Archive for May, 2007

Whale Tales, part 2

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

It looks like the wayward whales found their way through the Golden Gate and back home to the Pacific without so much as a tail wave goodbye. It was quite a rescue operation and it looks like biologists might also have gotten some good data about humpback whales from their extended time in the Sacramento Delta.

That’s a nice ending but we’re still waiting to hear about the vote at the International Whaling Commission meetings in Anchorage. Quotas and approval for subsistence whaling by Arctic native groups have been approved, but the vote on whether to resume commercial whaling awaits. Meanwhile, Japan is working to keep their whaling industry afloat. They are lobbying to overturn the ban on commercial whaling and to disband the International Whaling Commission as an ineffective, unnecessary regulator. They are also pleading the case that certain coastal communities should be granted permission to hunt for cultural reasons as do the Arctic subsistence whalers. The distinction is that subsistence hunters consume all the whale products themselves and don’t sell them on the commercial market, as the Japanese whalers do. Greenpeace is protesting, but their efforts aren’t generating much U.S. press (maybe they should try raising awareness in Japan). The media will probably pick it up big time if commercial whaling is approved, so no news is good news.

How Do We Know What We Know: Evidence and Belief

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

balldrop.jpgMy three-year-old knows something about gravity but that’s not what makes him special. Even babies grasp the fact that unsupported objects tend to fall downward. Endless experimentation launching sippy cups off high chairs and dropping balls to the floor teaches youngsters how gravity works. But it’s just this experience that makes it hard for them to believe that the earth is a sphere, according to a recent article in Science Magazine (May 18, 2007) about the childhood origins of adult resistance to science. Until about age nine, children have difficulty comprehending a spherical earth because they can’t understand why people on the other side don’t fall off.

Eventually kids accept earth’s shape, in large part because trusted information sources, such as teachers and parents, confidently tell them so. They might also see space photographs of the “blue marble” earth, evidence that helps reinforce the concept. Eventually most students develop a more sophisticated understanding about the gravitational attraction of large objects that reconciles experience with learned knowledge.

Other scientific concepts that are complex or that go against common sense are more difficult to dislodge, especially in a society where debate about these topics create uncertainty. Young children are especially susceptible to believing that things have a purpose and a design, a belief system that is clearly not based on evidence or scientific understanding. The Science article, written by Yale psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg, describes children’s propensity for “promiscuous teleology” as the belief, for example, that clouds are for raining and lions are for going to the zoo.

We run into problems as a society when these misconceptions about science persist into adulthood. For children, the simplest explanation for the origins of plants and animals is a creationist belief. Good science education should supplant this belief with an understanding of how natural selection and evolution works, but the Science authors make the point that the current debate over teaching evolution gives the public, and students, an easy out. Rather than go through the hard work of evaluating the strong, deep and complex evidence of how mutations over time lead to new species, they can rely on non-science information sources, such as clergy, politicians, media personalities, or other authority figures, to come to a simpler concept that God (i.e. an intelligent designer) created all species on earth.

189056630_420cd09a60_s.jpgWe hope to give folks a different way of answering the question: how do we know what we know? I’m on an NSF-funded project team at the Exploratorium that is digging into the ways that scientists use evidence, data and observations to understand the natural world. We’ve spent some time with scientists in Kamchatka investigating organisms that live in extreme environments, which might eventually provide clues about the early history, if not the origin, of life on earth. Later this year, we’ll launch an interactive Evidence Website that highlights the work of scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Max Planck geneticists, anthropologists, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and primatologists use multiple lines of evidence, from DNA, to research on Great Apes, to fossilized skulls, bones and teeth, to investigate what makes us human and different from our primate relatives.

We’ll show the experiments, data and video interviews with scientists and will also include an interactive section that will allow online visitors to investigate the ways that they as individuals arrive at their knowledge and compare their belief systems to others. Rather than just rely on authority figures, including scientists, visitors can investigate the evidence and the methods that scientists use to understand nature, including human nature. If we are going to “believe” in anything, maybe it should be in the cumulative and self-correcting process of evidence-based science.

Tale of Two Whales… or Twenty Thousand?

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

For the past week, crowds along the Sacramento Delta east of San Francisco have marveled at the spectacle, and fretted over the fate, of a mother humpback whale and her calf who are headed away from rather than toward the ocean. Biologists have been trying to herd them back to the sea to no avail and now their health appears to be deteriorating.

It’s a quirk of human nature that the public (and media) care more about two individuals that can be captured on TV or seen with their own eyes than about the lives of tens of thousands of whales that hang in the balance pending a vote by the International Whaling Commission this month in Anchorage. Twenty years ago, commercial whaling was banned by the IWC, but Japan is lobbying to lift that ban to satisfy their market for whale meat. The Japanese and some of their pro-whaling supporters claim that scientific studies have shown that whale populations have recovered enough to support commercial whaling. They probably don’t have the votes needed to overturn the ban this year, thanks to some intense lobbying by conservation groups in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (those countries seem much more attentive to the issue than the U.S.)

minke2-1.gifThe IWC meetings started early in May with the scientific committees meeting first. David Ainley, who’s been studying penguins in Antarctica for 20 years, presented some papers there about the interactions between whales and penguins in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. (We did a webcast with him from his research camp at Cape Royds late last year.) David, who took this picture of a minke whale at left, said the IWC conference was the only biology meeting he’s ever been to with armed guards at the door. Japanese whaling vessels were in the Ross Sea this year, killing minke whales as part of their “scientific whaling” program. The whales are cut open on the ships and data on fat stores and stomach contents is collected. It’s doubtful whether Japanese scientists would kill whales for research if there was no market for the meat and David says that nearly all biologists at the IWC meeting question the need to sacrifice whales at all since there are non-lethal ways to study them.

I’ll keep you posted what happens with the IWC meeting and writing more about the spectacular Ross Sea and David’s research there.


Mini Ice Ages and the Evolving Nature of Science

Friday, May 18th, 2007

I often hear complaints that science, writ large, changes its mind a lot. One study says salt is bad for you, another says it isn’t so harmful after all. What people often don’t understand is that the process of science is a provisional and a cumulative one, which makes it self-correcting over time. A small study of a population indicates that sodium intake may increase blood pressure, which is an indicator for a higher risk of heart disease. A later, larger study may show that other factors, like a high-fat diet, are more important predictors of what makes a ticker go bad. Another study indicates that genetic pre-disposition together with diet and exercise habits may be the best predictor for who will have heart attacks and who probably won’t. All the studies may be valid, but the results are provisional and our understanding may continue to evolve as new research is conducted. Human bodies are complicated, individualistic and variable machines so the answers about health and physiology are rarely completely straight-forward and universally applicable. The more we learn about human health and biology, however, the more we understand these complexities and variations.

0515-sci-clrcoldmap.jpgAnd so we come to climate, another complex system with many interlocking, interacting parts. For decades, oceanographers and climate scientists have been studying what’s known as the North Atlantic Current, an extension of the Gulf Stream, which carries warm, equatorial waters to North America and Europe. We did a webcast recently on the basics of this phenomenon, hosted by Exploratorium senior scientist Charles Carlson (scroll down to 4-21-2007). As recently as 12,000 years ago, this conveyor belt of warm salty water shut down when a flood of fresh water from melting glaciers poured into the ocean, plunging Europe and North America into a mini ice age (which was also the premise of a recent disaster film, “Day After Tomorrow.”) Scientists have been worried that global warming and the subsequent melting of ice sheets in Greenland would cause a similar disruption of the North Atlantic Current, but the recent IPCC report backed away from this prediction, reports Walter Gibbs in the New York Times. I asked Charlie to comment on this recent finding, here’s what he had to say:

“We can all remove one possible disaster scenario from our fears about global warming. The latest scientific evidence, coupled with more sophisticated computer climate modeling, doesn’t support a northern hemisphere plunge into a mini-ice age, as the Gulfstream current fails. Since the late ’70’s oceanographers have observed that the Gulfstream has periodically and dramatically varied in flow over the earth’s history, and that these variations are associated with major climatic shifts, like ice-ages. Such current fluctuations certainly could account for climatic shifts, since the North Atlantic current accounts for moving about 30% of the equatorial heat towards the poles significantly warming the northern latitudes, making Europe and North America more habitable. But a closer look has revealed that such a current failure isn’t all that likely. It would take a major catastrophic melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and that’s not in the earth’s current climate cards. So no “Day After” ice-age, we’ll all slowly warm instead.”

Climate Change & Kids: Advancing the Agenda

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

ceres2-21.jpgLast Sunday’s New York Times had a book review of Al Gore’s version of Inconvenient Truth for kids. The review was written by Robert Coontz, Deputy News Editor for Science Magazine (full disclosure, Robert is an old grad school classmate and good friend of mine).

Robert praised the book for its concise language and organization, an improvement over Gore’s original book for adults. He chides Gore a bit about painting too much certainty about global warming as the culprit behind Hurricane Katrina, a claim that most scientists are uncomfortable making. But Robert also says that in many ways the book does not go far enough. Because the main message is already out there that humans are impacting climate, now we need to fill in the gaps and explain the uncertainties and complexities of climate science. We should be introducing the scientists and how they use and make sense of data, especially as new findings come out and refine our understanding (and sometimes overturn previous scientific interpretations).

This gap is where formal and informal educational institutions can step in to provide context by helping our audiences make sense of the basics of climate science and the new information coming out. The Exploratorium developed the Global Climate Change Research Explorer that shows real observational data and how scientists interpret these observations to understand the mechanisms of climate change. We also produced a series of Polar Science Webcasts that introduced basic concepts about climate systems and some of the scientists, many of them working in the earth’s polar regions, who are piecing together climate history to help us understand what is happening now and may happen in the future.

Radical Science Teaching

Friday, May 11th, 2007

I love cracking open the morning newspaper and reading about somebody I’ve met (except, of course, if they’ve died or been arrested). Yesterday’s nerdy pleasure was a story in the New York Times about improving undergraduate teaching at Harvard that quoted physicist Eric Mazur. Professor Mazur was on a task force at Harvard that called for a new focus on learning and teaching, recommending that innovation and success in instruction be valued as highly as research and publication. It’s important, the task force report notes, that renowned scholars engage with students rather than just lecture to them.

This was the subject of a lunchtime brown bag talk that Professor Mazur gave to staff at the Exploratorium a few months ago. (Stephanie Chasteen, a postdoc at the Exploratorium recorded his talk which you can download from her website, along with Eric’s power point presentation). Eric Mazur is an advisor to the Exploratorium’s Nano project, part of a network of museums and science institutions funded by the National Science Foundation to improve the public’s understanding about nanoscience and technology. In his talk, Eric described how he gave up lectures in his introductory physics courses when he realized they weren’t working and that his students had failed to assimilate basic knowledge. Then he tried something radical: instead of providing answers, he started asking his students questions and giving them problems to solve in class. The students input answers in hand-held devices, consulting each other on possible solutions and then, as a class, they discuss the problem and its solution. In this model of inquiry learning, the students’ role is to think and discuss problems; the teacher’s role is to guide a deeper understanding of the underlying principles. This fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills rather than rote memorization. As Professor Mazur is quoted in the Times, “You have to be able to tackle the new and unfamiliar, not just the familiar, in everything.”

Just for fun, here’s one of Eric Mazur’s typical class exercises—can you solve this simple circuit problem more accurately than Harvard physics students?


Beach weather…. in San Francisco?

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

We’re in the grips of a weird weather pattern known in Southern California as Santa Ana conditions. Along the coast of California the normal pattern is for high-pressure regions to develop over the ocean, where it’s cool, and low pressure over the interior valleys and deserts, where it’s warm. Air flows from high to low pressure in the form of winds, so the pressure differential pulls sea breezes and often fog into the hot interior valleys, cooling off the whole region. In Santa Ana conditions, a strong high-pressure region develops over the interior and the air flow is reversed, so we experience hot, often very dry winds from the east. In the autumn, when the hills are brown and dry, these desert winds can fuel devastating wild fires, like the Oakland Hills fire in 1991. But in San Francisco this translates into beach weather, where tourists and locals alike can frolic in bathing suits at Chrissy Field across from the Exploratorium (I took this picture this morning and it was 75 degrees and gorgeous at the beach… making it tough to stay in the office).

explo_1946_952443.jpgI became a weather weenie a few years ago when I wrote the book… err, wrote a book, about weather and atmospheric physics called “Watching Weather”. Since we usually have the ocean as a natural air conditioner, most people who live in coastal parts of the bay area don’t have central air. We depend on sea breezes and maybe a fan to help move air around and cool our houses and offices. But I’ve often wondered whether it’s better to place a fan so that it sucks hot air out of a room or pulls cool air into a room. An unscientific poll of physicists around the Exploratorium concludes that it’s better to push hot air out, since pulling in cool air doesn’t uniformly displace the hot air, especially in the corners of the room. That’s of course assuming that it’s colder outside than inside a room, which is usually the case in the evening when the house is much hotter than the outside air. If you have a better rationale for how to cool a room, send a comment.

If you’re a weather weenie too, here’s a link to our current weather information and rooftop cam (you can point the cam to see conditions at Chrissy Field, especially useful for wind and kite surfers).

Science of Hockey

Monday, May 7th, 2007

San Jose Sharks logo I’ve been seeing a lot of shark-festooned teal shirts at my train station in San Jose, home of the Sharks hockey team. Tonight is a crucial game in the Western conference play-offs and fans are rallying to help keep the home team alive (the Detroit Red-Wings are ahead in the series 3-2).

I’m a bit of a fair-weather hockey fan, short on real knowledge of the game, so I wandered next door to the office of one of the Exploratorium’s senior scientists Thomas Humphrey, a physicist, hockey player and all around walking encyclopedia, to chat about the sport. Thomas is featured in a Science of Hockey website, along with some Shark’s players. It’s a great place to collect some interesting trivia, or explore the physics behind all that action on the ice, in case you’re short on conversation topics during game breaks in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I asked Tom why the players have to wear so much protective gear, making them to my eye much lumpier looking than even football players. Tom explained that it’s protection against hockey pucks, which can fly across the ice at speeds exceeding 100 mph and also the incredible crushing force of two two-hundred pound players slamming into each other on the boards (the website has a program that lets you calculate the force each player experiences in that charming maneuver known as a body check).

One recent development is that professional hockey sticks are all curved now, rather than the traditional straight sticks that Tom plays with. The curve means that shooting is more accurate and the puck spends more time in contact with the stick which means it can gather more momentum (and thus speed) flying off the end. The puck actually rolls along the inside curve of the stick rather than bouncing off like a tennis ball from a tennis racket. This puzzled me a little, so Tom drew a picture (scroll below). Whenever you talk with a physicist, it’s always handy to have a scrap of paper and a pen handy–they generally love to draw diagrams to explain things.

hockey stick

Exploratorium in the blogosphere: a peek behind the curtain

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Exploratorium floorAs a museum, the Exploratorium has been on the Web since 1994 and we’ve developed online exhibits, artworks, live Webcasts, and other experiments. Before blogging was recognized as such we wrote expedition journals in Antarctica and dispatches from science conferences, like the AAAS meetings in 2001 and a couple of NCAR “usable science workshops” on La Nina and El Nino in the Galapagos.

But these early experiments in proto-blogging have been eclipsed by a robust community of folks who write about science and society, about the museum’s role in the public understanding of science, and who share tips about developing exhibits, communicating research, and getting in touch with our diverse audiences. So, some of us at the Exploratorium have been mulling it over and we decided to launch our own blogging experiment. (I should mention that much of what we do here can be described as experimental, we like to think of ourselves as a learning and research institution which thankfully means that we can chalk up failed experiments as learning experiences and move on.)

I’m the first out of the blocks and I hope you’ll bear with me as I figure out how I fit into this interesting online ecosystem. My goal is to contribute something interesting and unique that reflects the richness of what happens at the Exploratorium. I want to share some behind the scenes glimpses as we develop new projects for the museum floor and the web—in part because I’m often asked by scientists and others at conferences about what we’re working on and whether they can get involved in or partner with us on museum programs. I also want to reflect some of the compelling conversations and the fascinating people who walk through the door and interact with our staff and the public audience. In my job as director of the Osher Fellowship program, I’ve had the great privilege of hosting visits by some incredible scientists, artists, and scholars including E.O. Wilson, Elizabeth Blackburn, Christian deDuve, Cynthia Kenyon, Fred Wilson, and Lewis Hyde. I want to introduce these folks to you and share some of the interesting discussions we have with them. I’m also compelled in this effort by our director, Dennis Bartels, who wants the Exploratorium to be both an outside in and an inside out organization. So some of the blog will be devoted to giving you a peek behind the curtain at what we’re doing but we also want to invite our audience to contribute ideas and feedback that will help us to be more responsive to your interests, needs and ideas. As we think about our local, national and international audiences, we want to continue developing programs and projects that help make science accessible and relevant to everyday life. And we’ll invite you to get involved as we figure out ways to make sense of some of the most socially important, controversial, and complex science issues of the day, such as stem cell research, global warming, and the evolution wars. At the same time, we won’t lose sight of the fun parts of science, the everyday cool stuff that the Exploratorium is known for. So, please I want to hear from you and hope this opens a fun and fruitful dialog.