How to Fix Science
Peter Ward has been active in Paleontology, Biology, and more recently, Astrobiology for more than 40 years. Since his Ph.D. in 1976, Ward has published more than 140 scientific papers dealing with paleontological, zoological, and astronomical topics.
He is an acknowledged world expert on mass extinctions and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on Earth. Ward was the Principal Investigator of the University of Washington node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 2001-2006, and in that capacity led a team of over 40 scientists and students. His career was profiled by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter William Dietrich in The Seattle Times article "Prophet, Populist, Poet of Science."
Peter has written a memoir of his research on the Nautilus for Nautilus magazine's "Ingenious" feature entitled "Nautilus and me. My wonderful, dangerous life with the amazing Nautilus."
His books include the best-selling "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future" (2007), and "The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" (2009).
Question: Does personality shape scientists’ interpretation of data?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, science is certainly affected by how scientists perceive it should be, we’re all human. And human nature being what it is, it’s really a shame that science as we know it now discourages scientists talking to people other than scientists. Carl Sagan knew much about this. We invented a word, Saganized, or Saganization, in which your fellow scientists frown on you for attempting to talk to the masses.\r\n
The way it comes down, it’s just sort of a prim down turning of the mouth, but the reaction is, why have you wasted your time. That’s time that could have gone into doing your science and you have taken it away and done something else. Well, you have not come to your full potential as a scientist. I personally am pretty upset about this in the sense that I think the reason that we only have half of American’s believing in evolution, the reason we have so many Americans thinking that there’s a political motive in global warming is that the science communication coming out of the professional scientists, most of whom are university professors, is abysmal.\r\n
And as an example, when you come up for a job interview, you have been vetted from a hundred candidates. And the way that we cut down is to look at their scientific output. If this is a post-doc, or someone with a brand new PhD, we’re looking entirely at research productivity. If research productivity is marred by there’s an outreach component to this that sets that person in deficit compared to that other person who’s got that one more scientific article.\r\n
When we come up for promotion, we never look at; say hey, two scientific Americans, no, we saw, wow three papers in science, okay. That’s what goes. You don’t get promoted for the side stuff. When I write books, I’ve done 16 now. They don’t go to my promotion packets. These are the sort of ugly little aside that tried us that the person has been doing as a hobby, but is not part of the professional meat. It has nothing to do with me as my professorship position. That outreach stuff, that’s somebody else. I actually give it an entirely different name. And that’s the way it is across all the first rate science places.\r\n
A lot of people do outreach, but not enough. We need to make that any PhD thesis, one chapter is outreach for the public, the other three or four are for the scientists and that this has to become institutionalized, then you can’t do it for one person, it’s got to be an entire recognition. That’s not happening.\r\n
Question: What more can be done to improve scientific literacy among the public?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, if you look at PBS shows, and look at the audience of the PBS science shows. They all have the hair color I do, grey. It’s an aging graying audience. The reason, the way we have to work now, and I fully believe this, is that we scientists have to stop writing the books we write or being on the TV, or even being on program like this and start writing video games. I’ve got a 12-year old son. The only way to get to him is a video game. That’s what he wants to do all the time. Video games are the way to get into his and all his friends’ brains. Make happy, really cool, first person shooters, but at the same time get across good science. That’s the way to do it. I mean, I’ve really come to the conclusion that writing these books does virtually nothing. You’ve got to get to people who don’t get it otherwise. Video games to me seems the logical way.\r\n
Question: What can be done to increase the number of women in science?\r\n
Peter Ward: Well, there’s the old stereotype that women did more poorly in mathematics and that has held for a long time. But to be honest, I don’t believe, certainly in my career I have seen the women in science problem diminish enormously. We have more women graduate students in my two departments than men. It’s been that way for years now, so, whether that’s translating to the job market. Are we hiring as many women scientists and men scientists, well there’s still a function of there may be more men scientists in particular areas, but again, that’s diminishing. So, I’m hopeful that that particular aspect has changed. It seems to be.
Recorded on January 11, 2010
Interviewed\r\n by Austin Allen
Peter Ward explains how the scientific community can improve its dismal public outreach—and why he believes the problem of women in science is solving itself.
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
- Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
- The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
- Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.
The Three Gods Problem<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyOGZk7WbIk" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> One of the more popular wordings of the problem is:<br> <br> "Three gods A, B, and C are called, in no particular order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for <em>yes</em> and <em>no</em> are <em>da</em> and <em>ja</em>, in some order. You do not know which word means which."<br> <br> Boolos adds that you are allowed to ask a particular god more than one question and that Random switches between answering as if they are a truth-teller or a liar, not merely between answering "da" and "ja." <br> <br> Give yourself a minute to ponder this; we'll look at a few answers below. Ready? Okay. <strong><br> <br> </strong>George Boolos' <a href="https://www.pdcnet.org/8525737F00588A37/file/31B21D0580E8B125852577CA0060ABC9/$FILE/harvardreview_1996_0006_0001_0060_0063.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">solution</a> focuses on finding either True or False through complex questions. </p><p> In logic, there is a commonly used function often written as "iff," which means "if, and only if." It would be used to say something like "The sky is blue if and only if Des Moines is in Iowa." It is a powerful tool, as it gives a true statement only when both of its components are true or both are false. If one is true and the other is false, you have a false statement. </p><p> So, if you make a statement such as "the moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Rome is in Russia," then you have made a true statement, as both parts of it are false. The statement "The moon has no air if, and only if, Rome is in Italy," is also true, as both parts of it are true. However, "The moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Albany is the capitol of New York," is false, because one of the parts of that statement is true, and the other part is not (The fact that these items don't rely on each other is immaterial for now).</p><p> In this puzzle, iff can be used here to control for the unknown value of "da" and "ja." As the answers we get can be compared with what we know they would be if the parts of our question are all true, all false, or if they differ. </p><p> Boolos would have us begin by asking god A, "Does "da" mean yes if and only if you are True if and only if B is Random?" No matter what A says, the answer you get is extremely useful. As he explains: <br> </p><p> "If A is True or False and you get the answer da, then as we have seen, B is Random, and therefore C is either True or False; but if A is True or False and you get the answer ja, then B is not Random, therefore B is either True or False… if A is Random and you get the answer da, C is not Random (neither is B, but that's irrelevant), and therefore C is either True or False; and if A is Random...and you get the answer ja, B is not random (neither is C, irrelevantly), and therefore B is either True or False."<br> <br> No matter which god A is, an answer of "da" assures that C isn't Random, and a response of "ja" means the same for B. </p><p> From here, it is a simple matter of asking whichever one you know isn't Random questions to determine if they are telling the truth, and then one on who the last god is. Boolos suggests starting with "Does da mean yes if, and only if, Rome is in Italy?" Since one part of this is accurate, we know that True will say "da," and False will say "ja," if faced with this question. </p><p> After that, you can ask the same god something like, "Does da mean yes if, and only if, A is Random?" and know exactly who is who by how they answer and the process of elimination. </p><p> If you're confused about how this works, try going over it again slowly. Remember that the essential parts are knowing what the answer will be if two positives or two negatives always come out as a positive and that two of the gods can be relied on to act consistently. </p><p> Smullyan wrote several books with other logic puzzles in them. If you liked this one and would like to learn more about the philosophical issues they investigate, or perhaps if you'd like to try a few that are a little easier to solve, you should consider reading them. A few of his puzzles can be found with explanations in this <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/11/obituaries/smullyan-logic-puzzles.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interactive</a>. </p>
The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.
- Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
- Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
- The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.
If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.
The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Oort cloud
Image source: NASA
Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.
Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)
No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.
It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."
"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."
Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."
Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA
The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.
"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."
The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."
Missing in action
Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."
So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."
Another amazing tardigrade survival skill is discovered.
- Apparently, some water bears can even beat extreme UV light.
- It may be an adaptation to the summer heat in India.
- Special under-skin pigments neutralize harmful rays.
Stressor testing<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjc2MDc4Mn0.5R6DAfzsq29zvETCEH1sR9rprcnJv_L0KyUW2qedslE/img.jpg?width=980" id="c6b71" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e7afe644fc94631ed9ea6837ed3920d3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="water bear illustration" />
3D illustration of a tardigrade
Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock<p>It seems at times like scientists enjoy playing the "let's see if <em>this</em> kills them" game with tardigrades, a game that humans usually lose. After searching the campus of the Indian Institute of Science, researchers gathered some water bears and brought them back to the lab to see what they could handle.</p><p>The scientists found that after they exposed <a href="http://cshprotocols.cshlp.org/content/2018/11/pdb.emo102301.full" target="_blank"><em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em></a> tardigrades to very high doses — 1 kilojoule (kJ) per square meter — of UV light for about 15 minutes, they would in fact die over the next 24 hours. However, when they aimed the same blasts at the reddish-brown tardigrades…nothing. The humans even quadrupled the UV intensity and, nope, they tracked the water bears for 30 days, and a majority of them, 60 percent, were still fine.</p><p>As is often the case with tardigrades, the question is how?</p>
Turning deadly light blue<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIwMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTM1NTE2N30.n8FiCLgp5aTqmYby2bjpeu9QJRTV7KzaB9tmTHBzWtk/img.jpg?width=980" id="5d4cc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7aa8735a958123bcfb269920eb4d2aed" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Tardigrade's normal appearance (left), and under inverted fluorescence (right)
Credit: Suma et al., Biology Letters (2020)<p>When the researchers examined the tardigrades under an inverted fluorescence microscope they found that when they were exposed to UV light, they became blue. The researchers' hypothesis is that these tardigrades carry fluorescent pigments beneath their skin that they deploy as necessary to transform UV light into simple benign, blue light. It may be that this ability has emerged as an evolutionary response to southern tropical India's often-extreme heat. The study says that typical summer-day UV levels in this region are about 4kJ per square meter.</p><p>Of the 40 percent of the reddish-brown tardigrades that had died before 30 days — mostly after about 20 days — the scientists concluded they had less pigment with which to neutralize UV light.</p><p>When the scientists extracted the pigment from the UV champions and coated some <em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em> tardigrades with the stuff, their resistance to UV exposure was also enhanced, boosting their survival rate to almost twice that of their uncoated brethren.</p><p>Autofluorescence has been found in other animals — parrots, scorpions, chameleons, and frogs, among others — so it's not completely unheard of. In parrots, for example, autofluorescence is hypothesized to be involved in tweaking coloration during mating rituals. Still, surprise, tardigrades seem to be putting it to unusual use by employing it for UV protection. </p>