Important Scientific Study Suggests Opening Your Eyes Affects Your Brain

I just saw a story from NPR reporting on a study that finds that mobile phone antennas can increase glucose production in the brain near where the antenna is located [1]. The NPR report of the study suggests that the researchers did control the variables and controlled for bias; they put a mobile phone on both sides of the subject’s head, they did not tell them which phone was on, and they conducted PET scans of the brain before and after the phone was on.

Their conclusions are that exposure to the radio waves from mobile phones can increase glucose production in the brain by 6%. Before you freak out, it’s worth noting what the researchers say in response to these findings:

Volkow says that level of increase in brain metabolism is not terribly dramatic — studies have shown that just opening your eyes can produce a much greater change in brain cells that process visual information. And scientists say it’s hard to know what to make of the change. [1]

Glucose – sugar – is needed by the brain during processing. Clearly, some people who don’t understand the basic science of electromagnetic waves (e.g. mobile phone radio waves cannot ionize atoms)  but who crave the need to blame medical problems on phones are going to interpret this study any way they like. So I began to think to myself: if I were to misinterpret the statements and findings of these researchers, how should I do it?

Wait, I have it!

Important scientific study finds that opening your eyes or thinking pose a higher risk of increased brain sugar levels than mobile phones. If mobile phones cause brain cancer, looking or thinking must turn the brain to mush. It’s just good [sic] science.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2011/02/22/133968220/cell-phone-radio-waves-excite-brain-cells?ft=1&f=1001&sc=tw&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

The Nend of Global Climate Change

“Well,” declared Joe Average Citizen as he stared at his TV and watching anomalously high snowfall rain down on much of the U.S., “I guess global warming is over!” This simple statement, uttered by at least two people within earshot of me in the past two weeks (and likely by countless others in the U.S.) represents several of the mistakes people commonly make regarding global climate change:

  • It’s “global climate change,” not global warming – some places may get colder, others warmer, but overall weather patterns – climate – will change.
  • Weather and climate are not the same thing
  • Cyclic weather extremes (e.g. El Nino or La Nina) happen, but what matters are long-term average climate effects ACROSS the globe, and certainly not just in one or another narrow geographic region (e.g. a continent is too small).

Yes, the U.S. has been pummeled by snowfall this year. A few weeks ago, my father noted that Connecticut is 44 inches above its average snowfall number for Jan/Feb. The normal average is less than 10 inches. This is a 400% increase in snow fall.

So is climate change over? Alas, no. A quick search of Google for live climate data yields the NASA Global Surface Temperature Analysis [1]. You can enter in a month of data you want to chart and compare that data to long-term temperature averages. I chose to plot January temperature data for the globe and compare it on a map to average data from 1951-1980. The red spots indicate anomalously HIGH temperatures, the blue spots anomalously LOW temperatures. We see that the U.S. was in quite a cold snap in January, 2011. But Europe was in a hot snap. At their extremes, parts of the U.S. were 4 degrees Celcius below average, and parts of Europe were 4-7 degrees Celcius ABOVE normal. In part of Europe, people might argue the opposite: global climate change is accelerating (if one equates only heating with that change). I watched Swiss students boarding planes to the U.S. to go skiing in January. That’s not the usual trend for skiing this year; in fact, it’s usually quite the other way around.

What’s the message? Don’t mistake weather for climate. Don’t mistake change for warming. Don’t mistake one year’s harsh weather as a clear sign of all future years. Respect science, respect data, and be careful about making personal or political policy statements based on narrow-scope, cherry-picked, short-term data. It’s not the end (the “nend”) of global climate change.

[1] http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/maps/

Presidential Candidates – an “out in front” analysis

I’ve avoided the Presidential race for quite some time in this blog. Mainly, I was irritated that the whole thing started over a year ago. I felt it was a distraction from the present – the damage being done to America by the present leaders. However, it’s getting to be that time when the race should matter. For a while, I’ve been looking at the two candidates’ websites. I reported some time ago on my impressions of the technical aspects of their sites [1].

I’ve returned to those sites many times, and I have to say that while McCain’s site has improved, overall, I still can’t subscribe to his blog in a global way. I am still offered only 4 subscription choices: Iraq, Health, Economy, Spending, Campaign [2]. None of these seems to encompass the postings in the blog I am interested in. For instance, the current top post is “New TV Ad: ‘Biden'”. If I click on these available feeds, I no where find this headline. Sigh. I wonder what the average age of people looking at this website is? There’s no way I’m going to have five feeds in my feed reader, especially since many of them share articles in common.

Right now, though, I am trying to avoid both campaigns’ headlines and go straight for their issues pages. Specifically, I was interested in comparing how they rank issues by their order of appearance on their issues pages [3] [4], and what little blurb they have next to their issue title. I was interested in seeing how far I have to dig to find out what they plan to do about the issues that matter to me.

First, let’s compare the order of issues. Here is McCain’s ordered list:

  1. Economy
  2. Energy
  3. National Security
  4. Healthcare
  5. Iraq
  6. Climate Change
  7. Veterans
  8. Immigration
  9. Education
  10. 2nd Amendment
  11. Judicial Philosophy
  12. Technology
  13. Fighting Crime
  14. National Heritage
  15. Agricultural Policies
  16. The Sanctity of Life
  17. Space Program
  18. Ethics Reform

Here is Barack Obama’s list:

  1. Civil Rights
  2. Defense
  3. Disabilities
  4. Economy
  5. Education
  6. Energy and Environment
  7. Ethics
  8. Faith
  9. Family
  10. Fiscal
  11. Foreign Policy
  12. Healthcare
  13. Homeland Security
  14. Immigration
  15. Iraq
  16. Poverty
  17. Rural
  18. Service
  19. Seniors and Social Security
  20. Technology
  21. Urban Policy
  22. Veterans

It becomes immediately obvious that McCain’s list has no pre-imposed order (numerical, alphabetical, etc), while Obama does. Therefore, one cannot conclude from Obama’s issues page what matters most, or what order his campaign thinks suits his supporters best, or best represents his current political positions. McCain, on the other hand, is either a specifically ranked list (in order of importance to him) or totally random. If it’s ranked, then we can already glean a few things from it.

First, McCain’s campaign has put the economy at the top. This suggests, but is not conclusive, that they are trying to portray him as economically savvy, something for which he’s taken fire. Interestingly, ethics reform is last. This is at least ironic, if not downright on purpose, since McCain-Feingold was supposed to be the big Congressional ethics reform bill of the past decade and it’s something he’s turned his back on. Seems like the campaign wanted to bury this in his issues list.

From my perspective as an active researcher, I am pleased to see Energy near the top in McCain’s list. However, I also recognize that education and technology are STRONGLY related issues. They are further down the list (Education is in the 56th percentile and technology is in the 39th percentile, which means that 44% and 61% of the issues he lists are above these, respectively).  The space program is related to this, since it involves putting important equipment in space to monitor climate, monitor the sun, solar wind, etc. The space program is in the 11th percentile. This suggests that McCain misses the point of energy policy – it’s about providing the foundation for a solid, new energy economy. Education is higher on his list, but certainly technology and a space program are important to this and they are WAY at the bottom.

What do the candidates have to say? Can I determine what they will do about issues important to me based on their blurbs under the issue title?

Let’s go issue by issue. The quotes are taken from each candidates’ issues webpage, referenced below.

  1. Education
  • McCain: Excellence, choice, and competition in American education. John McCain believes American education must be worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. He understands that we are a nation committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education.
  • Obama: Throughout America’s history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of young people. Our schools must prepare students not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also help students take their place as committed and engaged citizens. It must ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background. Barack Obama is committed to strengthening our public schools to maximize our country’s greatest natural resource – the American people. Obama believes that we must equip poor and struggling districts, both rural and urban, with the support and resources they need to provide disadvantaged students with an opportunity to reach their full potential. Too often, our leaders present this issue as an either – or debate, divided between giving our schools more funding, or demanding more accountability. Obama believes that we have to do both, and has offered innovative ideas to break through the political stalemate in Washington.

Hmm. From McCain, the only concrete I get is that he wants to make education more accessible to the American people. That’s definitely a good thing. We already have a universal public education system, albeit with deficiencies in many areas. In physics, there is a growing dearth of teachers who are well trained in the field and also deeply interested in teaching the subject. There have been proposals recently to increase the incentives to train more science teachers, such as “10,000 teachers, 10,000,000 minds” [5]. It’s not clear to me whether this is what he’s talking about, but certainly this program has been bounced around in the same Congress of which McCain is a member. Interestingly, the effort to move this bill through Congress succeeded in the House and died in the Senate [6]. It never made it to a vote.

What about Obama? His blurb makes the connection between a well-educated citizenry and competition in the global economy. He, like McCain, sees it important to make sure Americans have access to good education, specifically citing poor urban and rural areas. McCain’s equal opportunity message presumably includes this idea – of making struggling schools better to give the same quality of education to those Americans as those in wealthy districts.

From neither candidate is it really clear what they would do. Obama says a bit more about accountability and funding, and points out the connection between education and competitiveness. McCain talks about some vagaries (” . . . the promise we make to our children and ourselves . . . ” – what promise?), and hits one concrete (the opportunity). I think McCain gets it, I believe Obama gets it, but from neither do I get a sense of what they would do. Digging deeper is required.

Continuing the surface analysis, let’s move onto the next issue:

  1. Energy
  • Obama: Senator Obama has been a leader in the Senate in pushing for a comprehensive national energy policy and has introduced a number of bills to get us closer to the goal of energy independence. By putting aside partisan battles, he has found common ground on CAFE, renewable fuels, and clean coal.
  • McCain: Our nation’s future security and prosperity depends on the next President making the hard choices that will break our nation’s strategic dependence on foreign sources of energy and will ensure our economic prosperity by meeting tomorrow’s demands for a clean portfolio.

Obama has some concrete things. His blurb points to his legislative credentials on the subject. He makes a point to note his support for things like CAFE (which appeals to people in his party), renewable fuels (also appealing to people in his party), and clean coal (definitely an “across-the-aisle” issue, as the left is typically skeptical of the honesty of this technology while the right wants to exploit the value of this abundant fossil fuel). From this, one can guess that Obama believes in a diverse energy portfolio – conservation, non-fossil energy, and fossil-based energy.

McCain speaks directly to the “foreign oil” issue, seen as a national security approach to the energy discussion. This implies he sees the value of expanding U.S.-based fossil fuels – coal and off-shore oil are obvious elements in this. He ties the energy issue to economics, which is good – certainly, I value the new energy economy as a means to reinvent American industry. He mentions the “clean portfolio” – this implies he values a diversity of energy sources, including non-fossil sources. Nowhere are conservation goals mentioned, suggesting this is not important to him.

Onto the next issue!

  1. Technology:
  • McCain: John McCain has a broad and cohesive vision for the future of American innovation. His policies will provide broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America, a commitment to a skilled and educated workforce, and a dedication to opening markets around the globe. He’s committed to streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American intellectual property in the United States and around the globe.
    Regarding the space program: “Let us now embark upon this great journey into the stars to find whatever may await us.”
  • Obama: “Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let’s set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let’s recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let’s make college more affordable, and let’s invest in scientific research, and let’s lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.”

McCain is straight onto concretes in this one! It’s interesting – so far, of the three issues I’ve listed, this is the one where McCain goes straight for concretes! He avoided them almost altogether on education, which outranked Technology in his issue order, and Energy had only slightly more concretes than Education. Technology, near the bottom of his list, is less fluff and more substance.

What does he say? He ties technology right to innovation, suggesting the “Innovation Agenda” (the Democrat name for the competitiveness issues) went straight to his brain. He’s big on the private business – relaxing regulation, taxes, more capital, open markets. Education factors in here, suggesting he gets the connection to innovation and competitiveness that he didn’t make in his Education blurb. Of note for me is his statement about protecting American intellectual property. I wonder how he feels about open source, or whether he even understands what that is?

Obama also goes right for the substance. He’s right onto the education issue as well, tying technology back to better schools. McCain and Obama at least have their message integration down. Interestingly, he mentions the recruiting of teachers, suggesting he also absorbed the issue in Ref. [5]. He notes trading better incentives for teachers for more accountability – this could be another play to lean across the aisle on this issue. He rounds out his blurb with three concretes: more affordable college education, more investment in scientific research, and more broadband access. Not bad! Certainly, all three of these are important to me.

Going back to McCain for a moment, he has this comment on the space program. This is probably the most say-nothing blurb in either of their two issues page. Why is this even on his site?

One final thing. In order to dig down into McCain’s issues details, you have to click each issue. Obama has chosen to provide a single printable document that outlines his whole platform. I’ll be pouring over these in weeks to come to learn more about the candidates on these  issues.

[1] “Comparing Campaigns: Tech Perspective”
[2] JohnMcCain.com: RSS Feeds
[3] JohnMcCain.com: Issues
[4] barackobama.com: Issues
[5]10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds” Science and Math Scholarship Act”
[6] List of major actions on HR362

Finding consensus

For the past five months, my professional life has been a roller-coaster ride. My research is now a constant source of stress, as deadlines rapidly approach and MANY questions need to be answered. Adding to this is a broader concern about the future of my own field in this country. High-energy physics, a field which the U.S. helped build to its modern state after World War II, has helped to put us in a position of world leadership in technology, education, and basic research. HEP inspires young men and women with its big questions about the origin and nature of space, time, energy, and matter. It tantalizes the growing mind with hints and clues to those questions: Maxwell’s equations, relativity, the Standard Model. Even those who don’t remain in the field take their skills in problem solving, electronics, engineering, and computing to other fields and into industry.

But the pipeline is threatened, and not just in this field. In almost all fields of the physical sciences, the U.S. is either at a cross-roads or in decline. This is not because there is a lack of compelling problems to solve. Quite the contrary. In particle physics, this is “a time rivaled ONLY by the excitement at the turn of the 20th century”:http://interactions.org/quantumuniverse/. The challenges of dark matter and dark energy, the mystery of the matter/antimatter asymmetry, the curiosity of unification and the wild multiplicity of fundamental building blocks all present us with an opportunity to pursue aggressive programs in astrophysics, collider physics, neutrino physics . . . the list goes on and on.

Within particle physics, it’s pretty clear that the “Large Hadron Collider”:http://www.interactions.org/LHC/ at CERN is the highest priority program in the next decade. It has been a challenge to this field to conceive it, build it, and soon, run it. Thousands of particle physicists from all over the globe are converging on CERN, more with each passing month, as the ATLAS and CMS collaborations get ready to catch the collisions of the great LHC physics engine.

What is less clear is what happens to us all after the LHC. It may seem odd to worry about what to do after an experiment which (a) hasn’t started running yet and (b) is expected to last close to 20 years. However, particle physics is a field in which long-term vision and a commitment to the questions are critical to forging a path into the unknown. Even for experiments that are comparatively small when juxtaposed with the LHC, we plan and worry and test and build years in advance of running the actual experiment.

The thing that weighs most on me now is that the field *feels* like it’s beginning to fracture. In the “wake of the EPP2010 report”:http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bpa/EPP2010.html, I have had many conversations with my colleagues about our field and the three-letter acronym that is becoming a four-letter word with some physicists: ILC, the International Linear Collider. I’ve even had a fight with Jodi about this thing. The argument always centers around two issue, the very issues the EPP2010 committee worried about: will the ILC gobble up the budgets of all other programs (the “all the eggs in one basket” argument), and how do we trains students and post-docs on an experiment that is perhaps a decade away (the “students and post-docs can’t get jobs if they don’t work on a running experiment” argument)?

I am not trivializing these arguments. They are **absolutely critical questions** that all of us must answer. Tackling them will take professional courage and a lot of ingenuity, and that is what I want all of my colleagues to understand. As a post-doc, I deeply understand the problem of advancing a career while also keeping a focus on the future. However, I also understand that if we never try, we will never achieve. As a person who has been recently involved in neutrino physics, I understand the fear that a big ILC budget will eat the little budgets of other projects. However, if we stand up and state what is important to us, with the understanding that the ILC represents a nexus for advancing our field on many fronts (science, technology, and engineering), we can have our small science while making investments and commitments to a large, central project.

It doesn’t have to be about giving up the science we love for the science we’re told to do. Many of us have felt for a decade that the ILC is critical in understanding the mysteries that could be revealed by the LHC. I am beginning to understand the importance of the ILC as a discovery engine, complementary to the LHC but also independently powerful in its breadth. Now is the time to work with the whole field, and other fields of science, and the American people, and talk to them about the science we do and the science we will do, if we have the tools. Now is the time to understand the reasons for the ILC, to understand how a central project can benefit the smaller programs, and to offer the public and our fellow scientists a chance to share in the wonder of particle physics. Most importantly, now is the time to stand up to our funding agencies and declare the importance of the physics experiments we have planned, how they fit into a schedule of priorities, and how we can pursue them. If we do not do this last thing, then the funding agents will make autocratic decisions about the future of this field.

The DOE, for instance, has not had a new initiative in the last 3-5 years. Many projects have been cancelled either by committee or by unilateral action. These agencies are supposed to serve the science, not the other way around. Before we can chart a road built on clear scientific consensus, we have to also work to engage the funding agencies and show them that there is science we cannot afford not to fund.