Stupid things smart people say (and the smart things other smart people say)

June 13, 2015

One of the points I make in my science classes is that scientists are not superheroes.  Scientists are human beings capable of all the most wonderful and most terrifying things that the rest of our species can do.  While they may know a little more about how the universe operates, that doesn’t necessarily make them a better human being (though I also argue that to be a complete human, you do need to understand some of the basic operation of the cosmos).

Tim Hunt is a Nobel Prize winning biochemist.  His work is not trivial – he discovered that a group of chemicals called cyclins are critical in triggering parts of the cell cycle (the most notable part of which is mitosis) which gave huge insight into how mitosis starts after fertilization (as in creating just about all higher lifeforms including humans), and may give critical insights into how the cell cycle can be arrested (like in cancer).

Still, even if you make a discovery that may one day end a lot of suffering and pain for our species, you need to realize that 2015 isn’t 1985 or 1955 … we live in a world where every last word can be cataloged, saved, and scrutinized by the planet.

Such was the case this past Wednesday when Hunt was in South Korea addressing science journalists (aka: one of the groups you must be very, very careful what you are saying in front of).  That’s why when you talk about working with women in a scientific laboratory, and the best you have for these journalists is: “they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry” … he must have been strongly ignorant of what was coming next.

In the life sciences, women have made extraordinary strides in the past 15-20 years in terms of the number of degrees conferred, but in the physical sciences, and in scientific leadership positions, women sadly trail.  To make matters worse (I am going to posit an opinion here), I suspect that some areas of science draw men who are uncomfortable around women (because historically they weren’t around much), and they don’t really know how to act around women.  The end result is that women in a lot of lab settings are not treated as well as they might elsewhere, and may not be given as many opportunities for advancement as men.  Thus, when a notable Nobel Prize winner, even if he was joking as he claimed, says shit like this, it just reinforces the idea that there are important men who really don’t think women can do what men can.  Needless to say, Hunt has apologized and resigned some of his professional positions.

That said, showing that there are plenty of great people out there, there is a phenomenal twitter account, almost exclusively women in science, posting pictures as to how distracting and teary eyed they are while going about the work of science.  It is quite funny, while also being a giant international middle finger to people who might harbor any doubt that women are as talented and capable as men when it comes to unlocking how our universe operates.


Old technology wasn’t that long ago …

January 7, 2014


I came across this article about Delta Airlines getting ready to retire its last DC-9 aircraft.  The article notes that the DC-9 was produced from 1965 to 1982 (I hope this last one was from 1982).  Interestingly, the DC-10 was finally put out to final pasture just last month in Bangladesh (though a few are apparently still used in freight service).


What I found really interesting was that the DC-9, when it was originally put into the Delta fleet in 1965, was primarily replacing turboprop passenger planes.


I find it almost inconceivable that in 2013 (I’m not counting the lat flight in 2014), you could jump on a regularly scheduled flight and be flying in a model that was replacing prop jobs.

It just goes to show you that in an era where phones are far closer to 1960s science fiction than to anything Alexander Graham Bell could have imagined … that in the era where we are saying our final goodbyes to photographic film and incandescent light bulbs, the first generation of commercial flight isn’t so distant.

Rubbing shoulders with the bigwigs

October 20, 2013

I doubt this is any surprise to anyone:  I really, really like the work of James Cameron

Some of his great works:


*The Terminator

*Terminator 2: Judgement Day

*The Abyss (one of my personal faves)

*True Lies


*Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

Certainly his films reflect a degree of technology;  Cameron started life as an engineering student.  Based on the documentaries I have seen, he is extremely demanding of the people who work for him, but the films he has made, in my opinion, are reflective of very hard work and attention to detail.

One of Cameron’s interests is exploring the oceans.  He has made a few documentaries on this topic:

* Aliens of the Deep (which profiles deep sea creatures)

*Ghosts of the Abyss (which high lights an expedition he made to the wreck of RMS Titanic)

*Expedition Bismarck (same as the above, replacing Titanic with Bismarck).

While most filmmakers would send the camera crew down into the crushing depths, Cameron went himself.

In 2012, not many people know that Cameron really cemented his place in the explorer’s hall-of-fame.  He partially financed the construction of a new submersible (Deepsea Challenger), and he himself took a trip to the bottom of the New Britain Trench in the Solomons, and about 20 days later he went to the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Mariana Trench.  That second dive was the first human dive to the bottom of the Mariana in over 50 years, and he became the first individual to do it solo.

Needless to say, the National Geographic Society followed him and documented his work.  As part of this, NGS has some online lessons and videos for kids and teachers to use in the classroom.

When the lessons were ready, NGS went looking for a teacher with a broad science background to check out their lessons and critique them for publication.

Scroll to the bottom, and click on the credits tab.

Needless to say, I was equally jazzed about getting to work on an NGS project, and one that focused on the work of a guy which I appreciate.

In what has been a rough year, this has been a nice feather to put in my cap.

Print is dead

February 9, 2013

As a part of an ongoing project some of my students conduct, I keep an eye on science articles written for various news services.  Needless to say, I don’t know if journalists have always been prone to really silly mistakes or if this is a more recent trend … but C’MON!!!

From a recent article on the United Kingdom’s new Antarctic research facility:

Britain’s latest Antarctic research station is brand-new and learning to crawl.

Unless you’re a polar bear, the odds that you’ll make it down to the South Pole to check it out are pretty slim, so we tracked some photos.


Note:  polar bears don’t live anywhere near Antarctica.  Ironically, Antarctica’s name derives from the Greek for “opposite of the bear”, because “Arctic” is a reference to the constellation in which you find Polaris, the North Star.

That is your nerd moment of the week.  Please enjoy!

Science fiction becoming reality …

September 11, 2012

In 1982, George Lucas introduced one of the most ridiculous weapons in film history:

The imperial All-Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT), which used unnecessarily slow, plodding movement toward the enemy to draw out the battle for no logical reason.  But, dammit, they were cool raised to the power of cool!  These gigantic armored assault camels were totally badass from this 10 year-old’s perspective.  I wondered if they would ever be made for real.  My dad, ex-Navy, told me how utterly impractical they were as weapons.

Screw practicality, these things were cool!

Fast-forward to 2012, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA … aka the closest the US military has come to publicly funding mad scientists … aka the people who really did invent the internets), has advanced evil science fiction transportation for use by the US military.  Meet the Legged Squad System Support (LS3):

In addition to carrying equipment for a military squad, it can also follow simple auditory and visual cues.

OK, it isn’t armed … but given that this is a military robot, you know they are already looking to throw a couple of guns on this thing in addition to advanced armor plating.  I am also thinking it is not useful on stealth missions.

The light saber:  still on hold.

Oh, in case you are thinking that this is too slow … DARPA already has a faster version on the way:

It is slated for outdoor testing in 2013, and has a top speed exceeding that of Usain Bolt’s world record.

The world may be going to hell in a hand basket, but we can still make cool things.

This is what Buzz meant by “magnificent desolation”

September 9, 2012

While Neil Armstrong was the cool commander of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin was often times able to put his journey into more poetic perspective.  Shortly after setting foot on the moon, it was Aldrin who radioed his famous observation back to Earth of what he saw, the paradoxical description of “magnificent desolation”;  a term that the more artistic have used in depicting the moon ever since.

This link takes you to a really cool site that has taken photographs collected around the Apollo 11 landing site, and after a little spit polish, has turned them into a very clear rotatable panoramic picture of what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin saw back in 1969.

I’m not sure Aldrin’s description could have been made more profound.

The legend grows ….

August 26, 2012

Having just seen the passing of a past space legend … an update on the future.

For just quick bites of news that I normally wouldn’t get, Yahoo is OK.  Every so often, they cover something cool like:

Space Elevator Project Shoots for the Moon

For anyone who has been around me long enough, you know that I am very proud that one of my old friends has a little slice of this endeavor, and in fact he is quoted in the article.  It led to one of the more humorous comments at the end of the article:

Peyton:  At first I read Ted Nugent instead of Tom Nugent as Research Director, I was thinking, no wonder their company went under.

Jakesulley (Cleveland, Ohio):  He would probably flip out on all the investors if they asked a question.


Most of the comments, like all Yahoo articles are by people who read the headline and jumped in feet first to comment further.  Nonetheless, I like to give free publicity and moral support to visionaries when I can.