The United Nations’ latest report on climate change contains plenty of dire warnings about the adverse impact “human interference with the climate system” is having on everything from sea levels to crop yields to violent conflicts. But the primary message of the study isn’t, as John Kerry suggested on Sunday, for countries to collectively reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead, the subtext appears to be this: Climate change is happening and will continue to happen for the foreseeable future. As a result, we need to adapt to a warming planet—to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits associated with increasing temperatures—rather than focusing solely on curbing warming in the first place. And it’s businesses and local governments, rather than the international community, that can lead the way.
“The really big breakthrough in this report is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change,” Chris Field, the co-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study, said this week, adding that governments, companies, and communities are already experimenting with “climate-change adaptation.”
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Instead of following traditional paths, women are using their science, technology, engineering, and math degrees to create new careers.
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Here’s the thing. One-piece bathing suits, when wet, are very annoying to take off. And when you’re swimming three hours a day, as I did for practice on my high school swim team, climbing out of the pool, taking it off, and putting it back on every time you have to use the bathroom starts to feel burdensome. So maybe you just… go…somewhere in between the one millionth and one millionth and first lap you’ve swum that day.
Urine is sterile, and chlorine is sterilizing, right? This is the justification we offered ourselves, to counter our shame. Plus, decorated Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte do it.
Turns out that was a pretty bad idea, for more reasons than just the ick factor. A new study published in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology, looked at the chemistry of what happens when urine meets chlorine, and it isn’t pretty.
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Big scientific discoveries—the kind that shift our view of the world and our place within it—don’t come along very often.
This week, though, one did.
New data seem to offer, for the first time, direct evidence of the entities Einstein predicted in his general theory of relativity: gravitational waves. Which is a finding that, if it holds up, sheds new light on nothing less than the origins of the universe. The discovery is, according to one expert, “an amazing achievement.” It is also, according to another, “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science”—“a sensational breakthrough involving not only our cosmic origins, but also the nature of space.”
So, basically: This is big, you guys! Einstein big! Nature-of-space big! Big Bang-big!
There’s just one small thing, though. The findings shared this week also share a significant caveat: They haven’t yet been peer-reviewed. They are discoveries that are, as far as scientific institutionalism is concerned, provisional. They’re stuck in a kind of epistemological limbo—as information that has not yet been converted into fact, and data that have not yet been codified into knowledge. Official status: truthy.
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Everyone knows that the United States has long suffered from widespread shortages in its science and engineering workforce, and that if continued these shortages will cause it to fall behind its major economic competitors. Everyone knows that these workforce shortages are due mainly to the myriad weaknesses of American K-12 education in science and mathematics, which international comparisons of student performance rank as average at best.
Such claims are now well established as conventional wisdom. There is almost no debate in the mainstream. They echo from corporate CEO to corporate CEO, from lobbyist to lobbyist, from editorial writer to editorial writer. But what if what everyone knows is wrong? What if this conventional wisdom is just the same claims ricocheting in an echo chamber?
The truth is that there is little credible evidence of the claimed widespread shortages in the U.S. science and engineering workforce. How can the conventional wisdom be so different from the empirical evidence?
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Imagine that you have spent 30 years of your career working on a single project, dedicated to a single idea. Imagine that there have been doubters along the way. Imagine that you, yourself, have occasionally been unsure about whether it’s all worth it.
Imagine what it would feel like to find out that it is.
Now we know what that’s like—or, at least, we have a good idea. Yesterday, as part of the big announcement that the Big Bang’s “smoking gun” has been found, Stanford posted a video to YouTube. The brief production features the physicist Chao-Lin Kuo paying a visit to the home of his colleague, the fellow physicist Andrei Linde, to tell him that all his work had paid off: New evidence supports the cosmic inflation theory that Linde has been championing for decades. The theories he has honed and advocated are likely correct. He has, to be scientific about it, hit the jackpot.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos premiered Sunday night on Fox, to rave reviews. The show’s production values are gorgeous, and Tyson, the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, may be the best science popularizer we have today.
If the conversations on Twitter (#cosmos) and science blogs are any indication, though, people seem to want more from Cosmos than quality edutainment. The New York Times’ Dennis Overbye wonders if Cosmos can solve the fracking debate. Clara Moskowitz, an editor for Scientific American, hopes that Tyson’s series can reeducate the quarter of Americans who think the sun revolves around the Earth. In a taped lead-in to the show, President Obama suggested that the show could play a role in the future of American innovation, urging viewers to “Open your eyes, open your imagination,” because “the next great discovery could be yours.”
As is so often the case with science communication, the assumption seems to be that public understanding of science—sprinkled with a hearty dose of wonder and awe—will produce respect for scientific authority, support for science funding, and a new generation of would-be scientists. If only Americans loved science a little more, the thinking goes, we could end our squabbling about climate change, clean energy, evolution, and funding NASA and the National Science Foundation. These are high hopes to pin on a television show, even one as glorious as Cosmos.
So what’s going on?
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In 2003, the Annals of Improbable Research released the results of a study that was not so much groundbreaking as it was ground-battering: Kansas, the tongue-in-cheek analysis found, was flatter than a pancake. The researchers Mark Fonstad, William Pugatch, and Brandon Vogt used polynomial equations to calculate the flatness of the famously flat state, and discovered that—as compared to the topography of an IHOP pancake—it was indeed flatter than a flapjack.
Their finding was not incorrect. Parts of Kansas are, in fact, flatter than a pancake! But the study’s focus on Kanas, it turns out, was also misleading. Because there are states—six of them, to be specific—that are even flatter than Kansas. The states flatter than a pancake, you could say, could be served in a short stack.
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The time that ends up on your smartphone—and that synchronizes GPS, military operations, financial transactions, and internet communications—originates in a set of atomic clocks on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, Chief Scientist for UNSO’s Time Services, gives a tour.