Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of April 20

Tonight’s the night for StarTalk on television.  It premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel in the United States.  Neil deGrasse Tyson’s first guest is George Takei.  If you visit the show’s website you can read and watch plenty of additional content.  The program repeats on Friday, but may be available through video on demand services.  Tyson will appear on The Daily Show on Thursday, since doing so tonight/Monday would mean he was on against himself.  This will come one week after Tyson appeared on The Nightly Show for an episode on conspiracy theories and uninformed skepticism.  There is some web-only content from his appearance, where Tyson and The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore have a ‘blerd-off’ (explained in the video).

On to the rest of the programs.  With David Letterman’s last Late Show coming next month, we have another last visit this week.  The Piedmont Bird Callers (who were first seen in late night on Johnny Carson’s edition of The Tonight Show) visit on Tuesday.  That same night, one of the leads of HBO’s Silicon Valley, Kumail Nanjiani, will be on with Seth Meyers.  On Wednesday, Oscar Isaac, who stars in Ex Machina, will be on The Late Late Show.  This marks the first science and/or technology guest for James Corden.

While I’ve mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Nightly Show appearance from last week, the show also aired an episode on April 14th that covered the death penalty (though the methods were not a primary focus of the discussions).  The Daily Show aired a segment in its April 15th show on religion that included a theological discussion concerning robots.  And, perhaps saving the best for last, Last Week Tonight aired a piece on its April 19th episode about patent trolls.

Maybe I will have to break down and get an HBO subscription or app.

Next PCAST Meeting Will Get Into Business, Energy and Medicine

The next meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will take place in Washington, D.C. on May 15th.  As is usually the case, the public session will take place at the National Academies main building from 9 a.m.-noon on a Friday (no respect for possible West Coast webcast viewers.).

The draft agenda is not yet available.  However, this Federal Register notice suggests the main themes for the meeting.

“PCAST is scheduled to hear from speakers about the Quadrennial Energy Review and about the Precision Medicine Initiative. The Council will discuss and hear remarks about reimagining business roles to address significant societal challenges.”

I’ve posted about the Precision Medicine Initiative and the Quadrennial Energy Review in the past.  Both are new programs, though PCAST has called for a Quadrennial Energy Review since at least 2010.  I can only guess, and guess badly, at what PCAST has in mind about reimagining business roles, and how that might be connected to the group’s science and technology portfolio.

More information, particularly the panelists for each topic, should be available via the PCAST website as May 15th approaches.

Oklahoma Acts To Innovate – In Executions

On Friday the Governor of Oklahoma signed into law a bill that would establish nitrogen-induced hypoxia as a means of executing prisoners, should circumstances prevent lethal injection from being used. The bill does not get into specifics, it simply modifies the existing law on the order of preference for methods of execution (Oklahoma now has four).  The law would take effect November 1, 2015.  Oklahoma does not currently have any executions scheduled, and the executions of three men are currently stayed pending a Supreme Court case.

While gas chambers have been used for executions in the United States (inmates in three states still have the option of death by gas), the active gas used to suffocate the condemned was never nitrogen.  The general principle is the same, a gas is pumped into a sealed chamber, and the condemned dies after breathing it.  Hydrogen cyanide was the most common gas used in the United States for executions, and it is considered a chemical warfare agent.  Using nitrogen for execution could be very different as it is not toxic, and could cause much less pain and suffering for the condemned.  It would likely be easier to use than hydrogen cyanide.

But it is an untested method.  Oklahoma has no experience with a gas chamber, and with its challenges in administering lethal injections, I can understand why some would doubt the state’s ability to effectively innovate in executions.  However, should the Supreme Court rule against the state’s lethal injection protocols later this year, Oklahoma may well set an example for other states seeking ways around the roadblocks to lethal injection.

Sidebar – While the Supreme Court case on Oklahoma’s methods may make this moot, the federal death penalty may force a more definitive legal stance on lethal injection.  The federal government’s preferred method of execution defers to the state in which the crime took place.  Should there be no death penalty in that state, the judge must choose a state with a death penalty to carry out the execution.  While this typically means lethal injection, it is plausible that the recent turmoil in the states may affect how the federal government conducts its executions.  However, no federal execution has been carried out since 2003, and none are scheduled at the time of this writing.

Weekend Science Video Goodness: New Year For the Science Rap Academy

Tom McFadden has debuted the first video of this year’s Science Rap Academy.  Seventh and eighth grade students at the Nueva School prepare a music video based on a science concept, usually reworking a rap or hip-hop song.  The first video focuses on colony collapse disorder, and is called “Please Don’t Kill My Hive

The next video will be available on Monday.

Also coming on Monday is the premiere of the television version of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk program.  He has been making the publicity tour, appearing on The Nightly Show to talk conspiracy theories and on the latest edition of Science Goes to the Movies.  Tyson discusses how scientists are represented in some films, and the episode covers the movies Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Lazarus Effect, and Them!

One Year Out From The Next USA Science And Engineering Festival

The Fourth USA Science and Engineering Festival starts a year from today.  While booking of acts continues, ‘Science Bob’ Pflugfelder is already scheduled to appear.  If you can’t wait a full year, there are at least a couple of ways to engage with the Festival before then.

There is the Traveling Festival.  It will make its next appearance later this month at the FIRST Robotics Championships in St. Louis.  Michigan Tech’s Mind Trekkers are operating the festival, which will tour around the country leading up to next year’s Festival.

Later this month is the X-STEM Symposium.  The second annual symposium will take place April 28 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. (the same location as the Festival).  Targeted at middle school and high school students, the symposium is a combination of presentations, hands-on demonstrations and demonstrations from experts in a number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.  If you want to go and haven’t registered, April 17th is the last day.

So It’s Now A National Maker Faire

I missed the buried lede in last week’s announcement by the White House of the “Week of Making.”  I assumed there was going to be a second White House Maker Faire during that week, when it states there will be a *National* Maker Faire.  At the moment the Faire’s most active web presence is on social media.  Its website currently is just an information subscription request.

The Faire will be held at the University of the District of Columbia.  The University is partnering with the District Government, the organizers of the DC Mini Maker Faire and Maker Media to put on the event.  Several government agencies are committed to attend the Faire, which will take place June 12-13 (the beginning of the Week of Making).

More information is forthcoming.  But with the Week of Making less than 2 months away, I wish the information would come sooner.

Journalists Still Frustrated At Access To U.S. Scientists

While it’s possible there is no level of access to government scientists that would satisfy journalists, the current levels of access – even in the U.S. – remain a matter of complaint.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), soon after releasing its latest report on agency media policies, has issued an early summary of how journalists currently feel about access to government scientists (H/T Government Executive).

Through its Center for Science and Democracy, the UCS worked with the Society for Professional Journalists in developing and conducting the survey.  It’s a follow-up to a 2011 survey conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica.  In the 2011 survey it was found that the Obama Administration had made marginal progress in making agency scientists accessible to journalists.  The 2015 survey suggests not much has changed.  Per the UCS:

  • Public information offices routinely require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees.
  • Sometimes, when reporters ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the public information office.
  • It’s not unusual for reporters to have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert.
  • Despite reporters’ positive working relationships with public information officers, a majority feel that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of the barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.

Worth noting is that in many respects, science reporters compared favorably to other reporters, according to the Society for Professional Journalists.  From its conclusions:

“The analysis of the science writers’ survey compared with the earlier surveys of political and education reporters indicates the science agencies may be more open and less controlling than other types of government agencies – there may be more protection for scientists to speak openly as opposed to other people. Also, it appears a good number of science writers are better able to develop relationships with their subject matter expert sources than other types of reporters, thus mitigating the public information offices’ efforts at media control.”
So, while there may not be great access to government scientists and the relationships between science journalists and public information officers can be complicated, other fields may not have it so good.