Category Archives: AAAS Annual Meeting 2010

You stay classy, San Diego

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Just north of the border

By James Dacey

Well, here at the San Diego Convention Center people are starting to dismantle things around me so looks like the AAAS conference is well and truly over for this year. It’s been a fun five days and I hope this blog has given you a reasonable flavour of the theme Bridging Science and Society.

Next year’s meeting will be in Washington D.C. where the focus will be Science Without Borders – a celebration of all things multidisciplinary. If you’re interested in taking part then they’re already taking submissions for symposia.

Right, after all the big ideas and dashing around this huge convention centre, I’m off for some much needed relaxation. I leave you with a few snapshots of the hosting city.

For those of you haven’t seen the film Anchorman, I apologize but I just can’t resist it – You stay classy, San Diego.

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San Diego Convention Center, a large host

Tribute to the US naval military

Waterfront, alongside San Diego Bay

Can anybody identify this bird?

The lively Gaslamp quarter

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‘Physicists are modellers too, but lousy modellers’

No flies on Stephen Schneider

By James Dacey

This great quote came on the final morning here at the AAAS conference in San Diego. Stephen Schneider, an environmental scientist at Stanford University, was lashing out at all forms of climate change denial including those physicists who make a sport of pointing out uncertainties in climate models.

Schneider’s point is that when physicists make laws and theories by studying the relationships between pairs of data, they are still modelling – just with much less data.

The main thrust of Schneider’s talk – delivered with a relish that could have garnished the Mexican burger I had last night – was that climate scientists should not shy away from entering the public debate on climate change. “Because I have a Ph.D. is not a reason to “hang up my citizenship at the door” of a public meeting—we too are entitled to personal opinions,” he said.

Schneider believes that the media’s representation of climate science is being increasingly shaped by the scientifically unqualified and “old men” who overstretch their dwindling expertise.

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Breathe easy, the LHC still won’t swallow the Earth

The CMS experiment

By James Dacey

“Of the billions who tuned in for the switch-on, I suspect that many were only interested in seeing whether or not we would be blown to smithereens.”

The words there are those of John Ellis, a senior research scientist at CERN, talking just now at the AAAS conference in San Diego about why the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was never really going to destroy the planet.

I was half expecting (rather, hoping) that the talk would be gate-crashed by a gang of doomsday mongers; or perhaps even Walter Wagner, the high-school physics teacher who filed a federal lawsuit in the US District Court in Honolulu in 2008 to prevent the LHC from starting up.

Alas, they all failed to show.

Ellis, who has worked on several LHC experiments, gave an eloquent description of how CERN responded to all the scaremongering. It was the usual stuff, but it was interesting to here of how Ellis’ colleagues had taken “months” out of their research to calculate the exact nature of the tiny black holes – the ones that almost certainly wouldn’t be produced, and even if they were, would possess the “energy of a fly”.

If you’ve never really trusted those CERN guys, or you’re just really bored, you can find extensive details of all the LHC’s safety precautions here.

Despite his sensible words, I’ve got to say I was a bit surprised by Ellis’ reply to my question over whether physicists, when talking with the media, should stop discussing doomsday scenarios in terms of statistics and just say “no – there is no chance”. “I’m a scientist,” he said. “We deal in probabilities.”

Ellis was speaking as part of a larger discussion entitled Organizer: Doomsday Versus Discovery, in which other speakers discussed how the media have reacted to the developments at CERN and the historical and philosophical issues surrounding the fear of big science.

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Researchers! Join the Twitterati! Or perish!

The Cocktail Party, 1965. Alex Katz

By James Dacey

It’s been compared to a cocktail party where multiple conversations, all taking place at once, result in that familiar cacophony of chitchat. Some people thrive in this environment, while others feel jarred, but eventually we all drag ourselves along to one because we know that’s the real place to hear the interesting stuff for our careers.

Researchers need to get themselves onto Twitter pronto because it is fast becoming the place to find out the breakthroughs in your research field. That was the take-home message from Bora Zivkovic, the online community manager of the journal PLoS ONE, who was speaking today on the penultimate morning of the AAAS conference in San Diego.

Zivkovic, who was an entertaining speaker with a nice dry sense of humour, admits that the popular microblogging site does play host to a lot of inane chitter. He insists, however, that so long as you are selective about whom you “follow”, you can build up a very helpful bunch of online colleagues. He is a bioscientist by training, and described how he uses Twitter each day to catch up on how colleagues’ research is developing and to see what key publications and events are taking place that day.

One flabbergasted member of the audience took issue with Zivkovic, saying that with “only 24 hours in a day” there is simply not enough time to uphold a professional reputation online. Zivkovic conceded that not every every social networking site is right for everyone, but he is convinced that Twitter is different, arguing that its simplicity and benefits make it worth the investment of time. “It’s just like e-mail – in 10 years you won’t remember what it was like to have lived without Twitter,” he said.

At the end of the session, entitled Science 2.0: From Tweet Through Blog to Book, you could be forgiven for thinking that Zivkovic is being paid by Twitter to say all these nice things about their site. I don’t think he is, but he’s certainly infatuated with the online cocktail party. So join him there or be square, maybe.

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To Svalbard in search of little green men

Svalbard Credit: NASA

By James Dacey

Where do we come from? Are we alone? Where are we going? They’re certainly not shying away from the big questions here at the AAAS conference in San Diego. This morning we were celebrating 50 Years of Astrobiology, which is basically the study of the origin and evolution of life on Earth and the search for signs of extraterrestrial life. The research is about as multidisciplinary as you can get drawing on expertise from astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, geology, and the planetary sciences at the very least.

As interesting as those big questions are, however, I’m usually left frustrated by the vagueness of the actual research. The scientists seem to be staring hard at images and spectra from planets in search of signs of habitable conditions like on Earth, but they don’t really seem to know what they’re looking for. “We can’t say exactly what the conditions necessary for life are. We don’t know whether extraterrestrial life would have evolved in the same way. We don’t really know where to look,” they say.

Well this morning I was pleased to encounter one astro-scientist who seemed a lot less defeatist and was taking a much more down to Earth approach to the search for extraterrestrial life. Pamela Conrad, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spends her days surveying desolate places on Earth in search of key indicators of habitability. In essence, she goes out into the field and assesses the large-scale physics and chemistry of a remote location before moving in to see whether the site can support life.

In her talk she described one adventure that took her to the remote archipelago of Svalbard, located between mainland Norway and the North Pole. After extensive surveying, Conrad came to conclude that a range of factors including temperatures, light, and even the steepness of slopes had an influence over which parts of the land could support life. One interesting factor is the type of underlying geology – dolerite, an igneous rock, is a good place for life on Svalbard because it can warm up easily then contain heat over time.

And this research is more than speculative because the findings could be used in NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which is due to launch in 2011. Once the craft has landed, a NASA rover will collect samples to see whether the planet could have supported life at some point in its history. It is important, therefore, to choose a site that at least has a fighting chance of being habitable – that is assuming we want to find those little green men!

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To prevent another ‘climategate’, researchers need to embrace social media

Scientists discuss the needer for greater transparency in climate research

By James Dacey

Those scientists involved were careless and, to prevent this happening again, the research community needs to deal with the threat posed by new types of media. These were the conclusions of Harvard climate scientist James McCarthy when describing two recent climate scandals, which were both fuelled by viral activity in the blogosphere. McCarthy was talking today at the annual meeting of the American association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is taking place in San Diego, California.

Since that email scandal broke back in November, bloggers across the globe have chipped with strong criticisms of the scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK. You will remember that leaked emails revealed the researchers to have “sexed-up” certain aspects of their climate data to fit a general warming trend. Then, in January, came another blow to climate science when it came to light that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had included in their latest scientific report a near baseless claim that the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035.

McCarthy, who previously served as co-chair of an IPCC Working Group, strongly emphasized that these were two isolated incidents, with have no impact on the strong scientific consensus over climate change. However, he also recognises that the climate science community could have done more to deal with the allegations before the issues blew-up into fully-blown scandals. He feels that one way to do this is for researchers to start using social media themselves – which includes blogs, Facebook and Twitter – to disseminate research with the public. “I can tell you, a lot of groups are trying to think about creative ways of entering into the discussion,” he said.

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The connected worlds of Japanese art and electromagnetism

Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusa

By James Dacey

At their foundations, physics and art are connected by form. This was the underlying message of a talk by Jack Leibowitz, a condensed matter researcher at the Catholic University of America. He was speaking today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which I’m currently at in San Diego, California.

Leibowitz draws an unlikely comparison between the electromagnetic equations of James Clark Maxwell and the Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, a painting by Katsushika Hokusa. The Japanese artist is perhaps better known for his work The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which decorates the living room of just about every student flat in the land.

In is talk, Leibowitz gave the standard eulogy about the irresistible simplicity of Maxwell’s equations, but he compared this with the same appreciation of design that rewards the viewer of Hokusai’s great painting. “We see the powerfully rendered apposition of shapes: the peak of Mount Fuji accentuated by placement of the dark cloud right behind it, which takes the eye to the darkest dark and the lightest light,” he said.

This was certainly high-brow stuff! Actually, if I’m being completely honest, the talk fell a little bit flat on the audience here in San Diego. Leibowitz came across as a bit aloof in his presentation style, and the formality appeared to leave the non-specialist audience despondent – not a single question was asked when things were opened up to the floor. It’s a shame because it seems like a really fascinating topic, so, if interested, I would skip the talks and pick Leibowitz’s book – Hidden Harmony: The Connected worlds of Physics and Art.

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Tracing nuclear dust

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Image courtesy: The American Physical Society

By James Dacey

Any human activity leaves behind dust, and, if we look closely at this dust, it will always provide a clue to the activity that produced it. This is the idea of nuclear forensic scientist, Klaus Lützenkirchen, who draws an analogy between crime scene investigation and the need to monitor global nuclear activities in a more scientific fashion. Lützenkirchen was speaking today at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the “triple A-S”), which kicked-off today in San Diego, California.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Joe Biden had addressed this same issue during a speech at the White House, and the American Physical Society (APS) has just released a report, Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Downsizing.

Lützenkirchen, who is head of the nuclear safeguards and security unit at the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), admits that his analogy does break down somewhat as nuclear fingerprints rarely tend to be unique. He proposes, therefore, building a profile of nuclear dust (actual, not figurative, dust), focused on the analysis of chemical, morphological and isotopic qualities. In this way, scientists can collect vital clues to the origins of intercepted nuclear material.

This discussion of international nuclear activities is strongly in keeping with the theme at this year’s AAAS meeting, “Bridging Science and Society”. I’m here in sunny San Diego (yeah, life’s cruel sometimes), so watch this space for more entries from the meeting in the coming days.

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