More scientists in the Senate…

I hope. Here’s one running for US Senator in Wyoming, Merav Ben-David. Anytime I see scientists entering the political arena I want to cheer them on. Our profession needs to become far more active in setting an agenda for the future. And that can’t be done entirely outside of politics. She’s running as a Dem. Now let’s see a scientist step up from the other side of the aisle. Oh wait, here’s one with an impeccable NSF record. Kelvin?

Artemis and a legal framework for human activities in Space

I’ve been following the Artemis Accords closely. They represent a follow-on to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the immediate context is the US goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024. I’m less interested in the return trip to the Moon than I am in future legal frameworks for Space.

With regards to such legal frameworks:

To my mind there is the question of extraction of valuable resources from the Solar System and the property rights that might accompany those. Then there is the question of how, in the future, the notion of Westphalian nation states might extend off the planet. An additional question is about the militarization of space by current nations although it looks to me that the horse has already left the barn on that one.

N.B. As a matter of record, I’m inclined to oppose the notion of a separate US Space Force because I think such a DOD organization will push us further down the road of deploying offensive weapons on orbit–a bad thing, in my opinion.

Scientific questions that I’ve been thinking about…

  • What shapes toxin evolution towards signal transduction nodes and edges
  • Next generation gas flux measurements beyond eddy covariance
  • Angiotensin Converting Enzyme II
  • Why plants lost protein kinase C and changed other aspects of phospholipid signaling
  • How software designed radio could empower environmental sensor networks
  • Planetary hysteresis mechanisms on Earth and Mars
  • The origins of cellular electrical excitability
  • How the ribosome came to be

The Chemistry Prize

Fantastic news this morning as the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for CRISPR gene editing. Story here. I’m proud that NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate played an important role in supporting Dr. Doudna’s research through the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Kudos to the winners and their funders.

Cell assemblies are memory traces…

This morning I had a fascinating video conversation with a former postdoc, now associate professor. We were talking about a neuroscience concept called the cell assembly–an idea that had its genesis in the lab of my Dad’s postdoc advisor, Donald Hebb at McGill University in the early 1950’s. Basically the idea goes something like this:

Memories, perceptions, concepts are all stored in the human brain via spatially-separated collectives of neurons that are bound together by their activity (firing action potentials). The pithy version of this goes: neurons that fire together, wire together.

In any case this allows individual neurons to participate in many such cell assemblies and the available cell assemblies based on the combinatorial mathematics of c. 86 billion neurons is very large. Further, these cells assemblies (think each containing perhaps 300 members) are very robust. With a symphony orchestra, you probably won’t notice any single instrument dropping out during Beethoven’s 9th symphony finale. Same with cell assemblies.

I am still very much struck by this construct of cell assemblies. As neuroscience has progressed, this is an idea that is very much evergreen.

Sensor networks re-imagined

The NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) was commissioned last year for a likely 3-decade campaign to collect biosphere data across the United States. While some of that data is collected by humans, a lot of the data is automatically sensed and then logged to cyber-infrastructure for later analysis. Another NSF-funded project called SAGE, led by Pete Beckman of Northwestern University (full disclosure, I’m on that team), is working to add AI at the Edge capability to those sensors so that they can be triggered in real time by events such as fire or flood to reconfigure their software for different capabilities.

Meanwhile, there are other things to sense beyond NEON’s current domains: earthquakes, wildfires, and public health emergencies. And there are natural experiments to that lend themselves to adding consequential knowledge to our nation: population gradients from pristine land to urban centers, geo-chemical gradients and different state policy solutions come to mind.

And NEON’s airborne sensor program, currently implemented in human-piloted aircraft, seems to me to be begging to migrate to drones and data-fused with on-orbit sensors like NASA’s OCO2 satellite.

In short, there is much work to be done. And this needs to be built on-top of the infrastructure that already exists–a spiral design scenario. This preserves the considerable set of investments that have already been made, but generates new and better capabilities.

Science and partisanship

I was reading the morning feed from an alumni list server for individuals that attended one of the scifoo camps sponsored by Google, Nature and O’Reilly publishing. There was a pretty intense discussion of how politically partisan the posts had become in the context of Scientific American’s recent unprecedented endorsement of Biden. The entire discussion worries me. When scientists publicly take sides, they invite a backlash. Which has already happened I think. Science then becomes politicized in much the same way mask-wearing has and it doesn’t serve the public well.

I am well aware that scientific results have political implications. And that’s fine. But, when one side becomes anti-science (as in against the scientific method/process) then if they hold power, further accumulation of scientific knowledge becomes at risk (e.g. Galileo). And this puts the nation at further risk: anti-science nations don’t compete well in the geopolitics of the 21st century.

Science is not a special interest. But it risks being perceived as one.

Does Venus host Life?

This is a topic close to my heart since the above slide was part of my Rules of Life slide deck while I was running NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate. Well, turns out Venus may harbor life. Lay version of the story here. So I may need to revise my thinking.