Weirdest Sessions at the AAAS Annual Meeting 2011

I got the program for the annual meeting of the AAAS in Washington, DC in February a couple months ago. In anticipation of the meeting later this week and all the great science stories that other journalists will be writing, I am posting a list of my favorite oddly named sessions. Weird yet intriguing. I love scientists.

Here is my list of totally strange sessions at the AAAS (you can check out the entire program at their website):

Experimental Cooking: Exploring the Frontier in New Taste Experiences

-alternatively titled “101 cooking uses for your Bunsen burner”

From Heavy Electrons to the Cuprates, Organics, and Pnictides

-I don’t know what cuprates or pnictides are, but I love that someone thought they would be good names for particles.

Volcano Science Diplomacy

-Volcanoes are cool. Enough said.

Dining in with Trillions of Friends: Our Guy Microbiome and Nutritional Status

-I sense a theme of eating at the AAAS.

Adolescents and Oral Sex: Is it Really Something to Worry About?

-This is actually a session about STI’s and HIV, but honestly who named that session?

Neuroscience and Evangelical Christianity: Anticipating and Alleviating Concerns

-The jokes about the brains of evangelicals are going to be too easy.

Hey Mr. Weatherman, Is This [insert unusual weather event here] Related to Global Warming?

-This is actually a great title about a real problem, namely the difference between weather (day to day) and climate (decade to decade).

How Science-Based Social Networking Helped Find 10 Red Balloons

-I can imagine this research project might have had problems getting grant approval.

Has Humanity Become the Maggot in Earth’s Apple?

-Definitely my favorite title. Anything with “maggot” in the title wins hands down.

Enjoy the AAAS Science-palooza this week!

Journalism 101 for Scientists

Next week I am going to be speaking on a panel at the University of Waterloo about journalism for a group of scientists. The event is being organized by the Science Media Centre of Canada, which aims to help scientists understand journalists and journalists understand science so that our society is a little more science literate.

To help the discussion, I am posting a recent article I wrote for the United Church Observer about how ministers and church groups can work better with the media. And, before you say, “Wait a minute, science and religion aren’t the same, how can they learn from each other?!!” Consider that I am married to a master’s student studying theology (and you can see her blog Third Way Style about religious fashion), plus the first two sections to be cut in most newspapers well before the horoscope or comics are the “Religion/Spirit” and “Science” sections.

Without further ado, here is: HowtoMakeHeadlines

Dinosaurs and Video Games

Although they have been gone millions of years, kids and adults alike still love dinosaurs. They are one of the most popular science topics alongside the planets and volcanoes.

Recently for InnovationCanada.ca I got to interview someone who brings dinosaurs back to life…sort of. This isn’t Jurassic Park, but it is the next best thing: dinosaur drawings.

Michael Skrepnick is a dino-artist based in Alberta who has been the guy to imagine for the first time what dozens of dinosaurs look like. He was even the guy to draw the feathered dinosaurs into the popular imagination. You can check out the article here.

I also got a kick out of hearing one of my stories turned into a BBC radio segment on Digital Planet, a regular podcast favorite of mine. The story was for the Foundational Questions Institute online community about Gaurav Khanna’s research using over a dozen PlayStation 3 consoles in series to make a super computer that can do some heavy duty cosmology questioning. You can check out my story on the FQXI website and the Digital Planet’s story too.

Evolution Sunday

This past week at my church (Rockway Mennonite in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada), I preached a sermon on evolution as part of the Evolution Sunday events and the 200th birthday of Darwin. I received many positive comments, and several people requested that I post the sermon on my blog so they could read it again or forward it friends and family.

So, here it is:

Evolution Sunday by Graeme Stemp-Morlock

 

So, when I was thinking about this Sunday, I was pretty clear about what I wanted to say and even what scriptures I was going to use, but I had no idea about hymns. Except for one.

 

I was thinking of singing Happy Birthday.

 

As I hope many of you are aware, about a week ago, February 12th in fact, was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. It’s also 150 years since his most famous book about evolution, “The Origin of Species” was published.

 

For biology and all of science it’s a big deal. Darwin is one of the greatest scientists ever, and certainly the greatest in biology. To commemorate the great naturalist, there were birthday parties at science societies and universities all over the world, special issues of magazines, radio shows, and lectures, and even a couple excellent articles out there by yours truly discussing the significance of Darwin to environmentalism and modern Canadian science.

 

But, that’s not what I am going to be speaking about. I am not going to give you a lecture about Charles Darwin’s life, the voyage of the Beagle, the publication of the Origin of Species, or really any of the science that is the backbone of modern biology. If you want more information about any of that, I can recommend a wide variety of articles to you after the service.

 

I am going to talk briefly about the world’s largest science conference however. The American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting last weekend in Chicago. They publish the journal Science, and are often referred to simply as the Triple A S, because well there acronym is three A’s and an S, so if I mention the AAAS again you know what I’m talking about.

 

Anyway, as a science journalist, the AAAS is a must attend and a great chance to hear about some great science, and there was plenty of Darwin-themed talks this year, so that’s why I wasn’t preaching last week.

 

However, for my interest on evolution and faith, I am going to talk about the AAAS meeting in 2005 that was held in Washington, DC. At that particular conference I attended a session on the Clergy Letter and Evolution Sunday.

 

Both of these ideas were the brainchild of Michael Zimmerman who in 2004 realized that there was a big problem brewing for Christians. The far right wing, evangelical, creationist Christians were fighting evolution and promoting Intelligent Design, which was bad enough. But, worse yet, the media and many people were confusing evangelical Christian beliefs with all of Christianity.

 

To combat this misperception, he worked with clergy throughout Wisconsin to create the Clergy Letter which they sent out to a local schoolboard that was considering replacing evolution with Intelligent design.

 

Let me read you the Clergy Letter because it’s pretty short:

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

 

 

As if the letter wasn’t powerful enough, within a few weeks there were over 200 signatures from clergy members across the country and since then more than 10,000 clergy have signed up. I didn’t even know there were 10,000 clergy, so wow!

 

Building upon the success of the clergy letter, Zimmerman decided that it wasn’t enough for just the ministers to be believers in science and religion but that entire congregations needed to know. So, he started Evolution Sunday which is when congregations worldwide hear a sermon on science and evolution and faith on the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday.

 

That was last week, but since I was away we’ll just have to do it today.

 

Anyway, the results for 2009 are that there were over a 1000 congregations in every US state and 15 countries, such as of course Canada and England, but also Chile, France, Monaco, and New Zealand to name a few.

 

 

So, that’s why I am standing here, and with the remaining time I have left I will briefly explain why I believe that the fight between evolution and faith is completely manufactured.

 

 

Let me begin with a story, and like all good stories this one involves the Muppets.

 

Now, I am a huge fan of the Muppets, have been all my life. For me, it just isn’t Christmas without the Muppet Family Christmas and the Muppet Christmas Carol, so when I heard there was going to be a new special I was excited to say the least.

 

Well, the special was okay, basically a knock off of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – another all-time Christmas favorite – where Kermit is about to lose the Muppet Theatre because Fozzy loses the money to pay the evil landlord. Anyway, there is a great scene where Kermit’s guardian angel has to convince God that Kermit actually needs divine intervention. By the way, God is played by Whoopi Goldberg, a black woman as God is just an image I loved.

 

Anyway, so Kermit’s guardian angel and Whoopi/God are sitting on a couch in a forest in heaven, and Whoopi asks if the angel would like a cup of coffee.

 

He asks how, and she responds by putting her mug below a pine tree. Out comes steaming hot coffee, and she says “When you make the rules,  you know all the loopholes.”

 

I love that.

 

I think that maybe get’s to an important point about Whoopi, I mean God. God is mysterious.

 

In the reading from Job, it says:

 

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
      Tell Me, if you have understanding.

 5 Who determined its measurements?
      Surely you know! 
      Or who stretched the line upon it?

 6 To what were its foundations fastened?
      Or who laid its cornerstone,

 

I believe what God is saying here is beware of your limits. At the risk of sounding like Dick Cheney, there are things we can know, and there are things we can’t or don’t yet.

 

At my conference in Chicago, there was an interesting talk on the future of cosmology, the understanding of how the Universe formed. And, one of the best thinkers was saying that maybe in the next few decades we might reach the end of our ability to tease apart anything else. That’s incredibly sad for theoretical physicists, but a fact of life. There are some things we just can’t understand.

 

But, I think just like with faith, while we should approach big questions with the knowledge that our understanding might be incomplete or flawed, we should still seek to know more. How many of us would be happy to stay at a Sunday School understanding of God? How many of us would be happy to read the Bible just once?

 

One of the best things, and as the Clergy Letter argued, most God-given gifts is that of curiousity, the desire to never be content with a single answer. To do as my daughter Lily constantly does, and ask why. Not once, but countless times.

 

 

And with each additional question, we might find another small little piece of the puzzle. That’s how science works: testing one hypothesis at a time and adding another small piece of the puzzle to the massive puzzle that exists already. Sometimes we realize that we’ve put in some pieces wrong, and we need to pull them out and start again.

 

And sometimes a lone genius is able to add not just a few pieces but an entire section, showing us part of the picture that we hadn’t even known about before. Darwin’s theory of evolution was one of those kind of pieces. It’s one of the most important ideas in science, so in closing I will talk about Darwin and his relationship with Christianity.

 

It might not be widely known that in fact Darwin did a degree in divinity. He was a sort of member of the clergy.

 

However, his relationship with the faith was definitely rocky. And, certainly an idea that overthrew the creationist view of a young earth, divinely created unchanging species, and the special position of humans was not going to win you points with the religious authorities of the time.

 

So, perhaps 150 years ago it was doomed that evolution and faith were going to fight it out.

But, why still?

 

Since the “Origin of the Species” was published we’ve learned a lot about evolution, everything from DNA to antibiotic resistance to the true extent of biodiversity on the planet.

And, I think even our theology has grown since then. I would bet that my minister mother would agree, considering the odds of her having a job 150 years ago are not good.

 

An idea that can’t change is one that is doomed to fail, just as we are discovering with climate change that species that cannot adapt are also doomed to extinction.

 

Rather than fighting the same fight that was fought in the hallowed debating halls of England a century and a half ago, let’s realize that both faith and science have evolved. Let’s realize that we are not Charles Darwin with his simplistic view of Christianity, and let’s realize that we are not the Church of England with its simplistic view of evolution.

 

Let’s evolve our faith. And, if we can evolve our faith, then what we can accomplish could be stunning. Edward O. Wilson, one of the greatest modern biologists and a Southern Baptist, believes that coupling church with science we might actually be able to save the multitude of species at risk today because of our careless actions. Saving “the creation” as he calls it, is something people of faith and people of science can both agree on.

 

And, I think saving the tremendous biodiversity that he loved so much might just be the best birthday present we could give Darwin.

 

Quick Update on Latest Articles

I’ve been working on some longer term projects of late, but I’ve still had some articles published recently.

Take for instance, my article on a new species of dinosaur found in Canada that is related to every kids’ favorite triceratops albeit with a bunch more horns and bumpy bits on its head. This is a truly weird dinosaur, and you can read about it on National Geographic News’s website.

I also recently wrote a story for the Foundational Questions Institute along with some help from Zeeya Merali. Together we profiled some neat genetic research into genetic sequences that nature may not have found, but which might have important implications because they might actually be more effective. It could also help us understand how a change in a genetic sequence can result in dramatic changes that drive evolution.

Finally, here’s a story that should strike a chord with the more musically inclined. I wrote an article for Innovation Canada describing some research at the University of Waterloo into how the piano works. The big surprise was that it’s not as simple as you might think.

The Week in News that Science Rules

If I had to predict the week that science stories get top coverage in the world press, I would be the house on this week. That’s because this week the Nobel Prizes are announced.

All around the world, researchers will be getting unexpected phone calls telling them they have won an all expenses paid trip to Stockholm. Many might suspect that they have been nominated, but none can be sure until 50 years after their nomination – usually long after they are dead.

I visited Sweden in 2007 for the 300th birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the man who put biology’s house in order, allowing Darwin to do what he did. As part of the tour, I visited the Nobel Museum in Stockolm, and I figured I might as well share my reflections on visiting that amazing cathedral of science. So, I am posting a blog post that was never published from that time, and here’s hoping someone in Canada gets a Nobel this year.

****

Ask anyone about Swedish science and the Nobel prizes are bound to be the first thing they mention.  So, although Linnaeus lived well before Alfred Nobel, it is fitting that I visit the Nobel Museum.  Afterall, if anyone understands the life and passion of a scientist such as Linnaeus, the Nobel Laureates should.

 

The museum is a stunning examination and example of creativity.  Each of the 787 Laureates hang overhead on a poster that slides along a conveyer belt 148.5 metres long.  It would take you 4.5 hours just to see each of their posters.

 

The museum is also a sort of scientific shrine, where science pilgrims can come to see relics such as Linus Pauling’s beret, Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin-covered Petri dish, even a piece of the radio telescope that discovered pulsars.

 

The Nobel Museum also plays two sets of movies studying the origin of creativity.  One set examines creativity within groups, research centres, and universities.  The other examines creativity from the point of view of individuals, as told by various Nobel Laureates in three minutes.  According to the Director of the Nobel Museum, Svante Lindqvist, courage is the key trait of Nobel Laureates.  “Laureates need courage to challenge established ideas and theories supported by their superiors.”

 

The movie I watched featured the Basel Institute for Immunology, a research centre in Switzerland which had members receive three Nobel Prizes before being closed in 2000.  The movie was perhaps a little like genius, disjointed and combining seemingly unconnected ideas in strange ways.  It was trippy and futuristic, then it looked like an old black and white mad scientist movie.  It was your home videos from the 1950s and what might happen if a group of drunk friends hit record and mumbled stuff in front of the camera.  Of course, it was all these things because groundbreaking science can be all these things.

 

 

Director of the Nobel Museum, Svante Lindqvist, holds up a cafeteria chair displaying half a dozen Nobel Laureate signatures.

Director of the Nobel Museum, Svante Lindqvist, holds up a cafeteria chair displaying half a dozen Nobel Laureate signatures.

Despite the mind-expanding movie on curiosity, the most fantastic part of the Nobel Museum was the cafeteria.  It looks like any other museum cafeteria, and I would even guess that the food is the same as any other museum’s.  But, if you look under your chair you will find more than gum.  Rather you will find the signatures of Nobel Laureates who have visited the Museum over the years.  Perhaps that shows another truth of scientific curiosity – look in the dark unexplored areas and you could find greatness.

 

Science Debate 2008 – Not yet available in Canada

Just this past week, John McCain finally answered all the 14 questions about science asked at ScienceDebate2008. Obama answered them in August. Now, the two are posted online at ScienceDebate’s website, and it is well worth a read.

However, as probably a few people are aware, Canada is also having an election this fall. It’s not as sexy or important as the US election, but I think the leader of my country is important. So does my mom.

One of the things I would love to see happen is a science debate in Canada. We have already heard a lot about the environment, carbon taxes and the Liberal “Green Shift” campaign.

Of course, no one is talking about science in this election. Which reminds me of a lecture last year given by Ken Coates, the University of Waterloo’s Dean of Arts. In it he said that a lot of the most interesting technological and social developments are happening overseas (in Japan specifically), then go on their world tour, with big stops in Europe and the United States.

Unfortunately, Canada is the last stop on that world tour. And, as Canadians we just get used to a familiar phrase when watching American television shows online, using new cell phone features, or getting the best and newest gadgets: Not yet available in Canada.

And, I guess a public discourse on science is also not yet available in Canada.