Safe Travels To Cora Marrett

Usually when I write about a science policy administrator or politician of note, they have passed.  Thankfully this is not the case with Cora Marrett, who most recently served as the Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

She has been with NSF off and on since 1992, joining the Foundation to work as the first assistant director (the top job) in the (then newly created) education and human resources directorate.  Marrett’s background is in sociology, and when not working at the NSF, she has held academic positions at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.  In her most recent tenure with the Foundation, she has worked on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, and served as Acting Director of NSF during the searches for the last two NSF Directors.  If there was such a thing as being an institution at the National Science Foundation, Marrett would qualify for that status.

While I would have liked to see Dr. Marrett become Director, that was not something she was likely interested in, with her family back in Wisconsin.  My thanks to her for her service to the country through her work at the Foundation.  My best wishes to her in the future.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of July 21

Most shows are back this week, but there is still plenty of catching up to do.

Before their recent break, there were some segments of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report that had science and technology content.  On June 24 The Daily Show expressed its frustration at the apparent mess of government record keeping.  While the specific case involves the Internal Revenue Service, I think the complaints can be applied government-wide.  On June 26, The Colbert Report covered the over-fortification of kids’ cereals in one of its semi-regular segments, Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger.

Then there were the scheduled guests that surprised me with talking about science or technology.  The same night The Daily Show complained about government record-keeping, actress Jennifer Esposito discussed her struggles with celiac disease.  On the July 14th edition of The Late Late Show, actor Zachary Levi talked a little bit with Craig Ferguson about how Levi is a science geek.

This week, the repeat of note is on Friday, when Late Night with Seth Meyers repeats last week’s episode that included motion capture innovator Andy Serkis.  In new programs, we start and stop with The Colbert Report.  On Wednesday the director of Underwater Dreams and one of the featured subjects visits.  The film is rolling out to theaters this month, and focuses on a team of students (who are the children of undocumented immigrants) developing underwater robots.  On Thursday, Elon Musk sits down with Stephen.  Whether it’s about spacecraft (SpaceX) or electric cars (Tesla) I don’t know.  Both are mentioned on The Colbert Report website.

Still Thinking About The Moon, Hoping Congress Won’t Get In The Way

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon.  If you need to filter it through social media, NASA has what you need.  Then there’s @reliveapollo11, this year’s version of @apolloplus40.  The latest Tweet:

While most of us are looking back (or listening to those who were around back then) NASA is trying to look forward.  The next big human mission is around a few corners.  The path to Mars, at least for now, will be traveled by robots.  The U.S. will finally have independent access to the International Space Station by 2017, and send humans past Earth orbit roughly five decades after the last Apollo mission returned from the moon.

There is plenty to look forward to, but I sometimes wonder about our patience to wait for it.  Congress has pushed back on the asteroid mission for years, and it’s hard to recall the last time that Congress and a President were on the same page about how to proceed with humans in space.  Maybe if companies like SpaceX continue to expand and take over the more mundane aspects of space, politicians can stop getting in our own way and make it easier to get back to the final frontier.

2001: A Space Odyssey – That Act Most Of Us Forget About

I just returned from an outdoor screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with live orchestral accompaniment).  While it wildly overpredicted the future, (by now we would have sent at least two human missions to Jupiter), I was struck this time by the second act of the film.  You might not remember it, as it doesn’t involve the HAL 9000 computer or the proto-humanoids encountering the monolith.

In this future, both the Soviet Union (the film was released in 1968) and the United States have moon bases, and while their country’s space scientists are quite collegial, there’s a current of distrust augmented by a lack of communication.  (There’s also a very healthy commercial sector, including hotels.)  The United States has concocted a cover story (an epidemic outbreak on its moon base) to hide the discovery of a monolith in a moon crater, and the secrecy surrounding the discovery extends deep and long. It’s what bridges this part of the film with the mission to Jupiter that most of us remember.

That mission was intended to investigate the receiving end of a transmission sent by the monolith on the moon.  According to a recorded briefing played once the Discovery arrived near Jupiter, the purpose of the mission was held from all the human members of the crew.  To further compartmentalize the discovery, the three crewmembers of Discovery One seen their hibernation chambers were brought on board that way and trained separately from Dave Bowman and Frank Poole.  (Presumably the crew in hibernation either knew the purpose of the mission, or the purpose could have been inferred by the five crew members sharing information during the 18 months it took to arrive at Jupiter.)

HAL seems to have trouble withholding information from the crew.  While this is only confirmed in the book (written concurrently with the film’s production), HAL’s motivation for eliminating the crew was to reconcile his programming instructions to report everything with total accuracy with his orders to conceal the purpose of the mission.

Certain there are challenges of logic, as there often are where science fiction deals with computers (certain Star Trek episodes count on them).  But inferring a point about the consequences of government secrecy doesn’t have to be one of them.

Into The Storm Shouldn’t Prompt Too Much Climate Whinging

(12:18 a.m. July 19 – Edited to note the correct late night show Matt Walsh was on to promote the movie)

One of the guests on The Late Late Show Conan this week was comedian Matt Walsh, currently in the cast of Veep.  He’s also in the movie Into the Storm, coming out in the U.S. August 8th.  This week was also the first time I saw any advertising for the film, which as the title suggests, focuses on a series of major tornadoes and the consequences they wreak on a populated area.

The absence of mashed-up species and the fact that the film is not on the SyFy Channel in the U.S. made me a little concerned about how the film would be received.  After all, a reasonable person can be expected to know that Sharknado is far from a ripped-from-the-headlines yarn.  Ordinary tornadoes strong enough to pick up airliners from the runway?  There might be some concern over whether or not that could happen, and (sadly) whether or not climate change can be blamed for it.

Thankfully, the film appears to be much closer to Twister, the 1996 tornado movie, than the 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. The movie is of the ‘found-footage’ variety, and doesn’t stray from the local area affected by the storms.  And while the film exaggerates what tornadoes can do, it doesn’t appear to be as outlandish as more recent extreme weather films (there certainly don’t appear to be any zoological oddities involved).  At least that’s what I’m inferring from what a meteorologist wrote about the film’s trailer over at Slate.

If, and that might be a big if, there is to be a science or policy impact of this film, it might be to re-stoke the fires of interest around storm chasing and/or extreme weather forecasting.  But this is a movie released in August with little promotion and about as much star power.  The CGI in Into the Storm is certainly going to be better than what was available for the blockbuster Twister, but the same can’t be said about the name recognition of its cast.  Couple that with the habit of official Washington leaving town in August, and this film probably won’t register on a cinematic Beaufort scale.

Latest Golden Goose Awardee Recognized For Auction Savvy

The 2014 Golden Goose Awards Ceremony will be held On September 18th in Washington, D.C.  Science journalist Miles O’Brien will host.

The Golden Goose Awards group recently announced the second award for 2014.  It recognizes the work of Preston McAfee, Paul Milgrom, and Robert Wilson in auction theory.  While marketplaces like eBay have made online auctions a common occurrence, the work of McAfee, Milgrom and Wilson was connected to a much more complicated kind of auction.

Their work was integral to the success of the first spectrum auctions organized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Starting in 1993 the FCC had the authority to auction rights to part of the electromagnetic spectrum (in the U.S.) in which sound, video and data are transmitted.  If done properly, the auctions had the potential to raise revenue for the government and prompt the expansion of commercial activity that needed spectrum to operate.  Unlike most auctions we are familiar with, the spectrum auction had to be a simultaneous auction of multiple items.

Milgrom, working with Wilson, and McAfee, independently proposed similar models for the auction, and the FCC asked the three to work together on the first spectrum auction.  Thanks to existing academic work (done by Milgrom, Wilson, McAfee and many others over the preceding years), the three were able to develop a model that was used effectively in the 1994 auction.  It was the first of 87 such auctions by the FCC, which have raised over $60 billion in government revenue.  The economic activity enabled by these auctions is much larger.

As connections go between initial research and application, this is arguably the most straightforward link in a Golden Goose award to date.  After all, relying on auction research to develop a complex auction mechanism for a government purpose doesn’t require the kind of imaginative thinking other Golden Goose Awards have shown.  But the application of the auction – to enable commercial activity in telecommunications – certainly might have.

The complexity of determining the value of research highlighted in this case serves as a reminder (at least to me) that linear models in this area are still incomplete descriptions of how science and technology activity contribute to the public good.

Lost In The New Weird Al Release – Science Music Goodness

Some tidbits of science music news to whet the appetite.

Tom McFadden has these Tweets to tempt us with a new project.  It’s all I can find on it, at least for now.

Baba Brinkman has been working on The Rap Guide To Religion, seeking to explore the topic through various scientific avenues.  It’s in previews in New York right now, and will be properly premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Brinkman arguably made his reputation as a performer – before Mark Pallen approached him to write about evolution – at the Festival.  I expect this project to piss some people off more than his Rap Guide to Evolution did.

Finally, there’s a new track from A Capella Science.  In the style of Eminem, “Eminemium (Choose Yourself)” Timblais tweaks his formula ever so slightly.  His first rap track also tackles an ethical challenge facing scientists.  It’s still as well-produced (both musically and visually) as “Bohemian Gravity,” “Rolling Through the Higgs” and “Massless.”  But this time the fun is intercut with some serious food for thought.