Time to Ask Questions!

June 19th, 2008

SEFORA (Scientists and Engineers For America) is working their butts off to get politicians to tell voters where they stand on science. They’ve compiled 7 questions for every political candidate to answer. And, they’re starting to get results. A few politicians have sent in their answers.

But, it’s not nearly enough.

So, they are asking people to start writing letters. That means you. Yes, you. In fact, today they have issued an action alert.

If you are interested in getting politicians to state their scientific positions, tell them. You can find out who your candidates are, and how to contact them through the SEFORA website and the SHARP network. Let’s fill their mailboxes with this letter writing drive!

It’s really as easy as clicking a button. I tried it myself for my own district. Find your candidate in the SHARP network, and click on the option to send them an email. You will automatically be taken to a form where you fill in your name and address. The letter is already written for you. You can choose to be notified of the candidate’s response or not. Fill out the spam captcha, and click send.

It really couldn’t be easier.

So, doooo it. For science.

Making A Stirling Engine

June 19th, 2008

Is not to be taken lightly. I tried to make one from scratch, and it still doesn’t work. I did find a fairly inexpensive (relatively to all the other kits out there on the interwebs, that is), easy kit on ThinkGeek’s website, however. You can see the results on PopSiren. I will continue the quest to create a tin can engine. I will. And, one day I will see a cd spin from the power of ice and flame, and it will be a good day.

Oh, The Places I Go

June 16th, 2008

Like the RoboGames. What a fun event. It is absolutely amazing what people are building these days. The robots at the games ranged everywhere from little remote controlled humanoids to giant steel combat drones to autonomous explorers. I was doubly impressed by the number of kids involved in robot building. Robots are definitely not only for adults anymore. Young or old, all the builders at the games shared a love for creating that was fired up a notch due to the intensity of the competition.

Thank goodness I brought a camera along to record some of the experience.

Video thumbnail. Click to play
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Banishing Dragons

June 11th, 2008

A friend of mine, Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast and producer of the Skeptologists tv pilot, recently made this video on critical thinking. I think it is a fabulous introduction into the tools that all people should have in order to critically consider the deluge of information that bombards us on a daily basis. The video itself is of decent length (40 minutes) and without lots of fancy effects, so may be a slog for the ADD among us. But, Brian does a great job of clearly describing critical thinking and its importance, which makes this video something that I think every teacher should consider playing for their students.

As an aside, it might be nice for someone to develop some classroom tools to supplement this video.

Anyway, on to the video:

A World of Science

June 5th, 2008

This past week I attended the World Science Festival in New York City as a reporter for the Science Channel. I ran around the multitude of events with Melissa, the outstanding producer,

and a camera crew (Thanks, guys!)

wrangling all too brief interviews with scientists. I have never interviewed so many people in such a short period of time. It was fun, but I wish that I had more time with each of the scientists. I had so many questions to ask. Ah, well… I’ll just have to schedule them all for some time on TWIS!

For those of you who are not aware, the World Science Festival was a meta-event, encompassing something like 70 events within the city of New York. There were lectures, panel discussions, movies, performances at venues throughout the city, which managed to interlace science and culture in a way that I don’t believe has ever been done before. The whole shebang was brought to life by theoretical physicist, Brian Greene, and his wife, news reporter/journalist, Tracy Day. Scientists from all over the world were in attendance, and a majority of the events sold out with many experiencing lines down the street hoping for last minute tickets. In all, I think that everyone involved considers this inaugural year a massive success.

I thought they did a fantastic job with the multimedia presentation aspect of the various events. It gave a depth to the events that is not normally part of science lectures or discussions. Also, many of the events were designed with kids in mind. This was an essential part of the entire festival in my mind. It’s great to give adults the mental stimulation that might come from a discussion on quantum physics, but kids are the next generation of both scientists and voters. Creating events that stimulate a child’s scientific curiosity should be a major component of any science festival.

What specifically did I do at the festval, well here’s a synopsis…

Day one: We started with a presentation called Pioneers in Science, which brought two such pioneers, Leon Lederman and Cynthia Breazeal, to the stage to be interviewed by two teams of thoughtful high school students. The audience was filled with kids, and everyone seemed to react positively to the format. I got to interview both Leon and Cynthia after the event was over, and was highly impressed with how strongly they both felt about educating and working with youth.

Next it was off to a documentary premiere called Parallel Worlds, Parallel lives in which Mark Everett of the indie rock band the Eels delves into his now deceased father’s (Hugh Everett) body of work in the field of quantum/theoretical physics. After the film, three prominent physicists discussed Dr. Everett’s theory of parallel worlds, which has made quite a splash in recent years. I was able to interview all of the panelists: Mark Everett (who was interesting in his position because he doesn’t really have an interest in science, but knows the importance of his father’s ideas), Michio Kaku, Max Tegmark, and Brian Cox.

Finally, we raced across the city to NYU to catch the end of a panel discussion/presentation called Illuminating Genius: Unlocking Creativity. Unfortunately, we were late and I was unable to see much of the discussion. Given my interest in neuroscience and memory this was one of the sessions that I really wanted to see. However, I was able to meet and (briefly) interview V.S. Ramachandran (a.k.a Rama), Nancy Andreasen, and David Eagleman. All three were fascinating, and I just wish I had more time, but it was already 10pm and everyone was getting tired. Knowing I had a full day coming up, I politely turned down an invitation to go out with Dr. Eagleman and friends.

Day Two: With a full day under our belts, this second day of the festival went a bit smoother. We also weren’t running around the city quite as much. First, was an event called Cool Jobs, and boy were the jobs represented cool. A monkey researcher - Laurie Santos, a forensic scientist - Peter Diacek, an oceanographer/research diver - Eileen Prager, a Disney Imagineer - Ben Schwegler, and a NASA researcher - Christopher McKay. I interviewed everyone except the monkey researcher, and I want all of their jobs. Although, I am quite aware that what I am doing is amazingly cool as well. How many people get to talk to their scientific heroes and share it with the world? My life is definitely not boring.

Later in the evening, we attended the presentation called Invisible Reality: The Wonderful Weirdness of the Quantum World, which was a fascinating discussion between leaders in the realm of theoretical and experimental physics and philosophy. I got to speak with Brian Greene, David Albert, and William Phillips after the event. We set the interviews up to look very red-carpet because scientists should be celebrities afterall.

Day Three: This our final and longest day of shooting and interviews was also by far the most fun. We attended a session called Your Biological Biography: Genes and Identity, which discussed the Human Genome Project and DNA testing in light of how this new knowledge might change the way we as humans think about ourselves. The take home message that all panelists seemed to agree with was the fact that we still don’t understand enough about the genome to make many useful inferences from genetic information. Afterwards I was able to speak with Dr. Francis Collins, director (until August at least) of the Human Genome Project, Paul Nurse (my third Nobel laureate of the week!), and Nikolas Rose.

Then it was time to hit the street fair. We ran around Washington Square Park taking a look at all the sciencey booths, performances, and interactive stuff. Most of it was aimed at kids, and there were many in attendance of all ages. My favorite interview from the fair was with the Imagineer who developed the most advanced animatronic robot to date, Lucky the Dinosaur.

After a rejuvenating sushi meal, we headed back to the festival for Powering the Planet: a Townhall Meeting. Although informative if you are new to the green arena, I wasn’t much impressed by the overall discussion here, and unfortunately the person who I thought would be the most interesting was not so much. Ah, well… you can’t win them all. And, maybe I was just tired. The interviews were not my best either. I think this was because I wanted to ask more complex questions that might have provoked argument, and really didn’t have the time to get into them. Also, this whole thing with the Science Channel was pretty much an audition. Not such a good idea to get people riled up during an audition. So, I was left frustrated and the questions I did ask suffered as a result. I spoke with M.Glen Kertz of Valcent Products, Saul Griffith of Makani Power, and Dan Nocera. At least I got to hug a chemist.

The final group of interviews were after a session that I wish I had time to attend, What it Means to be Human. The panelists were certain to play against one another in viewpoint and practice. I heard it was a vibrant discussion, and considering the hour the scientists brought that energy to our interviews quite readily. I had a lot of fun interviewing this lot, and again it might be due to my own scientific inclinations. Pat Churchland and Daniel Dennett were both interesting and inspired me to many more questions that could not be asked. It turns out that Dr. Dennett has worked with one of my graduate advisers, and I probably met him while I was in the early years of my graduate study. Unfortunately, I was oblivious to the greatness that was before me at the time. Heh. What a difference time makes.

Sunday was my last day in NYC, and thankfully I was able to get out a bit before heading home. I was able to connect with my adviser, Dr. Max Gomez, from my AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC back in 2005. It was a very pleasant lunch…

Oh, and this was the view out my hotel window…

And, this was the spyglass that came with the room…