David Souter has famously described the Supreme Court term from October to June as a period during which he undergoes an “intellectual lobotomy.” I had hoped that entering grad school and being surrounded constantly with the bloody edge of science would stimulate my curiosity. Unfortunately, after nine to ten hours a day of reading and thinking about science, I come home to find the well dry.

It’s not that I don’t want to write, it’s just that I don’t have nearly as much to say as I did before. In contrast, I now find a desire to come home and read fiction or watch good shows like Arrested Development.

These findings lead me to surmise that I have a limited capacity for thinking about science, be it focused or unfocused (how I see this blog) thought. When I was teaching science, actually, I rarely thought about it. Instead I thought more about grading, making exams, setting up labs. And during the summer, I wasn’t really forced to think about anything.

Perhaps (and I hope) this is an adjustment period, that my brain is undergoing a large intellectual transformation, akin to the burn of working out hard when out of shape, and that over time, my most powerful muscle (to use the term loosely) will strengthen and begin to desire the outlet of curiosity that this blog has been.

I’m stepping away because I have no obligation to stay, and writing as an “assignment” can sometimes produce a resentment that I do not wish to have. I will certainly keep the blog up, writing whenever the thought strikes me.

So thanks for reading. The purpose of my writing (other than simply a selfish exercise) is to try to convey the power, excitement, and controversy that science brings to our lives. All of these are important and need to be acknowledged. I hope I’ve succeeded at one time or another in getting that message across.

Remember, in the words of good old Descartes, “de omnibus dubitandum.”

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over-softwaring our lives

August 26, 2009

How many times have you seen a program, a desktop widget, a web application, and thought, “Wow, that would really make my life easier!” I know I have. Many times. And yet, so many of them — while theoretically quite useful — never actually end up being used that much because they take a significant investment in time to learn how to use and often take more time than what we’d otherwise do to address the need.

Here’s an example, from Lifehacker.com, which (while I love them) often features such programs: Kitchen Monki. Kitchen Monki is a recipe planner/shopping list organizer that allows you to plan meals and then load the ingredients into a shopping list. (Note: the following criticisms aren’t meant at all as a hit against the programmers. The application actually looks very well thought out and easy to use. It’s the idea that we even need such a program that I’m criticizing.)

Who really sits at their computer and plans a meal? And even if you do, man, what steps you must go through: finding a recipe, adding it to your meal, checking to see what you already have, making your shopping list, exporting it to your phone or printing it out, etc. What ever happened to the pen and paper? I’m guessing that almost anyone can do all this much faster just by thinking about it in your kitchen with a cookbook and writing a few notes down on a scrap of paper.

Contrast that program with something like Mint.com, a personal finance web app that automatically categorizes your credit card and banking transactions for the purpose of keeping a budget. That’s a really useful tool, and I can say that from using it for 16 months or so. Another recent software favorite: Dropbox.

My point is not that all software (or technology in general if you like) is bad. Some of it is quite useful and improves our lives, but much of it seems like a good idea at the time and then is never used after about the first day. I’m also not trying to stifle developers’ creativity: I write programs that I think will be useful but other may not. Indeed, I imagine many of the programs that we encounter are the successful personal projects of developers that have been taken into the public sphere. So it’s really up the consumer to decide whether they should use it or not.

It’s almost ingrained into our psyche when we see something new and seemingly useful: “Ohh, I want to try that.” This is applicable in everything from organizational stuff from stores like Organized Living and to electronics to video games (like those of you who’ve downloaded every arcade game ever invented onto your PC or XBox) to software. We’re programmed (getting into a bit of social theory here) to want more stuff. And so we acquire it if it seems even remotely fun or useful without much thought about whether we’re actually going to use it or to a simpler alternative. This point holds especially true for software, most of which is free these days.

As consumers of everything, we need to be mindful of what we need (or want) and what we don’t need. And for those things we need, what’s the balance between their advantages and their efficiency (in time, energy, and money). Otherwise, we’ll go through trailing a mess of physical and digital detritus.

The photo taken (and debris identified) by ameteur astonomer Anthony Wesley

The photo taken (and debris identified) by ameteur astonomer Anthony Wesley

Science News recently reported that amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley (home page here) has documented that something big slammed into Jupiter, causing what apparently is called an impact scar. This is only the second impact scar recording on a large gaseous planet. While I imagine this occurrence is interesting (to astronomers), what’s far more interesting to me is that the discovery was made by an amateur scientist.

In our current world of NIH/NSF-funded research, where it takes 3 grad at least students, 2 post docs, and a PI (principle investigator – the person who runs the lab) to make any scientific discovery, it’s incredibly refreshing to know that the realm of science is still open to the amateur. The divisions between “professional” scientists and everyone else compartmentalize the field(s), which not only reduces the number of future scientists but also general scientific literacy.

Scientific illiteracy not only deprives people of the amazing insights that knowledge can bring (nerd alert, I know) but also fails to inoculate them against charlatan-speak (“there is a healthy debate about global warming among scientists”).

So score one for the everyman. Remember, all the old scientists — Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, Charles, Kepler, Leibniz, Einstein (before he struck it big) — were amateurs in their fields.

Britans controversial Mox Nuclear Recycling Plant (credit: Tehran Times)

Britan's controversial "Mox" Nuclear Recycling Plant (credit: Tehran Times)

As Nature News recently reported, the Obama administration has made the very disappointing decision to cancel plans for a domestic facility for recycling nuclear fuel, as part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), started under the Bush Administration in 2006. This program is meant to give countries we don’t want enriching their own nuclear fuel a place to get it and then a place to give back their nuclear waste, which can be reprocessed and in part used again domestically (see the Nature article for more details).

So, not only does the GNEP help other countries obtain nuclear power, a very clean (despite what people say about the waste), efficient, high-output source of power, but it also helps them obtain it in a way that’s not threatening to us (Iran, anyone?).

Without real US backing, it’s hard to imagine it getting off the ground. Congress has still appropriated $145 million for research into the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear waste, but given the scale, cost, and political messiness of domestic nuclear power, it’s hard to imagine that R & D leading to any significant groundbreaking in the coming decades.

The most soft-and-fuzzy clean energies — wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, etc — will not meet our global energy demands. We MUST include nuclear power in the pantheon of alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, the waste issue is tricky. But if we’re going to have any shot at actually changing how we generate power, we need to get nuclear projects moving, since they take a good while to get up and running.

And if we’re going to insist that countries like Iran don’t enrich their own fuel, we need to supply them with an alternative like the GNEP. Otherwise, we’re simply being hypocritical.

vacation

June 27, 2009

(thankfully, not actually my car)

Well, dear readers, I’m off for eights weeks of summer vacation. I’ll be heading to Tennessee, Colorado, California, Canada, and Ohio visiting various family and friends. I’m not sure what my internet connection will be like during this period, but I’m guessing it’ll be sketchy. I still hope to do some more intermittent posting now and again, so please keep checking the blog. I’ll be back to normal at the end of August.

Have a great summer.