Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Proposals and Soccer

Instead of working on my proposal for NASA’s Mars Fundamental Research Program, I just sat on my hotel-room bed and watched half an hour of soccer on ESPN 2. I have no idea why I turned on the TV, but I needed to take out my contacts, so I flicked it on as I walked past. When I saw the soccer field, I left it there. When I saw who was playing, I sat down. You see, it wasn’t just any soccer, but the US playing Spain in the semi-finals of the Confederation’s Cup. When I turned it on, the US was up 1-0. What made me stop everything and glue my eyes to the screen was that the announcer informed us that Spain is the #1 ranked team in the world. The final score: US 2, Spain 0. Yeah, our national team just broke Spain’s 15-game winning streak (and 35-game unbeaten streak). Spain hadn’t lost since 2006. The announcer said that the US has come in 3rd in this tournament a couple of times, but never made it to the finals. Way cool. We were clearly outplayed most of the game, with Spain constantly stealing passes and pressuring our goalie. He had some incredible saves and our defenders made innumerable headers to clear the barrage of crossing volleys. The US team was solid, though, and attacked just enough to get a second goal with 15 minutes left and help seal the victory. Spain kept pressuring in a rabid fury of shots on goal, but we held them off. Oh yeah, and one of our players got a red card with under 10 minutes left, so we were down a man at the end. Spain couldn’t break through, though. I was on the edge of my seat. Soccer is a great sport.

The contacts are out now, and I guess I should get back to my MFRP proposal, but it’s 11 pm and I’m not up for thinking that hard.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why the Weird Name?

Recipes in cookbooks are always so exact...half a tablespoon of oil, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, two and a quarter cups of flour. I always try to follow them, thinking that the creator of the recipe experimented to get just the right proportions. Then, when you watch a chef on TV (which I very rarely do), they often just toss in ingredients until it feels right to them. So much for the exacting chemistry of cooking. They’re just winging it.

I heard one of these chefs talking on the radio a long while back and he said to add a heaping teaspoon of some ingredient into a mix. I laughed out loud. From then on, “The Heaping Teaspoons” has always sounded like a good name for a rock band. Since I am not forming a band anytime soon, I thought I would use this odd little phrase for my blog.

I hope that it is somewhat fitting for these posts. A teaspoon is a small amount, and that’s what I feel like this blog is, compared to the vast sprawl of blog options that you all have to read out there. But on the other hand, I hope that this is an overflowing spoonful of something good for you. It is for me, as I enjoy writing them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

TV News

I usually don’t watch TV news programs. But I am on travel right now, and I turn on the TV sometimes just to have some noise in the room with me. Last night was good...a soccer game was on ESPN 2, Egypt vs. Italy. Egypt was up 1-0. In the morning, though, there are no live sporting events. You get Sports Center, which repeats itself regularly. Tiger Woods got a double bogey. Tiger Woods got a birdie. Tiger Woods is 2 strokes off the lead. Tiger Woods is held up by a rain delay. Oh yeah, and there are other golfers in the tournament, too. Tiger is a great golfer, but the reporting was monotonous. Sports news gets boring to me in a hurry.

So I try a regular news channel instead. Yesterday, MSNBC was examining the question of whether Obama is overexposed in the media. They were questioning whether he appears too much on the TV, in reports on the radio, on the covers of magazines, and such. I am not making this up: a 24-hour news channel was complaining about overcoverage of a newsmaker. Obama is the President of the United States, of course he should be regularly in the news, especially US news outlets, and of course he is overexposed in the media, because the media bombards us with drivel 24/7. I had to turn off the TV.

This morning, I tried again, CNN this time. They were having what appeared to be an open forum on the question, “Is the word feminism obsolete?” They were randomly interviewing people across America, reading comments posted on their website, doing dramatic camera-angles sweeps and cuts around their reporters in the field, and playing dark, threatening music to set the mood of impending doom. This is the best they can come up with for news? I had to turn it off.

It’s good to remind myself why I don’t watch TV, especially the news. Instead I get 2 newspapers and listen to NPR in the car. It’s more than enough. I also read a few different magazines, not really for news for in-depth analysis of the issues. Harper’s is my favorite.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Obama Rocks

Here is just one small way in which Obama is proving himself to be an excellent president: his stance and actions regarding abortion. His stance, from a 2006 speech (and reiterated in similar words throughout the campaign and now his presidency):

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but I seek to pass law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. Its the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.”

What does this paragraph mean? Obama is a negotiator, probing both sides of an issue for their core needs and striving to find a solution that is acceptable to all. Sometimes the two sides of an issue don’t even know their core needs, or they put up extra barriers (intentionally or not) in front of these needs, believing that giving any ground to the other side starts you down the “slippery slope” against your side of the issue. Obama actually wants to resolve the issue.

In April, he convened a conference on abortion where he invited leaders from both the pro-choice and pro-life sides. The reason, to present to them his vision for common ground and to ask them for ideas on how to reduce the number of abortions. He’s not looking for the easy answers (abstinence-only programs), but the hard ones that address the root cause of the need for abortions (women in dire economic or relational situations). There is a demonstrable correlation between the poverty rate and the abortion rate in a region, and reducing abortions means also addressing many other societal issues that we like to pretend don’t exist. This conference very well could lead to real money going into new programs in the 2011 budget.

He actually cares about social justice. Just one small way that Obama rocks.

(Thank you Sojourners Magazine for the quote and background for this post.)

Climate Change

Humanity is warming the Earth. Slowly but surely, we are adding carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) to the atmosphere, and this gas is trapping more and more of the Earth’s outgoing longwave radiation, acting as a planetary blanket. The average global temperature is slowly rising as the Earth attempts to equalize the incoming solar energy (shortwave radiation) with the outgoing longwave radiation. The data and data-model comparisons I have seen on this have convinced me that our actions are influencing the global energy balance. Changes in the sun’s energy input to the Earth system are also part of the equation, but presently this is not the big factor in causing our planet to warm.

This is a political issue, though, because stating that climate change is due to humanity’s actions means that humanity should change the way it does things. There are powerful forces that want to keep the status quo, and so, even though a politician might understand the issue, money and influence could sway this person to speak out and vote against doing anything to remedy the situation. Look at this chart from a recent article in the weekly news publication, Eos, citing a 2008 Gallup poll that asked the question, “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing global mean temperatures?”:

The also asked the survey responders about their level of scientific involvement in the subject, and the graph partitions the results accordingly. Those actually in the field have reached an overwhelming consensus that human activity is a significant factor in changing the Earth’s temperature. Nearly 40% of the general public, however, believes that human activity does not significantly influence temperatures. There is a large disconnect between those who are studying this issue and the rest of us. Why? Of course, there is always a disconnect between the scientific community and the general public, but for this issue, it is complicated and intentionally obscured by those with a financial or political interest in doing nothing to alter our course.

There is actually good reason for skepticism. The timescales are long and the predictions are uncertain. Plus, there are politicians who overemphasize the dire consequences of inaction (e.g., Al Gore) and, while they are helping to raise awareness of the issue, they stir the political backlash. Two things are clear to me, however: we are largely responsible and we need to begin the process of reducing our greenhouse gas emission rates immediately.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Science and Christianity

No, I am not a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist or a follower of Scientology. I am a scientist who is also a Christian, a member of a Presbyterian congregation, to be specific. Some think that religion and science is incompatible, but not me. I see God in nature and I believe that I am getting to know him better as I learn more about the natural world. I don’t view the Bible as literally true. In fact, I think that many sections of it are actually completely made up. The point of the Bible is not to ask, “how did God do that?” or, “how did this event really happen?” but instead to ask, “why would God want me to know this story?” Genesis is actually a correct description of the history of Earth, if viewed from the Earth’s surface. Whether miracles actually took place as described in the Bible or not, that’s not the point. The point is for us to learn something from the story about how God wants us to live our lives. He wants us to learn from the Bible how to have a better relationship with him, which, in my interpretation, is the same as having better relationships with people here on Earth. I see God not only in the spectacular natural phenomena, like aurora and sunsets, but also in the mundane, like the speckled coloration of a boulder or the intricate patterns of a leaf. The more I know about how these things are formed and how they behave according to natural laws of the physical universe, the more I appreciate them and respect them. So, I don’t find my scientific vocation and training in conflict with my religious beliefs and worldview. I remain objective in my work and, I would say, my take on religion helps me to be a better scientist. Knowing that God created the universe, I always strive to understand the basic mechanisms responsible for some strange and unexplained feature in the data I am pondering. That is, I try not to hold any preconceived biases about how things work. It also means that I strive to treat all other scientists with respect and consideration, because I know that God created them for a special purpose and that my relationship with them is a reflection of my relationship with God. So, are science and religion incompatible? I don’t think so.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I Love My Job

I love my job. I love shepherding a concept through the process from ideation to publication. I love writing scientific proposals, papers, reports, and presentations. I love discussing science with other researchers. I love teaching, both formally in a classroom setting and individually with my graduate and undergrad students. I even love serving on scientific advisory committees. I am at one RIGHT NOW as I type this. Departmental and university committee service is less fun, but still not so boring that it weighs me down. Sure, I have complaints, and I will bring them up here in future posts. Perhaps I am a freak of nature, but I like what I do and I am very grateful that I am paid so well to do it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Heaping Teaspoon

For those of you that actually know me, I used to be one who wrote long, hand-written letters. I went off to college a long way from home, nearly across the country, and in those days before the internet, with 25-cent-per-minute long distance phone calls, that pretty much meant that I was falling off the face of the Earth for most of my friends and family. I made up for this by becoming an avid letter writer. Some were short, 2 or 3 pages, just to say high, but most required 2 stamps due to their heft. I would write several a month, even several a week. It was a time when I was learning many new things about the world, about human nature, and about myself. I took my conservative atheism with me to Indiana and voted for G. H. W. bush in my first presidential election. The late-night debates were stimulating, although it was hard to find a liberal with which to argue. Most of the students at my small, technical college were more conservative then me. The discussions with my residence hall mates became fodder for letter topics, and I would write down and distribute my developing life philosophy in these messages.

College came and went, and I still tried to keep up hand-written letter writing in my life in the real world. Okay, I didn’t join the real world, I went to grad school, but adult responsibilities like paying bills started interfering with unrestrained thought. I kept up writing several dozen letters a year for a decade or so, but in the early 2000s the frequency started to drop. Work, home, family, and church life consumed all of my time and energy, and I just didn’t have it in me to keep up the long, hand-written letters on deep subjects anymore. Plus, the novelty of it had worn off. I was an adult now, set in my ways, and I was I really still shaping my life philosophy anymore? There was also the constant question of what topic to select for which friend or relative. Yes, that was a hang-up for me. It’s been close to a year since I’ve sent a long, hand-written letter to anyone.

Something has been gnawing at me ever since, though. I don’t like being without the mental outlet that the letter-writing provided. Of course, I can talk to people, and emails are great for staying in touch. I’ll probably join Facebook or Linked-In in the near future. But there is something cathartic to me about writing. The letter writing was as much about me thinking things through as it was staying in touch with others. I need to get back into it.

So, I am launching a blog. I’ll tell my friends and family about it, and they can come here and read for themselves, if they are interested, whatever I happen to post. In many respects, blogging is an evolved form of hand-written letter communication. Now, my spews will simply be out there, for anyone to see and comment on. I welcome all comments. I cannot promise to answer all questions or honor all requests, but I will always read your comments, and keep your suggestions in mind.