Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Keep the Doctor Away

January 29, 2007


I sparred a bit with Bill Nye the Science Guy on whether scientists are doing for our diet any good. I told him I’d be coming back with a friend .

New Year

January 1, 2007


I wrote an editorial for the science industry magazine that employs me in which I recount a moment of minor crisis during my job interview with the editor-in-chief and managing editor. It went like this:

MJ (the editor-in-chief) asked what I considered the best educational background for a journalist covering the chemical industry.

“History,” I said.

“Which,” she asked, “is the worst?”

“Any kind of science background,” was my answer.

I vaguely remember RB (managing editor) rising out of his seat at this juncture, and MJ touching his elbow. “Let him explain,” she said, smiling at me with a hint of nervous tension in her eyes.

Well, I ‘splained and I got the job. They even published my editorial, complete with my explanation–which I will spare you, other than to assure you I am not one of these “anti science” types. I will, however, for the second time in two days, lean on the Op Ed page of the New York Times to give you the views of a heavyweight on a topic dear to my heart. Here is Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on better living through history, and the moral imperative of our “quest for an unobtainable objectivity.”

Is too!

December 30, 2006


Deborah Blum on what science can’t tell us about the supernatural on the Op Ed page of today’s New York Times. I’ll keep it up until the Times charges you to read it.

Bill Nye’s Coolest Shot

December 19, 2006


Bill Nye the Science Guy is best known as the frenetic science proselytizer with the bowtie and the kid’s show on PBS in the 1990s. He came to that job after years at Boeing, where he developed a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor that is still used on 747 airliners. He also worked as a consultant to the aeronautics industry, in which capacity he worked on the A-12 stealth attack aircraft. He had level three security clearance on that one. He is also a member and fellow the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. (Killjoy!)

Here are some final stretches of our breakfast interview. I found him charming, genuine, and an expert enthusiast. I’d like to thank him for granting me clearance to use parts of my day job interview at Cassowary.
Rick: Why did you give up a career as a mechanical engineer to start a kid’s science program?

Bill: Well, sir– I was feeling that my bosses were paralyzed by self doubt. In the 1980s, Japan was this economic powerhouse, making all these fabulous products. These guys I was working for were in fear of–terrified by–anything made in Japan. Looking back, they should have been! Compare the innovation and success of a Toyota with the thoughtless retro-thinking of modern automakers in the U.S., which started in the 1950s. My bosses were obsessed with making a profit every quarter, and when you’re making a new navigation device for a business jet that’s supposed to be 3/8 the size of the original, you can’t do that in three months. There aren’t enough smart people in the world that you can coordinate to make that happen. I was very frustrated with these guys, and I thought the future is kids, not these people.

Rick: But the guys you were working for grew up in the era of better living through chemistry. College students today won’t touch chemistry with a ten foot pipette. They’d rather pursue careers in video and sound engineering.

Bill: Well, that’s my mission. To change the world. There is noting more exciting than science. What could possibly be more fun than science? No! Really!

What does everyone say to chemists at every cocktail party, maybe with the exception of the Chemists Club Eggnog Party because they’re all chemists? They say, “You’re a chemist? Hey, can you blow something up?” Nobody says that to the video guy. And the chemists had better look out if somebody can blow something up better. There is nothing more exciting and cool than blowing something up. I work in television, I’m around television professionals all day. And they want to blow something up. They want the coolest shot of the explosion. I remind everybody that the reason Alfred Nobel got so crazy wealthy, is that he was so good at blowing stuff up.

Rick: Let’s toss around the idea of “being human.”

Bill: Okay–to think of something and make it? Amazing! When I look at squids, gold fish… I don’t think they’re doing that. I don’t think that’s what’s going on with them. Ants—mmmm-maybe. Kinda.

But What makes you human? It’s your ability to know that you’re part of the cosmos. That you’re aware of your place in the cosmos. I don’t think that even my favorite dogs are thinking about that. The biggest thing humans can do is imagine the future. Our brains are big enough to do that.
Rick: …Pee-wee Herman!

Bill: Yeah! Rocky and Bullwinkle–same deal! Sesame Street!

[Here are Parts I and II]

Bill Nye the Science Guy vs. Mr. Machine

December 17, 2006


Part II of my interview.

Bill Nye the Science Guy and I had breakfast at a diner on Madison Avenue last week. Well, he had breakfast and I just had coffee–it was 11:00 a.m. in New York and he was still on California time. We discussed, among other things, science critics and Ray Kurzweil’s dream of the human machine.

Rick: Is the world of science reevaluating itself in the 21st century?

Bill: It seems like it is because we have this anti-science thing. I think it’s bad for everybody. When you have a problem like global climate change or HIV, you need people who understand how it works to solve it. And, furthermore, you need voters and tax payers who believe there’s a problem.

The idea that science will solve everybody’s problem is a little old fashioned. I remember reading an account of Lou Gehrig. When he was diagnosed with this crazy disease, he thought, “Modern medicine will solve this problem for me.” It turned out to be a pretty intractable problem. Nevertheless, if it is ever solved, it will be a science solution. I cannot accept that there is going to be a faith-based solution to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Not to say that one’s frame of mind doesn’t affect one’s immune system. No question that it does.

Fanatics have been around for a long time. You can claim, “Well, Bill, you’re a science fanatic.” But our claim is that we don’t have all the answers. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. What we claim to have is a process for finding out the truth about nature. That’s the extent of our claim. If you want to find out what’s going on in nature, here’s how you go about it.

I am very reverent. I am astonished by my place in the universe. And I claim that I have greater reverence for the earth than many, many people who consider themselves deeply religious. I was brought up in a religious tradition, but I am no longer a believer.

Rick: A lot of people believe it is some kind of affront to in any way question the idea of natural selection. But, elegant as it is, it’s really just another scientific theory, and it’s completely open to challenge.

Bill: Scientists challenge Darwin all the time. You read about these entomologists, trying to figure out what the heck are the bees doing. They are willing to die for the queen when their own genes aren’t at risk! Similarly, my claim is that when the Yankees get eliminated from the World Series, Yankees fans in New York still root for an American League team–even if it’s Boston! Because Boston is in their league, even if they have nothing to do with them. They can feel it. I find that just astonishing.

The thing that’s so creepy about evolution–and fascinates me–is that not only are your size and shape, how many fingers you have, and your hair color determined by your genes, so, also, are your feelings to a large extent.

Rick: What do you say to Ray Kurzweil whose new book, The Singularity is Near, contends that humans will leapfrog their own biology through technical innovation, thus curing all disease, by 2045?

Bill: OK, I’ll meet him Botswana in 2045 and we’ll see how that’s working.

Rick: He also writes about spiritual machines.

Bill: A human brain develops not only by its genetic programming, but by what happens to it in its environment. This changes the way your brain works. With so many human brains running around experiencing so many different environments, I’d be surprised if the line between humanity and machines becomes blurry. On the other hand, the human brain is finite, it only has so many cells. It’s very possible you could make a machine like a human. But it’s gotta have some energy source. And that’s where the colossus takes over the world!

(Stay tuned for the next and final episode of My California-Time Breakfast with Bill Nye the Science Guy or Pee Wee Meets Bullwinkle!)

A Matter of Life or Death

December 15, 2006


On Thursday, I stared up at a 500-pound-per-square-inch centrifugal dryer at a drug company research facility in the middle of New Jersey. The room was clean and odorless, and I thought I heard wheels spinning.

I couldn’t help thinking, looking at this machine after hearing yet another drug company describe its oncology pipeline to a roomful of squinting journalists, that we still live in a world in which Memorial Sloan-Kettering and the Mayo Clinic consider each other institutional arch rivals, sworn enemies. This, despite all the smart people that work at both places who realize they should link their computers together immediately; that they should collaborate on figuring out what they mean by personalized medicine and come up together with a practical means of vetting the data from the genome; that they must focus as one, along with research hubs around the world, on discovering next generation cancer therapies; and that this should all take place in a research world where there are new incentives for scientists, where no idea is hoarded, and where publication in prestigious journals is never a researcher’s goal. The technician that showed us the centrifuge told us he’d been with the company since the plant was designed.

At lunch, I met a writer from the Newark Star Ledger who works with Barry Carter, my old neighbor in Maplewood. Barry’s daughters and mine went to grade school together and our wives were Girl Scout leaders. Barry and I would sometimes discuss journalism at school picnics and dances, though our jobs were quite different–Barry worked for a major daily, covering the neighborhoods of Newark, while I worked for a specialized weekly business magazine in New York. Barry, a big, big man, is all charisma and solid neighborliness, someone you want around. I can still see him dancing with his fourth grade daughter in the gym years ago. He and his wife, Juanita, met at Howard University, probably in the 1970s. Two years ago, Juanita died between Christmas and New Years of a sudden heart attack. The reporter I met today says he played cards with Barry last weekend. That Barry recently finished taking a Latin dance class and writing a heavy duty feature series on the wife of a slain police officer in Newark. It starts on Sunday. “Barry’s OK,” he said. He still lives with his two daughters, now in high school, in the same house in Maplewood.

The day ended with a cancer survivor. A stunningly beautiful woman, standing nearly seven feet tall, her head shaved, she told us from the podium that her rare form of ovarian cancer will be in remission for four years in January, thanks to our hosts for the day. She is appearing in their advertisements. Her battle with cancer, she told us, has been a life affirming experience.

What’s Eating the Man of the Future?

December 13, 2006


Bill Nye the Science Guy and I discussed everything from I-Pods to God in a diner on Madison Avenue yesterday. Frenetic and peripatetic, he led the discussion from the starting point of each question I asked to the fork in the road of his answer. I was David Letterman to his Robin Williams, just sitting back, smiling amazed, trying to maintain control as he shot in unanticipated directions. Innocent like a child, wise like a seasoned comedian, Nye explored ideas, contradicting himself from time to time the way most interesting people do. I watched his eyes flash, watched him smile and laugh as he made little discoveries in his own statements. It was like watching Dave Brubeck perform on stage.

Nye, wearing a periodic table bowtie, ordered a plate of the diner’s “World Famous French Toast.” I drank cups of coffee. He was on California time–11:00 a.m Eastern meant breakfast for him. We had the diner pretty much to ourselves for a while. Then the lunch crowd filed in with their double takes—“Hey, that’s Bill Nye,…The Science Guy!”

Here is one of my favorite stretches of transcript (verbatim®), including a perfectly-timed visit from the waitress:

Bill: The biggest health problem we have in developed countries is that people just eat too much. I don’t mean to be weird on you. But, if you could go back in time to Ogg the Cave Guy and say, “Hey Ogg, I’m from the future. Check this out. I’ve got food with no calories!” he’d go, “What’s your deal? Check us out, man, we’re in Cave Times. All we do is get calories. That’s our business. Are you high? What’s wrong with you, man of the future?”

Me: That’s an interesting point. To what extent has science taken us away from our basic human nature?

Bill: Science is a human idea. Humans made up science.

Me: Well, who took the calories out of food?

Bill: Scientists did. Is that what you mean?

Me: Yeah. They did a lot of other things. They invented TV. There is an interesting book called Galileo’s Mistake, written by Wade Rowland, who headed the news operation for Canada’s pubic broadcasting network. His point is that the Inquisition didn’t take Galileo to task strictly for espousing Copernican ideas about the universe–Galileo got sent up for insisting that the only way to comprehend truth is through the application of science to the exclusion of faith and revelation. The book asks whether our quality of life is essentially better now than it was in the Middle Ages—it takes a good look, really, at the dehumanizing effect of the Age of Reason.

Bill (to waitress): Can I get some bacon?

(Stay tuned for the next episode of My California-Time Breakfast with Bill Nye, the Science Guy or Blowing Stuff Up is Really Cool!)

Photo by Rick