Archive for January, 2012

Getting Round To It

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Finding a Common Enemy

Still going with my general trend of reporting on ScienceOnline 2012 by working backwards, I’m going to quasi-summarize the panel discussion, The Sticky Wicket of the Scientist-Journalist Relationship, which closed out the conference. The panel members were David Kroll, Bora Zivkovic, Maggie Koerth-Baker and Seth Mnookin, which means it was slanted toward the journalist point of view, but it was indeed interesting to get that perspective.

Out of the gate, Maggie Koerth-Baker set the tone about the journalist perspective: I am not your goddam stenographer. I don’t trust you implicitly and I don’t want to be a fanboy. (That’s a paraphrase, but pretty close to a direct quote). And that’s fair, I think, especially with the recent and laughable query about being fact-vigilantes, one shouldn’t expect any journalists to simply repeat what they are told.

We were also cautioned that the journalist’s motivation for writing an article may not coincide with the scientist’s agenda — don’t assume it is and find out those details. This ties in to the concern of some about being misquoted; even though the journalist probably isn’t out to “get” a scientist, you won’t have a chance to backtrack on your comments. So you should correct yourself immediately if you mis-speak. There was also the suggestion that it’s OK to speak to a reporter off the record, and then agree afterward to allow some comments to be on the record. That gives the scientist some control over the issue.

What was interesting to me was a comment by Seth Mnookin about how scientists are surprised that journalists often don’t check back with the scientist they’ve interviewed and show them the story before it’s published. Some of this is motivated by not wanting to edit quotes, but from my perspective it’s about a concern to get the facts right. My own experience on this is mixed — I’ve been interviewed or involved in email exchanges, and been offered differing levels of opportunity to provide feedback. But I completely understand the scientist position — I think it’s a general desire in the science community that the science be understood correctly, and anyone who has taught knows how often it happens that complex concepts are misunderstood, especially without the feedback. So it is a surprise to me that a journalist would not double-check their story to make sure they got it right. Getting it wrong undermines the credibility of everyone involved, though my personal bias is that when I see obvious errors I am going to assume the scientist knows what s/he is talking about and the journalist screwed it up. That might not always be true, but it’s probably the way to bet.

One the other side of the coin, journalists can get burned by scientists pushing bad science and treating it like peer review, in that they figure a newer story can come along and correct any mistakes. I don’t think much of that approach — scientists have an obligation to make clear what is sound and what is speculation.

Having said all that, I have to agree with what Ed Yong has posted a few days back: Every scientists-versus-journalists debate ever, in one diagram

Basically, good journalists are going to complain about bad scientists and good scientists are going to complain about bad journalists. I know I do. And I don’t praise good science journalism often enough.

Which brings me to the point that I wish I has thought of before the panel discussion ended. Perhaps we have some common ground after all. Maybe we can agree on a problem we have in common: crap story titles. There’s something uniquely frustrating in reading the title of an article and then find out that the article itself doesn’t support the title, or (in some cases) completely contradicts it. It’s usually an editor that did it. I hope that journalists find this as annoying as this scientist does.

Rewriting History

I won’t have to rewrite this history; over at Skulls in the Stars there is a summary of one of the sessions I attended — Science Online 2012: Weird and Wonderful Stories in the History of Science

When I was starting out as a student of physics, most of the stories I heard about the history of physics were anecdotes about the eccentric behaviors of various famous figures. There is so much more that we can learn from the history of science, however, and at the same time that we entertain people with stories from the past we can educate them about how science works.

I Wonder if it Sang 'Moon River'

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This is an endoscope video from inside a Fukushima nuclear reactor. Clearly, it has some health issues.

via boingboing, where I saw this observation

The view is obscured by steam, the effects of radiation, and (are you sitting down) actual goddam gamma rays just whizzing by.

(Pssst. Maggie (whom I met at ScienceOnline2012): Goddam gammas are radiation. Perhaps the “and” should be “including”. Just sayin’) Anyway, the gammas (damned or otherwise) show up as the little sparkly flashes on the screen. The fat white streaks are water droplets reflecting the light.

There's Art in Science

I promised to write up my trip to ScienceOnline 2012, and I’m going to start at (or near) the end. There was an art exhibit and a film festival at the conference; the art was displayed in a slideshow and the awards were announced at the closing, and the second-to-last session was the film festival.

Physics Sweeps the Online-scars

Winners of the Cyberscreen Science Film Festival at Science Online 2012

I watched the whole film festival and there were so many nice videos, to the point that I am intimidated by the thought of doing a video and entering it into competition (though I would most likely be saved by a screening process). But I still do well by association, because the three winners were all physics-related, showing how talented and good-looking we all are. I know Brian Malow from last year’s conference and got to meet Henry Reich of “Minute Physics” (even if I initially mistook him for someone else. Oops).

Smart Art. Not Schmart Art.

There were number of art entries, and winners in the categories of Most Innovative, Best able to convey complex ideas, and Best science art having to do with daily life, along with some special awards. (I had submitted two cartoons, one of which was accepted, but neither “snarkiest” nor “best cartoon” were on the judging list, so I was forced to compete on artistic merit, which doesn’t end well for me, prize-wise. Maybe next year.)

Here are the winners, and the slideshow of all the entries (my cartoon is at the 9:55 mark)
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There was also the work of Perrin Ireland, who not only had entries in the contest, but was live-scribing some of the sessions. There’s a Flickr page of the works and at least one other blog post that has pictures.


To finish this off, here are some pictures I took at the JC Raulston Arboretum on Friday afternoon, giving my camera more of a workout in macro-mode than I normally do. I hope that the other photographers and artists who made the trip put their work online. I saw some of the work the tablet-sketchers did, and they were really good.

The Toys of Dr. Moreau's Kids

EMSL: LEGO Abominations

Batteries: Is Cheap Cheap or Inexpensive?

Dot Physics: Are Expensive Batteries Worth the Extra Cost?

If you have kids, you probably know this already, but lots of stuff needs batteries. Remote control toys, Wii remotes, laser pointers (well, that is for me), flash lights, even Nerf guns. For me, I have found the best place to pick up batteries is at one of these “dollar” stores. Sure the batteries are cheaper, but are they any good? Who knows. Let’s find out.

I go through batteries at a prodigious pace at times, what with photography and geocaching, so I go with NiMH batteries and a charging station (though I also tend to carry a pair of alkaline batteries as an emergency backup). The problem with NiMH batteries is the tendency to discharge when not in use, but hybrid batteries (sometimes labeled “pre-charged”) keep their charge better than the old ones.

Another Leap of Timing Faith

Wait just a (leap) second

A nice little summary of leap seconds and the current state of affairs. But there’s a comment at the end that I think has dropped a minus sign.

Why not just decouple the two clocks, and let them go their separate ways?
A lot of scientists do in fact feel this way. But it turns out to be really, really complicated to do that. A lot of computer systems (including satellite navigation systems) have software written a while ago, and changing that would be difficult and have unforeseen consequences. Fiddling with that may be dangerous.

Decoupling atomic time from earth rotation time requires no fiddling — you just stop inserting leap seconds into UTC. Clocks generally don’t get their cues from earth rotation, they get them from synchronization to official time, which is atomic time (in the US). It’s the fiddling — the insertion of the leap seconds into the atomic time signals — that contains the potential pitfalls.

Having countries change their official time from GMT (which is mean solar time) to UTC would be technologically trivial. It turns out that in the US this happened just a few years ago; the wording describing our time zones was changed from GMT to UTC in the America Competes Act in 2007. Even though the basis for time had been atomic time anyway, it wasn’t official until then, but nothing really changed (as far as I can tell) when the law took effect.

Status Update

I’m back from ScienceOnline 2012, which was great, and am now in detox recovery mode. Catching up on things, including sleep — being “up” all day and part of the night, because of all the interesting discussions, is tiring, but it’s a good kind of tired. I expect this will leave me energized in the way I was last year once I get my bearings again. I intend to write up my thoughts on the conference as I did last year. I also have photos to edit and upload from a visit to the JC Raulston Arboretum.

Mathemagical Meanderings

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Part III of Vi Hart’s series on Spirals, Fibonacci, and Being a Plant

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