Can Science Change the World?

Many people will read my blog title, and without thinking say “Obviously. Penicillin, space flight, and don’t forget the Internet.”

But, those are the outcomes of science, not the actual science. That’s like saying a plate of spaghetti and meatballs is cooking. It’s not. That’s food. That’s the outcome of cooking.

Science, just like cooking, is a process. And a pretty damn tough one too. Weighing information, throwing out ideas that might seem great but the data won’t support it, finding holes in your logic, admitting when you don’t know enough or where you might be wrong. This is what science is actually all about.

Last week I got to watch science happen on a grand scale. The Waterloo Global Science Initiative, hosted at the Perimeter Institute, brought together dozens of scientists and policymakers from around the world to hash out some ideas on how to solve the energy problem we are now facing.

You can read all about my experiences at the Equinox Summit here, and of course check out the Communique that was finally produced.

But, what I found most surprising and inspiring about the Equinox Summit is that science is not a cold, calculating machine. It’s a people thing. It relies on the knowledge, passions, and visions of people.

If I had to bet on a single project after the Equinox Summit, I wouldn’t bet on engineered geothermal systems, thorium nuclear generators, or smart grids. I would bet on the innovative power of smart people doing sound science. Individual projects and technologies may fail, but the people who believe in a better world never do.

Busy New Year

PHEW! It’s been a very busy new year for me, and it’s only been what? 26 days!!

So, to anticipate the large number of new articles that I will have to be posting on here in the coming weeks and months, I will mention an article I did a while ago for FQXi about getting kids interested in science and physics.

For the article, I got to speak with Brian Greene about his latest book, which is a kids book. It’s a very pretty book, and I enjoyed reading it. My daughter (2) was sort of lukewarm to it, but maybe I better try it again in a few months.

Also, I had two articles I wrote a while ago for Popular Science Magazine finally hit the newsstands. The first was about three very cool laser projects in the December issue, and the other was about using old newspapers to extract gold and other precious metals from old cell phone batteries in the January issue. Both were pretty cool if I do say so myself.

PI and Pub Nights for Science Writers

Last night, I began the season of pub nights after the Perimeter Institute’s hugely successful public lectures. The season began with a lecture by Sir Roger Penrose.

According to reliable sources, the free tickets for his lecture sold out in about 10 minutes. “He’s kind of like a rock star for physicists,” said one attendee last night.

Neil Turok, the new executive director of PI, was also there last night to introduce Penrose on his first day of work. “There is a reverence bordering on awe by both mathematicians and physicists when they talk about Roger,” said the former Cambridge physicist.

All these leads me to wonder what would happen if Stephen Hawking ever visited Waterloo? Judging by the public and academic response to October’s lecture, you have to wonder if demand for tickets would be so great that a bigger venue would be needed. Anyway, that’s just speculation.

Finally, what isn’t speculation is the rest of this season’s talks which were formally announced, and here’s what you have to look forward to:

November 5 – Physics Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek “Anticipating a Golden Age”
December 3 – Ben Schumacher, Kenyon University in Ohio
Break for January and February
March 4 – Robert Cook, Vice President of Pixar the animation studio that created Wall-E
April 1 (no joke) – Brian Cox, particle physicist with the University of Manchester, former rockstar, and award winning science promoter for lay audiences
May 6 – Larry Abbott, theoretical neurophysicist with Columbia University
June 3 – Brian Schmidt, supernovae astronomer with the Australian National University

If any science writers want to come to any of the upcoming lectures, just let me know and I will help make it happen.

New Ways of Doing Science

Science is an ever changing field. Every clear night possible I go out and look at the stars with my telescope, a device that revolutionized our understanding of the Universe about 400 years ago. I also write on a MacBook Pro, and I can’t even count all the ways computers have changed science.

I have also been able to write about some pretty cool new pieces of equipment or experiments that are shaking up our understanding of how to do science.

Take for instance my recent article on small satellites (about the size of a refrigerator to a softball) for National Geographic News. Small satellites are cheaper and quicker to build, but do science that is every bit as good as the bigger space satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the past they were thought of as good tools to teach aerospace engineering or get students interested in space, but now there are some really cool space missions using small missions. My favorite is the ill-fated NanoSail-D, which failed to get into space a couple weeks ago because of a rocket failure. The approximately $2 million satellite was supposed to test a new solar sail, and it still might. They built two flight-ready satellites, and the backup could be soaring high within a year.

Try and get NASA to approve making a duplicate of a $1 billion space satellite!

Another article that was recently published by the Foundational Questions Institute focuses on trying to see if quantum mechanics works on ever larger scales. We’re not talking cat-sized objects, but we are talking big enough that with a little help from microscopes you could see them with your own eyes.

Previous attempts to see quantum effects have never worked on a scale this big. I mean they are nearly 10 billion times more massive than anything before. That’s a lot bigger.

And, if they can establish where quantum mechanics breaks down and classical mechanics starts that could open up a whole new suite of technologies that make use of the quantum world’s wacky physics.

Finally, I am looking forward to a conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics that will focus on Science in the 21st Century. A lot of the talks seem to be focusing on how the internet, blogs, and even open access to research data are changing the face of science.

I think one of the most interesting talks will be by Katy Borner, a researcher at Indiana University, who will be talking about mapping science. I’ve heard the term “scientific roadmap” or “roadmap for the future” a million times in policy announcements before, but all you have to do is look at some of the incredible images tracking scientific discoveries, funding, and public interest to see that she is talking about something very different and very cool.

I’d Like to Thank the Science Academy

Last night at the monthly Perimeter Institute public lecture, there were quite a few exciting events but three stand out.

First, the Perimeter Institute’s outreach team was given the Michael Smith award for excellent scientific outreach for a group from NSERC. Dr. Suzanne Fortier, president of NSERC, was there to award the medal to John Matlock, director of PI’s outreach.

“Science promotion should have two key elements: 1. to share relevant knowledge with citizens, and 2. to inspire the next generation of scientists,” said Fortier.

The second big event last night was a gift of $50 million from Mike Lazaridis, founder of RIM and main benefactor of PI. Mike spoke briefly in-between congratulations from various government officials.

“The world’s changing and we need to invest in the best and brightest if we are going to survive in the future,” said Lazaridis. He added later that “his greatest fear years ago had been that physics had become so complex that it would lose its impact with people’s lives.” Out of that fear came one of the world’s greatest scientific research organizations with an outstanding outreach program.

The third big announcement was that CTV will broadcast upcoming PI public lectures across the country in High Definition on the Discovery channel. Quite an improvement over local Rogers cable. Perhaps this increased interest will help pressure the Record to cover local science better.

After all the announcements, Bill Phillips (Nobel Prize for laser cooling in 1997) gave a fun lecture where he spilled many litres of liquid nitrogen.

The talks ended, and our local group of science writers headed over to the Black Hole Bistro for further schmoozing with dignitaries, scientists and other journalists. After a few glasses of wine and some great food, I spoke with Margaret Wente, columnist for the Globe and Mail, about the terrible state of science journalism in major news outlets.

With all the money and excellent scientific outreach, maybe the media will finally get it. Science is important to cover.

PI & Pub Night in K-W for Local Science Writers

On Wednesday, June 4th I will be helping to organize the final PI and Pub night of the 2007-2008 season. In essence a group of local science writers come out to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics to listen to a public lecture by some incredibly brilliant person. After the talk, we all head over to the Black Hole Bistro for a drink, a light bite to eat, and some good conversation.

In June we will hear from Bill Phillips, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1997. His talk will be about time and clocks, and should be very interesting because I believe he is involved with the Clock of the Long Now project.

If you write about science and want to come out to the PI and Pub night, just let me know and I will arrange a ticket.

PI in the Sky

Ever since I watched Pathfinder land on the rust-colored surface of Mars back in 1997, I have been captivated by space, astronomy, and in fact all science.  But, space exploration has always held a soft spot in my heart.

I love the idea of traveling to other worlds, whether through robots or with actual humans.  These days, it seem, the robots are winning. But, during a lecture Wednesday night at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics I learned that private space flight tourists could be the dark horse that change the whole race.

Michael Belfiore, a New York based writer for Popular Science and Wired, gave a talk based on his book “The Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots is Boldly Privatizing Space” and blog “Dispatches from the Final Frontier.”  It’s a great book (I read half of it before his talk, and I am just finishing it up now).

The best part about his talk and the book is the look into the lives of the people daring to do what many felt was impossible:  build a spacecraft in your garage. Remarkably, I think that do it yourself attitude is true to science’s roots, and epitomizes many of the greatest leaps forward in human knowledge (Einstein working in a patent office anyone?).

However, the most exciting aspect (besides the obvious HOLY COW I MIGHT GET TO FLY IN SPACE SOON!!!) was that the winning of the X Prize might be a Kuhnian revolution in scientific thought.   Our entire paradigm of space exploration has been overthrown by these guys with spare time, some nitrous oxide, and a few million bucks.  Kudos to them.