Sodom and Gomorrah

**Written in Chicago, Midway airport on Feb. 4, 2005**

As my favorite comedian, Lewis Black, once said – and here I paraphrase – “for
only the second time in history, Sodom and Gomorrah have been
rebuilt”. He was referring to Las Vegas, and for a long time I think I
was almost convinced that Las Vegas might be someplace fun I’d visit
someday. Well, two things have happened today – two seemingly
dichotomous things. The first is that I’ve decided that, in fact, Las
Vegas is where stupid people go to throw away their money. The second
is that I got my wish.

Today is the day I return from Boston to home, in California. After a
long and arduous couple of weeks, I am finally heading home. Don’t
misunderstand me; it was productive and rewarding on about a dozen
levels, and I am excited to have another chance to come back to MIT very
soon and focus. However, as these things often are, the reward
is draining. To add to this, when I arrived at Chicago’s Midway
Airport (where I am writing this), I discovered that the second leg of
my return journey will add an extra stop: Las Vegas.

So that explains the second thing that happened. What about the
first, you wonder? I’m getting to it. On the first leg of my flight,
the people sitting behind me were going to Vegas. They weren’t just
going there, they were **excited** about going there. You could smell
last night’s bender on their skin. It was a reek that I can only liken
to the soliloquy by Agent Smith from “The Matrix”. “I can taste your
stink,” he said, wiping his hands across Morpheus’ glistening head.

The first thing that convinced me that stupid people go to Las Vegas
was the modern irony that their journey presented. They are, in many
ways, the quintessential American that I as a scientist abhor (but
also so deeply wish to educate). Our founding fathers spoke of the
need for an educated voting populace – ergo, public education. My fellow travellers, however,
were excited about getting to Vegas, excited about having every
picture be a picture of them drunk. One guy was excited about staying
at the Las Vegas airport the whole time, gambling on one machine, and
asking the others about Vegas when they got back for their return
flight. To be fair, some of this was said in jest. But its essence was
repeated so many times clothed in jest that I suspect the kernel was
100% accurate.

That said, they expressed repeatedly fear about being on the
plane. I’m not talking about post-9/11 fear; I’m talking about good
old fashioned human ignorance. We live now in a society powered by
electricity whose origin is a mystery; we cook food in microwaves
which we think are “nuking” our food; we take unproven dietary
supplements because of an advertising-fed belief system with no basis
in medical research; and we fly, though we fear flying because we
don’t understand how those little engines can get that big plane off
the ground.

Yes – that’s right: it’s the little engines that do the lifting (but
they only point sideways…).

The fear alone expresses the ignorance. What I find ironic is that
they had to look **past** the wing to comment on the engine, and so I
believe it utterly disturbing that they entirely missed the point of
the wing. Michael Crichton wrote in “Airframe” that the wing is
the heart of the plane, the technological miracle that makes the whole
thing possible. And yet we worry about those little engines.

But it wasn’t just the complete ignorance of flight that bothered
me. As with most things, I need more evidence to really start to trust
an observation. The clincher, the one that really bugged me, was the
last discussion they had as we landed.

Our wheels hit the tarmac 10 minutes before our scheduled arrival
time. As we started to roll to the gate, the woman behind me said,
“You know, I was sitting behind a stewardess on a Southwest flight
when she was announcing that seat belts had to be kept on. She remarked
to the person next to her that ‘seat belts are important because we’re
more likely to be hit on the ground than fall out of the sky’.” The
gentleman with her then remarked that he didn’t want to know that, and
he was even more unsettled now.

What boggled me was the following: here were two people, TERRIFIED of
something which has a specific probability of happening. However, they
were unable to contain themselves when talking (at length) about how
they were going to win a million dollars, then buy their workplace and
fire their friends. Here’s the scary part: **the probability of
hitting it big in Las Vegas is VANISHINGLY small, almost ZERO, by
design**. If they were scared of being hit on the ground in an
airplane under controlled and structured conditions, they ought to be
shivering and shitless with fear about the prospect of spending money
on gambling in Las Vegas.

So here’s my final thought: it’s a good thing that we have an educated
populace that can debate about the value of taxation, that can make
the occasional sacrifice in the name of a balanced budget and the
social programs critical to supporting the hard-working lower class
of our nation. As for these people on my flight, they forgot to check
the box on their 1040EZ that says, “If you don’t understand simple
math, check this box and reduce your deductions by a multiple of 5.”
That’s okay. They’re gonna pay the man in Vegas, and come back poor
and still scared of planes.

The State of the Union

“Tonight is President Bush’s State of the Union address”:http://www.cspan.org. If we flash back to this time last year, the Mars rovers had made their historic landings on the surface of the red planet. From there, they set out on a remote-controlled quest which eventually led to a body of persuasive evidence for the past presence of water on the surface.

Then the President stood at that podium, looked the teleprompter right in the eyes, and said “we’re going to Mars” [paraphrase].

As one of my colleagues once summarized over margheritas, the next day NASA scrambled to carry out this Presidental directive, and in the next few months the science community in the United States watched as the non-Mars research programs fostered by NASA – the ones that created the Mars rover program in the first place – were monetarily shelved or scrapped for one purpose: to send people to Mars for questionable reasons, to do things that cheap probes could easily do.

We all remember the flagship case that hit the headlines like a bulldozer: the cancellation of the repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, a mission that would guarantee its continued operation through the end of the decade. Citing the risk to astronauts (but we’re willing to hurtle them at MARS?!), Sean O’Keefe has repeatedly shot down efforts to repair the aged gyroscopes on the telescope, and it seems that recent events have sealed Hubble’s fate.

Hubble was just the most visible cancellation. Other programs have also been indefinitely shelved or totally scrapped, all so we can send a couple of fragile humans to do robots’ work on a dead and distant world. While we shatter our habitat, while we shelve questions about the origin of life and the universe, while we deny basic research that would answer serious questions about our own biology, we throw people toward a distant dustball without even one critical question about the value of the basic endeavor.

So the question I pose to you is this: if the President gets up there tonight, points a finger at the DOE or NSF, and tells them that the most important thing(s) they should be doing is severing our dependence on foreign oil or spending all resources on developing nanotechnology, what do you think happens to basic science programs in these agencies?

Watch out, friends. I know the President is supposed to focus on Social Security tonight. Sometimes, however, you can short-out the third rail of politics by pissing right across it onto a different track…

Boston to Hartford

This past weekend was a very pleasant departure from the norm. After a very successful work day on Friday, I hurried from my last meeting at 6 to the red line station. This was to be the beginning of my commute south and then westward to Riverside, where my sister (Kate) and new-brother (Brad) were to be waiting.

It’s always important to remember that just when you want public transportation to really get you somewhere, that is the moment it is most likely to fail you. Indeed, as I arrived in Kendall station on Friday night to catch my first of several trains, the train I had just missed pulled into the tunnel at the end of the station and abruptly stopped. The loudspeaker announced that while trains were moving, they were doing so with delays.

The cause of all this was a switching problem at Park Street station, my first destination. This was not the best way to begin my fun weekend with my family. I caught the next train, which then sat at Kendall for 15 minutes. It then proceeded **very** slowly to Park. The Green Line connection that took me to Riverside (a D-line train) was very fast in comparison – this is far outside the norm for the Boston subway lines. Green is typically slow and steady, while Red picks up the slack.

Kate and Brad were at Riverside, after a small navigation adventure of their own. In fact, my timing (or mis-timing) may have been perfect for actually meeting them at the station. With my blood sugar crashing, we hit the road for the 1.5 hour drive to Manchester, CT. Dinner was taken at a retro-fifties diner near their home, where the only things on the menu for eating were heart-harmful and you could get a malt in any of about 25 flavors, including “pudding”. Hmmm. Oh, and did I mention that for some very odd reason my nickname for this weekend was “Stubbalubba”? Yeah, I thought I forgot to mention that.

We stayed up very late playing SSX (snow boarding) on their game console, and I got to meet their new-ish cat Orion. Saturday started with some DELIGHTFUL lattes, made by Brad, and a trip to a nearby hobby store where I picked up a present for my wife and Bad bought the extension set for a card game called “Killer Bunnies”. Yes, “Killer Bunnies”.

Brad spent the afternoon teaching me to play this card game, which was to be the focus of the night’s after-dinner activities. I have to say that after initial skepticism, I found this game to be quite fun (not a serious as “Magic”, but just as complicated) – where else are you going to be able to unleash such diabolical weapons as Ebola or a **black hole** on your enemies. Who are bunnies. Yes, bunnies.

Saturday night was wonderful. Kate prepared a feast of chili and biscuits and cheesecake. My good buddy Eric, who lives in Hartford, came over in the late afternoon to join the festivities. Kate and Brad had their friend, Sam, also come to dinner. However, instead of a game of “Killer Bunnies” we played a game of “Wise and Otherwise”. If you’ve never played this, the game begins with one player reading the first part of some saying; the goal of the rest of the players is to either guess the right ending or just make one up. Everybody then votes on which ending they think is correct. Guessing the right ending, which is added into the pile by the reader, gets you points. Guessing somebody else’s ending gets them points. The game usually degrades to something resembling moral chaos after about two beers.

We each had four.

I crashed at Eric’s place on Sunday. We spent the night watching a documentary about the American band, “Wilco”:http://www.wilcoweb.com/, called “I am trying to break your heart” (based on the time spent recording, mixing, and then trying to release their album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”). I own the album on which the movie is centered, and I haven’t been able to give it a fair listen yet. However, I must say that after watching this film I am more intrigued than **ever** about Wilco. Once I get back to California (and my excellent Sennheiser headphones) I intend to give this work its due.

Sunday afternoon, Eric busted out his new music machine: a jet-black Gibson SG. I couldn’t stand sitting there, just watching him play the thing. So, I did what any ex-drummer without a drumset would do: I grabbed an acoustic guitar and tried to follow the chord progressions. This was amusing, mostly because I haven’t played seriously in years (and even then, I was never **that** serious). I haven’t had that much fun in a very long time, not since I was in a band with Eric almost 7 years ago.

After a Greyhound bus ride back to Boston, I am eager to dive into this work week. It’s looking like a healthy blend of neutrino physics and B-physics, and it’s not even 9 am PST yet.

Turnabout must be fair play

Bob Park’s column, “What’s New” (“available at aps.org”:http://www.aps.org/WN) is the way I close out every Friday. Most of the time, I read and smile (or groan). Today, though, his column raised a point which I think counts as fair turn-about.

As you may know, there is a strong anti-evolution movement growing in the United States. The basis of this movement is that evolution is a theory which fails to explain every case where it can be applied, so it must be totally wrong. Advocates of this perspective clearly demonstrate their complete misunderstanding of a theory, and what it means when it fails to explain a set of particular cases. In fact, Isaac Newton’s laws of classical mechanics are really just theories, because they fail to explain the world that atoms inhabit. However, noone doubts their use when applied to their home, a bridge, a skyscraper, or a rocket launch. In that same sense, quantum mechanics and relativity are “just” theories because they only explain our world up to a point. That doesn’t make them wrong.

Anyway, this movement has tried to get stickers placed on biology textbooks that state that evolution is just a theory (as if this is discrediting, as I’ve illustrated above with counter-examples). One thing that annoys me is that nobody seems to object to quantum mechanics or classical mechanics, but they disagree with evolution because it confronts traditional Christian creationism. The literal reading of the Bible clearly disagrees with a theory they advocates the shaping of life over long periods of time due to environmental conditions.

Well, if they get to slap stickers on science textbooks, Bob Park advocates that we should get to slap stickers on their religious texts:

“This book contains religious stories regarding the
origin of living things. The stories are theories, not
facts. They are unproven, unprovable and in some cases
totally impossible. This material should be approached
with an open mind, and a critical eye towards logic and
believability.” (Bob Park, “What’s New” 1/28/05).

Seems fair to me. Why single out a single theory of scientific pursuit? Why not single out all the other theories that are time tested but not necessarily sufficient to explain all behavior. Besides, evolution has given us so much as a theory: it explains drug resistance, it explains the emergence of unique traits in related species due to relative isolation from the main populations. I encourage everybody to go check out the recent “National Geographic”:http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0411/feature1/index.html issue discussing the details, successes, and failures of the Theory of Evolution.