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At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
- About Us
Making an Apple Pie, and the Creation of the Universe
24 February 2010 12:49 am
I. In which I make an apple pie almost from scratch.
"If you want to make a pie from scratch, you must first create the universe" --Carl Sagan
I had the butter, flour, sugar, and requisite spices, but no apples. And I didn't exactly know how to make a universe. How would I ever learn that?
The first problem was easiest to solve, so after spending the day at the San Diego Conference Center attending the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, I drove to Vons. After circling the apple portion of the produce department, I determined that I probably should just create a universe, because then I could create one in which Vons carried pie-variety apples. I settled for some random type, although in my universe, the Macoun would have made it into my pie. I was making an apple pie specifically for a party I was attending that very evening at the home of some physics PhD students. My friends have a wonderfully obsessive love of nerdiness, wine, and cheese. Put these all together, and you have a group that spends their Sunday nights watching old episodes of "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," an 80s tv show written by and starring Carl Sagan, a famous scientist, astrophysicist, and teacher. Tonight was our last party -- the viewing of the ultimate episode, entitled:
"Through the use of special effects [hahaha "special effects" from the 80's] we retrace the 15-billion-year journey from the big bang to the present. This is the famous episode on nuclear war in which Dr. Sagan argues that our responsibility for survival is owed not just to ourselves, but also to the cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring." - (From http://science.discovery.com/convergence/cosmos/episodes/episodes.html)
Who indeed speaks for the earth? We do. In fact, so far as we know, we also speak for the universe, too. And if we want to speak with authority, there is only one way to do this: by conducting Big Expensive Physics Experiments to ask the really exciting questions. Like what is the universe, and how did it get here? Only then can we really make an apple pie from scratch.
We would like to know more about the universe than what is depicted in this pie chart here. For example, how was this pie made? How was the universe created?
But, as Robert Crease, a speaker at the AAAS conference pointed out, "great events attract great fears." And that seems to me to be one of the largest and scariest impediments to research.
II. In which I attend the AAAS scientific seminar "Doomsday vs. Discovery." In which we ask "how do we ease the fears about the LHC and other scientific adventures?"
1. The natural irrationality of fear.
Figure 2 shows a famous chart about types and perceptions of fear, from Paul Slovic's 1987 paper in Science. Having different categories of fears makes sense, but it is so easy to wrongly attribute or categorize some of these dangers. For example, I have put a star where I think that the dangers of the LHC are located -- in the "very safe" part of the graph, but perhaps in the "not very well understood" area. The problem comes when people take this star and move it in the direction of the yellow arrow -- to the "very dangerous" side of the chart. How does this happen? Part of it is that we don't have any internal sense of how statistics work, and humans in general haven't internalized the fact that just because you can't prove something is impossible, doesn't mean it's possible. Seems like there will always be some amount of irrational fear in the world, and for science to free itself from this it must somehow distract people with worries about all the unlikely comet collisions, Y2K bugs, 2012 apocalypses, etc. Or even better, the real-life imminent energy, natural, and human-health related disasters that come along with global warming.
2. History and preloaded imagery makes things worse.
"Humans always f%#$ up, especially when they are really, really smart," Crease pointed out, quoting the long-standing distrust of science. What does this mean for LHC, and our exploration into making our apple pie from scratch? Even before the LHC, other experiments and other ion colliders have set a precedent for fear. In 1974, at the Bear Mountain Conference Center outside of New York City, panels met to discuss the possible dangers of Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) being built on Long Island. Some completely science-free "theories" were discussed and then dismissed, but no records were kept because everyone was afraid of a PR disaster. This seems like the mistake here: discussions should be carried out in public and not in private. The public nature of science is one of its greatest strong-suits, and keeping it hidden is only going to lead to an increase in distrust. Full disclosure is clearly necessary.
3. Theology also has its effect.
"Science shouldn't be doing this, only God should be doing this. Humans get in trouble when they play God. And what better way to play God than to try to re-create the universe." Crease brought up the fact that we haven't always blamed science -- before World War I, the majority of Doomsday predictions were based on natural disasters. And after the associated technological advancement in warfare, the tides turned. Now scientist-based concerns have over taken nature-based concerns.
4. Media and Conspiracy Theories.
Alan Boyle from MSNBC.com, and Crease talked about how the news coverage can lead to a downward spiral of terror. The media can cloud the atmosphere of knowledge, of course, highlighting big bad news over the real story. It is often unclear to the audience who is the expert, and there is often a melodramatic structure to the coverage. Crease described this quite well. "The approach to coverage," he explained, "is that there is an innocent space with innocent people, and then dramatic images of Apocalypse. It boils down to those worried about the ending of the world [the good guys], vs. the detached scientist who has lost his ethical compass."
So, what should we do? "The best thing to do," said Crease, "is to hold up a mirror and show history and philosophy and expose the atmosphere in which events get distorted and blown out of proportion." Yet this idea seems vague and hard for me to imagine implementing. Anyone have any ideas? Maybe the best thing is to tease people into realizing how silly some of their fears might be. This is where Jon Stewart comes in.
"Scientists," Jon says, leaning into the camera and pointing an accusatory pen at the audience, "we assume that they are working for the benefit of humanity. But... does their quest for understanding have a dark side?"
"Nobody with any expertise in physics or astronomy or astrophysics thinks there's the slightest risk of any danger whatsoever," says Dr. John Ellis, project leader for CERN, in an interview about the LHC. In this Daily Show episode, Ellis's interview leads to some serious teasing of some non-scientists, in regard to their fear of the end of the earth. I would recommend this show to anyone interested in the subject.