Sunday, April 22, 2018

Always the Bridenstine, Never the Bride

Earlier this week, my mother, who shares my love of all things space, bought me the Women of NASA Lego set, and oh my God, I can't get over Margaret Hamilton and her stack of code and Mae Jemison's description as "Astronaut, Engineer, Physician, Dancer".  This incredible reminder of the amazingness of NASA and the science they've done is weirdly juxtaposed against the terrifying prospect of how threatened all that is; also earlier this week, the US Senate voted to confirm Jim Bridenstine as NASA Administrator.
Yes, I spent my Wednesday night putting Legos together

Bridenstine's initial nomination was protested by people on both sides of the political aisle, in large part due to concern about a politician taking the role for the first time.1  In the end, he won confirmation by a single vote.  On the bright side, he has often extolled the value of NASA, saying that "Breakthrough space technologies have improved the human condition and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives."2  On the less bright side, his background is in business (he has an MBA from Cornell), and his previous space experience is mostly limited to attempts at policy making and a run as the Executive Director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.3  He rejects the scientific consensus on climate change,4 which is concerning given that NASA is one of the largest providers of climate change data.5  He's previously introduced legislation aimed at focusing NASA's mission on spaceflight and rolling back non-spaceflight endeavors.6  He is also a major proponent of the private commercialization of space,7 which could be positive or negative, depending on how he integrates government and industry.  Concerningly for the leader of any agency, he has also been vocally anti-LGBTQ and has proposed legislation to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Although there is a legitimate concern that this business man turn politician will turn into this adorable dog when he assumes his new role (and also maybe some hope.  Who doesn't want more adorable dogs in the world?),
I am far, far more concerned about his previous campaigns to limit the scope of NASA's projects, and not just because of the troubling loss of non-spaceflight projects.  In addition to maybe losing funding for telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, satellites like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite, and threats to current climate and environmental science projects, projects studying the interactions between the sun and the planets in the solar system, and a projects with the aim of understanding how the universe works, limiting the scope of NASA is a distinct threat to what is arguably the most important of their stated missions-- "Share NASA with the public, educators, and students to provide opportunities to participate in our Mission, foster innovation, and contribute to a strong national economy."9

People love space.  They share colorful pictures of nebulas, they get excited about the discovery of new exoplanets, they tune in to watch rocket launches, and, for those of us in the US, everything stopped for an hour while millions of people watched the eclipse on August 21, 2017.  Space inspires us.  It makes kids want to be astronauts and gets them interested in math, science, and engineering.  We know this, because we've seen it.  On October 4, 1957, Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, fundamentally changed American science.

Sputnik was launched during the Cold War, a time of intense tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It threatened the US's vision of themselves as the global power in science and technology and it brought concerns over what the USSR would use their technology for.  The launch of Sputnik kicked off the Space Race, which directly led to the creation of NASA (1958), the National Defense Education Act (1958), a substantial increase in funding to the National Science Foundation, and the pressure to be the first country to get a person to the moon (1969).10  But beyond the direct response to Sputnik, all of those initiatives had resounding affects on American education and interest.

The NDEA was, as its name suggests, targeted increasing the number of defense oriented personnel, but its methods changed education for all students.  More than a billion dollars was  invested in science curriculum, including training programs for science teachers, research into the use of technology in education, and putting new educational tools directly into classrooms.11  It laid the ground work for Gifted and Talented programs, funded graduate training for students with a desire to become teachers and professors, and introduced a new educational loan program.  In addition to math, science, and engineering, it also poured money into foreign language and programs like African American and Latin American studies.  It provided money for vocational training and for guidance counselors to provide vocational services.12  While  a lot of this was spurred on by feeling threatened by the USSR, it boils down to space and space technologies being a driving force in the education system.

The fire of the Space Race went beyond classrooms; it played a huge role in bringing science and technology to the general public and making people excited about them.  In the 1950s and 1960s, 1200 public planetariums opened in the US, mostly at schools and universities,13 and by 1977 they entertained 10 million people annually.14  In the 1960s and 70s, science centers, museums that emphasize a hands on and interactive experience, began popping up.15  These museums focused on science engagement and getting people, particularly kids, interested in experiencing science.

Technologies developed during this time have become integral to our lives.  GPS, satellites, accurate weather predictions, laptops, 3D graphics and virtual reality, and The Dustbuster were all born out of developments directly related to NASA's work over the past fifty years.  Ear thermometers, for example, use the same infrared temperature measuring technology that NASA developed to measure the temperature of stars.

We are experiencing a resurgence of space excitement, partially driven by spaceflight, but partially driven by other astronomical endeavors.  There are still dozens of programs that use space as a way to get kids interested in STEM.16171819  The rise of private space companies like Space X put new technologies in the news on a weekly basis, and stunts like sending a Tesla into space give people a thrill.  I would argue that the image of the dual landing of the Falcon Heavy boosters will be one of the iconic images of this decade.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
More and more countries are creating space agencies.  The observance of gravitational waves by LIGO has landed astrophysics in mainstream news media.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of Hayden Planetarium in New York, is a celebrity who literally goes on tour to talk about space, selling out theaters on the way.  The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system in 2016 inspired a wave of excitement about exoplanets.  NdGT, astronomer Phil Plait, planetary scientist Emily Lakdawalla, and others all have over 100,000 Twitter followers.  Recently, a tweet by planetary scientist Sarah Horst that showed her holding a piece of the moon and a piece of Mars went insanely viral.20  All this is to say that we are, rightly so, fascinated by ALL of space, the universe, and the solar system. Our excitement and inspiration isn't just limited to spaceflight.

According to Tonya Matthews at a talk given at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences conference in February 2018, "Space is one of the best tools at our disposal for increasing interest in STEM."  We have concrete examples from history of how a national interest in space can improve education, capture kids' imaginations, drive interest in STEM fields, provide data that is critical for sustaining and protecting life on Earth, and uncover fundamental truths about the universe.  This, to me, is the biggest issue with the confirmation of Jim Bridenstine.  Though he claims that we are in "our Sputnik moment",21 his emphasis on spaceflight to the detriment of other objectives actually threatens all the same positive outcomes that Sputnik inspired.  He has also indicated his desire to change the term of the NSAS adminstrator to reach across multiple presidential administrations,22 which could impact interest in STEM, education, and discovery for a generation.

Jim Bridenstine's background in business and politics is doubly dangerous-- he fails to see the scientific and technological importance of all of NASA's aims, and he may have the business acumen and political pull to be effective in his dangerous goals.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Remember Your Humanity, Forget the Rest

I was planning on going to the March for Science today, but I live in Minneapolis, where both the March and Spring have been canceled due to the forecasted foot of snow.  Instead, I am inside at my desk with a London Fog latte writing about marching where it is warm and my chances of skidding to an icy death are far lower.
View from my apartment.  In April.

Over the past year, there have been many pieces written about the concept of the March for Science: what the goals are,1 why people will or will not be marching,2 controversies surrounding the organizers and organization,3 and the outcomes and efficacy of the first March.4,5  There have been many complaints that science is apolitical, and therefore political protest is irrelevant or unwise.  This idea has already been thoroughly debunked when you consider that science is dependent on government funding, and that funding is determined by politicians;6 that who science is done on has a long history of targeting politically and economically disenfranchised groups;7 that the government has the ability to make decisions about scientific questions that should not be studied;8 and that many rejections of scientific truths often stem from threats to underlying political beliefs.9  This is not to say that science SHOULD be political, but that for hundreds of years, it has been, and that's not going to change.  There is another contigent that argues that scientists should be apolitical, at least in their capacity as scientists.10  This idea is based on the concept that a vocal political agenda will introduce perceived bias into scientists' work and damage credibility of the field as a whole.  People who make this argument often invoke an apolitical history of scientists, but that's just not a thing.  While the current scale of political involvement as demonstrated by the March for Science, the political action committee 314 Action, and an ever-increasing number of opinion and op-ed pieces is unprecedented, scientists have long been politically active, and to argue otherwise is disingenuous.

In the early days of science, it was primarily privately funded.  Scientists and scientific departments relied on patrons and donors to be able to complete their work, and many of the people making scientific and technological discoveries were not associated with universities and wouldn't consider themselves scientists.  Think about Benjamin Franklin, Gregor Mendel, and William Herschel, the composer who discovered Uranus.  A big shift in how science was done and paid for occurred in tandem with the world wars; governments started funding scientific research for defense technology.11  In the early days of WWI, scientists in Europe began banding together to respond to en masse to political events.  Following the German army burning the library at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, eight prominent British scientists, wrote a letter in protest.  Ninety-three German scientists responded with a letter of support for the German army's actions.12  However, in 1919, the year following the end of WWI, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences released a statement discouraging members from publicly expressing their opinions on political questions, and this seems to be where the idea that engaging in political discourse can compromise scientific objectivity really started.13

This apolitical scientific objectivity lasted until the 1930s, when scientists began to be troubled by fascism surfacing across Europe.  Many European scientists fled to the United States, sponsored and advocated for by scientists in America.  Scientists saw fascism as a threat to the free and open discourse that science rested on and recognized that many of the "scientific" arguments that fascist governments were making in an effort to turn the public against minority groups were, in fact, bullshit.  They held up the Soviet Union as a model for what the practice of science should look like: an "emphatic endorsement of science" from the country's leaders, scientific research funding as the largest line item in the country's budget, and socialized health care.  Threats to this model from the Nazi party in Germany helped to further galvanize scientists against fascism and set the stage for the future stronghold of communism in American universities.  The AAAS reversed their previous position on scientific involvement in politics, electing as its president Walter Cannon, a vocal socialist and anti-fascist.  On August 12, 1939, they hosted symposia and teach-ins for the public in 26 cities, with discussions on dispelling the pseudoscience that backed fascist attacks on minorities and the importance of democracy for science to flourish.  Famed anthropologist Franz Boas rallied strongly for scientist involvement in the politics of the day, founding the Committee for Intellectual Freedom, which had 10,000 scientist members.  He joined with 1,283 other scientists to issue a manifesto against racialism and fascism.  Boas commented that "The present outrages in Germany have made it all the more necessary for American scientists to take a firm anti-fascist stand... Our manifesto declares that we scientists have the moral obligation to educate the American people against all false and unscientific doctrines, such as the racial nonsense of the Nazis. The agents of fascism in this country are becoming more and more active, and we must join with all men of good will in defending democracy today if we are to avoid the fate of our colleagues in Germany, Austria and Italy."  This bubble of political activism burst in 1939, when the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which led to the disenchantment and fracturing of American scientists' anti-fascist cause.14 

Franz Boas, from Wikimedia Commons

The next major issue the roused scientists' activism occurred after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Scientists once again became politically charged, this time against nuclear proliferation.  Physicists took the lead this time, particularly those involved in the development of the bomb, writing pamphlets and giving talks on the danger of nuclear weapons research and tests.  They created a non-technical research journal (side bar: we need more of these) to explain nuclear weapons and the threat the posed to scientists and the public called The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.15  They traveled to Washington to lobby for the passage of bills for both international and domestic nuclear control.  Ironically, this anti-nuclear cause contributed to the overall receeding of scientists from visibly political life.  Outspoken scientists often found themselves on the problematic end of Senator McCarthy's communist probes and getting blackballed from academic jobs.16  

Despite the threat and overall shift to change from within the system, over the next decades, prominent scientists continued to speak out against nuclear arms.  Days before his death, Albert Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, highlighting the dangers and leading to the development of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, a meeting that brought together scientists and policy leaders.17  

Presentation of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, from Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, nuclear arms and research continued to be the main focus of scientists' political activism.  Organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility and Scientists Against Nuclear Arms sprang up, and, while not alone in their efforts, were often at the heart of anti-nuclear protests.18  

Scientists have joined other political causes here and there over the years.  The AAAS was one of the first major institutions to publicly issue a statement against the Vietnam War in 1965; the anti-war movement also led to the creation of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Scientists have lobbied for anti-smoking and climate change legislation.  They have protested cuts in research funding.  They have been involved in ethically based political conversations about banning embryonic stem cell research and abortion.  Almost every major scientific organization, including the Society for Neuroscience, the American Geophysical Union, the Federation of Societies for Experimental Biology, and the American Astronomical Society, has a policy or advocacy arm.  The current CEO of the AAAS, Rush Holt, is a former US Representative.

While a lot of scientist involvement in politics has been single issue advocacy or protest, it is clear that there is a robust history of scientists being openly, vocally, and visibly political.  Arguing that marching for science or using a label of "scientist" to get involved in the political sphere is something that isn't done has a host of historical counterfactuals.  Science is political.  Scientists absolutely can be and have been political.  Politics should be more scientific.  While being politically involved may have an impact on the opinions of scientists, there is no evidence suggesting that it harms how scientific research is perceived.19  

So go, my scientific friends.  You are free to be as visibly politically involved as your heart desires.  If political involvement isn't for you, that's fine, but don't use bogus arguments to dissuade others from doing so.   

In the end, however you chose to express your political and scientific beliefs, follow the words of Pugwash Conference founder Joseph Rotblat from his 1995 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.  "Remember your humanity.  Forget the rest."

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Bring Me to Life

In honor of Easter, today I'm talking about resurrection (and yes, I am super proud of this topical tie in).  Two thousand years ago, the story goes, a very nice carpenter man was executed because the people in charge were threatened by how nice he was, and then three days later he rose from the dead, lived again, and now for some reason people look for eggs and eat ham to celebrate this.  A few weeks ago, MIT Review covered a start-up company that's offering the chance to resurrect YOU way after you die.  This isn't a new thing.  Companies have offered cryogenic freezing and other ways of preserving you until we have the technology to bring you back to life for a long time.  What is unique about this company, Nectome, is that they're focusing on preserving just your brain, with the idea that eventually we'll know enough about the brain that we can digitize it and then recreate you in some form or fashion, and that they've been getting big money to do this.  Their preservation process is cutting edge and has won multiple grants and awards, plus they're charging 10,000 dollars to get your name on the list to receive this procedure.  Most of the articles that have covered the Nectome story have focused on one teeny-tiny little hiccup- that they have to kill you in order for the preservation process to work right.  I'm going to focus on another teeny-tiny little hiccup- that the whole thing is very unlikely, nigh on impossible, to bring you back from the dead. 

Theoretically, digitizing brain activity is definitely possible, and in some ways, has been done.  A neuron only has two states; it's either firing, or it's not.  That seems obvious, but what I mean is that an action potential, the electrical signal that neurons use to send messages, signal other neurons, and make stuff happen, is always the same. 
It looks like this.  Always.  The two little humps next to the arrow represent getting a little bit of a signal, but not enough to cause the neuron to fire.  If a neuron gets enough of a signal, it will fire, every time, and the signal it sends will always have the same strength, size, and shape; the only thing that really changes is how fast it goes through this process.  Because of this, it would be easy to digitize a brain signal, because it's already binary.  For every neuron, a 0 means it's not firing, and a 1 means it is.  

But that's only digitizing what's currently happening.  In order for digital reincanation to be viable, we can't just record what is happening, though.  If we want the recreation to have our memories and personality, we have to be able to have some digital record of the signals the brain has sent in the past.  Not just that, but for digital immortality, we need to have some way for the digital brain to respond to new situations with the same pattern of firing that original us would have.  It has to be able to learn new things and recognize future patterns.  It can't just be a digital record- it ALSO has to be able to act relatively independently moving forward.

Every brain digitization plan is well aware that we can't do that yet, and it will be a while before we can.  There are too many outstanding questions that we don't currently understand.  For one thing, in order for this recreated brain to be "you", it has to have your memories, be able to access and act on them, and make new ones.  The problem is that we don't really know how our brains store memories.  Memory is way too big of a subject to cover everything we know about it as part of this post, but some general things we know.  We know that there are different kinds of memory, and something that affects one type may not affect another kind, so they must have at least somewhat different mechanisms.  We know areas of the brain that are important for memory.  We know that synapses, the places where neurons communicate, are important. But, most importantly for this, we don't know what a memory looks like in the brain, or exactly how to trigger a specific memory.  That seems kind of important if you want your brain, and presumably your consciousness, to live forever; if we don't understand what a memory really is, how can we know that we're preserving the right information to recreate them?

And we are more than just our memories.  Presumably, if you want to live forever, you want your recreated brain to respond to situations like current you would.  You want that future brain to feel like you.  We have no idea how things like personality and intelligence and other individual differences are coded in the brain, much less the beginning of an inkling of how to recreate them.  As with memory, we have no way of knowing if preservation techniques are preserving the right things to make a future brain really be us. 

A map of the human connectome

The cornerstone of Nectome's business is their brain preservation technique.  This is what they've been getting grants and winning prizes for, not really for anything directly having to do with brain digitization.  The idea is that their method of brain preservation works at an extremely fine level, preserving each and every synapse in the brain, to create a map of all of the connections, also called the "connectome".  This is totally true.  They've done this with a pig brain (fitting given the whole eating ham to celebrate a resurrection thing), and it is really freaking cool.  The adult human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons and 1 TRILLION synapses, and this process essentially perfectly preserves all of them.  That is amazing. also may be completely useless when it comes to digitizing brains. 

Just because you perfectly preserve the structure of the brain doesn't mean that you're preserving the function.  For one thing, there's a lot more that matters than just the structure of synapses: the presence and concentration of proteins, whether that synapse sends "fire more" or "fire less" messages, and what neurotransmitters are doing, just for a start.  About ten years ago, researchers were able to fully describe the connectome of a nematode called C. elegans, and despite being able to recreate it, we still have no idea how it stores memories or a lot of other information.  There's also the question of functional connectivity, the idea that areas of the brain influence each other when doing a specific task, but not necessarily all tasks.  What tasks those are and why those areas move together isn't captured just by having a connectomic map.  Simply being able to make detailed pictures of the synapses doesn't mean we can recreate the information the communicate. It only captures the structural state of the brain in a single moment in time, and that's....pretty useless, honestly.  

Given what we currently know about the brain, there are a lot more questions that need to be answered about how information is stored and what in the brain makes us us before we can even begin to think about digital reincarnation.  However, given what we currently know about the brain, it seems basically impossible that a physically preserved brain, no matter how well preserved, is going to carry even close to enough of that information to be able to digitally reincarnate us.  That's not even to touch on the philosophical questions of whether a copy of your brain is really you and whether all we are is just learning algorithms.  Nectome has a really amazing process that is going to be useful for a lot of things, but making us live forever just isn't one of them. 

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