White House Festival Sprinkles In Some Science And Tech

The Obama Administration will host a South by South Lawn festival at the White House on Monday, October 3.  Meant to evoke the South by Southwest festival (which the President attended this year), South by South Lawn will include the winners of the latest White House Film Festival, musical performances, art displays and other interactive exhibits.

But from the marquee discussion with Leonardo DiCaprio throughout the festival, science and technology are part of the event.  DiCaprio will speak with the President and climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe before the domestic premiere of Before the Flood, a climate change documentary produced by DiCaprio (among others), who also appears in the film.

Aside from the conversation and film premiere, there are several sessions in the afternoon that at least brush up against innovation, science and/or technology.  Along with the interactive exhibits, attendees can learn more about the Cancer Moonshot, design for everyone, addressing food (in)security and using technology and innovation to address societal problems.

The event will be streamed through Facebook and the websites of the White House and South by Southwest.

Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Seeks Input

Earlier this month the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking publishoped a Request for Comment in the Federal Register.  The request is general in focus, seeking to gather information on a variety of topics that the Commission is obligated to examine under its mandate.  Submissions are due by November 14.

That mandate, and the Commission, was a creation of Congress. The fifteen-member commission has until September of 2017 to complete its work.  It will prepare a report for the President and the Congress providing its recommendations after conducting

“[A] comprehensive study of the data inventory, data infrastructure, data-base security, and statistical protocols related to Federal policy-making and the agencies responsible for maintaining that data.”
The bill is resource focused.  While there is a provision in the bill to include recommendations on particular evidence-based policymaking techniques such as randomized control trials, the focus in the bill is on optimizing existing data resources and making them more accessible for the purposes of program evaluation.
Back to the Request for Comment.  The questions are focused primarily on data, whether its data infrastructure and security or how survey and other statistical data can be integrated into program design, analysis and evaluation.
The Commission has met twice since its formation, with the first meeting focused on overall goals and work plan, and the second meeting focused on privacy.  Regrettably the Commission website appears to suffer from some link issues.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of September 26

A brief aside about this week’s listings.  This Friday Deepwater Horizon, a film about the explosion of that oil rig that led to a major ecological disaster, premieres in the United States.  It stars Mark Wahlberg (who is on Live with Kelly on Friday) but appears to focus primarily on those who were on the rig when catastrophe struck.

Tonight’s primary guest on StarTalk is Mayim Bialik.  She plays a neuroscientist on The Big Bang Theory and earned a Ph.D. in the subject.  The show continues its past practice of including a scientist as part of the discussion segments of the program, and Bill Nye continues to provide commentary on at least one of the topics covered in the show.  A new item from last week’s episode (already available as a podcast) was the inclusion of Mona Chalabi, data editor of The Guardian.  Next Monday’s episode will have tightrope walker Philippe Petit as the primary guest.

This appears to be a week for those playing doctors on television.  Rob Lowe joins the cast of hospital show Code Black as one of the doctors.  He was on Live with Kelly today (Monday), and with Stephen Colbert tonight.  Ken Jeong, who plays Dr. Ken in the show of the same name (and did practice medicine at one point), is on both Harry and @midnight on Thursday.  Michael Sheen, who plays sex research Doctor William Masters on Masters of Sex, was on The Talk today.  Kevin McKidd, who plays a doctor on Grey’s Anatomy, will be on Live with Kelly Thursday.

In non-doctor guest news, Reid Hoffman, co-founder of the social media job site LinkedIn is on The Daily Show Wednesday.  Morgan Freeman, host of Through The Wormhole, will be on Live with Kelly and The Late Show Thursday.  He may be promoting the new season of Madam Secretary, on which he acts and serves as an executive producer, but he isn’t shy talking science and technology.

In content from last week of note, I’ll simply say that the patent Apple filed on a bag was a big hit on several late night programs, either in the monologue or as a distinct segment like this one from Conan.  Additionally, The Daily Show spent time covering Facebook on its September 22 show, though part of the segment was focused on the recently announced Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (named for the Facebook founder and his wife), which pledges $3 billion to combat disease and promote equality.

Zika Is Still An Underfunded Problem

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance for travel to the Wynwood in Miami affected by mosquito-borne Zika, a total of 43 such cases have been reported in South Florida (compared to more than 3300 travel-related cases of Zika reported across the United States since January 2015) as of this writing.  There have been no other reported mosquito-borne cases in the 50 U.S. states, but there are over 19,000 mosquito-borne cases in U.S. territories (primarily Puerto Rico).

The latest news on the mosquito-borne virus spread in Florida is mixed.  While the Wynwood neighborhood is no longer considered an area of active virus transmission (it was active from roughly June 15-September 18), Miami Beach is still active (and has been since about July 14).  To be extra cautious, CDC is encouraging those who are pregnant or are partners of pregnant women to avoid unnecessary travel to Miami-Dade County.  Those who may have been exposed to the virus should avoid sex for a minimum of 8 weeks to minimize the chances of either transmitting the disease or increasing the chances of birth defects for any pregnancy following exposure.

Meanwhile, Congress has done little more than posture over passing a funding package for combating the virus.  With the fiscal year officially closing on Friday, any continuing resolution (CR) that is passed (the most likely way the government will stay funded on October 1) would need Zika funding added in order for it to be effective.  I am not optimistic.  The Department of Health and Human Services has done what it can to move money around within existing appropriations, but a CR without Zika language would not provide much relief, as the Department can likely do little more than continuing to cannibalize research on other diseases and viruses.  Regrettably, it seems that with most affected Americans also lacking direct representation in Congress, that Zika will remain something that can be ignored and delayed due to lack of concentrated legislative effort.

Another Marvel Movie, Another STEM Contest

Marvel recently announced another contest for young girls engaged with science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM).  Continuing a trend of movie tie-in STEM contests that goes back to at least the 2013 film Iron Man 3, the latest contest is called The Magic of STEM Challenge and is tied to the November release of the film Doctor Strange.

The name highlights part of the dramatic arc of the film – a neurosurgeon engaging with magic as he seeks to recover from an accident.  I have not seen the film, but it may bear some resemblance to how the Thor films have tried to explain the fantastical actions of those characters with some basis in science.  But don’t look too close (as you shouldn’t in any superhero film) or the gloss of scientific realism will disappear.

But I’m writing about the contest.  There’s a short window for entries, because the contest is open until October 5th.  Entrants are girls in the U.S. from 15-18 years old (grades 10-12), and must submit a video blog (vlog) on a scientific or technological questions.  The vlog can be no longer than 5 minutes, and are encouraged to find a mentor to help answer the question.  Rachel McAdams, who plays Doctor Christine Palmer in the film, explains the contest in this video with the help of the contest winner from the Captain America: Civil War STEM contest:

(I’ll note here that there is a pattern to these Marvel movie tie-in contests.  A video is typically involved, most of the competitions are geared toward young women and usually promoted by an actress playing a significant role in the film.  And you have to act fast once you hear about them.)

The five finalists will travel to the world premiere of the film in Los Angeles in late October, receive a $1,000 deposit in a savings account, and a tour of Disney Studios.  The grand prize winner will produce a science vlog under the mentorship of the Walt Disney Digital team, and it will be shown on one of the many different Disney media platforms.   Good luck to all the entrants.

What SpaceX Thinks It Knows About The Test Failure

On September 2, SpaceX conducted a static fire test of a Falcon 9 rocket and payload that resulted in the catastrophic loss of both (translation – stuff blew up in a big way).  Three weeks later the company has released an update of its investigation so far.

No cause of the accident has been identified as yet, but the company has so far determined that the failure came from a breach in the cryogenic helium storage system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank.  The company also considers most of the surrounding area – launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral to be in reasonably good condition (but not unaffected by the explosion).

SpaceX has ruled out any connection with the 2015 accident where a Falcon 9 rocket exploded en route to the International Space Station.  That accident was traced to the failure of a piece of hardware – a strut – within the second stage that led to a failure of the second stage liquid oxygen tank (also linked to the helium system).  SpaceX declared following that accident that it would no longer use the kind of struts that failed.

What strikes me as optimistic is the declaration in the latest update that SpaceX could resume flight as early as November – 6-10 weeks away (though pad 40 would not be ready to support launches that quickly).  After the June 2015 accident, SpaceX didn’t resume flight until December.  Without knowing the cause of the breach in the helium system, I don’t quite understand where the optimism is coming from.  Perhaps it’s an effort to assure SpaceX customers that it will be back in business sooner rather than later.  But with November admittedly the company’s best case outcome, I think the company risks more of a hit with its customers by promising too much up front, rather than working from a more reasonable turnaround and surprising everyone by being ready sooner.

But I’m neither a rocket scientist or a rocket businessperson.  I could well be wrong.  Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, SpaceX’s next technical milestones aren’t likely to happen until 2017.  These include the first launch of a previously-used Falcon 9 rocket and the first tests of the Falcon Heavy, the launcher that will carry Elon Musk’s Martian plans to the Red planet.

Solar Power Matters To Letterman In His Retirement

I noted last year that David Letterman would be dealing with climate change in his first major post-retirement television gig.  As part of the second season of Years of Living Dangerously (now on the National Geographic channel), Letterman went to India to talk energy.  His episode will premiere on October 30, and there are now some video clips.

This first one focuses on Letterman’s interview with the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.

The second clip is about solar panels and reflects Letterman’s previous work in late night.

The program typically airs two ‘stories’ in each episode.  In addition to Letterman’s story, the October 30 premiere will include Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong investigating the adoption (or not) of solar power in the United States.  Continuing the late night trend, Aasif Mandvi, former correspondent for The Daily Show, is part of another episode in Season 2, focusing on how changes in drought patterns affect wildlife populations.