Posted tagged ‘Virtually Speaking Science’

For A Good Time On The Intertubes Today (And Forever): Annalee Newitz Takes Survival To Extremes

April 23, 2014

Very short notice this time, folks, but once again, I’m doing the funny intertube-radio thingee.  Today’s broad/podcast brings io9 founding editor Annalee Newitz in to talk about her book Scatter, Adapt, And Remember.*

We’ll be talking at 5ET, 2PT (about an hour and half from now).  Listen live or later on Virtually Speaking Science, or join us in the virtually live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life, where an implausibly tall and fit Levenson avatar will interrogate Annalee’s robot self.

The focus of our chat — death, destruction, and the possibility of slipping the noose.  Annalee’s book looks at what it will take for the human species to survive another million years — avoiding the threat of mass extinction along the way.  Her book really does two things.  For one, it provides a very good short introduction to the science of mass extinction, what we know and how we’ve figured out about the five times in Earth’s history that ~75% or more of all species on the planet went caput.  Then in the second half, Annalee examines the threats humankind have already confronted, looks at what that history tells us about current dangers, and writes about the ways we can now think about near and long term escapes from the worst outcomes.  It’s a combination (as you’d expect from the mind behind the “We Come From The Future” brigade over at io9) of bravura science writing — imaginative and rigorously grounded accounts of current inquiry — and plausible, exciting speculation.

David_Teniers_(II)_-_Apes_in_the_Kitchen_-_WGA22060

To emphasize:  this isn’t a work of speculative writing, fiction or non-fiction.  It’s an argument that includes speculation, given its weight through the third element of  Annalee’s title:  “Remember.”   There’s a beautiful section in the middle of the book in which Annalee discusses the science fiction of Octavia Butler.  There, she grapples with the nub of the book.  Whatever actual path(s) we take, should descendents of 21st century humans persist for geologically noticeable swathes of time, they will do so as one or many species increasingly divergent from our own.  What will be human about them, Annalee argues, will turn on the power and persistence of memory.  That sounds exactly right to me.

Come join us for the chat.  Should be fun…and more than that too, I hope.

*You can take up that title’s Oxford comma-hood in the comments, if you’re that kind of person.  Me, I’m an agnostic.

Image:  David Teniers the Younger, Apes in the Kitchen, c. 1645.

Tonight! ‘Net Radio: Me and Eileen Pollack on “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science”

March 12, 2014

That’d be my regular monthly gig co-hosting Virtually Speaking Science, tonight, Wednesday March 12, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.

Eileen Pollack is now a professor at the University of Michigan, teaching in the creative writing M.F.A. program there.  She’s a celebrated novelist and writer of short fiction, essays, and what is called (alas, in my view — and not her fault) “creative” nonfiction.  You can get hold of her works here.  All in all, hers is an enormously impressive record of a life in letters, of worlds made in words.

Eileen Pollack in 1978 was someone quite different (weren’t we all…) That spring, she graduated from Yale with highest honors in physics — only the second woman in the history of the university to complete that major.  What happened to take someone who was, on the accolades, one of Yale’s most accomplished undergraduate physicists, and turn her to a radically different path?

Pollack answered that question and raised another one in her New York Times Magazine article “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science?” published last October.  In her case, no one told her she might have a shot at a career in math or physics.  So, as conditioned by her context’s views on female capacity and the maleness of science as any of the male professors who never thought to encourage her, she gave up the joy she found in equations and the ideas they expressed, and moved on.

So far hers is a sorrowful but not unfamiliar story.  The history of barriers to entry in science is a miserable one, but not unknown.  But Pollack’s curiosity — and more — flared in 2005, when then Harvard president Larry Summers mused about a possible biological deficit — at least when it comes to the extremes of mathematical capacity — might explain why men so outnumber women in the physical sciences.  Pollack is gentle with Summers himself, whom she’s known for decades , but the controversy created a need to know the answer to the underlying issue.  It’s a fact that there are many more men than women hold positions in the upper echelons of scientific research.  But why?

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Pollack’s article, and the book that will emerge from her enquiry, engage that question, and the explanations she’s coming to are at once depressingly reminiscent of her own story, and extend them, to account for the persistence of cultural and social bias even when (a) formal discrimination is prohibited by law and (b) members of a community — like physics departments — pride themselves on their ability to separate emotion and unconscious impulses from the exercise of reason.

In other words:  being smart is no protection against hidden biases, or even against accepting the evidence of bias when rigorously documented…and the revolution isn’t won yet, not by a long shot.

Pollack and I will be talking about all that, the whys the wherefores, and some thought as to what it will take to turn formal commitments to gender equity (and by extension, equity for the whole host of relevant modifiers) into actual practice, the simple fabric of society.

Join us!  Live or later here.  Or, if you are virtually real, at the Exploratorium’s Second Life joint — 6 p.m. this evening, March 12, 2014.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment with the Air Pumpc. 1768

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics*

November 20, 2013

It’s that time of the month again.

This afternoon at 5 ET I’ll be doing my internet science radio gig as one of three hosts on Virtually Speaking Science.  The others, btw, are Alan Boyle and Jennifer Ouellette.

My guest will by my MIT colleague Allan Adams.  Allan is a physicist — a string theorist, AKA someone who works on problems that have been famously twitted as having no rea world test or validation.

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That’s a misleading claim on a bunch of levels, some of which are implicated in some recent work Allan and several colleagues have done.  The latest, reported in a paper in Science last summer, uses math derived from string theory that’s been applied to the study of black hole dynamics to investigate what happens as a superfluid — a frictionless fluid whose behavior is described by quantum mechanics — displays turbulence.

That’s a mouthful, to be sure.  Here’s the nub:  a mathematical description of one kind of physical system — a black hole — turns out to explicate the behavior of a very different one, that, as it happens, can be produced, observed and analyzed right here at home.

Think on that for a second.

This is an instance of the most …

…miraculous is the wrong word for it, so perhaps better, astonishing fact about modern science:  it really, really works, and it does so through a path that mathematics opens up.  We can make sense of our surroundings because of what seems to be an invention of the human mind, a system of logic rigorously expressed that can describe and evolve the relations between ideas, concepts and things in the world.  But here’s the weird bit:   that tool, that invention of thousands of years of human culture, does so across every more disparate, ever more encompassing domains — from the lab bench to a collapsed star, for example.  Mathematics as a creation of fallible humans seems to be in some sense an intrinsic property of the universe, which is a much more banal statement than it appears, in one sense, since what it really says is that  mathematical accounts do what people were trying to do with the stuff:  find ways to construct   arguments in forms that can be checked for accuracy and internal consistency that satisfactorily describe, say, the flight of a cannonball or the path of a planet.

So Allan and I are going to talk about all that:  his recent work as an example of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics; about how physicists actually use math — what kind of thinking actually goes into doing this kind of work;  and about why string theory, for any paucity of new prediction or unique evidence in its favor is still such a fertile field of inquiry — and what that fact tells you about how science actually advances.

Heady stuff, I know, but I, with my physics degree from the school of having things fall on my head, will keep the conversation working as a way to see into what (a) physicist does.  Allan, you’ll find, is great value, that most fortunate of human who finds nothing but joy in the work he does. That’ll come through — the great pleasure of my work is to get to spend time with people who know cool stuff, find out more, and can’t stop talking about it. That’s what you’ll get in just a little while.

Tune in if you have a chance, or stop by the Second Life live studio experience, or catch it later as  a podcast.

*The phrase “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” was the title of an essay by Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner.  Highly recommended.  It’s concluding thought:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

Image: Jan van Bijlert, Musical Companybefore 1671.

On Fluorescent Fish, Pet Prosthetics, Roach Cyborgs, and the Ethics of Engineered Animals

March 20, 2013

Program notes, here. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, which means I’ll be talking to a guest on the Virtually Speaking Science Strand at Blog Talk Radio and in Second Life.

This month my interlocutor will be a first for me: 0ne of my former MIT Science Writing graduate students, Emily Anthes. Emily is (a) great — a fine writer, a ferocious reporter, and someone with a sharp-elbowed, quirky view of the world.

She’s just out with a new book, Frankenstein’s Cat, on what’s happening now — and what the implications may be — in a range of ways we’ve begun to modify our pets and other animals. The book treats of genetically modified fish that glow in the dark; dairy animals manipulated to produce therapeutically valuable proteins in their milk, the concept of editing the genomes of useful (and/or decorative) animals, cloning, brain hacking (that’s the roaches) and more.

Emily is an engaged reporter on all this; she has strong points of view. Broadly, she favors the side of intervention; in part, as she notes, because it’s hardly as if the history of selective breeding leaves us exactly virginal in the matter of using our fellow creatures as means, rather than ends in themselves.

Joannes_Fijt_-_Spaniels_Stalking_Rabbits_in_the_Dunes_-_WGA08353

The question isn’t whether we should manipulate animals, but how, and with what ethical lens — and that’s what we’ll talk about.

We’ll do so both as a live and listen-later audio cast, and in front of a virtually (and virtuously, I hope) live audience in Second Life, tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 4 p.m on that far coast I used to call home.

Should be fun. Emily’s the real deal. Listen in; buy her book; make an old teacher happy.

Image: Jan Fyt, Spaniels Stalking Rabbits in the Dunes, 1658

Scary Diseases; Agribiz Denialism; and Why We Need Health Care Reform (It’s more than just coverage)

March 28, 2012

Just a quick heads up.  I’ll be talking at 5 Eastern Time today with Maryn McKenna, aka Scary Disease Girl on Virtually Speaking Science. You can listen, but if you’re a virtual kind of person you can also head over to the open air theater in Second Life see Maryn’s magnificent avatar with its gloriously purple hair.  (One commenter compared the shade to Beaujolais Nouveau, but I’m not so sure.)

McKenna is a science and medicine writer who has focused the last several years of her career on the truly vexing and terrifying issue of antiobiotic resistance, focusing on the scourge of MRSA:  methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or drug-resistant staph.  She blogs at Wired.com, under a title shared with the book — Superbug — that will be the leaping off point for our conversation.

So check it out, if not synchronously, then via the podcast, available either at Blog Talk Radio (from about midnight tonight, I think, though it may be tomorrow), via the RSS feed, or as found within the greater Virtually Speaking iTunes podcast.

Just to give a tease of the conversation — we’ll start by talking about the great squander:  how, some 75 years into the antibiotic era, we’re on the verge of destroying what had once seemed to be a truly transformative gift, a way to salve so much human suffering…and we will start to look at the reasons why.  High among them will be the area Maryn’s focused on a lot since publishing Superbug, the use of antibiotics in agriculture in a non-therapeutic situations — that is, not as a response to an infection, but either as a prophylactic, or simply to fatten up livestock before slaughter.

There’s been some news over the last week that makes this issue genuinely hot, but the most interesting aspect of it, to me, is the way agribusiness and their congressional allies (on both sides of the aisle, alas) have simply changed a few of the nouns and then copied the denialist playbook written for the tobacco wars, and updated for use in turning the threat of climate change into a world-wide conspiracy of fanatical socialist-facist greens.

Which is to say, as readers of this blog know, the transformation of science from a source of public knowledge into a post-modern body of jargon to be manipulated by those with the biggest and most sophisticated megaphones, is literally killing us — as we will discuss in a bit.

Oh — and one more thing.  One of the key threads to emerge from Maryn’s work is just how badly we are served by the fragmentary system of health care delivery that we now have, that the GOP wishes to preserve, and that Obamacare goes some way to repair.  The lack of uniform systems of electronic charts, the failure to disseminate key medical knowledge outside of its silos — sometimes single hospitals, or even single services within hospitals — the inability to construct a truly national system of health care knowledge and the dissemination of best practices (Death Panels!) all have contributed directly to the deaths of kids, grown ups, grandma and grandpa from preventable or much earlier-treatable MRSA infections, as Maryn has documented — and much else besides.  Remember:  when our friends who decry the fascism inherent in public regulation of a public good seek to repeal without replacing, they are advocating a policy choice that will kill people.  This is a known, predictable consequence of any swerve to the status quo ante.  In other circumstances, taking actions that a reasonable person understands will lead directly to the deaths of others has a name, and the people who do so have names to.  Now we call them GOP Presidential candidates.  Just sayin.

Just the cheery kind of conversation that will set you up for a truly heroic cocktail hour.  May I recommend either one of these…or,  maybe, doses by mouth of this concoction, repeated as necessary.

Image:  Barent Fabritius, The Slaughtered Pig, 1656

January 25, 2012

A bit more self-aggrandizement, for which I apologize, but I thought (hoped) y’all might want to know about the conversation I’m going to have with Alan Lightman this afternoon.

It will be on the occasion of the publication (yesterday!) of Alan’s latest book, Mr. g: A Novel About The Creation.  This is my monthly Virtually Speaking Science web/Second-Life cast, and you can listen hereHere’s where to go in Second Life for a “live audience” view.

Alan, as many of you know, is both a theoretical physicist and an essayist and novelist of great accomplishment.  He’s best known for his marvelous fiction-of-ideas, Einstein’s Dreams, but I’d also point you to his non-fiction, especially his recent, The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science, Including the Original Papers.  That’s a work of both great depth and great fun, even if I’ve argued with Alan about his omission of Wegener’s continental drift paper.

But back to the matter at hand:  Mr. g is a novel in the spirit of Einstein’s Dreams, deeply engaged in ideas, specifically, (at least as I read it), what is the maximum amount of God you can get in a universe that obeys the physical laws we now recognize.  To tackle this there are familiar figures:  Mr. g himself, and his questioner (the interlocutor from Job, much more than the fallen angel of Paradise Lost).  And there are some not-so usual folks, specifically Mr. g’s uncle and aunt.  And then there is, after a bit, space and time, universes and the Universe, and an account of what feels to me to be the tragic nature of any possible conception of a deity.

We’ll be talking about that, about what makes a work a novel, about the science-religion argument as it plays out in popular culture, and maybe even about what it takes to convey something of scientific lives and thinking to broad audiences, all in more or less an hour.  If you’re interested, come on down (or download the podcast once it becomes available–within hours or the day).

Image: Michealangelo, The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, c. 1511.  Inevitable — a cliché, I know.  But what are you going to do?