Archive | December 2015

Failure should be an option

What, precisely, should be the criteria that successful NSF grant applications meet?  There are a constellation of possibilities: whether the research will investigate problems of broad interest in science, or whether the results will open a new field of research, or whether the results will overturn long-held beliefs, etc.  And of course NSF has added things like educating more STEM majors at different levels.

One wonders, though, if failure is not an option at NSF.

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Star Wars: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Let’s talk fluff….

Awhile back there was an op/ed in CNN arguing that Star Wars ruined science fiction by hemming in the expectations of what “science fiction” really is; basically the argument went that Star Wars made sci-fi solely into westerns in space.  A lot of that discussion had to do with the kinds of story arcs that could be within science fiction and less to do with what defines science fiction.

Well, watching trailers for the new Star Wars movie got GG mildly annoyed with the notion that this is science fiction in the sense fans of science fiction know it. In fact, if anything, written science fiction has been moving away from the lazy approximations of some hazy future and deeper into developing fairly rigorous conceptualizations of a possible future. Developing such future or distant universes is so involved that authors are increasingly making multi-volume stories to fully take advantage of the effort spent in world-building in the first place. Such efforts can inspire real-world goals (space stations, asteroid mining, etc). It has even gotten to the point where authors will set their tales within a universe created by another author (see the whole Man-Kzin Wars series, for instance).

Now of course there is a longstanding continuum between hard and soft science fiction and on into fantasy that, generally, each reader defines for his or her own self. But in the popular mind, Star Wars defines science fiction.  Is that fair?

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Ennui have a problem?

There is a lot of hand-wringing over how we could end up with home-grown terrorists, whether you want to talk about those killing for their view of Islam, or their view of Christianity, or their view of the government. Of these, it is the former that seems to incite the greatest concern.  How could westerners, frequently raised in the comfort of our materialistic society, come to believe that their neighbors or coworkers deserved to die simply because they didn’t share the same faith? Realistically, with more than 300 million people in the US and half a billion in the EU, it only takes one in a million to create a sufficient cadre to make trouble, so maybe this is just an unavoidable consequence of large numbers.

GG wonders, though, how much of this is simply ennui, a society that is sort of drifting aimlessly towards no goal other than self-gratification, the result being individual dissatisfaction with broader reasons for being. Read More…

Has sports made us lose our sense of proportion?

There is something mildly amazing about the hold sports has on American society. Billions of dollars changes hands between fans and teams, municipalities fight to pay teams to base themselves in their cities, and sports gambling is an enormous business. Yet let’s discuss a different aspect of sports’ effect on the American psyche, our perception of risk and reward.

Consider this quote from columnist Troy Renck of the Denver Post: “Instant gratification defines modern society. It is followed closely by immediate resolution. Everyone wants an answer yesterday. This works better in life than in sports.”

This works better in life?  What life does Renck live, anyways? A big part of the appeal of sports is that you know who won and who lost, and that there will be a next week, a next season. Balls and strikes, penalties and touchdowns, all are called within seconds of the event occurring. This is so totally unlike absolutely everything else in life that this quote seems to turn the world most of us inhabit on its head.

Was the Cold War won instantly? Berlin Wall fall instantly? Hell, did Apple turn its fortunes around instantly? Are new products introduced after a week’s worth of work? Do you buy a house on a whim? Or, in all of these cases, was there years or even decades of work needed to reach the point where a decision could be made on the success or failure of a project?

More personally for GG, is science the realm of gratification as instant as sports? Are you joking? A scientist can (and often does) go to the grave without knowing whether the hypothesis she or he championed was correct, or whether his or her life’s work was crucial in advancing the field at all.

That a sports columnist now thinks that sports is more deliberate in evaluations and decisions than other facets of life maybe says something about society.  Maybe it says we’ve lost our perspective.  Sports should be a fun release from lives where winning and losing isn’t so clear and the results of decisions can take years to materialize, not the definition of slow deliberation. For if we view sports decisions as the standard for deliberation, we are incapable of addressing real long-term issues society faces.

The Earliest Sunset is Now…

Once again that time of the year…for the earliest Northern Hemisphere sunset (and earliest Southern Hemisphere sunrise)–both of which occur not on the solstice but now, in early December. Here was a discussion from last year…

The Grumpy Geophysicist

We are so disconnected from the reality of the heavens that most people don’t know the moon’s phase (many don’t know you can see the moon in daylight). So the really subtle stuff gets overlooked.  But folks who rise with the sun probably notice that sunrise keeps getting later after the solstice on the 21st of December. And, conversely, the earliest sunset is about now, in early December (a point in time GG really notices–it is nice to have it start to be light later as we approach New Years).

How can that be?

If you know a little astronomy, it is straightforward, and the cool thing is that it is a direct demonstration of the ellipticity of Earth’s orbit.  In northern hemisphere winter, we are near perihelion (closest point to the Sun). And so by Kepler’s Laws, it mess we are traveling faster around the Sun than other times…

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Reality invades animation

There is something mildly amusing and ironic going on in the world of animation.

It is the desirability of including realism in the form of land- and cityscapes.

After spending lots of time making up fake worlds (that, um, to a geologist look fake), animators have turned to real-world datasets to make their fake worlds look real.

Most amusing is that this discovery has brought the recognition that there is a lot of data. One was Big Hero Six, where real data about San Francisco was used to create the fictional San Fransokyo. The most recent example is Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, which apparently used USGS DEMs in order to create background landscapes that look like landscapes should look. (Indeed, it appears that Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley and perhaps part of the Colorado Rockies are used from GG’s perusal of the film). That story notes that this resulted in the use of far more data in a single image than in entire movies. This is no surprise to any earth scientist who has played with 1m LIDAR images, though to be fair probably a lot of their data use was in spreading vegetation on their landscapes.

Ironically, there is a long history of software designed to try to simulate landscape development.  One particular program that stands out was Bryce, which used an unusual interface and fractal optics to create photorealistic images of artificial landscapes.  Of course, the trick was to create the landscape in the first place. You wonder how long it will be before they hire geomorphologists who can operate the CHILD software to produce geologically reasonable topography from some specified geology…

Risk Management

Seems like some current goings-on reflect our inability, either by nature or nurture, to rationally evaluate risk. Consider the reaction to a couple of recent shootings and the ongoing discussions on climate change in Paris.

In the first, the recent focus on mass shootings led the New York Times to collect angst-ridden quotes from readers that indicated everything from professors worried about a student angered over a grade killing them and students sitting close to exit doors to escape anticipated mass mayhem to folks fearful of attending sports events for fear of terrorists or gunmen. A quick look at statistics shows your odds of dying in such an attack (about one in a million per year for being killed in a mass shooting and a bit below that for death by terrorist attack per year this century) are well below those of dying in a car crash (1 in 10,000 per year). (For completeness, death by firearm is also about a 1 in 10,000 chance per year; 33,636 gun-related fatalities in 2013, 32,719 highway deaths). Allowing these very low risk events to dominate your life, causing you emotional distress and perhaps leading to government overreaction, is irrational.

Equally irrational is doing nothing about stuff that can have a huge impact.

We face a finite chance of profound changes in the environment with changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Increases in tropical diseases, crop stress, heat-related deaths, increased drought, rising sea level, etc., are things that can have profound impacts on people’s lives. Not just a few, not the few thousand unfortunates to fall to mass shootings or terrorist acts, but hundreds of millions. When you also factor in the costs to be carried by even larger groups, it would make a lot of sense to buy insurance to minimize the risks. We do this all the time with possible events like floods and fires. If we think there is a 10% chance that current carbon emissions will lead to hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage in 50 years, you can argue that spending billions today is a good investment.  And if there is a one in one hundred or one in one thousand chance of continued emissions leading to global collapse of civilization, spending a few tens of billions today seem outright brilliant.  You don’t have to have absolute certainty in the forecasts, you just have to have a reasonable understanding of the probabilities.

And so this is the point.  We need as a society to better evaluate the real costs of risks and thus the effort that should be spent to minimize or eliminate those risks.  The point here is not to say that nothing should be done about mass shootings and everything about global warming, but that the effort and concern should be more proportional. So maybe we need to dial back the geometry in high schools and dial up probability and statistics. We need a population that can estimate an expectation and act upon it.