Tag Archives: scientific discovery

How space dust teaches us about scientific progresses

30 Sep

Sometimes I feel that it sucks to be a physicist.

(Just to clarify – I am not one, and this is my personal opinion, having worked years in a department full of physicists, and with a background in non-physics fields. This is not after any discussion with other physicists in my dept – they might agree, they might not)

There was a major announcement back in March that results from BICEP2, a telescope sitting in the South Pole, showed evidence of cosmic inflation. This was, at the time, considered a Nobel Prize worthy discovery – I rounded up a few links on this back then.

The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background). (Photo: Steffen Richter, Harvard University via BICEP2 image release gallery)

The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background). (Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

However, recently new results from Planck, a space telescope run by the European Space Agency, showed that the patterns in cosmic wave background detected by BICEP2 are likely just space dust.

The Planck telescope up close (Photo: ESA for public use)

The Planck telescope up close (Photo: ESA for public use)

Suddenly the internet space is filled with criticism – like Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble, or When Science Gets Ahead Of Itself .

Enough, people.

The reason you are seeing all these in the public is because physicists are known to be open about their research results. There is no (or very little) “I am hiding this so that I can get rich off it” or “I think someone else is going to scoop my research.” Data are often shared as soon as they are available via the open access arXiv. People make results open so that others can criticize it. So that the public can better understand science. So the field as a whole can progress as much and as fast as possible. In fact, there was already some talk about data sharing between the BICEP2 and the Planck team. Physicists are years, if not decades, ahead of other fields in the openness and rapidness in sharing information.

In my mind, this is what science is about.

I completely agree with Philip Ball, as he said in his article in the Guardian:

The team involved has been criticised for publishing results before they were peer reviewed. But this is what science is: debate, discussion, deliberation.

This is also what makes science interesting. It is constantly changing, not static; it is the collective knowledge, not lines of facts. As mentioned by Astrophysicist Mario Livio,

As disappointing as these new results may sound, they provide for a powerful demonstration of how science truly progresses. Advances in science are far from being a direct march to the truth. Rather, they consist of a zigzag path that often results in false starts or blind alleys. The important point, however, is that through continuous checks, testable predictions, and new observations, science is able to self-correct and find the right way.

After Higgs Boson was found, Stephen Hawking (who lost $100 in a bet about it) said,

Physics would be ‘more interesting’ if Higgs boson hadn’t been found.

Let’s not go back to the age of waiting for years before the results are published. I say that realizing BICEP2 might come from dusts keeps the discussion of cosmic inflation interesting. And, this definitely means that the bet between Stephen Hawking and Neil Turok is not over yet.


Links to the original publications:

Ade P.A.R., M. Amiri, D. Barkats, S. J. Benton, C. A. Bischoff, J. J. Bock, J. A. Brevik, I. Buder, E. Bullock & G. Davis & (2014). BICEP2. II. EXPERIMENT AND THREE-YEAR DATA SET, The Astrophysical Journal, 792 (1) 62. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/0004-637x/792/1/62

Ade P.A.R., D. Barkats, S. J. Benton, C. A. Bischoff, J. J. Bock, J. A. Brevik, I. Buder, E. Bullock, C. D. Dowell & L. Duband & (2014). Detection of B-Mode Polarization at Degree Angular Scales by BICEP2, Physical Review Letters, 112 (24) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/physrevlett.112.241101

Planck Collaboration, R. Adam, P. A. R. Ade, N. Aghanim, M. Arnaud, J. Aumont, C. Baccigalupi, A. J. Banday, R. B. Barreiro, J. G. Bartlett & N. Bartolo (2014). Planck intermediate results. XXX. The angular power spectrum of
polarized dust emission at intermediate and high Galactic latitudes, arXiv: http://arxiv.org/abs/1409.5738v1

The Universe, Our Ocean, and Your Brain – 3 Upcoming Free Science Lectures at UBC

23 Oct

It is funny that I picked the busiest week for me this month to start writing blog posts again. For readers who have been following me – I am again working on reviewing the literature re: women in science (and that will be coming soon!). Thanks again for being patient 🙂

Right now my brain is split into many pieces: one for editing research grants, one for helping out with a research roundtable, one for planning upcoming public events, one for writing blog posts, and one for my personal life (yes, I do have one apparently :P). But my busy schedule also means that there are some public science talks coming up!

This week, there are 3 international roundtable events happening at the UBC Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

Since its founding two decades ago, the mission of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies has been to create collaborative, interdisciplinary, basic research programs for scholars at all stages of their career. It is one of only 30 similar institutions worldwide devoted to the free pursuit of learning and research at the highest levels.

I have been helping out as a coordinator for one of the roundtables. While these roundtable discussions themselves are not public, a requirement for these events is that each must present a public lecture. Here are the three upcoming public lectures via the Institute:

The Universe: Its Structure and Its Support of Life
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 (TODAY!)
7:30pm-9:00pm in Room 1013 at the UBC Earth Science Building (2207 Main Mall)
No RSVP required, but make sure you arrive a little bit earlier to get a seat. There is a plan to film the session to make it publicly available in the future.

This is a public lecture that I am involved in organizing. The two speakers, Graca Rocha (Staff Research Scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California and Member of the Planck Satellite Collaboration) and Pascal Lee (Staff Research Scientist Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California and Member of the Planck Satellite Collaboration) will be talking about our understanding of the Universe and what the future holds for us in searching for another civilization in our Universe.

The Universe: Its Structure and Its Support of Life

Ocean Acidification
Thursday, October 24th, 2013
7:00pm-9:00pm in the Auditorium at the UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum ( 2212 Main Mall)
RSVP required – register online at pwiasoceanacidification.eventbrite.ca

Several experts will be speaking about the science of ocean acidification and how it affects the marine ecosystems. Topics will cover an introduction on ocean acidification, its effects on coral reefs, the research experience from Scandinavia, and what we can do in the future. There will be a poster session after the lecture, so you will have a chance to see the research projects done by UBC students and post-docs.

Am I My Brain?
Friday, October 25, 2013
7:00pm-9:00pm at the Royal Bank Cinema of the UBC Chan Centre (6265 Crescent Road)
RSVP required – email bacanim@mail.ubc.ca

How do we define who we are? Am I my brain? Join a group of scholars, writers, and artists in the discussion of neurocentric thinking – “the worldview that situates the brain as the key organ that provides meaning to our lives.” The evening will begin with a performance by Sarah Chase, a world renown dance/literary artist, and will follow with short presentations by scholars.

And don’t forget that I continue to update upcoming events on the Events page. You can subscribe to the Google calendar on the page by clicking on its icon at the lower right corner of the calendar.

Have fun and hope to see you there!

Taking away basic science funding is not a long-term solution

19 Jun

I came across Scott Findlay’s article in the National Post a few weeks ago. While the Canadian government continues to boast its investment in science, those of us who work closely with basic science research know where the money is really going – into commercialization and application development.

In science, as elsewhere, where money is spent is as important as how much is spent. Most of the $8-billion allocated to R&D has been invested at the top of the scientific research pyramid, in technology development and commercialization. For example, virtually all of the new $454-million R&D expenditures in the 2013 budget target private-public partnerships, mostly in applied or commercialization research. Yet it is basic research that forms the base of the R&D pyramid, the wellspring of the pipeline to technology development and commercialization.

It is not to say that putting money into applications isn’t a great thing. It is – but you still want to have a strong foundation of basic science research, serving as the backbone. With the heavy emphasis on application development these days (because that’s where the money is – many new grants require a industrial collaboration component), what we will end up doing is to “guess” which basic science project will be more useful in the future, when the future isn’t here yet. This is like drafting major league players for 2033 when they are still playing t-ball, or finding the next Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby by looking at baby photos.

We might not see the immediate financial return of investing in basic science research, but we will benefit from it 10-20 years later. Without this investment, there will be a gap in the future of application development, and soon we will start falling behind other countries. Of course, the current government does not need to care about this much. It is the problem of the future elected government, isn’t it? But we should all care about it, because this future is ours.

What Scott Findlay said inspired me to draw the following.

Commercialization is not a long term solution sm
Can we strike a balance between investing in basic science research, and encouraging commercialization and development of applications? Hopefully. But cutting basic science funding is not the answer for our future.


Note: By the way, I really like this comment by ChadEnglish for the article. According to the comment, he’s an engineer so he is most likely to benefit from this shift to application development and commercialization.

Without a growing science base to build from the only thing we engineers can do is repackage the old technologies into new boxes. Engineering is also known as applied science. Without good science, and without good access to it, there is nothing to apply.

Busy month for science lovers in Vancouver

9 May
2013 May9FeaturedImage

Image credit left to right – Microsoft clip art; NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI); Microsoft clip art.

I am starting to feel extremely guilty about not being able to put out some blog posts in the past two weeks. My work is starting to get to me, which can be both a bad and a good thing. The bad thing is that I currently have no life (wake up, work, go home, sleep) – I am starting to work on being less antisocial :P. The good thing though, is that it means I can give you some insights about a few upcoming science events in Vancouver!

First of all, I want to use this chance to officially launch my Events page. I will be updating the Google calendar on the page regularly with science and science communication events (mostly in Vancouver, but could be international too). If you are already using Google calendar, the easiest way to follow it is to subscribe to it by clicking on the Google Calendar icon on the lower right. If you know of events that are not posted there, give me a shout. I will also try tweeting events with the hashtags #ScienceInVancouver in the future.

So here are a few things that I am working on at the moment:

The Role of Gender in Science Communication, May 10

“The Role of Gender in Science Communication” will be panel discussion moderated by BC Centre of Disease Control Senior Scientist and TV show host Jennifer Gardy, with panelists including Bob McDonald (Host of CBC Radio One’s Quirks and Quarks), Dr. Carin Bondar (Host for Discovery International and blogger for Scientific American; her YouTube channel Wild Sex is about to get 6 million views);  and Cam Cronin (Public Programmer, HR MacMillan Space Centre). I am really excited to be meeting them in person. We will start giving out numbered standby tickets at 4pm (we have min 25 seats for the public – first come first served). This talk is part of the Creating Connections conference, whose focus is on the participation of women in science, engineering and technology. For more info about the talk, visit the conference page, check out the Creating Connections website.

Science Rendezvous – May 11

This is a Canada-wide science celebration (so if you are not in Vancouver, but are at a major Canadian city, then something might be happening in your neighborhood). There are a few activities planned throughout the University of British Columbia, including lab tours and booths with hands-on activities. My department’s outreach program will have many hands-on activities, some robotics stuff from the Engineering Physics lab, and also our hovercraft. I know Chemistry has a ton of activities planned (see their video below). This will be a pretty awesome Family friendly day…come join us!

Physics & Astronomy Open House – May 25

Are you interested in the latest update about the Higgs Bosons? The discoveries made through the Hubble Space Telescope or the MOST, Canada’s space telescope? How can we use physics principles to detect cancer markers in blood samples? Or help make our lives “greener”? Tour some of our labs (laser, superconductor, enough said), check out what students can do in the Engineering Physics lab, or use a solar telescope to check out the sun. Here are just a few things we have planned for the open house. And if these are not good enough reasons – I am the organizing lead for this and I want as many people as possible! 😀 The Open House is on the same day as the UBC Alumni Weekend and there will be many other free public lectures available on the same day (and free parking in the North Parkade if you register – for free – with the Alumni Weekend; the events are open to all, including non-alumni).

Free public lectures: Dr. Malcolm Longair on Quantum Mechanics and Cosmology – May 27 and 28

My department is hosting the Canadian Astronomy Society Annual Conference from May 28-30. Because of this conference, we have invited Dr. Malcolm Longair to speak on Cosmology on May 28th and how we come to learn about the history of our universe. This lecture is a public lecture and Dr. Longair will speak on a non-technical level, incorporating many videos and simulations. My “source” tells me that Dr. Longair is an excellent public speaker (source being my boss, who actually was a student of Longair like, 20-30 years ago).

Dr. Longair also recently wrote about Quantum Mechanics, which he thinks is the “at the root of essentially all aspects of contemporary life.”  He will be talking about the history of its development on May 27th. Again, this will be a public lecture, given at a non-technical level, and should be pretty awesome as well.

I think that’s all for May. And yes, I am involved in the planning of all these above, so I have a legit reason to be slacking on my blog. Regular posting should resume in June 😀 Meanwhile, check out my twitter page to stay in touch!

My Jurassic Park nostalgia: on women in science and de-extinction

9 Apr

Jurassic_Park_3DJurassic Park. Ah my childhood. Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw in a theatre, so even though I am in principle against 3D movies, I had to see it for nostalgia reasons.

(spoiler alert – if you have never seen the movie before, you are forewarned)

The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg based on a novel of the same name, written by Michael Crichton and published in 1990. Interestingly, it feels even more relevant to me now than before  (or perhaps for little Theresa back in the days, all that really mattered was cool dinosaurs on the screen).

The movie has two great female characters – a female scientist Dr. Ellie Sattler (paleobotanist), and Lex Murphy, a teenage girl who turns out to be a hacker and manages to reactivate the computer-controlled locks and phones on the premises (apparently her brother is the computer-intelligent one in the book). While I really could use less of Lex’s screaming (seriously girl?), these two characters and the roles they play are critical in the movie. Even now, it is difficult to find good female scientist characters in films or on TV. And, there are incredibly few women in computer science, both in films/TV programs and in reality. This movie is rather forward thinking in this perspective.

The movie also touched a bit on sexism and feminism:

In a conversation where John Hammond expresses guilt as he implies that he should be the one heading out to turn on the power for the compound because he is a man,  Ellie responds, “We’ll talk about sexism in survival situations later.”

When Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, says, “God creates dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God creates men, men kills God, men brings back dinosaurs,” Ellie follows with, “Dinosaurs eat men…Women inherits the earth.”

I couldn’t stop laughing.

The movie is based on the idea that we are able to bring back species that went extinct long ago (de-extinction). In fact, the debate for de-extinction is very much alive now more than ever. Before you get excited about seeing dinosaurs for real – that’s not going to happen, because unlike what the movie suggests, it is not possible to preserve dinosaur DNA for 65 million years, even in the best possible environment. The focus of the discussion, at the moment, is mostly around bringing back species that went extinct more recently. It was perhaps purposely timed (?), but Stewart Brand had a TED talk about it in February:

Is it really that easy? David Ehrenfeld didn’t think so, as he explained during the TEDxDeExtinction Conference; his molecular biologist friend Jerry Langer suggested a clever way to test our ability to actually revive extinct species:

And, it can be more than just the science itself, as discussed by Hank Greely (he also wrote an article in Science on this):

Interested in learning more? In March, the National Geographic published a feature on de-extinction to discuss the pros and cons. There are also two podcasts, one from the Guardian and the other from the National Public Radio (an interview of Carl Zimmer) that you want to listen to. At the moment, I am personally not a fan of de-extinction. It does seem like a cool thing to do, but whether or not we have the right environment to support the species is a huge question in my mind. We will see – maybe I will change my mind after reading both sides of the argument, maybe not.

Whether you have seen this movie before or not, I highly recommend that you see it (again). And do keep in mind the real issues and discussions that are happening right now.

Update (May 3): parasitediary (see comment below) recommended this article in Cell by Robert P. Kruger on the scientific ideas within the movie. If you have access to the journal, make sure to check it out as well!

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