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.

Everyone’s a Scientist !

Science is a beautiful thing. More than the labs and the instruments, it is human curiosity and endeavor which fuels it’s growth. It is more than just an abstract analysis of things. It is a sincere effort to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

For ages, Science has typically been a solo activity. The Newtons and the Einsteins may have collaborated and worked together with other scientists for some duration; but most of their groundbreaking work has been a result of their own perseverance and genius.

But now, the very nature of scientific research has changed. The groundbreaking theories of today are not born out of generating theories based on intuition and logic; the driving force in scientific research today is the element which is perhaps driving the whole world – data. Lots and lots of data. Rather make that an astounding amount of data.

One of the most talked about example of this is the recent 2013 “validation” of the ‘God particle’ – Higgs boson by the clever guys at CERN. The amazing $10 billion Large Hadron Collider machine, which was used used to generate the particle collisions for this experiment, generated so much data that it took months for scientists to analyze it and come to any conclusion. And note that this endeavor was undertaken by thousands of scientists from all over the world.

There is just so much data floating around that researchers can’t simply process all of that. But this data is vital and has the potential to answer some of the biggest questions of our universe. Well then, how do we analyze this data ? Rather who will ?

The answer is YOU ! Yes, it is you and every other person who harbors curiosity about nature and the enthusiasm to contribute. The data revolution has taken science from the labs to desktop computers and made it more accessible to the common public than ever before.

Lets take a look at some of the more interesting citizen science initiatives around.

Are we alone ?

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Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence(SETI) is one of the earliest programs designed to find an answer to one of the most haunting questions posed to humankind – Are we alone in this universe ? This University of Berkeley initiative listens to radio signals in hope of searching for extraterrestrial intelligent life. Radio signals contain a lot of noise and need to be analyzed digitally. Due to the large amount  of data, it would require a supercomputer to perform such a task constantly.

SETI@home is a virtual supercomputer created by connecting several computers through the internet. You can lend some idle computing power from your laptop for radio signal analysis that SETI does just by downloading their free software.

Decode the mysteries of the stars !

The SCOPE project for example allows users to choose from thousands of unknown star spectra available online and use various analytical tools to classify a star by comparing its spectra to a known star’s spectra. This classification gives an idea about how the temperature, luminosity and mass of the star are related.

This information is useful in understanding the life cycle of any star. The sky offers a laboratory to explore and anyone can do it using their laptop or desktop computer and a basic understanding of physics.

Zooniverse !

Zooniverse is one of the best places around to take part in some real cool projects. It covers a vast variety of projects right from trying to understand Whale communication to cyclone data analysis to galaxy formation. All these projects require only some basic training which is provided on the website itself.

Citizen science – The way forward..

These are just some of the many public science initiatives around. Science for citizens is a great way of promoting science to the general public and help create awareness of all the research being done currently.

Ever dreamed about doing some science, but never got the opportunity ? Now is the time. It is only by standing together that we can hope to unravel nature’s infinite mysteries !

Links to the above initiatives:
http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/
http://scope.pari.edu/
https://www.zooniverse.org/

Science vs Faith

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A guy sitting in a big dome shaped room staring intently into the eyepiece of a huge telescope; another person praying to his God hoping that it will give him some strength and bring happiness in his life. History shows that each thinks the other is foolish or misguided. But is it really so?

What is Science ?

A mind of a scientist is perhaps one of the most misunderstood things around. What actually is the motivation for a scientist to do what he does? Is it really about solving differential equations, writing pages of code or making complicated instruments? A casual observer might think so but it is certainly not the case.

The universe is an entity far bigger than a human mind can ever fully comprehend. We introduce hierarchies like an atom, a tree, a star or even an abstract concept such as love for clarity of thought but each time we move higher in complexity there are things we have not taken into consideration. But yes, the universe also happens to be such an awe inspiring place that it is almost impossible for a human mind to not wonder. Every child has looked up and wondered what the tiny twinkling lights that adorn our skies are; he has wondered about the beautiful colors of nature, about the wind and the rain, about the sounds and the smells. This is the essence of science –curiosity!

Is Science applicable everywhere ?

Agnosticism arises when humans have to deal with a universe that they do not fully understand. Science by its nature cannot prove or disprove anything. It can collect evidence supporting or rejecting a thesis but that is all it can infer. Science is an excellent method of acquiring knowledge. It teaches us how the world works. But science is inadequate when it comes to making decisions of what humans should do with that understanding. Human choices are extremely complex and humans do not solely rely on scientific methods to make decisions. Social phenomena are very different from laboratories in nature when it comes to internal interactions. For most parts, we can safely observe the phenomenon in nature without worrying about affecting what we observe. But in a social situation, our every observation, every move makes a difference to the whole picture; which in turn should feed back into our observations. Like financial markets; where our bets affect the market and people tend to act on instincts. Therefore it turns out that when there is inadequate information people do act on certain degree of beliefs. Faith has been important in development of arts across different human cultures and the role of arts in human evolution is undisputed. Faith is an important part of human psychology.

Science and Faith – A peaceful co-existence ?

But isn’t faith monopolized by organized religion? What if we put away the rules and customs of organized religion and look at what faith truly represents? What happens when a person prays to his God? Be it a Krishna or Jesus or Allah or even to an object or place, the intention is the same. One prays for getting strength to deal with one’s problems. Maybe for abstract things like hope, love, pain, this is what helps more than what science can do.

This is not a pitch for believing in God or religion. Both of us have never quite subscribed to the idea of a God in the generic sense. But there is definitely space for faith to co-exist with Science. We understand that we are trivial in front of the huge uncertainty that we witness in nature. Science and faith are our small efforts to understand these uncertainties. As Thomas Huxley said “The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and the solidity of our possession.”