The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

ligoThe Nobel Prize committee planned the announcement of the 2017 prize in Physics for Tuesday, October 3, at 11:45am CET (4:45am US Central time). I got up early this morning to connect to the live stream and listen to the announcement. The Nobel Committee announced that this year’s prize goes to Rainer Weiss (one half), Barry Barish and Kip Thorne (splitting the other half) for decisive contributions to the LIGO Detector and the observation of gravitational waves [1].

In this short post, I reflect on the discovery of gravitational waves by direct observation, a measurement over a century in the making.

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Draining the Brain

A healthy human brain depicted on the left, and an Alzheimer’s addled brain depicted on the right. The American Political Brain is in the throes of a neuro-degenerative disease that will leave us less innovative, less competitive, and unable to made decisions based on reliable evidence.

The most definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease, a severely degenerative disease of the brain, is an autopsy. Of course, the symptoms show up earlier – memory loss, personality changes, physical changes, and differing degrees of diagnosis are achievable with cognitive tests and scans of the brain. But distinguishing Alzheimer’s from other neuro-degenerative diseases of aging is still a difficult medical challenge. All such diseases do have one thing in common: they ravage the mind of the afflicted, ruining that life and the lives of those around them, until there is no more of the original person left. There is only the burden of intact memory born by those who remember the person, and the emotional and financial hardship, born out of love and devotion to the person, in caring for that person whose brain is utterly savaged.

When Donald Trump ran for President, he famously promised to “drain the swamp” – the swamp being Washington D.C. and the metaphor intended to convey that he will remove corruption and gridlock (due to entrenched interests) from government. It is the height of delicious irony that the claim of D.C. being built on a swamp is an utter myth, based on a tiny drop of truth (a very small part of what is now D.C. was once marshy land), and yet forms the basis of a (hollow) political slogan.

While Trump has failed to do what he pledged – in fact, he introduced even more special financial and business interests into D.C. while actively encouraging and cultivating petty partisan deadlocks and even rifts within his own party – he has succeeded in doing something else: draining the political brain of the United States.

The symptoms are apparent, but I fear America will only realize the extent of the degeneration when the Trump administration is a by-gone era and an autopsy of his legacy reveals the extent of the disease. I fear we may learn that this singular act of depleting the nation’s science policy capabilities also destroyed America’s competitiveness and leadership in the world, at the same time making it impossible to even sustain the innovation economy required to achieve his isolationist “America First” policy platform. But as with the Alzheimer’s patient, the most definitive diagnosis would come too late to save the patient or the family. Can we as a nation reliably diagnose the illness now, and rush to treat?

Unlike Alzheimer’s or other neuro-degenerative diseases, Americans have a chance to prevent the disease from spreading by engaging their representative lawmakers and arguing loudly and publicly for the brain drain to stop.

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The Sign of Four Estates: The Week in Review, April 30 – May 6, 2017

Jodi and I pose in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. We had just emerged from a memorable and excellent visit with Texas Congressman Peter Sessions’ office.

This week Jodi and I left for Washington D.C. on Monday for an event at the Canadian Embassy on Tuesday night. She had been invited to attend an evening celebrating science in Canada, especially Nobel Prize-winner Art McDonald and projects at SNOLAB, that nation’s premiere underground science facility. In addition, Jodi and I hit Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with staffers from Congressman Sam Johnson and Congressman Pete Sessions’ offices. We returned to Dallas early Thursday morning, in time to attend a very special event at SMU later that night: a dinner with the Board of Trustees at SMU where faculty receive the University’s top research and teaching distinctions. This was yet another whirlwind week in a semester of whirlwind weeks… but at least, this time, I could spend it with Jodi.

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A Force for Greatness: Science Policy Links for the Week of April 16-22, 2017

Given how much the past few months have been largely about “eating the seed” corn by threatening to pillage the nation’s scientific capabilities, this week was comparably more uplifted. Having reached a tipping point with the rhetoric of the current president, scientists and science advocacy organizations started planning a “March for Science” back in late January. It started small, but absorbed many organizations who signed on over time and yesterday it was revealed as a world-wide force for educating a world where the rise of ignorance has never seemed more breakneck. This week’s science policy news links are a mix of the uplifting (scenes from the many “Marches for Science” across the globe) and the cautionary (fake science organizations still abound).

  • PHOTOS: Scientists Take To Washington To Stress A Nonpartisan Agenda“. Meredith Rizzo. National Public Radio.  Comments: a few scenes from a very geographically diverse effort to highlight the importance of science to humanity. These appear to be only from the march in Washington D.C.
  • Remarks“. James Beacham. March for Science, Geneva. Comments: My colleague’s, James Beacham’s, opening remarks to participants at the Geneva March for Science (recorded by my student, Matthew Feickert). A good look into why one scientist chose to march. James was an organizer of this satellite march.
  • The Universe in a Box“. Claire Lee. TEDxKlagenfurt. Comments: Claire is a colleague of mine and at yesterday’s “March for Science – Geneva” in Switzerland she gave a short version of this lovely talk on what we know about the universe, how we represent it with creative aids, and how that relates to all we do not know. I link the original TEDx talk because I don’t have video of the one from yesterday’s march.
  • Intelligent Design Advocates Are Angry They’re Not “Partners” in the March For Science“. By Hermant Mehta. Patheos Blog. April 21, 2017. Comments: A leading fake science organization, The Discovery Institute (DI), laments being excluded from having a prominent role in the “March for Science.” But the reason is simple. Science is not a democracy – it’s the tyranny of facts and evidence. And the facts and evidence have been clear for over a century: biological diversity in the natural world is the result of evolution by means of natural selection. The DI actively works to undermine that evidence, not by conducting research (what scholarship they have on record is poor, and mostly just criticism, commentary, poor math, and historical misrepresentation), but by using the US legal system to try to inject their specific conservative Christian-based creationist ideology into science classrooms. Shame on them for lamenting they were excluded from organizing a March for Science when they themselves are a force that actively undermines science; cheers to the actual organizers for standing firm against this nonsense. I applaud mature and reasoned religious organizations that accept the scientific evidence about the natural world without seeing it as a threat to their beliefs. The DI is, sadly, not one of those. Science is a shield against dangerous nonsense, and the DI is institutional dangerous nonsense that seeks to undermine the very foundation of modern medicine.
  • Victory in Texas“. Glenn Branch. National Center for Science Education. Comments: This past week, the Texas State Board of Education, which notoriously either ignores expertise for science education recommendations, toys with including religious or watered-down guidance for public school science teachers, or even admits anti-science into the discussion of science standards, took a positive step forward this week. After considering changes to the science education standards, they adopted a slate of changes that removed language from the standards that had opened the door to using religious arguments to counter scientific ones in the science classroom. This is a big step for Texas. While there are no guarantees the next SBOE won’t undo some of this good, it was heartening in this era to see a group of elected representatives walk back from the educational abyss.

A big thing is coming up in the week ahead looms large over science in the United States:

  • The current federal spending legislation for FY17 expires at midnight on April 28. If the Congress fails to act to extend the legislation, the government shuts down. This means any active program that relies on federal funding also shuts down, such as operations in Antarctica or the national laboratories that are crown jewels in the treasure chest of U.S. science. Write your Congressperson(s) and ask them to act to support science while keeping the country operating through the rest of the year.