X-Rays, Social Justice and Garbage: Our Winter Seminars

The KSJ seminar series not only brings in a variety of interesting speakers, it also attracts attendees from around MIT and Harvard. We’ve been joined by MIT military fellows, graduate students, partners of Neiman fellows, and even a high school student attending an MIT science program, among others.

We love opening our seminars to others, who bring their own unique insights and perspectives. Of course, there would be no seminars without our speakers.

Here’s who we’ve visited since my last update on our seminars:

Marc Shotland spoke to us about his work to reduce poverty through policies that have been proven scientifically valid. Shotland is the associate director of training at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), and it was interesting to hear how public policies not directly related to science can and should be subjected to testing by the scientific method. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is proving more successful in countries not called “The United States of America.”

We followed Shotland’s visit with an outing of our own, to the nearby Chandra X-ray Observatory. I say “we,” but I actually missed this seminar for reasons I can’t recall. But, the fine people at Chandra let me come later and retake the tour.

Now to be clear, we didn’t actually tour the observatory, because it is a wee bit difficult to get to. Located roughly 10,000 to 80,000 miles away, the observatory is in orbit around the Earth taking X-ray images of the universe. But, the control center for the observatory is just a couple of blocks away from MIT.

The main control room looks just like movies have led you to believe: A dark room illuminated by the blue glow of monitors with giant screens set in front of curving desks. On my visit, just one person manned the controls, but during maneuvers, the room buzzes with activity. Adjacent to the control room is a technology time capsule. Tall gray racks hold beige and gray computers dating from the 1980s. These are copies of the hardware on Chandra itself, so engineers are able to work with the same equipment zooming through space. And in a lab elsewhere in the building, a copy of Chandra’s detector (pictured above), is used for testing on Earth.

Launched in 1999, Chandra complements other space telescopes, like Hubble, by looking at a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Whereas Hubble sees (mostly) what humans would see, Chandra detects X-rays, which are incredibly energetic and can reveal extraordinarily hot regions of the universe, like exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes. Images it produces, like the Crab Nebula below, are often composites of various spectra (from other telescopes), but are nevertheless, specatuclar:

I suspect many who look at Chandra’s images can’t help but ponder the mysteries of the universe. Some might see the apparent uniqueness of humanity. Others might see humanity’s insignificance. The images could be proof of God, if you’re so inclined. Or, the opposite.

The question of God wasn’t the subject of Edmond Awad‘s talk, though it could have been. A postdoctoral associate in the MIT Media Lab, Award co-developed Moral Machine, a website that gathers human decisions on moral dilemmas faced by driverless cars. In other words, an opportunity to play God, if only in simulation.

Moral Machine has been visited by more than 3.5 million users, who have passed judgment on some 37 million challenging questions, mostly around how autonomous cars should behave in morally challenging situations, similar to the famous Trolley Car problem. But, as the fellows noted during a lively discussion, the Moral Machine takes some situations into absurd territory, such as asking whether a car should prioritize fit people over the obese, or men over women, or tall people over short people (I admit, I’m biased there).

Of course, some of these situations aren’t so hypothetical any more. Recently, the first death from an autonomous car was reported in Arizona. At the time of the talk, though, that hadn’t happened yet.

Awad noted that the Moral Machine is not designed to create policy for autonomous vehicles, but rather to get people talking about the fact that algorithms and computer software incorporate moral decisions into their code, and to start thinking about how to address that fact.

We switched from the hypothetical to the very real with Gideon Gil, an editor at STAT, a news site focused on health, medicine, and science. I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from the seminar was this: try to be funded by a billionaire. In STAT’s case, that’s John Henry, owner of the Boston Globe and the Boston Red Sox.

We returned to issues of science and ethics with Kevin Esvelt, director of the MIT Media Lab’s Sculpting Evolution group. Esvelt famously has proposed using CRISPR gene drives to eliminate Lyme disease from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. (Gene drive is a technology that ensures a genetically engineered trait is passed to offspring.) As residents of the islands debate the wisdom of using genetic engineering to eliminate Lyme, Esvelt continues to think through the potential benefits — and harms — that can come from introducing gene-drive organisms into the wild. He says one challenge scientists face is that the system that rewards scientists — publish or perish — incentivizes keeping potentially dangerous research secret. And that could have dire consequences should an experiment go awry — especially if errors could be prevented by pre-experimental review.

So all we need to do is change the system for the way science is funded and scientists gain tenure and grants. That may be even harder than eradicating Lyme disease.

1981 Ford F-150

Andrew Revkin, formerly of the New York Times and now of ProPublica, came next. He spoke about his career covering climate change, and discussed his view that coverage needs to take into account the realities people face. Pointing out that the F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the United States and has been since 1981, Revkin argues that talk about changing behavior that doesn’t recognize that fact is simply fantasy.

A different kind of alternative reality was the topic of Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch. As a site that keeps track of the scores of retractions in science and medical journals, Retraction Watch is an important safeguard in the scientific community — ensuring that retracted papers are identified, rather than simply letting them sneak away without notice.

There were three science-related TV shows I enjoyed as a kid: Mr. Wizard, Beyond 2000, and NOVA, which I watched with my dad. So when NOVA’s senior executive producer, Paula Apsell, came to visit, I was thrilled to talk about a show I’ve been watching my entire life. A member of the very first class of KSJ Fellows from 1983 (then known as the Vannevar Bush Fellows), Apsell spoke about NOVA’s 45-year history, its production process, and how it has tried to adapt to changing audiences and technologies — changes that sometimes make me wonder if it is losing its way. Most episodes still capture the the joy and delight science has to offer (Bird Brain), but every once in a while comes one (Ultimate Cruise Ship) that seems more like sponsored content than science documentary.

It was appropriate that shortly before the holidays, Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, came to speak. As a licensed clinical psychologist, she focuses on people’s relationships with technology, especially computers. She is concerned about society’s willingness to displace people with robots, and our willingness to forge relationships with technology — relationships that play on human emotions, but lack the humanity of real interpersonal engagement. While commercial interests encourage giving children robots, or using robots to take care of grandma, Turkle says this is bound to have serious negative consequences. She is almost certainly correct and I fear people will do it anyway. The question is, are we on an irreversible course, or will people learn to create a healthy distance between themselves and so-called sentient technologies?

Book publishing is a recurring theme of the KSJ program, so following our extended winter break, we welcomed in three members of MIT Press. Gita Manaktala, Beth Clevenger, and Jermey Matthews spoke with us about the Press’s history, process, and its desire to find the next great science book. I was surprised to learn the Press (which has one of my favorite logos) has a peer-review process for some of its books, and was even more surprised that they asked me for a review of a biography. I happily accepted and as payment for my work, they gave me $150 in MIT Press credit. So many books to choose from!

How the Hippies Saved PhysicsWere it published by MIT Press, I would select “How the Hippies Saved Physics” by David Kaiser, an MIT history of science professor who spoke to us about his research on the LSD-altered minds that developed the experiments to demonstrate quantum entanglement was real. For most people, talk about quantum mechanics and entanglement feels like an acid trip, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the physicists who actually imbibed were able to come up with brilliant solutions to what seemed like impossible problems. Still, dropping acid probably is not the best way to get tenure.

Instead, the best way to get tenure is to be super smart and to work really hard. That seems to describe Michael Short, who holds the rare distinction of having attended MIT as an undergrad, grad student, PhD student, and tenured faculty member. Short is a materials scientist in the nuclear engineering department, and as he explained to us during our seminar, he’s interested in solving nuclear industry problems in the next five years. That’s pretty radical for an industry that always seems to be focused on time scales of 20 to 30 years. So what kinds of problems can he solve in five years? For starters, he’s working on developing new materials that can resist corrosion from radiation and extend the operating life of a nuclear power plant. That’s important, since he (and almost every other scientist I’ve met) says nuclear power is going to play a critical role in weaning humanity off of carbon-based fuels.

From quantum mechanics, we switched gears completely with Melissa Nobles, MIT’s dean of the School of Humanities, a political science professor, author, and the force behind a program to construct a database of racial murders in the American South, 1930–1954. Nobles appears to accomplish more in a day than I am able to in a year, and with seeming effortlessness. She discussed her work on the Jim Crow lynchings, which includes bringing in students from Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project to confirm reports and interview living witnesses and/or relatives. Fantastic work.

Sophia Roosth also spoke to us about digging into the past, as well as preparing for the future. The Harvard science historian talked about her travels to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. She told her story in three parts: first was the tale of the resurrection of the 1918 flu virus from frozen corpses interred in the Norwegian permafrost — a resurrection that could either threaten the world with another epidemic, or protect us by understanding what made it so deadly in the first place. (Side note: my maternal grandmother was orphaned as a baby when the 1918 flu virus killed her parents.) Second was the role coal mining played in the region — an activity that has helped spur warming temperatures and sea level rise that threaten the region. And third was the development of a seed vault (below) — in a former coal mine — to prevent the loss of crops critical to the global food supply. The line between destruction and preservation is a thin one indeed.

Image result for Svalbard Global Seed Vault

We switched gears with a seminar featuring a trio of the Undark staff, namely editor Tom Zeller, associate editor Jane Roberts, and opinion & promotions editor Anar Badalov. The feature presentation centered on Jane’s walkthrough of her fact-checking process. My only point of reference for fact-checking is what happens in a typical newspaper newsroom, and that is one editor shouting to another: “you sure about that?” And that is no comparison for what Jane does. She marks every single fact in a story and then seeks confirmation for each and every one, including checking interview recordings and transcripts, re-reading scientific papers, and calling moms to double-check that they love their sons. It is a remarkable process that must be hell to go through, but is certainly worth it.

Then we paid a visit to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which takes residence in a beautiful building on a large wooden lot near Harvard in Cambridge. If you had many millions of dollars to spend on a home, you could do worse that the AAAS. Our visit was to discuss the Society’s report on “The Public Face of Science,” which was mostly an aggregation of other studies about the public’s views on science. Suffice it to say, Americans actually have fairly positive views on science — at least on those areas that have not yet been politicized.

Our next two seminars featured a pair of science journalists. First came Ari Daniel, who produces digital videos for NOVA, such as this primer on curling:

Then we welcomed Maria Balinska, editor and co-CEO of The Conversation US, publishes analyses and commentaries from academics in a broad range of media outlets. Her presentation spurred heated debates over business models, the line between self-promotion and journalism, and the perception of academics among the general public. For example, are academics from regional universities considered part of the “elite,” or is that designation reserved for the exclusive East Coast Universities such as the ones where we are currently taking classes?

Either way, surely Naomi Oreskes, Harvard professor of history of science and a specialist in media coverage of climate change, would be considered part of the “elite,” though she may disagree. The co-author of “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” and “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future,” Oreskes has reason to have a bleak outlook on the state of affairs where science and public policy are concerned. But you wouldn’t know it from the way she punctuates conversation with laughs. Seemingly in irrepressible good spirits, Oreskes discussed how her books came about, the criticism she’s received, and how she’s handled her critics. (Hint: She doesn’t back down.) Since none of the fellows had yet read “Merchants of Doubt,” we plan to screen the documentary based on the book.

Our most recent speaker, as of this writing, was Dietmar Offenhuber, a professor of design at Northeastern. He wrote an award-winning book called “Waste Is Information: Infrastructure Legibility and Governance” that looks at the ways waste provides us with information about society. He discussed projects to track waste through GPS tagging, and let us in on the sad secret that most of the plastic we set aside for recycling ends up in the trash anyway. The good news is that is changing — just maybe not as fast as we need it to be.

And that brings us to this week, MIT’s spring break. As we enter the final stretch before the program ends, only about a dozen more remain. It’s all going by too fast.

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