MY BOOK CHAPTER! The architecture of Fermilab

I’m a science writer by profession (obviously), but occasionally I get the chance to write about something fun that’s only tangentially related to science. A while back, Belt Publishers — which publishes books and a magazine about the part of the American Midwest known as the Rust Belt — solicited pitches for chapters on a book about Midwestern architecture, and I sent them (shhh) a portion of my book I couldn’t get published. Belt liked what I sent them, and the result is I have a chapter in the forthcoming anthology Midwestern Architectural Journeys (edited by Zach Mortice), available October 15, 2019!

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When Brilliant Physicists Toiled Under a Beer-Can Roof

The inspired and eccentric design of a hub of Cold War physics research, the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois

One thing I didn’t have space to write about: one of the physicists who led an experiment at Fermilab was neighbor to New Yorker cartoonist George Booth. Their friendship led to Booth designing a mascot for the experiment, which ultimately wasn’t used, but still graces the outside of one of the buildings. [Credit: moi]

Chapter excerpt published by CityLab:

I didn’t come to the prosaically named Silicon Detector building for its roof. I was there to look at some cutting-edge telescope technology, soon to be implemented at one of the world’s leading observatories. But here I was looking up at the interior of a funky squashed geodesic dome, constructed of triangles in muted reds, blues, and golds, like an electron micrograph of a virus built of stained glass by Buckminster Fuller.

The Silicon Detector (or SiDet) building itself is a squat concrete structure with sloping sides and a trapezoidal profile, a distinctly 1970s structure. The geometric dome originally was intended to be a patriotic red, white, and blue, but time has faded it into autumnal colors. The panels are made out of recycled beer and soda cans with their ends cut off, arranged between two sheets of colored plastic reinforced with glass. Light shines through the cans, but not so brightly as to create a glare.

The SiDet building is all the more striking for what and where it is: It’s a physics lab devoted to the fabrication of next-generation detectors for experiments and telescopes. More specifically, SiDet was originally part of a facility meant to study neutrinos: very fast-moving, low-mass particles that are notoriously hard to detect. Similarly, the facility itself is hidden from the general public’s view behind a security perimeter on the grounds of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, more commonly known as Fermilab.

[Read the rest at Citylab, and order the book from Belt]

Protecting privacy with mathematics

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

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Using Differential Privacy to Protect the United States Census

Census data must simultaneously be publicly available and protect the privacy of the people it describes. Differential privacy is a method that injects noise into the data to hide the presence of individual responses, while preserving the general statistical structure of the data. [Credit: moi, which is why I’m not a professional graphic artist]

For SIAM News:

In 2006, Netflix hosted a competition to improve its algorithm for providing movie recommendations to customers based on their past choices. The DVD rental and video streaming service shared anonymized rental records from real subscribers, assuming that their efforts to remove identifying information sufficiently protected user identities. This assumption was wrong; external researchers quickly proved that they could pinpoint personal details by correlating other public data with the Netflix database, potentially exposing private information.

This fatal flaw in the Netflix Prize challenge highlights multiple issues concerning privacy in the information age, including the simultaneous need to perform statistical analyses while protecting the identities of people in the dataset. Merely hiding personal data is not enough, so many statisticians are turning to differential privacy. This method allows researchers to extract useful aggregate information from data while preserving the privacy of individuals within the sample.

“Even though researchers are just trying to learn facts about the world, their analyses might incidentally reveal sensitive information about particular people in their datasets,” Aaron Roth, a statistician at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “Differential privacy is a mathematical constraint you impose on an algorithm for performing
data analysis that provides a formal guarantee of privacy.”

[read the rest at SIAM News…]

“Peanuts”, vaccination, and the limits of persuasion

In my new comic with Maki Naro, we go meta: using a comic to talk about a comic! Specifically, we comics’ed about one of the most beloved comic strips of all time, Charles M. Schulz’ “Peanuts”. While the strip mostly steered clear of the issues of the day, occasionally Schulz did include topical material. One of those stories is still relevant today: vaccinations.

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When “Peanuts” Went All-In on Vaccinations

Charles Schulz used his culturally monolithic comic strip to advocate for public health. But his approach had some serious shortcomings.

panel from "When 'Peanuts' Went All-In on Vaccinations" comic by Maki Naro and me

This panel includes a true fact as well as a bad pun. What else are comics for? [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

I’m a lifelong fan of “Peanuts”, and occasionally binge-read old stories. A little while back, I noticed Schulz ran multiple pro-vaccination cartoons — nothing overt like saying “vaccinate your kids!”, but definitely normalizing the practice and not-so-subtly nudging his readers to vaccinate. My latest comic with Maki Naro takes a look at where “Peanuts” fits into the wider landscape of vaccine advocacy, including how methods of persuasion can fail badly. Suffice to say that, much as I love “Peanuts”, the strip is incredibly lacking on issues of race.

P.S. Do you like this comic? If so, please pledge to Maki’s and my forthcoming comics collection Who Owns an Asteroid? (from Unbound), which will include many such nonfiction science comics in full color!

Gravitational waves and climate change

Since early 2018, I’ve contributed multiple articles to Mercury, the membership magazine for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP). These articles are only available in full to members of ASP, but recently Mercury has put extensive previews for certain articles up on the website as enticement to join. One of those articles is my piece about the GRACE Follow-On mission, which is simultaneously a project that measures the effects of climate change and is a testbed for the upcoming LISA gravitational-wave observatory.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

The Gravity of Climate Change

For Mercury:

Orbiting spacecraft are an essential tool for mapping worlds in the Solar System, providing information about everything from landforms to magnetic fields. Repeated monitoring helps scientists measure variations in a planet as the seasons change. That’s particularly true for the planet we know best, and one that is experiencing the biggest variations of all the worlds in the Solar System: Earth.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission consists of twin space probes designed to measure Earth’s gravity to high resolution. That measurement is important for geology—seismic activity and other substantial shifts in Earth’s crust—but also for tracking shifts in water and ice around the world. Those variations help researchers measure the melting of polar ice, along with more subtle phenomena like the depletion of aquifers in western North America and India, for example.

In addition to its essential work measuring ice melting and climate change, GRACE-FO will test a vital component of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), the planned space-based gravitational wave observatory that will continue the work of LIGO and its Earth-based observatories.

[Read the rest of the preview in Mercury]

Gaining time for brain cancer patients with mathematics

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Mathematical Modeling Gains Days for Brain Cancer Patients

For SIAM News:

Glioblastoma, or glioblastoma multiforme, is a particularly aggressive and almost invariably fatal type of brain cancer. It is infamous for causing the deaths of U.S. Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy, as well as former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau. Though glioblastoma is the second-most common type of brain tumor—affecting roughly three out of every 100,000 people—medicine has struggled to find effective remedies; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only four drugs and one device to counter the condition in 30 years of research. The median survival rate is less than two years, and only about five percent of all patients survive five years beyond the initial diagnosis.

Given these terrible odds, medical researchers strive for anything that can extend the effectiveness of treatment. The nature of glioblastoma itself is responsible for many obstacles; brain tumors are difficult to monitor noninvasively, making it challenging for physicians to determine the adequacy of a particular course of therapy.

Figure 1. Magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain. Public domain image.
Kristin Rae Swanson and her colleagues at the Mayo Clinic believe that mathematical models can help improve patient outcomes. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data for calibration, they constructed the proliferation-invasion (PI) model — a simple deterministic equation to estimate how cancer cells divide and spread throughout the brain. Rather than pinpoint every cell’s location, the model aims to categorize the general behavior of each patient’s cancer to guide individualized treatment.

[Read the rest at SIAM News]

When physicists go bad

My latest comic with Maki Naro addresses the instances where certain physicists abandon scientific ethics to promote dubious causes: eugenics, climate change denial, and so forth. Since this issue is a bit fraught, I’ve included notes and references at the end of this post. Journalism, y’know?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

When Good Scientists Go Bad

Science doesn’t make you magically objective, and it’s not separate from the rest of human experience.

Albert Einstein wearing a "Black Lives Matter" shirt next to William Shockley carrying a tiki torch

Albert Einstein obviously died many years before the Black Lives Matters movement, but he was a strong anti-lynching advocate. William Shockley similarly never waved a tiki torch at a neofascist rally, but he did hang out with Ku Klux Klan financiers. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

There’s a common myth that scientists are objective participants in the world, applying the same rigorous standards to life outside the lab as they do within it. However, everyone’s biases affect our interactions with the world (and the practice of science itself is less objective than many people would like to believe). In some instances, when scientists leave the world of research, they still pretend that’s not the case, using scientific credentials to make statements beyond their expertise. In this new comic with Maki Naro, we looked at a few cases where right-leaning physicists endorsed outright pseudoscience: eugenics, questionable weaponry, and — most prominently today — climate change “skepticism”.

References for the comic:

  1. Elizabeth Catte. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, 2018). This book is where I first found out about William Shockley’s attempt to implement IQ-based eugenics in Appalachia, and the original inspiration for this comic. It’s also a well-sourced and -researched antidote to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
  2. For more on the meeting between Shockley, Harry Caudill, and KKK financier J. W. Kirkpatrick, see this excellent report from the Lexington Herald Leader. Kirkpatrick was (among other things) involved in an attempted white supremacist coup to overthrow the government of the Dominican Republic.
  3. Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010). Oreskes and Conway provide a detailed exposé of scientists (not just physicists) involved in anti-environmentalist and pro-corporate activities from the mid-20th century up to today. The “Rogues Gallery” in the comic is derived from this book. (There’s also a documentary, but I haven’t watched it.)
  4. The quote from William Happer comparing carbon dioxide to Holocaust victims was widely reported; see this MediaMatters summary and his profile on DeSmog Blog. DeSmog Blog is also the source of the information about Willie Soon.
  5. I wrote about Einstein’s antiracist and anti-lynching work for Smithsonian, which contains its own sources and notes. (I also wrote in Forbes about Einstein’s own racism about Asian people.)

Why falsifiability is a false guide to what is and isn’t science

I had a liberal arts education, which means that I mostly use what I learned to post nonsense on Twitter. However, thanks to my advisor, I got a solid grounding in the philosophy of science. While I’m certainly no philosopher myself, I also (hopefully) have a less simplistic view of how science works and doesn’t work than what is often presented as the “scientific method” and suchlike. For Symmetry, I got a chance to talk a little about how “falsifiability” is widely promoted as a way to tell what is scientific and what is not, and why it’s actually a poor criterion, both from a philosophical and scientific point of view.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Falsifiability and physics

Can a theory that isn’t completely testable still be useful to physics?

For Symmetry Magazine:

What determines if an idea is legitimately scientific or not? This question has been debated by philosophers and historians of science, working scientists, and lawyers in courts of law. That’s because it’s not merely an abstract notion: What makes something scientific or not determines if it should be taught in classrooms or supported by government grant money.

The answer is relatively straightforward in many cases: Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, the Earth is not flat. Literally all evidence is in favor of a round and rotating Earth, so statements based on a flat-Earth hypothesis are not scientific.

In other cases, though, people actively debate where and how the demarcation line should be drawn. One such criterion was proposed by philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994), who argued that scientific ideas must be subject to “falsification.”

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]