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.

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Magazine Articles Abound

We are so used to printing our own business cards, letterhead, and other personal business communications on our home printers that we forget that just a generation ago it was normal to take those sorts of things to a local print shop.

Now, there is a growing movement numbering in the thousands that print simple replacement parts, devices, and even some increasing complicated machines at home rather than buying them at a hardware store. This sort of decentralized manufacturing on demand could change everything. No more shipping goods from China.

Look in the October issue of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery for my article about 3D printing.

And, October also brought to print a completely different type of article published in a radically different publication.

Many churches have experienced either good or bad media coverage from time to time, but how do you build a really strong and lasting relationship? That’s the question I set out to answer for an article in the United Church Observer.

The article had me talking to ministers and editors across the country about the give and take between reporter and reportee. One of my favorite stories involved a church about a 30 minute drive from my home that decided to publicize the fact that they hadn’t raised enough money for a Habitat for Humanity build. By being open and honest about their challenges, another local group actually agreed to contribute the remainder needed and the build went ahead.

Unfortunately you won’t find a copy of my article online, but if you sneak into any United Church they will likely have a copy of the October issues still sitting out.

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.

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.

Environmental Trade-offs: Those Cute and Curly Light Bulbs

When we moved from the lake to our new house in the country, one of the first things I did was go around and change over every light bulb in the place to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLS). CFLs look like a Dr. Seussian solution to lighting, but in reality they are taking a big bite out of electricity use. They are very energy efficient, and are a perfect example of real world green technology that is here right now.

They do have one drawback, which is the Whoville sized amounts of mercury that makes those cute little puppies tick (or glow as the case may be). I recently wrote an article for Environmental Health Perspectives about efforts to understand the mercury in CFLS and better ways to capture it in case bulbs break.

Long and the curly of it, open a window and leave the room where the CFL breaks. When you come back pick up everything you can and put it in a glass jar (plastic bags leak mercury), plus try to have kids or pregnant women avoid the room.

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.

Mars Phoenix Hopes to Avoid Fiery Landing

In less than two hours (just before 8pm), NASA’s next Mars space mission will land on the rust colored planet.

The Mars Phoenix mission emerged out of the ashes of the failed 1999 Mars Polar Lander Mission, but scientists are confident that the mistakes that doomed the previous lander will not be repeated.

And, to clarify, there is no cool rover in this mission. Instead, scientists have given up breadth for depth. The lander will stay in one spot but has a digging arm and a bunch of chemistry experiments to see if there is any water or organic molecules on Mars.

The Viking missions did similar experiments in the 1970s, but we’ve learned a few things about Mars since then and hope to get better results by asking smarter questions.

Another key element of the Phoenix mission will be a suite of weather instruments made in Canada. Among them is a LIDAR, basically a laser that shoots up into the clouds to see what kind of light bounces back into its telescope. LIDAR is commonly used in the Arctic and Australia, but the team of Canada scientists that built it say this is the first time LIDAR has been used on another planet.

I profiled the Canadian weather instrument package and LIDAR for an article for Innovation Canada, but website overhauls might prevent it from hitting the web in time for the landing.

Personally, I will be on the edge of my seat until we get the first data back from Mars (there’s a 15 minutes lag time, so expect it around 8:10PM EDT). Mars was what got me inspired in science and science writing back in 1997 with Pathfinder and its little rover Sojourner. In 1999, I was very excited to be seeing Mars again and was sorely disappointed with the loss.

I hope we have learned from 1999, and get it right this time. It would be a great early birthday present (my birthday is May 29th).