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Why I’ll Talk Policy With Climate Change Deniers But Not Science

Friday, December 19th, 2014

What rising sea level? Peter, CC BY-SA

By Mark Maslin,University College London

There are many complex reasons why people decide not to accept the science of climate change.

The doubters range from the conspiracy theorist to the skeptical scientist, or from the paid lobbyist to the raving lunatic.

Climate scientists, myself included, and other academics have striven to understand this reluctance. We wonder why so many people are unable to accept a seemingly straight-forward pollution problem. And we struggle to see why climate change debates have inspired such vitriol.

These questions are important. In a world increasingly dominated by science and technology, it is essential to understand why people accept certain types of science but not others.

In short, it seems when it comes to climate change, it is not about the science but all about the politics.

Risky business

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s differing views on climate science were put down to how people viewed nature: was it benign or malevolent? In 1995 leading risk expert John Adams suggested there were four myths of nature, which he represented as a ball on different shaped landscapes.

How stable will the Earth-ball be in each state? John Adams

  1. Nature is benign and forgiving of any insults that humankind might inflict upon it and it does not need to be managed.
  2. Nature ephemeral. Nature is fragile, precarious, and unforgiving and environmental management must protect nature from humans.
  3. Nature perverse/tolerant. Within limits, nature can be relied upon to behave predictably and regulation is required to prevent major excesses.
  4. Nature capricious. Nature is unpredictable and there is no point to management.

Different personality types can be matched on to these different views, producing very different opinions about the environment. Climate change deniers would map on to number one, Greenpeace number two, while most scientists would be number three. These views are influenced by an individual’s own belief system, personal agenda (either financial or political), or whatever is expedient to believe at the time.

However, this work on risk perception was ignored by mainstream science because science up to now operates on what is called the knowledge deficit model. This suggests that people do not accept the science because there is not enough evidence; therefore more needs to be gathered.

Scientists operate in exactly this way, and they assume wrongly the rest of the world is equally rational and logical. It explains why over the past 35 years a huge amount of work gone into investigating climate change – even though, despite many thousands of pages of IPCC reports, the weight of evidence argument does not seem to work with everyone.

No understanding of science?

At first failure of the knowledge deficit model was blamed on the fact that people simply did not understand science, perhaps due to a lack of education. This was exacerbated as scientists from the late 1990s onwards started to be drawn into discussions about whether people believed or did not believe in climate change.

The use of the word “belief” is important here, as it was a direct jump from the American-led argument between the science of evolution and the belief in creation.

But we know that science is not a belief system. You cannot decide that you believe in penicillin or the principles of flight while at the same time disbelieve humans evolved from apes or that greenhouse gases can cause climate change. This is because science is an expert trust-based system that is underpinned by rational methodology that moves forward by using detailed observation and experimentation to constantly test ideas and theories. It does not provide us with convenient yes/no answers to complex scientific questions, however much the media portrayal of scientific evidence would like the general public to “believe” this to be true.

It’s all about the politics

However, many who deny climate change is an issue are extremely intelligent, eloquent and rational. They would not see the debate as one about belief and they would see themselves above the influence of the media. So if the lack of acceptance of the science of climate change is neither due to a lack of knowledge, nor due to a misunderstanding of science, what is causing it?

Recent work has refocused on understanding people’s perceptions and how they are shared, and as climate denial authority George Marshall suggests these ideas can take on a life of their own, leaving the individual behind. Colleagues at Yale University developed this further by using the views of nature shown above to define different groups of people and their views on climate change.

They found that political views are the main predictor of the acceptance of climate change as a real phenomenon.

Republicans are far more likely to be doubtful or dismissive towards climate change. Yale / Global Warming’s Six Americas

This is because climate change challenges the Anglo-American neo-liberal view that is held so dear by mainstream economists and politicians. Climate change is a massive pollution issue that shows the markets have failed and it requires governments to act collectively to regulate industry and business.

In stark contrast neo-liberalism is about free markets, minimal state intervention, strong property rights and individualism. It also purports to provide a market-based solution via “trickle down” enabling everyone to become wealthier. But calculations suggest to bring the incomes of the very poorest people in the world up to just $1.25 per day would require at least a 15 times increase in global GDP. This means huge increases in consumption, resource use and of course, carbon emissions.

So in many cases the discussion of the science of climate change has nothing to do with the science and is all about the political views of the objectors. Many perceive climate change as a challenge to the very theories that have dominated global economics for the last 35 years, and the lifestyles that it has provided in developed, Anglophone countries. Hence, is it any wonder that many people prefer climate change denial to having to face the prospect of building a new political (and socio-economic) system, which allows collective action and greater equality?

I am well aware of the abuse I will receive because of this article. But it is essential for people, including scientists, to recognize that it is the politics and not the science that drives many people to deny climate change. This does mean, however, that no amount of discussing the “weight of scientific evidence” for climate change will ever change the views of those who are politically or ideologically motivated. Hence I am very sorry but I will not be responding to comments posted concerning the science of climate change but I am happy to engage in discussion on the motivations of denial.

Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, is a Royal Society Industrial Fellow, Executive Director of Rezatec Ltd, Director of The London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, unpaid CSR committee member for the Sopria-Steria Group and a member of Cheltenham Science Festival Advisory Committee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Year in Science: Amphipolis Mysteries and Other Riddles Revealed

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Who’s buried in a 2,300-year-old tomb in Greece? How long will it be before controlled fusion power becomes a reality? Can the Ebola virus be vanquished? Such are the scientific riddles that were posed over the past year. Will answers be forthcoming in the next year, or even in the next five or 50 years?

Here are 10 cases from the past year in which scientists answered old riddles, faced up to life-and-death riddles, or found new riddles. For still more year-end highlights, check out our “Year in Space” roundup — or follow the links at the end of this rundown.

Amphipolis tomb unearthed: Archaeologists discovered a previously unknown tomb in northern Greece that they dated to Alexander the Great’s era in 300 B.C. So far they’ve found intriguing mosaics, statues of maidens and sphinxes — and a skeleton. Who was buried there? We should get a better idea in 2015.

Bird evolution traced using DNA: After years of analysis, researchers laid out a huge array of studies detailing how thousands of bird species arose just after the dinosaurs departed the scene. The DNA analysis also has implications for human brain function and potential climate effects on the world’s birds.

California drought and the East’s Big Chill: The crazy weather patterns that left California dry while blasting the eastern U.S. with wintry weather pose meteorological riddles, and challenges for those who have to deal with droughts and storms. Was this year’s wild weather a portent of things to come?

Climate realities take hold: A series of studies — including the latest global assessment from a U.N. panel as well as a White House assessment on the national level — laid out the dismal effects that are expected from climate shifts. 2014 is shaping up as one of the warmest years ever recorded.

DNA alphabet gets more letters: The genetic code in our DNA is built up using four chemical “letters” — adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine (A, T, G and C) — but this year, scientists added two more letters (X and Y) to the alphabet in a genetically modified bacterium. Now the researchers who pulled off the trick are trying to get the “semi-synthetic organisms” to produce custom-engineered proteins.

Ebola virus takes global spotlight: The Ebola virus outbreak that started in West Africa brought the long-simmering public health issue into a brighter global spotlight, and turned up the heat on efforts to develop new vaccines and treatments.

First Americans’ secrets come to light: Genetics and anthropology came together to shed new light on the peopling of the Americas, from the roots of the ancient migration in now-vanished Beringia, to the connections between the ancient Clovis people and today’s Native American tribes, to the “game-changing” underwater discoveries made in a Mexican cave.

Fusion quest hits a milestone: Researchers at the National Ignition Facility said they produced a laser fusion reaction that released more energy from its fuel than the energy that was put into the fuel. It’s not anywhere near the long-hoped-for break-even point for controlled fusion, because a lot of energy was lost along the way. Nevertheless, it’s progress. Other fusion researchers are working on still other strategies.

Genetics of Neanderthals and humans: It’s been four years since the Neanderthal genome was first sequenced, but this year’s advances fleshed out the story of how ancient hominids diverged into different species. Among the highlights were insights into what we inherited (and didn’t inherit) from Neanderthals, the time frame for human-Neanderthal interbreeding, and the process by which the two populations diverged. We learned more about our Denisovan heritage as well.

Spinosaurus straddles land and water: A detailed study of Spinosaurus fossil bones revealed that this particular dinosaur was an odd duck, in more ways than one. The new view of the creature’s skeletal structure suggests strongly that it spent a lot of its time swimming in the water — and that when it walked on land, it waddled like a duck. The Spinosaurus project was also notable for its use of 3-D scanning and 3-D printing to produce models of the fearsome but ducky dinosaur.

Five science controversies from 2014:

Five perspectives on the year in science:

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The best popular science books of 2014: Physical sciences

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Today, I continue my series of “best of 2014” books lists by sharing the maths, physics, astronomy, chemistry and earth sciences books that I consider to be amongst the best published this year in this genre of popular sciences. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), despite being an evolutionary biologist myself, I was barely able to stop choosing books for this category! As with all these “best of” lists, I am sure I missed something that you loved, so be sure to share it with your fellow readers in the comments thread below.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg [480 pages, The Penguin Press, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/paperback/audiobook download/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how terribly limiting this view is: Math isn’t confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life, but rather touches everything we do — the whole world is shot through with it.

Math allows us to see the hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of our world. It’s a science of not being wrong, hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. Armed with the tools of mathematics, we can see through to the true meaning of information we take for granted: How early should you get to the airport? What does “public opinion” really represent? Why do tall parents have shorter children? Who really won Florida in 2000? And how likely are you, really, to develop cancer?

How Not to Be Wrong presents the surprising revelations behind all of these questions and many more, using the mathematician’s method of analyzing life and exposing the hard-won insights of the academic community to the layman — minus the jargon. Ellenberg chases mathematical threads through a vast range of time and space, from the everyday to the cosmic, encountering, among other things, baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, what Facebook can and can’t figure out about you, and the existence of God.

Ellenberg pulls from history as well as from the latest theoretical developments to provide those not trained in math with the knowledge they need. Math, as Ellenberg says, is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. How Not to Be Wrong will show you how.


Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction by Charles L. Adler [392 pages, Princeton University Press, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: From teleportation and space elevators to alien contact and interstellar travel, science fiction and fantasy writers have come up with some brilliant and innovative ideas. Yet how plausible are these ideas–for instance, could Mr. Weasley’s flying car in the Harry Potter books really exist? Which concepts might actually happen, and which ones wouldn’t work at all? Wizards, Aliens, and Starships delves into the most extraordinary details in science fiction and fantasy –such as time warps, shape changing, rocket launches, and illumination by floating candle — and shows readers the physics and math behind the phenomena.

With simple mathematical models, and in most cases using no more than high school algebra, Charles Adler ranges across a plethora of remarkable imaginings, from the works of Ursula K. Le Guin to Star Trek and Avatar, to explore what might become reality. Adler explains why fantasy in the Harry Potter and Dresden Files novels cannot adhere strictly to scientific laws, and when magic might make scientific sense in the muggle world. He examines space travel and wonders why it isn’t cheaper and more common today. Adler also discusses exoplanets and how the search for alien life has shifted from radio communications to space-based telescopes. He concludes by investigating the future survival of humanity and other intelligent races. Throughout, he cites an abundance of science fiction and fantasy authors, and includes concise descriptions of stories as well as an appendix on Newton’s laws of motion.

Wizards, Aliens, and Starships will speak to anyone wanting to know about the correct — and incorrect — science of science fiction and fantasy.


Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges [768 pages, Princeton University Press, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/audio download/kindle UK; Amazon US paperback/audio download/kindle US]

strongPublisher’s synopsis: It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades — all before his suicide at age forty-one. This acclaimed biography of the founder of computer science, with a new preface by the author that addresses Turing’s royal pardon in 2013, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life.

Capturing both the inner and outer drama of Turing’s life, Andrew Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936 — the concept of a universal machine — laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realisation in 1945 with his electronic design. The book also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic account of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program — all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.

The inspiration for a major motion picture starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, Alan Turing: The Enigma is a gripping story of mathematics, computers, cryptography, and homosexual persecution.


Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson [520 pages, Princeton University Press, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/audio download/mp3 CD/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/paperback/audiobook download/mp3 CD/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and television. Like his competitor Thomas Edison, Tesla was one of America’s first celebrity scientists, enjoying the company of New York high society and dazzling the likes of Mark Twain with his electrical demonstrations. An astute self-promoter and gifted showman, he cultivated a public image of the eccentric genius. Even at the end of his life when he was living in poverty, Tesla still attracted reporters to his annual birthday interview, regaling them with claims that he had invented a particle-beam weapon capable of bringing down enemy aircraft.

Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla’s private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an “idealist” inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion.

This major biography sheds new light on Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.


Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik [272 pages, Penguin Book Group, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/paperback/audio CD]

Publisher’s synopsis: Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? Why does a paper clip bend? Why does any material look and behave the way it does? These are the sorts of questions that Mark Miodownik is constantly asking himself. A globally-renowned materials scientist, Miodownik has spent his life exploring objects as ordinary as an envelope and as unexpected as concrete cloth, uncovering the fascinating secrets that hold together our physical world.

In Stuff Matters, Miodownik entertainingly examines the materials he encounters in a typical morning, from the steel in his razor and the graphite in his pencil to the foam in his sneakers and the concrete in a nearby skyscraper. He offers a compendium of the most astounding histories and marvelous scientific breakthroughs in the material world, including:

  • The imprisoned alchemist who saved himself from execution by creating the first European porcelain.
  • The hidden gem of the Milky Way, a planet five times the size of Earth, made entirely of diamond.
  • Graphene, the thinnest, strongest, stiffest material in existence — only a single atom thick — that could be used to make entire buildings sensitive to touch.

From the teacup to the jet engine, the silicon chip to the paper clip, the plastic in our appliances to the elastic in our underpants, our lives are overflowing with materials. Full of enthralling tales of the miracles of engineering that permeate our lives, Stuff Matters will make you see stuff in a whole new way. [My review]

Winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.


Seven Elements that Changed the World: An Adventure of Ingenuity and Discovery by John Browne [288 pages, Pegasus Books, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/paperback]

Publisher’s synopsis: With carbon we access heat, light and mobility at the flick of a switch, while silicon enables us to communicate across the globe in an instant.

Yet our use of the Earth’s mineral resources is not always for the benefit of humankind — our relationship with the elements is one of great ambivalence. Uranium is both productive (nuclear power) and destructive (nuclear bombs); iron is the bloody weapon of war, but also the economic tool of peace; our desire for alluring gold is the foundation of global trade, but has also led to the death of millions. John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum (BP) for twelve years, vividly describes how seven elements are shaping the world around us, for better and for worse.

Combining history, science, and politics, Seven Elements takes you on a present-day adventure of human passion and innovation. This journey is far from over: we continue to find surprising new uses for these seven elements. In this narrative of discovery, readers will come to understand how titanium pervades modern consumer society, how natural gas is transforming the global energy sector, and how an innovative new form of carbon could be starting a technology revolution.


Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers [272 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/mp3 CD; Amazon US hardcover/paperback/mp3 CD/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: Humans have been perfecting the science of alcohol production for ten thousand years, but modern scientists are only just beginning to distill the complex reactions behind the perfect buzz. In a spirited tour across continents and cultures, Adam Rogers puts our alcoholic history under the microscope, from our ancestors’ accidental discovery of fermented drinks to the cutting-edge laboratory research that proves why — or even if — people actually like the stuff.

From fermentation to distillation to aging, Proof offers a unique glimpse inside the barrels, stills, tanks, and casks that produce iconic drinks. Rogers ventures from the whiskey-making mecca of the Scottish Highlands to the most sophisticated gene-sequencing labs in the world — and to more than one bar — introducing us to the motley characters and evolving science behind the latest developments in boozy technology. He uncovers alcohol’s deepest mysteries, chasing the physics, molecular biology, organic chemistry, and even metallurgy that power alcohol production, and the subtle mixture of psychology and neurobiology that fuels our taste for those products.

With intoxicating enthusiasm, Rogers reveals alcohol as a miracle of science. If you’ve ever wondered how exactly your drink of choice arrived in your glass, or exactly what will happen to you once you empty it, Proof makes an unparalleled drinking companion.


The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity by Prof. Pedro G. Ferreira [304 pages, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/audio CD/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/paperback/audio CD/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: Physicists have been exploring, debating, and questioning the general theory of relativity ever since Albert Einstein first presented it in 1915. Their work has uncovered a number of the universe’s more surprising secrets, and many believe further wonders remain hidden within the theory’s tangle of equations, waiting to be exposed. In this sweeping narrative of science and culture, astrophysicist Pedro Ferreira brings general relativity to life through the story of the brilliant physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers who have taken up its challenge. For these scientists, the theory has been both a treasure trove and an enigma, fueling a century of intellectual struggle and triumph.

Einstein’s theory, which explains the relationships among gravity, space, and time, is possibly the most perfect intellectual achievement of modern physics, yet studying it has always been a controversial endeavor. Relativists were the target of persecution in Hitler’s Germany, hounded in Stalin’s Russia, and disdained in 1950s America. Even today, PhD students are warned that specializing in general relativity will make them unemployable.

Despite these pitfalls, general relativity has flourished, delivering key insights into our understanding of the origin of time and the evolution of all the stars and galaxies in the cosmos. Its adherents have revealed what lies at the farthest reaches of the universe, shed light on the smallest scales of existence, and explained how the fabric of reality emerges. Dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and string theory are all progeny of Einstein’s theory.

We are in the midst of a momentous transformation in modern physics. As scientists look farther and more clearly into space than ever before,The Perfect Theory reveals the greater relevance of general relativity, showing us where it started, where it has led, and where it can still take us.


The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman [176 pages, Vintage Books, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/paperback/audio download/audio CD/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/paperback/audiobook download/audiobook CD/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: With passion and curiosity, Alan Lightman explores the emotional and philosophical questions raised by recent discoveries in science. He looks at the dialogue between science and religion; the conflict between our human desire for permanence and the impermanence of nature; the possibility that our universe is simply an accident; the manner in which modern technology has separated us from direct experience of the world; and our resistance to the view that our bodies and minds can be explained by scientific logic and laws.

Behind all of these considerations is the suggestion — at once haunting and exhilarating — that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the extraordinary, perhaps unfathomable whole.



The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne [336 pages, W. W. Norton Company, 2014; Amazon UK paperback/kindle UK; Amazon US paperback/audio CD/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: Interstellar, from acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, takes us on a fantastic voyage far beyond our solar system. Yet in The Science of Interstellar, Kip Thorne, the physicist who assisted Nolan on the scientific aspects of Interstellar, shows us that the movie’s jaw-dropping events and stunning, never-before-attempted visuals are grounded in real science. Thorne shares his experiences working as the science adviser on the film and then moves on to the science itself. In chapters on wormholes, black holes, interstellar travel, and much more, Thorne’s scientific insights — many of them triggered during the actual scripting and shooting of Interstellar — describe the physical laws that govern our universe and the truly astounding phenomena that those laws make possible.




Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World by Gillen D’Arcy Wood [312 pages, Princeton University Press, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/audio download/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover/audio download/kindle US]

Publisher’s synopsis: When Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, it unleashed the most destructive wave of extreme weather the world has witnessed in thousands of years. The volcano’s massive sulfate dust cloud enveloped the Earth, cooling temperatures and disrupting major weather systems for more than three years. Amid devastating storms, drought, and floods, communities worldwide endured famine, disease, and civil unrest on a catastrophic scale. On the eve of the bicentenary of the great eruption, Tambora tells the extraordinary story of the weather chaos it wrought, weaving the latest climate science with the social history of this frightening period to offer a cautionary tale about the potential tragic impacts of drastic climate change in our own century.

The year following Tambora’s eruption became known as the “Year without a Summer,” when weather anomalies in Europe and New England ruined crops, displaced millions, and spawned chaos and disease. Here, for the first time, Gillen D’Arcy Wood traces Tambora’s full global and historical reach: how the volcano’s three-year climate change regime initiated the first worldwide cholera pandemic, expanded opium markets in China, set the stage for Ireland’s Great Famine, and plunged the United States into its first economic depression. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster, inspired by Tambora’s terrifying storms, embodied the fears and misery of global humanity during this transformative period, the most recent sustained climate crisis the world has faced.

Bringing the history of this planetary emergency grippingly to life, Tambora sheds light on the fragile interdependence of climate and human societies, and the threat a new era of extreme global weather poses to us all.


Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe [224 pages, Profile Books, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK hardcover/kindle UK; Amazon US hardcover]

Publisher’s synopsis: The eruption of Laki is one of history’s great untold natural disasters. The eruption, spewing out a poisionous fog, lasted for eight months, but its effects lingered across Europe for years, causing the death of people as far away as the Nile, and creating famine that may have triggered the French revolution. Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the pastor Jon Steingrimsson, who witnessed and recorded the events in Iceland. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology, and looks at how events might work out should Laki erupt again in our time.


You may also be interested to peruse my choices for Best Birds Books, Best Nature Books and Best Popular Science Books: Biological sciences.

Did I miss something? Feel free to add your suggestions in comments below, so other readers can check them out.

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When she’s not got her nose stuck in a book, GrrlScientist is very active on twitter @GrrlScientist and lurks on social media: facebook, G+, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.

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J.R. Reynolds column: Science keeps us humble

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Folks who make my acquaintance sooner or later begin to suspect me to be something of a science geek. Guilty as charged. Truth is, my passion in this regard ranges from hard, fact-based science and far-ranging science theory all the way to plain old science fiction.

So it eventually comes as no shock to friends when I try to steer discussions toward such topics.

Sadly, in most cases, my invitation to dialogue is met with polite head-nodding followed by an increasingly vacant stare. Or outright here-we-go-again eye rolling.

I don’t mind. In fact, I don’t blame them. Different strokes for different folks, I say. Case in point: some of my friends and relatives hold great passion for things like professional wrestling, romance novels or HGTV. Me? Pass.

When I was younger, some people accused me of having my head in the clouds. That is, I was thinking about things that to them ultimately didn’t really matter in the greater scheme. For instance, when I talked about stars, most inferred television and film celebrities.

Of course, I meant far off worlds that might hold other intelligent life (unlike TV movies). Statistically it’s a virtual certainty, yet there’s no observable data to support the claim. Despite my deepest dreams, seeing is believing. Now that’s what I call an inconvenient truth.

There’s no whiz-bang intellect in my noodle that justifies the passion I hold for science.

Still, my world view can often keep a lot of people from engaging in what I consider interesting conversation and conjecture. In fact, a lot of stuff I like to go on about squarely resides in the wheelhouse of most people’s, “Who gives a darn?”

They’ve got a point. Despite my love of it, modern science can also chap my hide. My biggest beef is that humankind keeps believing we have it all figured out. Take the dinosaur thing. Back when I was a kid, scientists were certain they were cold-blooded like reptiles; now we believe them to have been warm-blooded like us.

Or, once upon a time, we were sure the smallest elemental particles were atoms. That is, until we discovered electrons. And protons and neutrons. Then muons and bosons. It goes on.

Even science’s simpler mysteries can be exercises in unprovable conjecture.

Like where the mate to a sock goes after doing laundry. Good money used to be on gremlins but now, thanks to the science of Calvin and Hobbes, I’m squarely in the transmogrifier camp, with the dryer doubling as some sort of multi-dimensional transporter. The problem, again, is finding verifiable proof.

Fractals, wormholes, microchimerism, implicit bias — these are all science terms (look ‘em up) that stimulate my imagination. And curiosity.

Even concepts that I initially struggled with in math, like integrals and derivatives, have become dear to me. Despite their aloofness as it relates to my initial inability to comprehend them in practical terms (i.e., during test-taking), conceptually, they invoked in me, and still do, a desire to better understand the world.

What does it all mean? Why should such high-minded concepts be on the radar of a relatively-speaking mid-brow individual such as myself? Two words: curiosity and imagination.

Thanks to the level of technology we’ve achieved, today’s youth are collectively being robbed of those two most useful traits known to humanity. Computer simulations and digital effects reign supreme, leaving less and less to the imagination. Or is that really the case?

Time will tell if this period in history marks a decline in human innovation or serves as the launch point toward something altogether innovative and unique. Here’s to the unknown.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

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‘A Great Moment’: Rover Finds Clue That Mars May Harbor Life

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

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The Most Amazing Science Images Of 2014

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

How better to kick off io9′s Year In Review than with fifty of our favorite photos and videos from 2014?

Above: A Stunning View of Sunlit Seas on Titan | As NASA’s Cassini spacecraft soared past Saturn’s moon Titan, it recently caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas. In the past, Cassini had captured, separately, views of the polar seas and the sun glinting off them, but this is the first time both have been seen together in the same view.

Let us introduce this collection by stating the obvious: This is not a comprehensive list. What you’ll find here are photos that engaged our minds, and videos that set our pulses racing – a carefully curated collection of the weird, the wonderful, and the truly awesome. Here you’ll find imagery that moved us, inspired us, and shook us to our core, and a few that made us laugh in sheer amazement.

But the experiences brought on by these images are, of course, subjective, and so this list is incomplete.
With that in mind, we invite you to share the images you think we missed in the comments below. Be sure to include a brief description, and a link to where we can learn more.

Witness the Birth of a Snowflake

One of the more technically creative time-lapses we’ve seen in a long while, Snowtime is a 2-minute “microscopic time-lapse” by Vyacheslav Ivanov that captures the mesmerizing bloom of budding ice crystals in all their hexagonal glory.

Dreadnoughtus, a Newly Discovered Supermassive Dinosaur

In September,
a newly discovered dinosaur named Dreadnoughtus schrani laid claim to the title of world’s largest terrestrial animal, thanks to the recovery of its “exceptionally complete” remains from Southern Patagonia, Argentina by a team led by Drexel University paleontology Ken Lacovara. Here, Lacovara’s son, Rudyard, poses with the dinosaur’s 5.6 ft (1.7-meter) scapula, the longest yet reported for any titanosaur. The image is one of several incredible photographs in a series by photographer Robert Clark.

Earth and the Moon, in a Single Frame

China’s Chang’e 5 test vehicle captured this rare glimpse of the Moon’s far side in October, from just past the halfway point on its lunar-looping test flight. Incredibly, the spacecraft managed to include Earth in the frame as well, producing what is destined to become an iconic image of our planet and its natural satellite.

The First-Ever Footage of a “Black Seadevil”

On November 17th, researchers with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute acquired footage of Melanocetus (aka “the Black Seadevil”), a species of anglerfish never before filmed alive in its natural, deep-sea habitat.

Stare Into the Heart of the Biggest Sunspot in 24 Years

On October 25th, giant sunspot AR 2192 –
the largest sunspot astronomers have observed in nearly a quarter century – erupted in an X3.1-class solar flare, one of the most powerful flares documented this year.

Google Executive Alan Eustace Crushes Felix Baumgartner’s Free-Fall Record

Alan Eustace, a senior vice president at Google, fell from the top of the stratosphere on the morning of October 24, plummeting nearly 26 vertical miles in the span of about 15 minutes. In doing so, he broke daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 record for world’s highest-altitude free fall by more than 1,000 feet.

The Great Lakes Experience Their Deepest Freeze in 20 Years

In February, for the first time since 1994, 88% of the surface of the Great Lakes froze solid.

You’ve Probably Never Thought About How Marble is Harvested, but it’s Beautiful

Ever wondered how marble is quarried? The process,
documented earlier this year in astunning short film by Italian filmmaker Yuri Ancarani, is utterly transfixing.

Who Owns Copyright on a Selfie Taken by a Monkey?

It’s an old photo, but the legal issues surrounding it were unmistakably 2014 in tone.
The photo above is of a female crested macaque in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. She picked up David Slater’s camera and managed to snap a selfie, which has since gone viral, and was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia claim the the photo “is in the public domain, because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested.” Slater, however, disagrees. “A monkey pressed the button,” he told The Telegraph, “but I did all the setting up.”

Marvel at the Awesome Sight (and Sound) of a Volcanic Blast

Earlier this year, while vacationing in Papua New Guinea with his wife, Phil McNamara captured this captivating footage of Mount Tavurvur ejecting untold heaps of lava, rock, and ash hundreds of meters into the air. Between the striking burst of clouds above the volcano and the jarring boom of the delayed shockwave, it’s one of the most dramatic eruption videos we’ve ever seen.
Watch it here.

This Photo of Super Typhoon Vongfong Looks Fake. It’s Not.

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman captured this incredible photograph of super typhoon Vongfang on October 9th, from aboard the International Space Station.
“I’ve seen many from here,” Wiseman said of Vongfong, which had recently become the largest, most powerful storm of 2014, “but none like this.”

Mesmerizing Anatomical X-Ray GIFs

San Francisco based graphic designer Cameron Drake converted some X-ray footage into a series of GIFs for one of his recent projects. The resulting animations are really quite beautiful.

The Deepest into Space Anyone Has Ever Seen

Using a naturally-existing zoom lens in space,
the Hubble telescope in January took the deepest look into a cluster of galaxies ever taken in space to grab these pictures of galaxy cluster Abell 2744.

A Gruesome Epidemic is Ravaging Starfish Populations

A mysterious illness has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of starfish on North America’s west coast, and its symptoms are horrifying. Dubbed “sea star wasting syndrome,” the arms of an infected individual will twist into knots, develop lesions, and finally crawl away in opposite directions until they tear away from its body, allowing its insides to spill out. Last month, researchers announced they had found the culprit: It’s a virus.

New Images Reveal the Shape of our Galaxy’s Magnetic Field

The European Space Agency reports that this image, captured by the Planck spacecraft, is among the first to reveal the shape of the Milky Way’s magnetic field. The colors show temperature, with dark red the hottest and dark blue the coldest. And the relief lines reveal the shape of the vast magnetic field that envelops our galaxy and protects us from some of the high energy particles zooming through deep space.

This is How the Sun Sees You

Artist Thomas Leveritt used a specially equipped video camera to demonstrate the UV-blocking power of sunscreen to passersby in Brooklyn, New York. The effect was dramatic. The resulting short film may be the most convincing endorsement of sunscreen we’ve ever seen.

An Historic Image of Planet Formation Around a Young Star

Earlier this year, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) captured
the sharpest picture ever of a protoplanetary disc surrounding a young star. The image, which bears a striking resemblance to prior artistic impressions, is set to revolutionize our understanding of how planets form. The picture is one of ALMA’s first observations to be made at its near-final configuration, as this remarkable device is still being calibrated. The new image was taken as part of the testing and verification process for the telescope — so the best images are still to come.

A Volcanic Vortex Spirals Out of an Icelandic Eruption

This swirling whirl of ash, volcanic gas, and flaming doom was imaged above the Holuhraun fissure eruption in Iceland in September. Despite our obsession with calling all things whirly some variety of tornado
, it’s not a tornado at all, but a dust devil that incorporated bits of its environment that make it far more flashy.

Clues to Humanity’s History Discovered in an Underwater Cave

During the last ice age, an enormous stretch of fertile grassland connected Eurasia and the Americas. Known today as Beringia, this lost landscape was home to a small but important population of humans. Now, the skull you see here, which was discovered in a flooded cave in Mexico, has provided researchers with new clues about what happened to the Beringians once they came to America.
At over 12,000 years old, the skull belongs to the oldest complete skeleton of its kind ever discovered, and is helping researchers piece together the history of these early settlers. [PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC]

An Ultra HD Time-Lapse of Earth

It’s strange, but we can be surprisingly blasé about space-imagery, our appetites glutted by a steady stream of “mesmerizing,” “humbling,” and “mindblowing” footage of our planet. It takes more than a view from the ISS to give us pause. So trust us when we say that
this video is definitely worth the watch.

Drone Footage of Killer Whales is the First of its Kind

Earlier this year, researchers came together to investigate the health and habits of killer whales using a custom-built, remotely operated hexacopter. The study, which resulted not only in incredible footage but fascinating observations, was the first to incorporate a drone in the monitoring of killer whales.

This is Why You Don’t Hide Under a Tree During a Lightning Storm

In June, the US National Weather Service released
this staggering footage of a lightning bolt making matchsticks of a tree in Upstate New York.

Real Life Mosquito Tornado is far More Terrifying Than Sharknado

While visiting Leziria Grande at Vila Franca de Xira in Portugal recently, photographer Ana Filipa Scarpa noticed something off in the distance that resembled a funnel cloud. But it wasn’t a tornado, or even a funnel for that matter. Rather, it was something… alive.

A Stunning Example of Collective Intelligence

Individual ants are not very smart, but ants working together in a colony are capable of extraordinary feats. Case in point: This remarkable video, in which a colony of ants has transformed into a daisy chain to pull a dead millipede –
behavior which, prior to the video’s release, had never been seen before.

These Wasps Built Their Colony on a Window

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A glimpse at the internal structure of a rather large (and rather occupied) wasp nest. Put down the flamethrower and check it out. Trust us on this one,
you’ll want to see this.

A 14,000-Volt Electrical Shock Gave a Man Star-Shaped Cataracts

In a January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers recount the fascinating case of an electrician who, after sustaining a 14,000-volt shock to his left shoulder, presented with “bilateral stellate anterior subcapsular opacities of the lens.” Translation: Starburst-shaped cataracts.

California’s Drought was Very, Very Bad

California’s ongoing drought is its worst in at least 1,200 years. This year, its severity was documented in photographs like these. The first image shows Folsom Lake near Sacramento on July 20, 2011. The second image shows Folsom Lake on January 16, 2014. And things only got worse as the year progressed.

A Close-Up View of One of the World’s Most Venomous Spiders

Entomologist Alex Wild captured these incredible photographs on a recent visit to the venomous chemistry lab (!) of David Wilson, a researcher at James Cook University’s Centre for Biodiscovery and Molecular Development of Therapeutics. Read the story behind the shot here.

This ISS Experiment Looks Like a Miniature Star Factory

Flame Extinguishment-2 (FLEX-2) is the second iteration of an experiment designed to test how burning droplets of fuel behave in space. But unlike other fire experiments aboard the ISS, FLEX-2 requires the flaming droplets to be suspended, free of other objects (like, say, a candle wick) to better study the rate at which fuel mixtures evaporate and burn, and the conditions required for soot to form. According to NASA, “understanding these processes could lead to the production of a safer spacecraft as well as increased fuel efficiency for engines using liquid fuel on Earth.”

Bee Portraits are a Glimpse into a Gorgeously Weird World

It’s not very often that you get a chance to take a very, very close look at a bee. But these captivating macro pictures of bees, wasps, and more show us just
how much we’ve been missing out on.

Have you ever wished you could see what the International Space Station looks like from inside a floating ball of water?

Your wish has been granted.

Triple Lightning Strikes 3 of Chicago’s Tallest Buildings at Once

Photographer Craig Shimala was filming a time-lapse of a derecho over Chicago on the night of June 30th when a triple lightning strike touched down on three of the city’s tallest buildings: Willis Tower, Trump Tower, and the John Hancock Building. Watch the video footage here.

The First Vine From Space is of a Never-Setting Sun

Crew members aboard the ISS can observe as many as 16 sunrises and sunsets in a 24 hour period. But,
as astronaut Reid Wiseman noted in the first Vine ever composed in space, the view from low-Earth orbit changes considerably when the Space Station’s course falls into alignment with the day/night terminator line, i.e. the barrier between light and dark on the surface of the Earth.

Google Strapped a Camera to a Camel to Put the Desert on Street View

How do you map a desert when it’s not exactly the best place to drive one of Google’s Street View cars?
Camel-cam, that’s how.

Giant, Worm-Slurping Leech Filmed for the First Time

For the first time, filmmakers in the forests of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu documented the so-repulsive-it’s-captivating behavior of a large, red, worm-guzzling predator. While it remains unclassified by science, the animal is known to the area’s tribespeople, fittingly, as the “Giant Red Leech.” See the footage here.

This is a Praying Mantis Wearing 3D Glasses

Scientists at Newcastle University are outfitting praying mantises with the world’s smallest 3D glasses, to better understand how these notoriously dextrous predators perceive depth.

SpaceX Conducts its First Falcon 9 Reusable Flight Test

You thought SpaceX’s Grasshopper was impressive? Grasshopper was just the beginning. Behold, the first flight test of the company’s Falcon 9 Reusable Launch Vehicle.

The Curiosity Rover Snaps a Stunning Photo of a Martian Sunset

In April, the Curiosity rover snapped this shot of the sun setting behind Gale Crater’s western rim. And as you can see, the sunsets on Mars are quite different from what we see here on Earth.

Incredible Footage Of A Live Oarfish

In April, vacationers on a Shedd Adventure trip to Baja caught a glimpse of a rare oarfish making its way through shallow waters. Simply put, their video is our best glimpse of these elusive creatures to date.

Documenting the Ancient Tradition of Honey Hunting in Nepal

Twice each year, the Gurung tribespeople of Central Nepal risk their lives collecting wild honey from the world’s largest hives high up on Himalayan cliffs.
Travel photographer Andrew Newey recently spent two weeks capturing this ancient but dying art.

NASA Observes a Solar Explosion in Unprecedented Detail

In May, NASA’s sun-observing IRIS spacecraft got its first close-up look at a colossal coronal mass ejection erupting from the sun,
and boy howdy was it beautiful.

An Astronaut’s View on His First Spacewalk

This photo was taken in November by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst
on his first-ever spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Joining him was NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, who was also on his first foray outside ISS.

Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown by a Balloon and a Minivan

2014 was a big year for YouTube science channels, and this simple but effective demonstration – delivered by Destin on his channel, Smarter Every Day was one of our favorite episodes of the year. If you don’t already know why a helium balloon tethered to the floor of a minivan has the power to make your jaw drop, you’re going to want to see this. Seriously – set aside five minutes of your time, have a seat and watch. You won’t regret it.

Melting Sea Ice Forces 35,000 Walruses Onto a Beach

This photo, taken by Corey Accardo from a NOAA research flight over Alaska’s north in late September, shows an estimated 35,000 walruses crowded onto a beach – a record number for the survey program. As global warming contributes to the melting of Arctic sea ice habitats, Pacific walruses are foraging in more coastal areas and using beaches for resting. It’s a problem that’s getting progressively worse, leading to a completely new behavior for the species.

You Know How This Experiment Ends (But You Should Watch It Anyway)

Most people know that any two objects dropped in a vacuum will fall at the same rate. Some of you have probably even seen this demonstrated in person. But you’ve probably never seen this classic experiment reproduced in the world’s biggest vacuum chamber –
and you really should.

An Uncrewed Antares Rocket Explodes on Launch

On October 28th,
an uncrewed Antares rocket from Orbital Science Corp. exploded seconds after launch. It was to be the first of two major blows to the burgeoning industry of commercial space flight; later than week, Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital space plane, SpaceShipTwo, would be lost in a disastrous test-flight, claiming the life of one test pilot and severely injuring another.

Chemical Reactions Shot in Ultra HD Look Like Alien Life

hemical reactions are those magical moments when the matter that surrounds us suddenly bursts into life. A stunning collaboration between Tsinghua University Press and University of Science and Technology of China
now showcases eight different types of these reactions in exquisite detail.

The Rosetta Mission Lands on a Comet

On August 6, after traveling through space for more than a decade,
the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft rendezvoused with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. On November 12th, Rosetta’s Philae lander successfully landed on the comet – the first such landing in human history. For these momentous achievements, the Rosetta mission gets two images: A photo taken by Philae from the surface of 67P/C-G, and a selfie of Rosetta in orbit around the comet.

What did we miss? Share your pick of images and videos in the comments below. Be sure to include a brief description, and a link to where we can learn more.

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This professor bakes 1400 cookies for his computer science students during …

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Yum! Stuart Reges’ chocolate chip cookies. Photo via UW.

Many students in Stuart Reges’ computer science classes pull all-nighters, cramming in hopes of acing the introductory courses at the University of Washington.

Little do they know that their professor is doing the same — just in front of an oven and with spatula in hand.

A principal lecturer at the UW, Reges has baked chocolate chip cookies for his students during finals week for the past six years, a tradition that first began when he taught at Stanford in the early 80s. Back then, he had about 25 students in his class.

But times have changed, as Reges explained in telling us about this fun pastime:

Stuart “cookie monster” Reges

“It seemed like a nice tradition, so I continued to make cookies for my students even as my class size grew to 60, 90, 150, up to around 300. I stopped making cookies after I left Stanford in 1991.  But then in September of 2008, at UW, I was contacted by a woman who had taken my intro course in 1988.  So that was 20 years later.  She wanted my cookie recipe. That convinced me that I should start making cookies again for my classes and ever since then I’ve made homemade chocolate chip cookies that I give out at the final exam for all of my classes.”

But now — as the interest in computer science has grown and the UW program expands — class sizes have swelled. This year, Reges is teaching computer science engineering 142 — a class with 1,000 students — and computer science engineering 143 — a class with 400 students. (In fact, he’s responsible for about 1.5 percent of all credit hours at the university).

That means he baked 1,400 cookies for his students during finals week. That’s 116 dozen, or as colleague Ed Lazowska notes: 154,000 calories.

Reges is not just a master cookie maker. He’s a darned good computer science professor, too. He won the UW Distinguished Teaching Award in 2011.

No word yet on whether the sugar high helped students perform better on the finals.

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Scientific American’s Top 10 Science Stories of 2014

Monday, December 15th, 2014

The year saw many developments that will have far-reaching and long-lasting implications, both practically and intellectually. Start the countdown below, and go to the end to see some of the other important stories that didn’t quite make the cut.


Image: Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam

Symbolic Thought Shown to Exist in Other Human Species

What distinguished Homo sapiens from other members of the human family and fueled our extraordinary success as a species? One popular notion holds that our propensity for symbolic thought, which underlies language, was key. But mounting evidence indicates that Neandertals shared this talent. And now comes news that an even older, more primitive human ancestor—Homo erectus from Asia—showed signs of symbolic thought, too.

Researchers have discovered a shell engraved with a geometric pattern at a H. erectus site known as Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java, that dates to between 540,000 and 430,000 years ago. The find is at least 300,000 years older than the oldest previously known engravings, which come from South Africa.

Analysis of the engraving, made on a freshwater mussel shell, suggests that its maker used a shark tooth or another hard, pointed object to create the zigzag design. “The engraving was probably made on a fresh shell specimen still retaining its brown [skin], which would have produced a striking pattern of white lines on a dark ‘canvas,’” Josephine C. A. Joordens of Leiden University in the Netherlands and her colleagues surmise in their report, published online December 3 in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

The find hints that many more such items—300,000 years’ worth, in fact—are out there awaiting discovery, and it raises the question of just how much farther back in the human lineage such behaviors might have originated.—Kate Wong

World’s Oldest Engraving Upends Theory of Homo sapiens Uniqueness

Ancient Engraving Strengthens Case for Sophisticated Neandertals

When the Sea Saved Humanity [for subscribers]


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Review: ‘Spare Parts,’ about undocumented science-whiz teenagers, by Joshua …

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Peter Carlson, a former Washington Post reporter, is a columnist for American History magazine and the author of several books, including “Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy.”

By Joshua Davis

Farrar Straus Giroux. 224 pp. $25

Four scruffy teenagers, all of them illegal immigrants, drove to Santa Barbara, Calif., in June 2004, carrying a crude contraption constructed out of pipes and wires and emitting a nasty smell. They carted it to the University of California, strolled into a campus aquatic center and slipped it into a swimming pool.

The ugly, reeking contraption was a robot designed to work underwater. The four teenagers built it at school — Carl Hayden Community High School, located in a poor Mexican American neighborhood in Phoenix. They’d come to Santa Barbara to compete in an underwater robotics contest sponsored by NASA and the U.S. Navy. Standing by the pool, Lorenzo Santillan, one of the Phoenix kids, checked out the competition — 10 teams from colleges, including a squad from MIT composed of two computer science majors and 10 engineering students. “I’ve never seen so many white people in one place,” Santillan joked.

“Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream” by Joshua Davis. (Farrar Straus Giroux/ )

MIT’s robot was a sleek aluminum machine decorated with a sticker advertising Exxon Mobil, which had donated $10,000 to the team. It was a thing of beauty. The robot from Hayden High was not. Made of PVC pipes pasted together with funky-smelling glue, “Stinky” — as the kids named it — contained computer parts they’d begged and borrowed, along with such high-tech equipment as a plastic briefcase, a milk jug and a sunscreen bottle. The Phoenix kids lowered Stinky into the pool for a test drive. They worked the remote controls, but the robot didn’t respond. They hauled Stinky up and saw that water had leaked into the plastic briefcase that housed its brains. The contest began the next morning, so they needed to fix the problem overnight.

Joshua Davis tells the story of these four plucky teenagers and their robot in his fast-moving and sometimes inspiring book “Spare Parts.” It’s a story Davis first told in Wired magazine in 2005, and a movie version will arrive next year. Of course, Hollywood doesn’t make movies about poor immigrant kids who lose robotics contests to corporate-funded MIT students, so you’ve probably already guessed that the Phoenix team won the contest. Congratulations! You’re right. It’s a feel-good tale of scrappy underdogs beating long odds. But there’s more to the story, and “Spare Parts” illuminates the human side of two polarizing political issues: immigration and education.

These teenage engineers are four examples of the bogeyman who terrifies so many Americans — the Mexican who sneaks into the promised land. Of course, they’re also individuals, each with his own quirky personality.

Oscar Vazquez joined ROTC at Hayden High and was so gung-ho that he won an Officer of the Year award. He planned to join the Army until a teacher informed him that illegal immigrants couldn’t serve.

Cristian Arcega loved to build things, and he learned English watching his favorite TV star, Bob Vila, the home-repair guy. Smart and curious, he amused himself by reading about cell biology online and graduated second in his class at Hayden High.

Luis Aranda preferred Julia Child to Bob Vila. Inspired by watching Child cook on TV, he began working in restaurants at age 11, first as a dishwasher, then as a cook. He didn’t like studying — reading made him sleepy — but when he heard about a class where kids could build a robot, he signed up.

Santillan had a goofy haircut his classmates dubbed the “Mexican mullet.” When they teased him, he fought back, which got him into trouble. His grades were terrible, but he learned how to improvise creative solutions to mechanical problems by working for a backyard mechanic who made a living fixing cars despite having few tools or spare parts.

That skill came in handy in Santa Barbara when Stinky started leaking the night before the contest and the Phoenix kids needed something to keep their robot’s wires dry.

“It’s got to be small and super-absorbent,” Arcega said.

“Absorbent?” Santillan asked. He’d heard that word in TV commercials. “Like a tampon?”

It was a brilliant idea, and the team rewarded Santillan by making him go into a drugstore to make the embarrassing purchase. But the tampons saved the day.

The kids are the heart of “Spare Parts,” but the book’s real hero is their teacher, Fredi Lajvardi. An Iranian immigrant who was bullied by his Arizona high school classmates during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis, Lajvardi understood his undocumented students. And he knew how to push them to do better than they believed they could. When they ran into problems, he declined to solve them. “Call an expert,” he said. They made calls and soon learned that experts are often eager to give free advice — and sometimes free equipment — to high school kids eager to learn. These boys depended on the kindness of strangers, and the strangers almost always came through.

That part of the story is uplifting. After their victory, things get more complicated. I won’t spoil the suspense, but anti-immigrant backlash and our infuriating bureaucracy take their toll on the boys.

“Spare Parts” is a delightful book, perfect for entertaining and inspiring high school kids. Davis writes well, and he keeps his plot moving swiftly. I only wish that he’d paused more often to quote these young men and let them tell us in their own words how they felt about their extraordinary experiences. They have a great story to tell — a great American story.

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Making science a desirable career

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Most scientists (ourselves included) headed off to graduate school eager to discover new things, test crazy ideas, and hopefully
change the world, or at least explain a piece of it. Sadly, these days such aspirations are overshadowed by fierce competition
for papers, grants, and the tenured positions trainees need to build independent careers in academic research. Even those
who have attained one of those rare, coveted professorships are under intense strain: A preoccupation with funding and other
career-related metrics crowds out real discovery among aspiring and established scientists alike. The result: Science has
become a less desirable career. We can fix the problem, but only if we’re willing to make fundamental changes to how academic
science is structured and funded.

For decades, trainees—graduate students and postdocs—have performed most of the day-to-day work of academic science. Motivated
by the promise of satisfying careers, they are willing to work long and hard for minimal pay. For science, that works out
well in the short term but not the long: The distinction between trainee and employee blurs. When more is invested in science—a
good thing—the ranks of graduate students and postdocs swell to meet the demand for temporary labor. Permanent positions don’t
keep pace, eroding the economic and intellectual value of scientific training. Trainees take ever longer—into their mid-30s
and beyond—to accrue credentials sufficient to stand out and get hired for serious, long-term faculty jobs. With each passing
year, scientists young and old spend more time worrying about their careers and less time making discoveries. As long as academic
science is structured the way it is, we don’t really have a choice.

“Career instability … turns some of the best talent away.”


Some argue that intense competition strengthens science by allowing only the fittest to survive. But the incentives that arise
from such competition run counter to creativity, openness, and innovation. We may even be selecting for undesirable traits,
such as recklessness and a focus on self-marketing over scientific substance. The weight put on publishing papers in high-impact
journals may encourage scientists to exaggerate their findings, or worse. In short, it is evident that hypercompetition is
inconsistent with “affording the prepared mind complete freedom for the exercise of initiative,” which Vannevar Bush, who
devised our system of academic research funding in the 1940s, considered to be of “supreme importance.”

So why do students even start down the road to science careers? We believe it’s a combination of ignorance of the realities,
overconfidence, and a punch-drunk passion for science. At some point during training, however, that enthusiasm starts to wear
off. Every trainee has encountered exceptionally talented students who would have made major contributions but decided to
leave science—its uncertain prospects, risk-averse funding, and incentives for distortion and dishonesty—in favor of more
practical and lucrative careers.

To draw the best young minds to research and then keep them here, we need to change how we train scientists and how academic
science gets done. More of the work should be done by staff scientists in stable positions and less of it by (fewer) trainees.
We should move the career bottleneck from faculty to the postdoc or even to graduate school admissions. Training grants and
fellowships should replace grant support for most trainees so that more can be invested in research grants without increasing
the number of trainees and further glutting Ph.D.-level science labor markets. Such measures would have useful side effects:
encouraging better training and intellectual independence. More important, they would improve young scientists’ career prospects.

It is time to address the career instability that turns some of the best talent away from science. The effort and investment
needed to make research careers more attractive will be handsomely repaid in the form of future discoveries.

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