The View of the Universe from the Nevada Desert

By Sean Carroll | June 12, 2006 2:53 pm

The first-ever YearlyKos get-together has now come and gone. For me it was an interesting experience on several levels. First and foremost, it was an opportunity to meet in person several bloggers whose work I had long admired from afar: PZ Myers of Pharyngula, Chris Mooney of The Intersection (and The Republican War on Science), Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise (a guest blogger from way back), Stephen DarkSyde of Daily Kos and Unscrewing the Inscrutable, and a number of others. Only secondarily, I kicked butt at the Riviera poker tables, held my own at slightly higher limits at the Wynn, and got destroyed at the MGM Grand.

There was a great feeling of history being made — a real-life collection of committed political bloggers and diarists, talking politics and ideas and strategies and generally trying to figure out how to move things forward from these early days of promise in which the blogosphere finds itself. And there were plenty of big names around to verify that something important was going on — Harry Reid, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, Mark Warner, Tom Vilsak, Howard Dean, Joe Wilson, Maureen Dowd. The place was thick with journalists, guaranteeing that the gathering would not pass unnoticed.

Deep down, though, I learned once again that an environment of political activism is not for me. I’ve volunteered and been active politically in very minor ways in the past, and I am always reminded that I should go back to academia where I belong. Of necessity, political action feeds on fervent commitment to the cause and a deep-seated conviction that one’s opponents are worthless scoundrels. Even when I do believe those things, I can’t quite give myself over to such stances uncritically. I’d rather contemplate the ins and outs of different aspects of an argument, even if I do end up resolutely on one side; politics (as opposed to governance) has little time for such nuances. At the same time, when I do take a position, I have little interest in softening its edges for political consumption, or reducing complexities to soundbites in order to convey a message. The complexities are the fun part! Don’t get me wrong; somebody has to do it, and I have incredible admiration for those who fight for the right side with passion and perseverance in the political arena. I just don’t want it to be me.

The good news is: science! Thanks largely to DarkSyde’s efforts, there was a substantial presence of science bloggers at YearlyKos. A “Science Bloggers Caucus” on Thursday night, which I expected to collect a dozen or so misplaced souls who weren’t interested in the gatherings sponsored by some of the big political blogs, instead packed a room to overflowing with over fifty energetic participants from a wide cross-section of demographics. The bad news is: politics! Even when the science bloggers got together, there wasn’t much (any) talk about the substance of science; it was all about how to combat skepticism of evolution and climate change and stem cell research and so on. Not that this was anything other than inevitable; it was a political-blogging conference, after all. The tragedy is that our society finds itself in a place where scientists need to waste time combatting Intelligent Design when they could be sharing exciting news about the latest developments in evolutionary theory. We do have to keep up this fight, but it’s important to simultaneously mix in a healthy dose of science for its own sake (which all the great science bloggers actually do), to remind people why it’s so fascinating and worthwhile in the first place.

Besides the Thursday science bloggers caucus, DarkSyde also organized Friday morning’s Science Panel, which was a smashing success. We heard talks from Chris and PZ, as well as Wendy Northcutt of the Darwin Awards and famous science supporter and retired four-star general Wesley Clark. Lindsay took pictures.

Wesley Clark

I enjoyed the talks a great deal. Chris gave an extremely polished and hard-hitting presentation, his skills obviously honed to a fine edge by months of book-touring. PZ warmed my heart by telling it like it is:

Some like to say America is a Christian nation. I think that misses the point: we have been and are a science and engineering nation. The riches we enjoy right now arose from invention and discovery and industry.

But it was Clark’s presence that was the biggest coup, and might have had something to do with the incredible attendance for a session that started at 8:00 a.m. on a Friday. (Although, as a matter of fact, almost everyone stood around to hear the rest of the talks.) I’ve always liked Clark as a prospective Presidential candidate, and the fact that he chose a venue devoted to science as the place to give his speech was a nice bonus. The speech itself was interesting and essentially completely extemporaneous. There was some expected stuff about how great America is, and how that greatness relies in substantial measure on our scientific expertise. But he also wasn’t afraid to address the complicated relationship between science, politics, and religion. He professed to believe in God, which is what you expect a politician to do (and is likely to be perfectly sincere, I have no idea), but went on to insist without hedging that religion should be kept clearly separate from both science and politics. He even brought up stories of officers in the armed forces who told soldiers that they would go to Hell if they didn’t believe in (the right) God — and said in no uncertain terms that those officers should be thrown in jail. (One interesting thing about being a prospective national candidate is that anything you say can potentially get you in trouble. To guard against this, you are followed everywhere by a handler who sits in the audience while you speak, ready with hand signals to let you know if you are treading onto dangerous territory and should skip to another subject. Apparently no such intervention was required during Clark’s speech. But I definitely need somebody like that to follow me around.)

Best of all, we learned that General Clark’s secret dream while growing up was to be a high-energy physicist! Only once he got to West Point did the realization dawn that one could not be both a career army officer and a working scientist; becoming Supreme Allied Commander in Europe for NATO must have been lukewarm consolation. (To be fair, he did mix up the inverse-square law with the equation for motion under constant acceleration, so perhaps he made the right career choice.) And, to my delight/horror, he went out of his way during his talk to mention the string theory landscape! You can’t make this stuff up. Clark brought up Leonard Susskind’s book The Cosmic Landscape as an example of the extraordinary ideas that contemporary physicists are contemplating in their efforts to make sense of Nature, and in particular as a warning against any claim that the origin of the universe could only be understood by invoking a God of the gaps.

There was a brief question period after Clark’s talk, but I did not rush to the microphone to explain that an anthropic resolution of the cosmological constant problem relied heavily on a problematic choice of measure on the space of observers in the multiverse. You would be proud of me.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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