Ignorance: The Elevator Speech

Ever since I reviewed Ignorance: How it Drives Science, a charming new book by the Columbia neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, I’ve been thinking about ignorance. And I tell you, it’s been a bit of a headache. Firestein teaches a popular science class at Columbia, also called Ignorance, in which he invites scientists from different disciplines to talk […]

An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman

There are poems about science. There are poems about scientists. But I know of only two poems about women scientists — about women doing science, that is — and both were written by the same person: the brilliant, defiant, influential poet Adrienne Rich, who died last week at the age of 82. From “Power“: Today […]

Science Metaphors (cont.): Degeneracy

I was helping an astronomer write a sentence.  It was about disentangling the color a supernova has intrinsically, from the reddening in its color caused by cosmic dust.  He wrote he wanted to “break the degeneracy” between the colors.  Break the degeneracy.  I got so excited.  I’d always thought degenerates were people who didn’t, for […]

Science Metaphors (cont.): Resonance

My mother was an old lady, she’d lived a good and useful life, and she died a year and ten days ago.  I hadn’t been keeping track of her death’s anniversary but I didn’t need to; I only had to figure out why I was walking around feeling, for no good reason, sad.  One of […]

The Last Word on Nothing, Junior Edition

As the parent of a three-year-old, I spend a lot of time reading kids’ books. Some are wonderful, a lot are so-so, and a few are so frigging annoying that — I confess — I hide them. I always expect to like science-themed books — this is my kind of brainwashing, I think — but […]

Science Metaphors (cont.): Running Open Loop

In the continuing quest to find meaning in life, or if not meaning, at least a few good rules, I turn as usual to science.   Science offers the phrase, “running open loop.” Open loop is an engineering term meaning a system that runs without feedback, without a self-governor, without correcting itself.   A closed-loop sprinkler system […]

Bad Actors + Science Metaphor (cont)

I’ve kept an eye on neutrinos ever since I heard, back in the mid-1980′s, that not enough of them were coming out of the sun; this sounded serious.  It turned out that the sun was behaving itself but the neutrinos weren’t.  On its way out of the sun, any given neutrino was changing into three […]

Science Metaphors (cont.): Standard Candle

Nothing is entirely trustworthy.  Friends are inconstant; presidents and professors are making it up; your grandmother didn’t always know what she was talking about; your very senses can fool you; and one of these fine days even the sun will blow up. Where is the touchstone, the standard, the fundamental reference frame? Where is the […]