Where’s the science, President ?

When I first started this blog with my friend about 2.5 years ago, it was with an intention to put forward our ideas about science and math. I remember the high school days when we used to discuss vague topics in science, often baffling people around us. Never do I recollect talking about politics though. This blog followed the same trend with scores of articles about astronomy, statistics, economics but hardly any political commentary.

But the extraordinary events going on in the name of the great 2016 American Election have made me sit up and take notice. Everyone of us has an opinion about Donald Trump. I am not here to do any general Trump bashing. Much of that is available on youtube and probably in a more entertaining manner than I might present things here. The angle which I want to cover here is the amazing disregard for science and math that this presidential race has shown.

I have been living in the U.S. for more than 3 years now. Many things have surprised me about this country, but one aspect that has been reinforced is the level of scientific progress here. Countless researchers are involved in working on ground breaking technologies and discoveries all over the country. U.S accounts for more than 30% of scientific publications in the world annually. Equally impressive is the staggering number of students assisting in the endeavor.

But judging from how the presidential campaign is going on, one would hardly think that science is even a subject taught in high school. Right from the primaries, the focus has been on immigration and economics. In the primary debates, the only scientific topic that came up was climate change. It is perhaps the most important concern facing humankind right now. But most of the candidates treated it how a child treats the last 2 problems of his/her homework; they just want to finish it off quickly so that they can go out and play with their buddies.

A look at Hilary Clinton’s webpage shows only a tiny section about climate change as a representative for science. Donald Trump’s page doesn’t even have a mention about it.The whole point of this election has become about two grownups coming close to retirement age squabbling like 10 year old kids over petty issues. Important topics like space exploration, new manufacturing techniques and renewable energy development have been left in the dark.  We can make the world a better place if we give greater impetus to these, but they are almost absent in the hate and blame rhetoric that has characterized this election.

My other big concern is about how numbers and statistics have been blatantly disregarded. Much of this blame has to fall on Trump. Trump has often sought to use his cult of personality to make statements which are blatant lies. One of the many examples of this is how he claims that U.S. unemployment is growing worse. He once claimed that U.S. employment stands at a grand total of 42%. For people who believe in him, that might set big alarm bells ringing. Upon closer examination, his numbers actually include anyone who doesn’t have full time 40hr employment, and that includes high school, college or graduate student, a stay-at-home parent, a job-training participant and even retired senior citizens ! Factor all that out and the harshest number that you can come up with is 16%. That is more than 2.5 times smaller than Trump’s claims. Facts should be the cornerstone of our social lives and if we get blinded by rousing emotions and charisma of the person in front of us, then it can paint a very wrong picture of our society.

Now you might think that a President has nothing to do with science. Let’s leave all that to the universities and industries, shall we ? Well, that’s way off the mark. Let me redirect your attention to Mohamed Nasheed, former president of Maldives, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean. Realizing that rising sea levels due to climate change could potentially sink his country, he launched a huge campaign to battle against climate change. He lobbied with leaders of countries far more powerful than Maldives to implement pro-climate measures. He also implemented policies to make Maldives a carbon-neutral nation by 2020. Today he is regarded as a climate change hero all over the world for his tenacity.

If any of the two candidates shows even a fraction of the regard for science as Nasheed showed, U.S could go a long way in helping solve not only the nation’s but the world’s problems, Instead of spreading communal hatred and mistrust, people need to be encouraged to believe in the power of reason and scientific truth. J.F.K’s words in 1961 about sending a man to the moon may have been driven by the cold war, but they revolutionized NASA and has led to a huge boost to space technology which is positively impacting lives all over the world. This once again shows what strong political will can achieve. As Carl Sagan once said, “The earth is but a pale blue dot”; Instead of wasting time on communal tensions, we can let science and math guide our way into a better future.

Battling with Fear ….

Imagine sitting strapped in a cabin which can barely fit three people. A huge pile of solid rocket fuel containers are below you. Basically you are sitting on the top of a bomb which can blow you to pieces due to just a tiny malfunction. Even if you do launch off safely, your life is at the mercy of a machine. Terrified?

This is the reality of an astronaut every time a spaceship is about to lift off. The whole idea of spaceflight seems inherently so risky. A small spark, a tiny rip in a wire could turn a journey of a lifetime into a nightmare. The images of the smoky flumes of the Challenger shuttle and the visions of the startling, fiery bursts of light of the disintegrating Colombia are still fresh in people’s minds. How do astronauts deal with this kind of fear?

It turns out that the ways astronauts use to deal with fear holds very important lessons for how we can counter fear and insecurity in our daily lives. Nobody describes this better than Chris Hadfield, a senior Canadian astronaut, in his book “An astronaut’s guide to life on earth”. Hadfield, a former commander of the International Space station, says the way to combat this is to embrace the power of negative thinking. Seems strange? Read on..

All that can go bad, will go bad

This is the theme of how astronauts are trained. Each and every part of the proposed space flight is analyzed for things that could go awry. State-of-the-art simulators are built and the astronauts are trained in them until all the operations become second nature to them. An astronaut is not just someone who undergoes a driving test and is a given the license to fly.

Getting the privilege to go into space requires many years of dedication towards learning every possible thing about spaceflights. For an astronaut, skipping a chapter doesn’t mean just a loss of few marks in a test. That chapter might prove to be the difference between life and death in a bad situation in space.

“People tend to think astronauts have the courage of a hero- or maybe the emotional range of a robot.” says Hadfield, “But in order to stay calm in a high stress, high stakes situation, all you need is knowledge. Sure, you might feel a little nervous or stressed out. But what you won’t feel is terrified.”

Simulating Death

This is one of the stranger components of astronaut training. ‘Death Sims’ is what they call it. Before every human spaceflight, NASA performs some incredibly accurate drills for the possible death of an astronaut. The sim might start with a simple scenario – “ Chris is fatally injured in orbit’. On this the whole of the NASA disaster team revs into action – the ground crew, the medical staff, the program administrators… even the media relations people. Every step from how to inform the family, how to arrange for the safe return of the astronaut to Earth and also how to handle the PR situation that is bound to arise.

What do they gain by this ? Well, strange as it may seem, this drill actually gives reassurance to astronauts that things will be managed just fine in case of their deaths. Everyone always has this thing at the back of their minds. What will happen to my family in case I die ? This death sim gives them that extra boost of confidence when they finally step into the rocket ; a moment which might be the last time they see their families.

Power of negative thinking

“You have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster; convinced that the sky is about to fall” says Hadfield. If he walks into a crowded elevator, he will think about what can be done if the elevator gets stuck. When he puts on the seat belt of a plane, he will wonder what to do in case of a crisis.  

This is not being pessimistic. Rather by anticipating all possible obstacles,we can be more upbeat to face anything which life throws at us. We know what we have to do if things go wrong.  That’s the power of negative thinking.