Monday, August 8, 2016

Science on Faith: What do you believe?

In her recent speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination for the office of President of the United States, Secretary of State Clinton said the following:
I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.
Part of me was happy to hear these words. On the one hand, it's refreshing to hear a politician state so succinctly what I have understood for a long time, and putting it into a pithy phrase that carries the solution as well as a statement of the problem was a real speechmaking coup.  But the use of "believe in" is, in some ways, troubling.  I don't want Secretary Clinton to have to take, on faith, that climate change is "real." I want her to understand it and be able to explain it at a level that the population can take away the main points, which are:

  1. We rely on the absorption of radiant energy from the sun to make the earth habitable. Some water and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is necessary for this.
  2. Certain molecules - including water, carbon dioxide, and methane - have, by their very nature, the capacity to absorb radiation from the sun in a way that others - including oxygen and nitrogen - do not.
  3. At present, owing to our reliance on fossil fuels, there is too much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and at our current rate of fossil fuel use, our best models suggest that this will continue to rise. We must find another way to generate electricity that doesn't lead to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  4. Fracking, which also unfortunately leads to increased methane leakage during extraction, is not a good solution as it leads to an environmental "double-whammy" of (a) when you burn natural gas you still get carbon dioxide and (b) methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  

Of course, I don't expect Secretary Clinton to understand electromagnetic radiation, heat capacity or, for that matter, how carbon dioxide is different from, say, oxygen.  Nor do I expect her to be able to explain how the computer models - which have shown to be remarkably accurate - work.  I don't expect her to understand quantum mechanics, applied spectroscopy, or anything beyond a few relatively simple ideas.  These don't require "belief" or, even, excessive time spent in science classes.  I expect only a critical mind, one which has served Secretary Clinton extremely well as she went to Law School, worked on health care reform, became a Senator and later, Secretary of State.

In many ways, the economy of the United States is much more complex than the problem of climate change but this doesn't stop politicians from claiming mastery of it and insisting on their prescriptions (which often take the form of calls for lower taxes).  I don't need to have a masters in economics to understand the idea behind the phrase describing some banks as "too big to fail."

But scientists have explained, ad nauseam, how climate change "works" and how their results have been self-consistent – over 97% of peer-reviewed papers by climate scientists are coming to the same conclusions – for years.  97%? When, in life, its there such consensus? I wonder, sometimes, if politicians are expecting miracles instead of results.  So, no, I'm not looking for "belief" or "faith."  If there are senators out there who don't "get it," there are a lot of scientists out there who are ready to take on all of your questions.  Just ask.

What, then, is faith in the context of science?  For me, it's not a "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1, if you're keeping track). I think it's a confidence that if I do my experiments correctly and analyze the results carefully, I may develop generalizable knowledge about the world. Faith, then, is my belief that the answer is out there and, if I keep at it long enough, I'll find it.  And if not, I'll try another experiment and tackle the problem differently.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Science and Serendipity: My best day in the lab

My best day in the lab was a day of creation. Actually, it began in a bar.

Science can be a process of discovery, in which observations are made and hypotheses formulated, tested, rened, and repeated ad innitum, or until the scientist gets bored and moves on to the next subject. A scientist working on a problem - What are the molecular steps that initiate cancer when cells are exposed to carcinogens? - will focus on a small part of the universe, like a cell, or double-stranded DNA. But science is also creative: can we design and build molecules that will selectively deliver anti-cancer drugs only to cancer cells in the brain? This science creationism employs the tools of science to make devices, polymers, microscopic machines and a whole host of novel materials.

Sports enthusiasts like to regale each other with stories of a great game, often over beer. Chemists do too, except the game is synthesis, the players molecules, and the field, the laboratory. My labmate had made a new and interesting molecule - it was interesting because, if the common bonding models we had were correct, it had the wrong shape, and it didn't rust in air (like it should). Following this discovery, as was a common practice in my lab, we retired to the campus pub to celebrate our victory and plot our next move. I had solved the structure - figured out, using X-ray crystallography, the 3-dimensional organization of atoms in the molecule - and proposed a theory for why the molecule was stable and I thought at the time, "If we can make that molecule with osmium, can we make a copy using tungsten instead?" The periodic table is full of such what ifs, and we - fun science, in my experience, is collaborative - spent 20 minutes pouring over our beer and writing on my bar napkin (an old professor's words - I learned more chemistry talking in bars than I ever learned in the lab - were prophetic).

Later the next day - it's not good to drink and synthesize - I looked through the stock room to see if the compounds I envisioned were available. In synthesis, as in a good episode of MacGyver, you sometimes have to go with what you have on hand. I was able to locate adequate chemical substitutes for my synthetic plan.

... It worked.