Microcosm: when science and the public meet

A recent DCII Panel Event on "Scientific Research and Public Responses" at SMU.
A recent DCII Panel Event on “Scientific Research and Public Responses” at SMU.

Science is a process by which reliable information is obtained by repeated use and assessment. In science, all claims are up for revision; however, absent better information when there is enough reliable information to make a decision it is usually considered wise to do so, even if future revisions (which one cannot predict) might cause adjustments to past decisions. This past week, the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute, on whose Faculty Advisory Board I serve, hosted a panel discussion [1] of four scientists moderated by a local public radio journalist. The event quickly became a microcosm of the very problem that the public has in understanding and using scientific information, and about public understanding of what it means to be a scientist. I’ve had a few days to process this event, and I want to share my personal observations and thoughts here.

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Moments in Time: Consider the Big Dipper

The Big Dipper played a small but important role in how I became a physicist. Here we see it as it looked from Berlin (Germany) in June 2011. From Ref. 2.
The Big Dipper played a small but important role in how I became a physicist. Here we see it as it looked from Berlin (Germany) in June 2011. From Ref. 2.

When I think back to my youth, I recognize a series of key moments that happened that led to my becoming a physicist. I often speak of one of those moments when I discuss physics with students or the general public. My father once recorded a documentary about physics entitled “The Creation of the Universe,” hosted by writer Timothy Ferris [1]. A scene from that documentary had a particular effect on my mind, which in part led me down the path of being a physicist. In that scene, the full length of a typical human life was compared to the trivial act of light leaving the Big Dipper and travelling to Earth. In that one moment, I came to understand our place, the insufficiency of light itself in comparison to the size and scale of the universe, and the small but meaningful role that humans play in the life of the cosmos. I hope to live long enough to see the stars of the Big Dipper as they appeared on the day that I was born.

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