It takes a political scientist…

Jodi and I hit Borders Bookstore and Cafe last night. It’s one of those regular consumer things we do: go to a bookstore, browse, buy things we shouldn’t buy, and drink some caffeinated beverages and talk. We were scanning the new arrivals last night, when I noticed that Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) had a book out entitled “It Takes a Family”. Curious, I started leafing through it.

First, the title is meant to be a response to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and her book “It Takes a Village”, which itself was titled after a common African tribal saying. The premise of this new book is that rather than instilling a value of community, where the wider group feels responsible for its individuals, it is better to instill a sense of strong family, to create a self-sufficient nuclear structure that doesn’t need the charity of the community. Noble goal. Both books are noble goals, and I’d like to take the time to read it once it’s in the library.

However, my curiosity ran away with me and I browsed the table of contents. The last (or near last) chapter was on education, so I flipped to it to see if the Senator had any words about science education. Ooh, boy. You can imagine what I found.

Let me only here comment on what I remember for sure. He at one point talked about how scientific evidence was all pointing toward design in nature, and specfically indicated the fine tuning of all the constants of nature that are part of – you guessed it – the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Of course, he didn’t name it. But there it was. Evidence for design in nature, straight from my own field.

Let me stop Senator Santorum here, to discuss the danger of what he is doing. First, let’s flesh out the Senator a bit. He is a political science major from Penn. State (B.A.) with a business degree (M.B.A) and a law degree (J.D.), according to his website, That said, he appears to have no formal training in the scientific method, or experience doing research into the natural world.

The constants he refers to are things like the speed of light, the mass of the electron, Planck’s constant, etc. Indeed, as he astutely notes, these numbers are not predicted by any current physical framework and their values are set very precisely, so that even small changes would result in a very different universe where we might not exist. This fact has been known for a long time, a problem we physicists call “fine-tuning”.

Senator Santorum will be pleased to know that, unlike some in the world who look at this, shrug, invoke the word “design”, and stop working on the problem, we physicists (who receive federal funds that he has likely approved of several times in science and energy bills) look at this and see the incompleteness of our data and the insufficiency of our theories of nature. We strive to develop even tougher experiments that will open new avenues to new knowledge, which can then be used to rule in or rule out the many hypotheses competing to explain all the data.

Sen. Santorum singled out the multiverse hypothesis, wherein ours is one of many universes, each distinguished by a differnt set of values for the constants of nature. He considers this an offensive theory, meant to explain away obvious design, and one which can never be tested. Here, I feel I need to caution the Senator. In fact, while the multiverse hypothesis is a spinoff of some of the ideas embodied in string theory and cannot currently be tested, we will soon be capable of testing for the presence of extra dimensions of space. This is work he has likely voted to fund, for it will some day be done at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva and will shortly be done at the Tevatron in Illinois. While the multiverse is just one possible explanation, it is an exciting one with predictions that can be put to the test. That’s good science. Intelligent design, until it can proffer a laboratory test, is bad science. It would be wise for a U.S. Senator to err on the side of good science.

The Senator also bet that most scientists accept the multiverse hypothesis. I assume this jibe was meant to imply we’re all religion-hating ideologues. Let me assure you, Senator: my colleagues are very good scientists, and know a hypothesis from a fact. As a scientist myself, I suggest a U.S. Senator stick to the facts.

Frist Changes Stance on Federally Funded Stem Cell Research

“Here’s a man who really knows science and who really knows government,” Specter said. “So it is a very, very profound change. It’s an earthquake.”

That’s a quote from Sen. Arlen Specter, concerning the shift in position on Federally funded stem cell research made by Senate majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist. Frist said this week that he “…also strongly believes, as do countless other scientists, clinicians and doctors, that embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells just cannot provide.” This is quite a break from the Republican party line, which has largely ignored the scientific promise of such a federal investment and focused on the narrow ethical argument.

This is good for progress in this area. Finally, perhaps the government can open the funding envelope for this promising biomedical field so that the scientific and ethical debate can proceed with all the facts. I do wonder, however, how this and any potential future federal funding will affect the state measures taken in places like California. This could present an interesting Federal vs. state issue!

Seeing what is not visible

What a week. Busy, busy, busy! Let’s start at the beginning.

BaBar is engrossed in its fifth run, which we aptly denote “Run 5”. A lot of things changed in the accelerator and detector when we shutdown for the 2004 upgrade last fall. It’s critical, given such changes, to validate the outpouring data by applying hard physics analysis to it. That’s what BaBar has been doing for weeks now. This week, MIT student Yi and me used his sample of D*+ –> pi+ D0 –> K pi+ pi pi+, which has inherently HUGE statistics, to understand the BaBar tracking system. Along with other measurements that have been or are being made, we are coming to an understanding of our new efficiencies in this Run.

Out of sheer interest, I decided to see if I could spot differences in our tracking system between Run 3 and Run 5 by imaging our detector. How do you do this, when you can’t crack it open or go and x-ray it from the outside? Simple: x-ray it from the inside. One of the properties of the quantum of light, the photon, is that in the presence of matter it can produce a electron-positron pair. Since this must happen in material, you can “see what cannot be seen” by looking for the emerging electron and positron and tracking their trajectories back to their point of origin. Thus, one can radiograph the inner detector system. See the sample image below:

Finally, the Congress passed the Energy Policy act of 2005. This is the first time both houses of Congress have agreed, on schedule, on a comprehensive energy policy for the nation. This is also the first time the energy bill hasn’t had to be rolled into an omnibus bill, to be passed en masse, or passed well beyond the fiscal year deadline, for at least two years. I’m still waiting to see the final text of the post-conference bill, the one actually passed by both houses.

Washington Times Op-Ed on Barton/Boehlert and Climate Science

There’s been a lot of hubbub lately about the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s nascent investigation into a very particular set of climate science. This science, conducted by Dr. Michael Mann and two colleagues (who have also been requested to present documents for this investigation), demonstrates that that average global temperature has risen in complete correlation with human activity over the past century. It, along with a large body of other evidence, has been entered into scientific documents and policy statements on climate strategy.

“An editorial in the Washington Times”: made the claim that this congressional investigation, conducted without the input of the government’s scientific review body, the National Academies of Science is not dangerous or aberrant. Certainly, if serious questions have arisen about Mann et al’s conclusions and/or methods, we must review them if they are otherwise be the basis of climate policy.

On the surface, this could be a reasonable opinions. However, the situation is more complicated than that. A congressional body like the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while it does have involvement in science (for instance, it’s responsible for review of the Department of Energy, which includes its Office of Science), is not a scientific peer body with the training or expertise to make a serious, detailed investigation of the work. It also has vested political interests, each particular to the members of the committee, that might cloud its judgement. There are other avenues, independent of the individual politics of members of this committee, which Congress has at its disposal.

The other problem with the opinion piece is the following statement:

“The problem is that the study is an outlier – it dramatically overturns the accepted view of paleoclimatologists, who generally believe that the planet has experienced many warming and cooling trends in the past 1,000 years. Some scientists think that the 14th century, which came at the beginning of the Little Ice Age, was warmer than the 20th century. Other critics have found flaws in the study’s use of certain data sets and methodology. But since the study fits perfectly with the argument of global-warming supporters, they don’t want to see it robustly debated.

The study is not an outlier. In the last hundred years, the earth’s average temperature has changed dramatically. This change tracks exactly with the rise in human production of greenhouse gases, such as CO2. Now, that said, the Earth has **certainly** warmed and cooled in the past. What is different is that human’s weren’t the sole actor initiating this change. Scientists know that climate change is a complex phenomenon, perhaps neither irreversible nor permanent. However, one cannot lump past warming trends into the current one, which many independent observations (ice cores, ocean probes, satellite imagery) link to human activity. Therefore, if we have caused this than surely we have the power to slow it, or even end it.

Opinion pieces like this one demonstrate the exact problem with science in America. If you cast doubt on a conclusion, not by attacking the method but by avoiding the details, your average American – starved since birth of a proper science and math education – will sense doubt. Scientists debate these details all the time in a myriad of forums, including journals and conferences. The chaff is whittled away by inquiry, leaving a hard core of undeniable evidence (which is tantamount to fact, in science). The hard core truth is this: we humans have induced on this planet a climate change not seen in almost a 1000 years, through rapid and uncontrolled industrialization. But we can use the fruits of industrialization – a plethora of innovative energy sources and technologies, pollution controls, and personal investment in conservation – to build a wall that at least stems the tide of this warming. And in the process, instead of derailing our economy, maybe we will reshape it by transforming human innovation, designed to sovle this warming problem we created, into environmental industry. To the writers of this opinion piece I say this: let’s have a little more respect for science and its process, and a little more optimisim about what this could do for our economy.