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.

The role of the ribosome in origin of life theories…

The problem is as follows: the ribosome is a specialized macromolecular complex with the specific function of translating messenger RNA into proteins. So how would it have evolved prior to proteins in an RNA world (or even a metabolite world)?

Selection pressure is lacking. There are no proteins that need to be made.

So the thought is, it must have been doing something else. What might that else be? And can we glean that from its current form?

My introduction to this fascinating question came from my reading of Eric Smith and Harold Morowitz’s 2013 book, The Origin of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere. My copy of which, is currently at my university office–probably the one book I am really missing here at home.

What I miss most about pre-COVID work…

  • Face-to-face impromptu chats with colleagues
  • Students knocking on my office door
  • My microscope
  • Taking the bus or metro
  • ADHH on Tuesdays
  • Walking across the Fairfax campus in the Fall or Spring
  • Journal club in person
  • Upgrading to business on my points
  • All things Alaska, especially Toolik Field Station
  • Friday Evening Lectures in Lillie Auditorium

Cold Fusion Redux…

NASA Glenn Center’s work on Lattice Confinement Fusion, story here. Original peer reviewed paper in Physical Reviews C, here and here. Context of course is the old “cold fusion” story, here.

The application in question is powering a spacecraft without solar or the radioisotope thermoelectric generator used on the Curiosity Mars Rover and some of the existing deep space probes.

U.S. Food Systems at Risk…

Photo by David Bartus on

Tom Philpot’s excellent analysis in The Guardian here. Both the Central Valley of California and soil-rich Iowa. There are many pieces to solving these issues–they include diversification, cover-crops, re-thinking the role of soil microbiomes and water use–but the driver for the challenges is pretty clear: the climate is changing.

NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program…

The latest call emphasizes computer science areas such as AI. There is what I liken to an immune antibody response from the community to something new–this is the norm for when NSF changes gears (which it normally always does). The science press writes an article with juicy quotes. Perhaps there are Zoom meetings to prepare talking points for the agency leadership. And life goes on.

To my mind, the program (GRFP) is doing just fine. Smart and diverse graduate students from all STEM fields will continue to get funding for their doctoral research–from economics to theoretical physics. And perhaps one of them will make the a crucial discovery in quantum computing that changes everything–NSF funded discoveries have been at the center of practical advances for society since I can remember. From basic curiosity-driven science great things often happen.