Category: Science and Politics

Electrical Resistance

By Sean Carroll | September 13, 2012 11:31 am

A little while back, an anecdote was being passed around by liberal folks on Facebook that made Ann Romney look pretty bad. Apparently she said that a woman in the workforce “should be happy just to be out there in the working world and quit complaining that she’s not making as much as her male counterparts.” Even by the relatively relaxed standards that are rightfully applied to the families of political candidates rather than the candidates themselves, that sounded a little tone-deaf to me. So I checked on and, indeed, found out that the story was completely false. It was made up by a humor site, and then picked up by people who don’t like Romney, who were willing to take it at face value. As ridiculous as any particular claim may be, confirmation bias nudges us toward greater credulity when we are faced with stories that we want to believe are true.

Which brings us to the Chevy Volt, the electric car from General Motors. One of the blogs I generally read is Outside the Beltway, which is a group of conservatives who are more than willing to decry the worst excesses of conservatives as well as liberals. I generally don’t agree with them (except for the decrying), but they say a lot of interesting things. Doug Mataconis, one of the bloggers there, fell quite a bit short of that standard in a recent post about the Volt.

Mataconis, relying on an equally silly Reuters article, tells us that GM loses $50,000 every time it sells a Volt. The attitude of the post is simple — “maybe I’m no fancy businessman, but even I know that it’s not a good strategy to keep building cars and selling them at a tremendous loss!”

Well, that would be a bad strategy. So bad, in fact, that it might be advisable to pull back a bit and ask if that’s what’s actually happening. Read More

Fang Lizhi

By Sean Carroll | April 12, 2012 11:22 am

We’re a little bit late here, but I wanted to note that Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi died on Friday in Arizona at the age of 76.

Fang’s research area was quantum cosmology, but he was most well-known for his political activism, fighting against repression in China. Originally a member of the Communist Party, he was expelled for protesting some of the government’s policies. The NYT obituary relates an amusing/horrifying story, according to which Fang attracted the government’s censure by co-authoring a paper entitled “A Solution of the Cosmological Equations in Scalar-Tensor Theory, with Mass and Blackbody Radiation.” Seems pretty innocuous from where we are sitting, but in Communist China the Big Bang model was considered to be a challenge to Engels’s idea that that the universe was infinite, and therefore was deemed heresy. Googling around brought me to this 1988 article in Contemporary Chinese Thought, which shows what Fang was up against. The abstract quotes Lenin, and says in all seriousness “with every new advance in science the idealists distort and take advantage of the latest results of physics to “prove” with varying sleights of hand that the universe is finite, serving the reactionary rule of the moribund exploiting classes.”

In the late 1980’s Fang helped organize resistance to China’s authoritarian regime, in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square protests. He was fired from his job as a professor, and sought refuge in the American embassy. He was finally permitted to leave the country and emigrate to America in 1990. He finally settled down at the University of Arizona, but continued his work campaigning for human rights.

Money vs. Science

By Sean Carroll | February 20, 2012 4:35 pm

Everyone who has been paying attention knows that there is a strong anti-science movement in this country — driven partly by populist anti-intellectualism, but increasingly by corporate interests that just don’t like what science has to say. It’s an old problem — tobacco companies succeeded for years in sowing doubt about the health effects of smoking — but it’s become significantly worse in recent years.

Nina Fedoroff is the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is holding its annual meeting right now. She is not holding back about the problem, but tackling it directly. From a weekend article in the Guardian (h/t Dan Gillmor):

“We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”

Tim F. at Balloon Juice points to this flowchart at Climate Progress that illustrates how the money and message gets sent around to sow doubt about scientific findings. (Okay, it’s not really a flow chart, but you get the point.) I was also struck by a link to an older article by Ian Sample, which put the problem in its starkest terms: the American Enterprise Institute was offering $10,000 to scientists and economists who were willing to write op-eds or essays critiquing the IPCC climate report — before it was published. Money goes a long way.

Relatedly, here’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg trying to push the Supreme Court away from its ruling in Citizens United, the notorious case that led to the creation of SuperPACs by deciding that corporations were persons, and not letting them advertise anonymously would be a grievous violation of their free-speech rights. We’ll see how well she does. Scientists, meanwhile, need to keep speaking out about the integrity of our field. When researchers are attacked and their jobs threatened by politicians who disagree with their results, it’s time to stand up for what science really means.

Hubble's Successor

By Risa Wechsler | September 6, 2011 5:34 am

My friend and colleague James Bullock, a professor at UC Irvine, has a great editorial up today in the LA Times about the next generation space telescope JWST. JWST is big. And it’s over budget, which makes it especially vulnerable in the current political climate. But it’s damn important. It’s a tool to inspire, a tool to help us write the story of the universe.

Walk through the halls of UC Irvine’s astronomy wing after dinner on a weeknight and you will find roomfuls of young graduate students, crammed into small desks, solving equations, writing computer code and developing innovative ways to analyze data. They do not have to be here. These are people with career options. They are scary-smart, creative and hardworking. Yet they have come here from all over the country and the world to sit in windowless offices and make a fifth of the money they could make back home or up the street. Why? They want to unlock the universe.

The United States is still the scientific light of the world. Ours is the society responsible for discovering humanity’s place in the universe, that we live in a galaxy called the Milky Way, one among billions of other galaxies stretched across the cosmic landscape. A hundred thousand years from now, if humans make it that long, the U.S. will be remembered for this, and historians will point to the immense contribution of the Hubble Space Telescope, with its miraculous visible-light images, the most detailed pictures of the cosmos yet produced by humankind.

Sadly, U.S. scientific leadership is beginning to fade. There is a sense of fear among our leaders that we can’t afford to invest in our future, just the kind of fear that endangers thoughtful debate about big-picture priorities.

One testament to our changing priorities is our commitment to the Hubble telescope as compared to its successor. The Hubble is, in every way, a monument to scientific exploration. Thanks to the Hubble, orbiting 350 miles overhead, we know that the universe began just under 14 billion years go. The age of the cosmos, once believed to be unknowable, is now available at the click of a mouse and has made it into schoolbooks in all 50 states. Astronomers have used the Hubble to determine the chemical makeup of planets that orbit distant stars and to discover dark energy, a mysterious substance propelling the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

Many of the graduate students filling astronomy departments at University of California campuses, as well as Caltech and Stanford, have come to the state to explore and analyze terabytes of Hubble data. These data involve complex digital images, created in raw form onboard the orbiting telescope, and then decomposed into precise component colors. The Hubble beams this information to receivers around the world, where it is processed and made available for download. A graduate student working in Irvine can transfer Hubble images to a computer and then develop software to process and analyze the images’ meaning.

The goal is to squeeze information out of the gathered light that will help us discern the size, structure and chemical composition of objects that are almost always too far away for humans to ever hope to visit. The people who do this work are both creative and technically gifted. They must take what the universe provides — a shred of light collected by the Hubble — and discern implication from its signal.
We want these intelligent, dedicated people to live in our cities, to make their discoveries at our universities and to raise their families — the next generation of bright minds — right here.

Read the whole thing here. And then write your Senators and Representatives. JWST, and with it, US scientific leadership, and an amazing opportunity to fill in the contours of the history and physics of our Universe, is really at risk. Very possibly only an outcry of the kind that saved Hubble will be enough to launch Hubble’s successor.


NASA Astrophysics: It Really Is This Bad

By Sean Carroll | July 20, 2011 10:38 am

Shorter House of Representatives: NASA shouldn’t do astrophysics anymore. Via the Tracker, an article by Eric Hand in Nature News that puts the fiasco in helpful graphical form.

Misleading graphic alert! The vertical scale starts at $0.5 billion, not at $0. But taking that into account merely changes the situation from “complete annihilation” to “devastating harm.” We’re talking about a 40% cut, which won’t leave room to do much more than keep the lights on for existing programs.

The 2011 numbers are the President’s budget request; the 2012 numbers are from the bill that passed the House. This isn’t yet law, so there’s still time; the Senate and the White House will (thankfully) be involved in the final compromise.

Times are tough, and not everything is worth doing. But there are few things more important to the long-term flourishing of a country than investment in basic science. Sad to see the future sacrificed for bizarre political reasons.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, Space, Top Posts

Why We Need the James Webb Space Telescope

By Julianne Dalcanton | July 7, 2011 8:38 am

Over the last 24 hours, the astronomy community has begun facing the possible cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  The House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee has recommended: “$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.”  This is not the end of the game for JWST, as many other branches of government have yet to weigh in, but it’s not good news.

Looking at it from the public’s view, sure, cutting projects that are “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management” sounds like a pretty reasonable action.  But I’d like to try to take a few minutes to explain why it’s not as simple as the committee would like you to believe.

First and foremost, in many fields of astronomy we are rapidly approaching the limit of what can be done scientifically without JWST.  I recently finished teaching a graduate class on extragalactic astronomy, and I can’t tell you the number of times where I brought the students up to speed on the state of a field, and then had to say “If we’re going to push this to the next level, we need JWST”.  To demonstrate this, the plot below shows the brightness (i.e., flux) of an astronomical point source that can be detected with different telescopes in a fixed amount of time, as a function of the wavelength of light (along with a typical galaxy spectrum).  The magenta points show that JWST is hundreds of times more sensitive than anything out there.  In terms of scientific impact, this is like the difference between walking (4 miles/hr) and flying (400 miles/hr) for your ability to explore terrain on the Earth.  This is not to mention the drastic increase in the angular resolution of JWST compared to any other telescope on that plot — JWST will be able to see fine-scale structure that has never been seen at these wavelengths.

Moreover, JWST will blow through limits that lie at some of the most exciting areas of astronomy, with some of the widest public appeal, including high redshift galaxies and extrasolar planets.  The public rightfully adores Hubble for expanding our view of the universe, but it’s not going to last forever.  (Given funding constraints, the most likely fate for Hubble is the same as your 20 year old Toyota Tercel — it gets you where you’re going, but at some point you stop paying the money to fix the heater, repair the cracked windshield, and deal with the oil leak, and accept that sooner or later you’re going to be stranded on the side of the highway.)  When Hubble expires — and it will within a decade or less — where is the system that will expand upon the wonders that Hubble revealed?  Even Milky Jay knows that JWST is the future.

The demise of JWST would be a huge blow to american space-based astronomy as well.  On the ground, the US has ceded much of its historical primacy to the Europeans.  If JWST were cancelled, it would be a heavy blow to the US dominance in running true space-based observatories.  NASA will continue to run “experiments” in space — i.e., targeted smaller missions focused on limited scientific goals, but they will be giving up their unique place in creating flagship facilities that literally anyone can potentially use.  The impact of Hubble came in large part because it wasn’t a specific experiment for one particular problem.  It has broad capabilities, that were kept up to date with servicing missions, but using those capabilities was then essentially “crowd-sourced” to the entire world.  Through on-going rigorous, and frankly brutal, evaluations of scientific proposals, the community identifies the single most important scientific questions to be addressed by Hubble.  This process is carried out every. single. year., making sure that Hubble gets the most bang for the buck.  The same process also applied to NASA’s other “flagship” missions (e.g., Chandra, Spitzer), focused on other wavelengths, but these facilities too are rapidly running out of time.

To see what the loss of JWST would mean, look at the following chart of NASA missions.  JWST is the only flagship observatory coming up.  If we lose it, the person with the next great idea loses the chance to try it out.

So yes, JWST has cost more than was planned for.  But the majority of the cost is now “sunk costs”, and a huge fraction of the telescope and instruments actually exist.  This is not just a hole that people have been shoveling money into, and not getting anything for — useful stuff is actually built!  And working!   I would of course prefer that JWST launched on time and under budget, but, given how close we are to the end, I much prefer to go for it.  Canceling JWST is not going to usher in a golden age of other space-based science opportunities (the “crowding out theory”, where once the shade of JWST is gone, a thousand flowers will bloom).  The money will simply be gone from space-based astronomy, and instead of a single tree we can all climb, there will be some smaller pieces of shrubbery.

So to close, I’d like to leave with you with one of the finest bits of advocacy for JWST around.

(edit: Which I now realize Risa just posted! She has “how to contact your legislator” information, which is the single most important thing you can do at this point.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, Space, Top Posts

James Webb Space Telescope

By Risa Wechsler | July 7, 2011 8:14 am

Sean mentioned yesterday that the next generation space telescope JWST is at risk. In a bit more detail, JWST has been cut in the House appropriations bill:

$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

In all, the House appropriations bill cuts 1.6 billion dollars from the NASA budget. The game is not over yet — the House Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of NASA will consider this bill today, and the full Appropriations committee will meet again to consider the final bill on Wednesday — and of course the Senate will have its own bill. But this is obviously a very ominous sign for NASA astrophysics in general.

JWST is a 6.5 meter IR-optimized telescope, which has been scheduled to launch in 2018. It is certainly true that it has suffered from numerous cost overruns, and has essentially eaten the rest of the NASA astrophysics program. However, nearly all the technical hurdles have now been overcome. And the science reach of JWST is spectacular. It is now the only observatory-class mission planned to operate once the current Great Observatories (Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra) reach their end of life. JWST has been the highest priority for NASA of the Decadal Surveys and essentially every other study commissioned by the field.

Hubble Space Telescope has given us amazing views of the Universe, back to about a billion years after the big bang. However, it has reached its limits there — JWST would allow us to see well into this first billion years, to view the formation of the first stars, galaxies, and black holes, and to study in detail how radiation from these objects reionized the Universe. There are no other planned missions that will allow us to observe this earliest stage of galaxy formation with this level of detail. JWST would also allow us to observe the chemical composition of planets outside the solar system, and to image the disks around stars as they begin planet formation.

It is hard to overstate the impact of HST on astronomy over the last two decades, and in particular on the public’s engagement with astronomy and science in general. There is just something incredibly inspiring and awesome about space-based observatories and the images they produce, that are unmatched by ground-based telescopes. JWST is a natural successor to Hubble in this mission: it has tremendous potential to be a vehicle of wonder. In addition to the science that would be lost, the funding losses to US astronomy, and the set back of our research progress, this loss to the public inspiration and engagement in scientific discovery could be one of the most substantial hits if JWST does not go forward.

I encourage all who are concerned about the next decade of astronomy to contact your representatives and senators as soon as possible. Termination of JWST would reduce the strength and visibility of the US science program as a whole, its impacts would be felt far beyond astrophysics. Killing JWST now also substantially threatens US credibility as an international partner, and sends the message that the US is just not interested in scientific leadership in major projects.

More at the New York Times, the Nature News Blog, Sky and Telescope, and Bad Astronomy. House press release here. The AAS will be releasing a statement later today. Thanks to Garth Illingworth for some useful background.

The case for JWST from a fan at the Vlog brothers: “I do not want to live in a world where we only focus on suck, and never think about awesome.”

NASA Gives Up on LISA

By Sean Carroll | April 6, 2011 3:49 pm

Sorry to bump Julianne’s fun post further down the page, but lots of news today. This particular piece of news is not fun: NASA is abandoning LISA, the planned Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, as well as IXO, an X-ray satellite observatory (formerly “Constellation X”). Steinn has some of the ugly details. Short story: money is tight, and the James Webb Space Telescope is taking all of it. (Not that JWST is completely immune from danger itself…)

LISA is not completely dead: the European Space Agency will keep the planning alive. But this is a serious step, not just a feint in a budget negotiation; the LISA International Science Team is being disbanded, told to pack up and go home. Hopefully the ESA will continue to push forward, and individual researchers in the US can somehow find money to still think about gravitational-wave astrophysics from space. It’s possible that a smaller mission could be put forward, but it’s not as if NASA has extra money they’re looking to spend right now.

Of all the concepts for big astrophysics missions in space, LISA is my favorite. Unlike LIGO, which strains as hard as possible and hopefully will detect something once its upgraded, LISA would be bombarded with gravitational waves, and the trick will be picking out the interesting signals from above the ambient noise. (That’s a problem we don’t mind having.) I was part of the original Beyond Einstein roadmap team (pdf) that packaged LISA and Constellation-X together with a dark energy mission to create an ambitious but realistic plan for NASA cosmology that Congress and the OMB could get behind. That was in 2002, before wars and tax cuts and financial catastrophes sapped the government of its ability to pay for anything. The best-laid plans of mice and men and NASA panels, as the saying goes.

LISA’s science is not just achievable, it’s incredibly interesting. It would detect thousands of binary systems within our galaxy, as well as numerous inspirals of middleweight black holes into supermassive ones in other galaxies, giving us incredibly detailed access to the spacetime metric near a black hole. As a side benefit, the wavelength is just right for looking at gravitational waves that might be produced in the early universe if the electroweak phase transition is especially violent. I remember giving a talk to particle physicists planning the International Linear Collider (another possibly doomed endeavor) back in 2003. It was great to see their eyes light up when I told them about this connection between satellite observatories and particle accelerators — at a meeting dominated by budget worries, it was a tiny oasis of actual science.

Hopefully things will somehow work out, but there’s not a lot of reason for optimism at the moment. We’ll see how things go.

Open Letter to Congress on Science Funding

By John Conway | March 6, 2011 4:24 pm

Senator Dianne Feinstein
Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee

Senator Lamar Alexander
Ranking Member
Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee

March 1, 2011

Dear Chairman Feinstein and Sen. Alexander,

We write in regards to the current proposed budget cuts on science, and the impact the cuts would have on the competitiveness of this nation, both in the short and long term. The economic health and world leadership of this country depends on an unbroken cycle of innovation, rooted in our ability to attract and educate new waves of creative young scientists and engineers, each year. It is this cycle of innovation, whose continuation depends on funding for basic research, that drives both basic and applied sciences, and the creation of new technologies and treatments that define and improve the quality of everyday life.

In order for the cycle to remain unbroken, and for the nation’s position of leadership to continue, basic research needs to be supported, even when the times demand strict fiscal responsibility. One never knows where the next transformative breakthrough will emerge, or who the next young scientist will be that creates it.

Read More

Science Budget: the White House Proposal

By Sean Carroll | February 14, 2011 1:50 pm

Following up on John’s post, the Obama administration has released a detailed budget proposal. (John was talking about the House Republicans’ proposal.)

Without going into any judgments, the White House budget is much more favorable for science. Here are summaries for the Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Science Foundation. Here are some highlights; for simplicity I’m just comparing the actual amount spent in 2010 vs. the proposed budget for 2012. (2011 is confusing because we’re currently operating under a continuing resolution, not a real budget.) So keep in mind that these percentage changes are spread over two years.

  • DoE discretionary spending would increase by 11.5%, from $26.5 billion to $29.5 billion. Much of that is for clean energy research. Science would increase by 9%, from $5.0 billion to $5.4 billion. If you dig into the details (pdf), we find High Energy Physics taking a 5% cut, from $842 million to $797 million. That’s been the story for quite a while now; flat or slowly declining budgets, which means that programs are being worn away by inflation.
  • NSF would get a 13% increase, from $6.6 billion to $7.6 billion. Most of this is real research money. There is $40 million to train new K-12 and undergraduate science teachers.
  • NASA’s budget stays flat at $18.7 billion. But the science budget would increase by 11.5%, from $4.5 billion to $5.0 billion.

Overall, not too bad for science. Keep in mind that this is only a proposal, and it won’t go through Congress unscathed. Given that Republicans have a majority in the House, you have to expect that the final agreement will be a compromise, so it’s still very possible that basic research will be gutted in the final budget. HEP would seem to be hurting no matter what, but I don’t know how much of that can be traced to the planned Tevatron shutdown.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, Top Posts

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