It's hard to explain the experience of expertise. That's why one of the first things they teach you in journalism school is to avoid questions like, "What's it like to be a mathematician?" It's hard for your interview subject to know how to respond and you seldom get a useful answer.
But not never.
On Quora, someone* asks, "What is it like to have an understanding of very advanced mathematics?" And the responses are surprisingly interesting. Especially the first, wherein an anonymous mathematician lays out a detailed account of how advanced mathematics have altered his/her view of the world and of being a mathematician.
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• You are often confident that something is true long before you have an airtight proof for it (this happens especially often in geometry). The main reason is that you have a large catalogue of connections between concepts, and you can quickly intuit that if X were to be false, that would create tensions with other things you know to be true, so you are inclined to believe X is probably true to maintain the harmony of the conceptual space. It's not so much that you can imagine the situation perfectly, but you can quickly imagine many other things that are logically connected to it.
• You are comfortable with feeling like you have no deep understanding of the problem you are studying. Indeed, when you do have a deep understanding, you have solved the problem and it is time to do something else. This makes the total time you spend in life reveling in your mastery of something quite brief.
Rex Walheim is an astronaut. He's gone to space three times, including on the last flight of the space shuttle. He has spent an accumulated 36 hours outside the ISS on spacewalks. He has tweeted from 240 miles above sea level.
Walheim reached those heights the old-fashioned way: Air Force test pilot school (plus a masters in industrial engineering). But his isn't the only path to the stars. Today, NASA has Walheim chatting with lots of different news outlets about the astronaut recruitment process and what it takes, in the modern world, to have the right stuff. I got to talk to him this morning. Walheim was kind enough to answer five questions, submitted by BoingBoing readers, about astronaut training, the astronaut selection process, and how the Earth-bound can recreate some of the astronaut experience in our daily lives.
On Friday morning, I'll get 10 minutes to talk to astronaut Rex Walheim about the astronaut recruiting process—how candidates are chosen, who should apply, what happens to you at different levels of the process ... all that good stuff.
Ten minutes ain't much. I'm normally tearing through an interview if I can get it done in 20 minutes. I'll probably have time to get through two questions with Walheim before he's on to the next reporter. So I wanted to do something fun. I'm going to ask him your questions. What do you want to know about how astronauts are recruited and chosen? Now's your chance to find out.
Here's how this will work: You've got until Thursday at 2:00 Central to submit your questions in the comment section of this post. Thursday night, I'll pick the two best questions—via wholly subjective methods. Those will be the ones I take to Walheim, and I'll post his answers here on BoingBoing.
Chances are, there will be lots of good questions and I'll have a hard time choosing. Luckily, I've got a stockpile of awesome BoingBoing stickers and Jackhammer Jill pins. So the two winners, and four runners-up, will all receive a sticker and a pin.
Sound good? Read the rest
Your tax dollars build bridges. They pay the salaries of teachers and firefighters. Tax dollars help put people through college, provide a safety net for the elderly and the disabled, and pay for fighter jets and nuclear bombs.
You may not agree all those ways your tax dollars are spent, but they are all, at least, fairly tangible. When it's time for re-election, your senator can point to a roads project, a school, a saintly grandmother, or a missile silo. Through these projects, Americans are being educated, cared for, and protected.
But it's hard to make that clear cost/benefit analysis for basic scientific research. At least, not on a timetable that matches up with election cycles.
Basic research is often weird, and it's often boring. It's the years spent mapping the neurons of zebra fish, so that future scientists can have a more detailed biological model to work with. It's the chemical analysis that has to happen, so that two decades from now somebody else can discover a new cancer-fighting drug. Basic research is about curiosity, and knowledge for knowledge's sake. By it's very nature, basic research relies on public funding. But by it's very nature, it's hard to explain how the public benefits from the basic research we fund.
Attila Kovacs is one of the scientists who put your tax dollars to work. An astrophysicist at the University of Minnesota, he specializes in the study of space dust. That is, yes, dust. In space. It's the sort of thing that would be very easy to mock. Read the rest
In 2002, The Economist writer/editor Emily Bobrow gifted me a copy of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and my life changed forever. It’s one of those novels that you can go back to every couple years anew, discovering and rediscovering with each re-read. Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, DeWitt’s story centers on a single mother in London raising her child-prodigy son.
The genius in her latest novel, Lightning Rods, is DeWitt herself, who cooks up one of the funniest stories I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a highbrow version of the movie Office Space with a Jonathan Ames-esque plot. Read my exclusive, in-depth interview below with DeWitt about the new novel, as well as her writing habits and her tips to would-be novelists. Read the rest
I had a great conversation with Christina Agapakis, a science blogger at Scientific American and a scientist studying synthetic biology. In this episode of Bloggingheads.tv's Science Saturday, you'll find out what Christina learned when she traced her allergies on a phylogenetic tree, why she's currently obsessed with symbiotic bacteria, why I think adults need more opportunities for informal science education after they've left school, and how scientists and educators are trying to address clashes between science and culture.
In the video, I talked about my experience at the 6th Science Center World Congress. For a little more on that, check out the story I wrote about why adults need science museums to pay more attention to them. Read the rest
The majority of people reading this sentence will, at some point in their lives, undergo a medical treatment that requires general anesthesia. Doctors will inject them with a drug, or have them breathe it in. For several hours, they will be unconscious. And almost all of them will wake up happy and healthy.
We know that the general anesthetics we use today are safe. But we know that because they've proven themselves to be safe, not because we understand the mechanisms behind how they work. The truth is, at that level, anesthetics are a big, fat question mark. And that leaves room for a lot of unknowns. What if, in the long term, our anesthetics aren't as safe for everyone as we think they are?
The only way to know for sure is to figure why anesthetics cause unconsciousness, and how one drug differs from another. Roderic G. Eckenhoff, MD, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. He's one of the people trying to figure out what general anesthetics really do inside the human body, and how we can use that information to discover even safer drugs than the ones we already rely on today. How does he study that? By drugging tadpoles.
This week, Chemical and Engineering News published a profile of Eckenhoff and his work, written by journalist Carmen Drahl. That piece inspired me to call up Eckenhoff and find out more about what we think we know about anesthetics, why it's taking medical scientists so long to understand such a commonly used class of drugs, and why tadpoles make an ideal model animal. Read the rest
I was on Bloggingheads.tv Science Saturday this week, talking with Jessa Gamble, a science journalist and the author of Siesta and the Midnight Sun, a book about how culture and biology effect the way we experience time.
Jessa was in Japan in 1999, when an accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility in the prefecture just south of Fukushima killed two workers. We started off our conversation talking about the industry lapses that led to that accident, and how government and the media responded to it. Read the rest