Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Two Cultures

Fifty years ago, C. P. Snow lamented in his famous lecture, The Two Cultures, that there was a rift in understanding  between the sciences and the humanities.  He noted that ignorance of the laws of thermodynamics is akin to never having read a work of Shakespeare, and that such scientific illiteracy could prove harmful to society.  How can our leaders solve our problems if they don't understand them?

So it was with great interest that I went last Saturday (9 May) to the New York Academy of Sciences, at the top of the world, to attended a conference exploring the current state of the Two Cultures and what could be done about it.   There were many fascinating people there.

The 192 year old NY Academy of Sciences now resides in the gleaming new building at 7 World Trade Center.  Forty stories up, there is a panoramic view of Manhattan, and an overlook on the unimproved hole of ground zero.  

Actually, one feels the presence of 9/11 as soon as one steps in the elevator.  Each wall of the elevator is roughly polished metal, so that one's reflection is distorted  as it is bounced back and forth, and one is surrounded by ghostly images.

There were two main topics discussed: the nature of the divide between scientists and nonscientists (both in the humanities and the general public), and what one could do to bridge the gap.
E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist, described his idea of consilience, and argued that the walls between fields were illusions because of the interdisciplinary bridges which already exist.  He is a hardcore reductionist who believes that complex sociological behavior can be mapped to chemical reactions in the brain.  On the other hand, the historian Ann Blair argued that having walls between fields was important so they can flourish independently.

But most of the day was spent discussing how to bridge the gap between science and the larger society (such as you, dear reader).   There was a panel on "How to more effectively communicate science issues to the public," with the executive producer of Nova, Paula Apsell, and the host of Science Friday, Ira Flatow.   There was a panel on science and politics with the founders of Science Debate 2008.  And there was a concluding keynote address by Segway inventor, Dean Kamen.  I have to say that I was impressed with his organization, FIRST, which sponsors a robot competition that makes science cool for kids.  In just 20 years, it has gone from a handful of people, to something which won't fit in the Houston Astrodome!

Science is  increasingly important for our society.  For democracy to work in such an environment, it is essential that the average citizen be at least somewhat scientifically literate.  For example, everyone should have some vague idea why a perpetual motion machine can't work (thermodynamics says, "there ain't no free lunch").  So I hope we can all work on bridges of understanding between ourselves.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Report from the 'April meeting'

Scientific conferences have personalities. They shift locations and take on the color of the locale, but the canvass of a given conference is the same. I write this from a hotel room in Denver, CO, site of my society's annual meeting. It does not matter that it is in Denver, or that it's May, it is still the 'April meeting'.  The April Meeting is not a cozy specialized meeting, nor is it a zoo that the largest meetings become. It covers just the subjects of particle physics, nuclear physics and astrophysics. So it is a chimera of the small and the large, the specialized and the very broad.

There is the same rhythm of expansive plenary talks in darkened ballrooms, and frenzied cryptic parallel session talks in small rooms which either are empty or overfull. There are talks on science and society. There are all the organizational meetings. There are the booths and posters. Yet at 1400 people it feels sparse.

The most exciting results this year are from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (formerly called GLAST). Launched in June 2008, it is already changing our view of the high-energy sky. Its main instrument, the Large Area Telescope, or LAT, has made a precise measurement of ultra-high energy electrons and positrons. A previous experiment had shown indications of an excess in number of particles detected, which was hard to explain with known physics. LAT has shown that that "bump" was likely just a statistical fluctuation. Alas, this is what usually happens--most coincidences are actually just coincidences. LAT also showed that there is some new source of high-energy positrons out there, which will surely launch a thousand papers.

Fun anecdote: One of the talks was given by a senior physicist  (he received the Nobel prize for work done in 1964). He admitted that he had a habit of showing data before the large collaboration of which he is a part was ready to release it. After his talk, someone asked a question about the composition of the cosmic rays his collaboration had detected. He excitedly jumped to a slide he'd prepared because he "knew someone would ask that question". He explained that the collaboration would release the data soon, after further analysis, but he'd show the figure now. When the figure popped up there was a big "X" in place of the plot. He was astonished and confused and wondered aloud how it could have happened. Then one of his collaborators raised her hand and admitted to have hacked into his talk. She said, "we knew you might show this but we're not ready to release it yet".   He laughed at being thwarted.