamentally incompatible with how scientific progress is made today. The most prestigious prize in science should reflect the collaboration and continuous progress woven into the ecology of the modern scientific world, and it should reflect the diversity of both scientists and scientific endeavours undertaken.

I am unconvinced that a single prize for all of physics makes much sense anymore, and there are critically important areas of physics that deserve recognition as well as the traditional fields. I believe that the prestige of the Nobels can be maintained while expanding the number of prizes awarded and increasing the diversity of work considered for recognition. Science is becoming more inclusive and collaborative, and though there is substantial work to be done at all levels of the scientific community, modernizing the Nobels is one way for the highest echelons of the scientific community to lead the way.

Looking for Women in the History of Astronomy and Physics

There’s a new physics and astronomy editorial up on Science Borealis, now written with my co-editor Jared Strang. Since it was Marie Curie’s birthday last week, we wrote about the general lack of historical role models for physics-minded girls, and how having only one titanic role model in a field is hard to aspire to. Not everyone’s going to win two Nobel prizes and revolutionize physics, after all.

So to make a point, we compiled a list of historical (roughly pre WWII) women who studied physics or astronomy, and we wound up a list of about 50 women. Jared and I both went looking for historical female astronomers and physicists, and in the first go round we had very similar lists. I found all the relatively well known women (Emmy Noether, Chien-Shiung Wu,,Lise Meitner, Hypatia, etc) and a handful of other lesser known figures within an hour or so. But I looked at the list, and almost all the figures were Western, and most lived in the 19th or 20th centuries. There were a couple from antiquity, and a couple from outside Europe or North America, but it was a pretty uninclusive list.

So I went looking for more women, particularly astronomers, as the history of astronomy is longer than the history of physics, and it is in many ways more accessible than physics. You don’t need any equipment to stand outside and look at the stars, so it’s hard to believe that over a millienia and a half, no women anywhere in the world sat down and wrote about the heavens.

You really have to go looking for hints of these women, though. Over a few days, I spent probably between 10 and 12 hours combing the internet and looking through history textbooks. I found a few more women, and a number of Renaissance salonists and teachers. Even though they didn’t necessarily do original research, I included them in the list because due to the exclusionary policies of universities, salons were one of the few ways that women could participate in the scientific culture of the day.

But most of the women were still European, which didn’t make sense. There was a huge revolution in mathematics in the Islamic Golden Age (9th – 12th centuries), and lots of the innovations Islamic scholars developed relied on Indian texts. There are lots of documents showing that the Malinese empire had advanced math and science. What about the Polynesian islanders, who must have had excellent knowledge of astronomy to travel the Pacific? There’s lots of evidence of excellent astronomical knowledge in Mesoamerica! It’s not like astronomy and physics are the sole domain of Western thinkers, so surely someone on the internet, repository for all things meticulously enumerated, would have some evidence of female astronomers from around the world.

Here’s who I found from outside of the Western world pre-1900:

  • Hypatia (Egypt), the titan of math, astronomy, and philosophy
  • Ban Zhao (China), who was not properly an astronomer but a renowned scholar of many topics, who wrote a treatise on astronomy
  • Queen Seondeok (Korea), who built the first observatory in East Asia (but I found no evidence that she herself was an astronomer)
  • Maryam al-Ijiliya (Syria), who was renowned for building innovative astrolabes
  • Fatima of Madrid (Spain, but had Arabic heritage), who worked on compiling tables of astronomical data
  • Wang Zhenyi (China), who wrote multiple astronomical treatises on equinoxes, planetary motion, and eclipses.

That’s six women, spread over 1800 years, one or two of whom weren’t themselves astronomers. If ever you need some evidence that women have been effectively written out of the history of science, there’s some evidence for you. I couldn’t find a single named female astronomer from India, Polynesia, non-Egyptian Africa, Mesoamerica, Japan, southeast Asia, Australia, etc in 2000 years of history.

I should note that names of non-Western male astronomers weren’t plentiful either, much to my irritation. Rather than trying to wade through a sea of names and fish out the one or two who belong to women, I spent those hours craning my metaphorical neck going “where is everyone?!”

It’s frustrating to be confronted with a thoroughly Western-centric history of one of the most universal fields of science. There is ample evidence that plenty of cultures developed sophisticated calendars that required precise astronomical knowledge, and it’s patently ludicrous to think that no women, and few men outside of Europe, were ever involved in that sort of work.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the earlier Western women on the list worked with their husbands, brothers, and fathers, often starting as transcribers or assistants. How many more historical women in science are hidden away out of sight of the history books? How many women’s contributions were roundly ignored by the scientific establishment, and discarded? I shouldn’t need to be a historian of science to find enough non-Western female astronomers in 2000 years to enumerate with more than one hand.

Here’s a somewhat unrelated anecdote that I failed to shoehorn in elsewhere: I first heard of Noether’s theorem in, I think, second year of undergrad physics. Noether’s theorem states that a symmetry in a non-dissipative system corresponds to a conserved quantity in that system. (It’s technically a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.) This theorem underpins most of classical mechanics and greatly clarifies what “energy” means in general relativity, so to say it’s an important theorem is a pretty big understatement. Since every other named theorem, law, lemma, algorithm, equation, or unit that I’d come across in math or physics up to that point had belonged to a man (exception: Marie Curie), I naturally assumed that Noether was male. It wasn’t until two years later, in my last year of undergrad, when I came across the name Emmy Noether, and was genuinely astonished that she was a woman.

Happy (?) Earth Day 2014

It’s Earth Day, when politicians wave their environmental flag and we’re all encouraged to make a token effort at reducing our enormous environmental footprint. I think Earth Day has in a number of respects, outlived its usefulness. When it was first celebrated in 1970, the notion of an environmental movement was still very new: Silent Spring was only eight years old, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor Environment Canada were established (the EPA would be by the end of the year, and EC the next), and it would be at least ten years before municipal recycling programs started to appear. Having a single day around which to promote environmental causes made sense when environmental issues aren’t very visible, but with climate change consistently on our collective radar, I think the focus of Earth Day needs to shift.

Maybe my impression of Earth Day leans too heavily on the “go clean up a patch of river with your class” sort of effort from grade school, but Earth Day is the original in a collection of one-off, isolated efforts designed to raise awareness and, to a lesser extent, make a dent in our collective carbon footprint. I’m dubious of anything whose primarily purpose is to nebulously “raise awareness” rather than actually doing anything [1] — especially considering that environmental issues aren’t exactly obscure these days. Earth Hour (which is of course distinct from Earth Day) is a perfect example of this: having a smattering of people turn off their lights for one hour does bupkis for actually reducing emissions, and the principal awareness it raises is remembering where you put the emergency candles (which is important but not the point).

This model is ineffective and, I’d argue, counterproductive: it proposes a model of small, discrete individual efforts to reduce emissions rather than the sustained, concerted, and substantial efforts actually needed to effectively combat climate change. It drastically undersells the level to which we need to collectively reorganize our lives to make a substantial change in emissions level, and, perhaps most importantly, it puts the onus of dealing with climate change on us as individuals and ignores both industrial and commercial sources of emissions as well as the need for good public policy to encourage those choices.

Let’s consider take the breakdown of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2012 which I found in this report from Environment Canada: (see also this report [PDF])

Source Emissions in Mt CO2 equiv. Proportion
Oil and gas 173 25%
Transportation 165 24%
Electricity 86 12%
Buildings 80 11%
Emissions Intensive and Trade-Exposed 78 11%
Agriculture 69 10%
Waste and Others 47 7%

Most of these are not things that can be effective tackled solely by individuals acting en masse. The oil and gas industry is the single largest contributor of GHG in Canada, and considering the number and scale of pipelines being proposed for transporting and exporting tar sands oil, it seems wildly unlikely that this number will go down in the foreseeable future. Buildings includes homes, but also businesses, skyscrapers, and all sorts of infrastructure that individuals have minimal power to change. It’s unclear whether constructed structures other than buildings are also included in this number, though I suspect they are, and if that’s the case, there’s an even tinier amount of influence that individuals can wield to change this number. Emissions intensive and trade-exposed includes “metal and non-metal mining activities, smelting and refining, and the production and processing of industrial goods such as chemicals, fertilizers, paper and cement,” and while individuals can reduce their general consumption, I suspect it’s hard for citizens to make much of a dent in this sector.

So that’s 54% of Canada’s GHGs which are highly resistant to change by individuals, and electricity, transportation, agriculture, and waste and other still to consider. It’s straightforward for individuals to reduce their electricity usage, by using energy efficient goods and lightbulbs, not leaving lights and appliances on when not in use, and efficiently insulating their houses to reduce heat loss. However, it’s unclear how much electricity is used by individuals as opposed to the industrial, commercial, and public users, and other efforts need to be enacted to deal with those sectors. Transportation breaks down similarly: it’s straightforward for individuals to drive less (if your city has an efficient, robust, and accessible public transit system, which is not a given), but this number includes commercial and industrial transportation as well, and I don’t know how the number divides. GHG emmisions from agriculture can be reduced in part by people eating less or no meat, but plant crops also emit GHG (via machinery rather than ruminants), and many people are very resistant to becoming vegetarian, let alone vegan. Waste and other includes emissions from landfills, so by consuming less, composting, and recycling, individuals can make a dent in this number too.

So out of the sectors that can be impacted by groups of individuals, which represents about 46% of the total GHG emissions, not one source of emissions is due solely to individual consumption. All are split between individual, industrial, and commercial uses, and most require systemic factors to be favourable before large numbers of individuals can make substantial efforts over a sustained period of time to reduce the amount of GHG they directly or indirectly generate. It’s much easier to get people to retrofit their houses when there are subsidies and public policy supporting them. People are much more likely to leave their cars at home if there is a robust, safe, efficient, and (economically and physically) accessible public transit network. Without appropriate public policy to make environmentally conscious choices realistically accessible to broad sectors of citizens, few people will make those choices on a daily basis.

But even if we all, as citizens, consistently reduce our transportation and electricity usage and start eating tofu instead of steak, we’re shaving off parts of a small part of GHG emissions pie. Pushing individual reductions while ignoring that well over half our GHG emissions are due to industrial and commercial sources of various stripes is a spectacularly ineffective way to deal with climate change. To enact any sort of meaningful change in the oil and gas sector in particular will require concerted and sustained political vision and willpower. To effectively address our outsized GHG emissions (Canada has one of the highest emission rates per capita in the world), we need to drastically reduce not only our individual, but especially our industrial emissions, and that won’t change without public policy, legislation, and a drastically different vision of economic prosperity in Canada. It’s up to us as individuals to do what we can, but we need our politicians and civil servants to set policy that ensures that industry and commercial interests put in their share of the work too.

Happy Earth Day 2014. Let’s go protest some pipelines.

  1. Top of the list of offenders: the pinkwashers “raising awareness” about breast cancer.

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.

Continue reading

Initial Thoughts on Yesterday’s Cabinet Shuffle

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

Based on her previous role as Minister of Health, I’m not convinced that Leona Aglukkaq has the chutzpah necessary for her new portfolio. Environment is a portfolio that can easily be trampled over by many other portfolios (industry, natural resources, finance, etc) in the name of economic progress, perhaps moreso than other portfolios, and to my mind, the mark of a strong environment minister is someone who’ll go to bat for their portfolio (and, by extension, the environment). Peter Kent was spectacularly bad at this, not just passively letting other interests take precedent, but actively hindering efforts at making Canada a more sustainable, environmentally sound nation. I’m not saying that all ministers must be world experts at all aspects of their portfolio, but I think it does behoove them to get at least a working knowledge of the major aspects of their portfolio. It’s easy to snipe at Kent about not knowing what ozone is, but it belies a lack of knowledge about one of the major components of the environment, and the ozone question/lack of answer came up almost a year after he’d been appointed Minister of the Environment. It’s not like he’d just gotten the portfolio and hadn’t had time to get up to speed on it. So given all that, I’m guessing Aglukkaq will be a step up — but I’m worried that the department will continue to be chipped away and slowly dismantled, as she won’t effectively stick up for it when budget time comes around.

Fisheries and Oceans is one of those departments that I wish got more coverage than it does. We’re surrounded by three oceans, have an *enormous* ocean coastline, and yet don’t seem to give much of a hoot about marine science. The fisheries end gets more press than the ocean end, since that’s got a more obvious economic impact, but I feel I have a spectacular lack of data to form any reasonable opinion on the Gail Shea of Keith Ashford. Maybe it’s an issue on the deparmtent’s end, maybe it’s an issue on the press’s end, and most likely there’s a combination of factors that leads to DFO rarely making the news. Whichever way it goes, I’ll try and keep a better on eye out for press on Fisheries and Oceans.

Natural resources (which has a predominantly economic mandate rather than a scientific or conservationist one) is currently steam rollering all over the Ministry of the Environment, and since Joe Oliver is staying on, I suspect that’ll continue unabated.

And lastly, Rona Ambrose takes over Health. Whoever is here will likely helm the negotiations for the federal-provincial health accord next year, which sets the funding structure for provincial health care programs for the next (I believe) ten years. Health Council Canada is an independent committee that has overseen the implementation of these accords in the past; its funding was eliminated earlier this year, and it will close likely just before the new health accord is negotiated. (Convenient timing!) I’m decidedly not thrilled about her appointment, considering her voting record while she was Minister responsible for Status of Women. She seems to actually espouse a lot of the farther right policy measures put forward by the government (rather than just toeing the party line), and while I admit that that’s gut feeling and speculation, I’m not happy about the idea of her helming negotiations to fund socialized health care.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. Laywers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a laywer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

So, in short (ha!), things’ve shuffled around a bit on the science end of cabinet, but there’s not to really cheer for. On the other hand, I spent my bus ride home trying to think who among the current slate of Conservative MPs I would actually want in any of those five positions, and…… I drew a huge blank. There’s no-one that I’d pick out and say “aha! You would make an excellent Minister of the Environment!” on the CPC caucus. There may well be people who’d do an excellent job in some of the roles (or would were they not severely hampered by their own party’s machinations), but none come to mind. I’m curious — who would you want to see in these positions? Who’m I forgetting or overlooking?

Ada Lovelace Day: Teachers Are Important

It’s Ada Lovelace Day! October 16th is a day dedicated to women in science, technology, engineering, and math and their stories. Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, writing algorithms for her friend Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, and is one of many too-often unsung female contributors to scientific fields. Many of the posts and discussions on Ada Lovelace day are about semi-famous or mostly obscure scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, but I want to write about some women a little closer to home: my high school teachers.

I was blessed with an array of really excellent math and science teachers (both male and female) all through high school, and while I suspect that I’d’ve ended up in science in some fashion regardless of my high school experience, those teachers helped me find my path in that direction. Lacking that support, I’d’ve probably found it eventually, but I’m not sure I’d’ve gone to university with the confidence and conviction that I was, in fact, in the right place for me; that self-assurance really helped me adjust to university life and flourish in my undergrad, even when things got stressful and difficult.

Not all my teachers were women, but those who were remain the clearer than most of the men in my memory, and made a larger imprint on my intellectual development than the male teaches did. I learned calculus from a tiny, very unassuming looking woman who could strike fear in the heart of any surly teenager who dared cross her, and I learned chemistry from a pair of outgoing, devil-may-care women who routinely flouted sense and featured explosions and dramatic chemical reactions in their classes. The three of them showed me that science and math was exciting, interesting, and accessible to me. Their enthusiasm for their subjects was palpable, and the encouraged their female students to stick with science and math; just the fact that they were there at the front of the classroom was proof that there was a place for women in science and math. I was fortunate to have male teachers who were also supportive, or at the the very least not discouraging to their female students, but hearing and seeing it from women, who’d lived the experience of being women in mostly-male fields, carried a lot more weight. Seeing them as successful teachers, respected by their departments and for the most part their students, showed me that you could be taken seriously as a woman in science. It’s one thing to hear someone say “you should stick with math, and there’s a place for you in the field,” but it’s another thing to see a women teaching math and chemistry, talking about their previous work experiences, and showing you it’s possible and within your grasp, even if you’re a woman.

When I was younger, I didn’t know much about the history of science, and I didn’t have much of a grasp of how women and their considerable contributions have been systematically erased from the annals of science. I didn’t have heroines (or heroes really, for that matter) to look up to to say “I want to be like Ada Lovelace, or Marie Curie, or Emily Noether, or Rosalind Franklin, or….” Maybe then, in the absence of knowledge of many more famous historical or contemporary women in science, the presence of women at the front of my classrooms took on a bit of extra importance. It’s certainly important to talk about the under-appreciated contributors to science, but there’s potential (and accessible!) role models for girls in classrooms, too.

There’s lots of organizations and groups that are working to normalize the place of women in science, but it seems sensible, given the namesake of the day, to suggest having a look at the Ada Initiative, which aims to get women involved in the open source and open access community (which is very heavily male, even by computer science standards). The full directory of Ada Lovelace Day posts is here, and includes posts from previous years, and is chock full of great reading material.

The Scientists Strike Back

With some notable exceptions, scientists are not generally habitual rabble-rousers, at least not in their capacity as an Official Representative Unit of Science. In my experience, many of them have deep political convictions, and are not shy about sharing them, but going out on the street en masse as scientists (rather than as ordinary citizens) is not a common sight — I can’t remember the last time scientists took to the streets to protest policy. So when a couple thousand of scientists in lab coats and funeral wear converge on Parliament protesting the Death of Evidence, something is going on.

The Death of Evidence protest was organized by some scientists (mainly grad students, I believe) at the University of Ottawa, and was timed to coincide was a very large evolutionary biology and ecology conference in Ottawa to attract more marchers from across the nation. The list of policies that the protest was targeting is long and broad:

The Harper government has embarked on a systematic program to impede and divert the flow of scientific information to Canadians through two major strategies. The first involves the gutting of programs and institutions whose principal mandate is the collection of scientific evidence. Examples of this include:

  • Cutting the mandatory long-form national census.
  • Major budget reductions to research programs at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council Canada, Statistics Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
  • Decisions to close major natural and social science research institutions such as the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, the National Council of Welfare and the First Nations Statistical Institute.
  • Closing of The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut

Mr. Harper’s second strategy is perhaps less overt, but even more insidious: to impede the bringing forward of scientific evidence into the public debate. Examples:

  • Not renewing the The National Science Advisor in 2008.
  • Dozens of instances of censoring of, impeded access to, and coercion of government scientists, a practice which Minister of Environment Peter Kent has justified as merely in keeping with “established practice”.
  • Shutting down the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (NRTEE), an arm’s length advisory body providing independent advice on environmental protection and economic development, because the government didn’t like its advice.

This is beyond death by a thousand papercuts: this is more like death by hundreds of axe wounds. I’m not saying that every federally-funded science initiative needs to be funded in perpetuity without any evidence (there’s that word again!) that it’s viable and productive research. I am saying that when multiple scientifically flourishing initiatives are having their funding unceremoniously ended, with no credible evidence presented to back up that decision, things start to fail the sniff test.

Continue reading

Whether the Boson is Higgs or Higgs-like, It’s Still A New Fundamental Particle

The news out of CERN that a new, heavy, subatomic particle has been discovered by the ATLAS research group has the science-y part of the internet all a-twitter. It’s certainly not every day that new fundamental particles of nature are discovered, and to be 99.99995% certain that it’s an accurate conclusion is no small feat.

The Higgs boson is, in one sentence, a particle which is theorized to give other particles (like protons and electrons) mass. There are plenty of people who’ve done primers and more detailed explanations of what the Higg’s boson is, and for the sake of getting this up while everyone is still reading about all things Higgs, I’ll skip the drawings this time and point you elsewhere for the basic explanation.

What I do want to talk about are some of the significant results of such a significant result. The Large Hadron Collider was built essentially to find this particle, and while it’s not entirely clear that it is definitely a Higgs boson and not an exotic Higgs-like boson that we’ve not anticipated existed, something new has been found. Getting such a positive result underscores the worth of large-scale collaborations. Large-scale science is very difficult to get off the ground due to the sheer scale of resources necessary to built the devices. Things like particle colliders, gravitational wave detectors, space telescopes, even the shuttle program, fall under this category, and because there are so many resources poured into these programs, there’s extra pressure for them to succeed. It’s heartening when they do, because inevitably when big science programs that probe the edges of our knowledge of the universe come up, there’s people who bemoan the investment and say that the money would be better spent doing something practical.

Sure, we need money going towards practical things, but I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson on this, and we need big, visible, exciting projects. We need things that excite our collective imagination to push innovation forward and give students and young researchers something to aspire to, and discoveries like the Higgs boson show both fill that need and show that the boundaries of science can be pushed. The knowledge that the Higgs boson (or something like it) exists may not make an appreciable difference in people’s everyday lives, but that moment of wonder is important. Without those “wow…!” moments, we don’t have a grand vision of scientific exploration, and without that vision, science stalls in the realm of what we know and understand to some degree, and never makes it much past the boundary between what we anticipate and the unexpected. How do we push the boundaries of knowledge without a grand vision? We don’t, and moments like today’s announcement are the culmination of grand vision backed by adequate funding.

It’s not well publicized, but there are often plenty of practical spinoffs of big-project science which filter into everyday peoples’ lives. The enormous magnetics that bend the particle beams in a circle at the LHC spawned new technology in high-speed rail in Europe. NASA’s space program has generated enormous amounts of technological innovation, from velcro to novel materials. This is setting aside the enormous amount of support staff that are hired to run and maintain facilities like CERN, and the obvious societal benefits of giving hordes of physicists something to tickle their brain with and keep them out of trouble and off the streets, both of which keep people gainfully employed and contributing to the economy. To say there is no practical reason to fund grand vision science is to be ignorant of what exactly grand vision science entails.

We haven’t had many collective “wow..!” moments in science lately, and there’s been a steady stream of funding cuts, regressive science policy, and wilful obfuscation of information by government agencies at the behest of the minister, and that’s just in Canada. There is Canadian involvement in the results — some researchers at TRIUMF are involved in the ATLAS collaboration — but even if there wasn’t, we could use a “wow…!” moment or five lately. Science in Canada is being ground away, and we need moments like this to inspire us to keep pushing the boundaries of knowledge.