Tuesday, April 1, 2014

European Space Agency Goes Green on the Red Planet

ExoRover 'Bryan' shows off his eco-friendly chassis at the unveiling of the new ESA Mars Yard in Stevenage (ESA).
01 April 2014 - Stevenage, UK - The opening of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Mars Yard” today was celebrated as an important step by ExoMars, a joint endeavour between the agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, in their effort to send a rover to the Red Planet in 2018. The European Mars rover, also unveiled, is designed to drill beneath the surface of the Red Planet searching for signs of life. It's been dubbed 'Bryan' by its creators - earlier versions were named Bridget and Bruno.

ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, Colin Paynter, on hand at the Stevenage site of Airbus Defence and Space for the unveiling, also took the occasion to make the announcement that significant components of the European rover would make use of recycled materials. Referring to the dire warnings about climate change announced yesterday by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Mr. Paynter explained, “in light of the urgency for all of us to work diligently toward carbon-reduction goals, ESA has committed to create a rover whose chassis will be constructed largely from cardboard and plywood.” Acknowledging that this would add significantly to the engineering challenges posed by the already technologically daunting mission, Paynter assured the audience saying, “I think our people are up to the task.”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Censorship of Art Exhibit by President Undermines Kennesaw State's Advances

My friend Ruth Stanford is a professor of sculpture at Georgia State. I'm fairly familiar with her work and even helped her with an installation at the Eyedrum several years back. Because of how much I admire her work, I was shocked to learn that Ruth's contribution to the exhibit inaugurating Kennesaw State University's Zuckerman Museum of Art, opening today, was removed by order of KSU's President Daniel Papp. (See this Atlanta Creative Loafing article for details.)

Image from the installation (courtesy of the artist).
This piece, like many of Ruth's other installations, concerns itself with a setting. In this case it offers a behind the scenes look (in a very real sense of that phrase) at a property acquired as a gift by KSU in 2008 that has a history tainted by racism. Ruth's work is always thoughtful and humane, and this appears to be so here, at least as far as I can tell from the images I have seen of the installation before it was dismantled.

Although President Papp's record indicates that he is an accomplished scholar of international relations and a very capable university administrator, it does not indicate why he would be particularly qualified to curate an art exhibit, even at his "own" museum. And this may in fact be the crux of the matter, that is that Papp somehow sees the Zuckerman as his own museum, and not as a public trust that he happens to oversee. The job of curating this important exhibit had been assigned to Teresa Reeves and Kirstie Tepper, who had themselves solicited Ruth's participation in the inaugural exhibit.

Ruth, as is her nature, is taking this turn of events very graciously. I imagine her good will has a lot to do with her concerns for the curators who have worked hard to assemble the exhibit and to her fellow artists whose work is included in it. Oddly, it is this kind of respect the curators that was absent in Dr. Papp's ham-handed decision.

Sadly, when all is said and done, I think that KSU will be the ultimate victim of this affair.

Ruth's installation will no doubt find a new home, although uprooted from its intended setting it will lose some of the power of the message that she had hoped to convey. And Ruth herself will now proudly join the ranks of artists whose works are distinguished because they cause us to think more deeply about things and, as a result, pose a threat to some people.

Kennesaw State University, though, in spite of struggling quite successfully under President Papp's leadership for the last eight years to establish itself as a first-rank center for learning and research, will now still be seen by many as a cultural backwater with a Philistine at its helm. Sometimes the hallmark of true leadership is knowing one's own limitations.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ham-on-Nye: What we have here is not, at least not entirely, a failure to communicate

I really don't have anything to add to the "who won and who lost" discussion about this week's Ham-on-Nye debate. So here's an analysis, not of the debate itself, but of some of the analysis of the debate, much of which has been laying the blame for the significant public rejection of the theory of evolution here on poor science communication. "Bad Astronomer," Phil Plait's opinion piece on the Slate website is a good example of this kind of criticism.

I would be one of the last people to claim that science communication does not need improvement. Improving science communication is important to me and to the organization I run, the Atlanta Science Tavern. But there's a lot more at issue here than whether the way we go about communicating the science evolution has been good or bad.

From what I've read, public science communication in the U.S. is not all that different than informal science education in much of Europe where evolution is widely accepted. The reality of anthropogenic climate change isn't such a hard-sell in Europe, either. But, interestingly enough, rejection of vaccination as a safe and effective public health measure is commonplace both here and abroad. Vaccination, in particular childhood vaccination, is considered by a large fraction of both populations to be dangerous, in spite of concerted efforts to educate the public to the contrary. The reason this is happening is because the question of vaccination safety and effectiveness has ceased to be a scientific issue in the last dozen years or so and instead has become a political one. This is an important distinction.

Revival meeting during the Second Great Awakening
So, we need to appreciate the political dimension of our "evolution problem" in order to address it properly. Rejection of evolution here, much like the denial of climate change, is rooted in our political and cultural history, a history marked by "Great Awakenings" of religious fervor and a stubborn insistence that America is in some respects exceptional and that the rules that apply elsewhere in the world, however rational, do not necessarily apply here.

The implication is that the kind of difficulty that we experience, for example in trying to maintain the integrity of the science curriculum in public schools with the teaching of evolution, has a lot in common with the challenges we face in enacting rational gun control laws or sensible policies that ensure access to necessary health care for all our citizens. Of course, better communication, whether on the theory of evolution or the costs of gun-related crimes and accidents or the benefits of a healthy populace, is an important part of solving these problems. But it is not the entire solution, maybe not even most of it.

So, by all means, let's redouble our efforts to improve science communications. But it is important to keep in mind that the struggle here is primarily political and that it has more to do with values beliefs and less to do with knowledge and understanding.