Remedial reading… from the Huffington Post and The Economist

John_A_Knauss_NOAA

“Our job is to ensure that NOAA is as relevant fifteen years from now as it is today.” – John Knauss, during his tenure as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, 1989-1993.

President George Bush[1] had initially considered John A. Knauss for the position of NOAA Chief Scientist, which at the time was also a Presidential appointment subject to Senate confirmation. But as a search for NOAA Administrator candidates dragged on, the President and his staff came to realize that Knauss would make an excellent leader for the agency as a whole.

Knauss did not disappoint. He was not only respected but revered by those who worked for him.

The Chief Scientist job would certainly have suited Dean Knauss’ temperament and background. As an academic oceanographer and Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, he was renowned for his science and his leadership of science. And he certainly saw that the key to making NOAA as relevant fifteen years in the future as it was at the time was not administrative so much as it was the advance of science and its application. He’d have enjoyed far more the chance to shape that future for the agency than to spend his time putting out fires: cost overruns in the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring, Congressional calls for downsizing and/or privatizing the NWS, delays in both the polar and geostationary satellite builds and launches; the torrent of digital data engulfing the NOAA line offices and the data centers; uninvited Congressional earmarks; and coastal-zone management crises; all of which plagued his tenure. (Yes, Millennials, today’s problems aren’t unique to this generation; they’ve long abided with and vexed us.)

That fifteen-year challenge was from the perspective of the early 1990’s a very high bar. At the time, more than 150 of the world’s leaders, including President Bush, were preparing to assemble in Rio De Janeiro in 1992 for the first-ever United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And they were convening at such a high level and for such an extended period – and setting into motion an international conversation that continues to this day – for two reasons: (i) a data time-series showing the inexorable increase of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, started by Charles David Keeling at Scripps but by then maintained under NOAA auspices, and (ii) NOAA/GFDL models showing that a CO2-doubling would lead to several degrees Centigrade of global warming.

NOAA science was behind the global fuss.

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The science challenge doesn’t simply face NOAA, or the environmental agencies. It spans the whole of the national agenda. Today, many if not most federal agencies continue to focus on the advance and application of innovation as a necessary means to fulfilling their mandates. To lead this function, they have installed Chief Science Officers. Recently, several of these officials, including Rick Spinrad, currently NOAA’s Chief Scientist, and some of his counterparts at USDA, NASA, DoE, and NIH, shared some of their common concerns and aspirations in a Huffington Post op-ed . Referencing another Bush –in this case,  Vannevar – they identified three areas where they believe America must make headway if we’re to retain preeminence in science:

First, we need more American pioneers to develop the innovative technologies needed to build more resilient, sustainable communities, protect human health and make progress in improving quality of life. We can do this through continued support of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which is the catalyst for spurring and maintaining a highly-skilled American workforce.

Second, we need a renewed commitment for critical investments which provide the funding and resources our scientists in basic and applied research fields need to do their jobs. And in following these tenets, we need to fund projects that our well-trained scientists believe will lead to major breakthroughs.

And now more than ever, we need more policy champions to keep the trust in his vision and help promote the basic research our agencies, our research partners and our commercial industries need to keep the U.S. on the leading edge.”

As our chief science officers pointed out in their fuller article, Vannevar Bush realized that America’s geographic frontiers were finite, but its science frontiers were, and will remain, endless.

If you’re harboring any doubts on this latter score, then you might be interested in this short piece from The Economist (also dating a couple of weeks back) which speaks to science’s unsolved mysteries. It’s eloquent and inspiring, and reproduced here in its entirety:

“I SEEM to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Those words, ascribed to Sir Isaac Newton, might still be spoken, with the appropriate correction for sex, by any scientist today.

The discipline of natural science that Newton helped found in the second half of the 17th century has extended humanity’s horizons to a degree he could scarcely have envisaged. Newton lived in a world that thought itself 6,000 years old, knew nothing of chemical elements or disease-causing microbes, believed living creatures could spring spontaneously from mud, hay or dirty bed-linen, and had only just stopped assuming that the sun (and everything else in the universe) revolved around the Earth.

Yet even today, deep problems and deeper mysteries remain. Science cannot yet say how life began or whether the universe is but one of many. Some things people take for granted—that time goes forwards but never backwards, say—are profoundly weird. Other mysteries, no less strange, are not even perceived. One is that 96% of the universe’s contents pass ghostlike and unnoticed through the minuscule remaining fraction, which solipsistic humans are pleased to call “ordinary matter”. Another is how, after billions of years when the Earth was inhabited only by single-celled creatures, animals suddenly popped into existence. Perhaps the deepest mystery of all is how atoms in human brains can consciously perceive the desire to ask all of these questions in the first place, and then move other atoms around to answer them.

Known unknowns

Over the next six weeks we will be running a series of briefs that explore these unsolved scientific questions. Some are more tractable than others. Our first brief, on life’s origin, looks at a chemical puzzle that may well be elucidated over the next decade or so (see article). The nature of the unseen 96% of the universe may start to manifest itself later this year, as the newly cranked-up Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, begins creating things massive enough to be particles of the “dark matter” that theory predicts.

Other mysteries, such as the unidirectionality of time, probably await lightning-strikes of insight of the sort that produced the theories of relativity a century ago. By contrast, discerning the early history of animals will require a lot of hard graft—the painstaking reconstruction of a jigsaw in which the pieces include palaeontology, genetics and embryology.

Some mysteries may remain so for ever. The idea of a multiverse containing an indefinite, possibly infinite, number of universes, each with its own laws of physics, is mathematically plausible and would deal with the puzzling fact that if the physical laws of the actual, observable universe were only slightly different, life could never have come into existence. With multiverses, every possible set of laws would exist somewhere. Unfortunately, unless the separate universes intrude onto one another, the idea is untestable. As for the nature of consciousness, this is one question which science has not yet fully worked out how to ask. Studying the bits of the brain that seem to generate consciousness does not answer the question of what such perception really is.

Does it all matter, a cynic might ask? Will humans really be better off for knowing such things? The answer, written on the tomb, in St Paul’s Cathedral, of Newton’s contemporary, Sir Christopher Wren, is: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” For the monument to Newton’s pebble-collecting child is no less than the modern world.

Bacteria and Brontosaurus. Oxygen and octane. Quarks and quasars. All are the offspring of Newton’s child. Moreover, it is the manipulation of nature which science permits that has brought today’s unprecedented plenty and prosperity. Most of all, though, science has brought self-knowledge, for it has put humans in their place in two contradictory ways. It has dethroned them as the centre of the universe, by showing that mankind is a Johnny-come-lately, living on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in an unremarkable galaxy that is, itself, one of more than 150 billion such galaxies. But it has also enthroned humanity, revealing the extraordinary nature of the universe’s inner workings in ways that Newton’s contemporaries were only beginning to glimpse. Simultaneously demoted and exalted by science in this unprecedented era of discovery, Homo sapiens still has oceans to survey.

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So, let’s introduce our schoolkids and university students to the beckoning excitement and challenge of science’s endless frontiers. Let’s sustain professional scientists as they mount expeditions into that unknown. And let’s champion this vision, whether we work in halls of Congress, or lead agency science, or serve in more ordinary ways.

Let’s get this done.

[1] That’s George Herbert Walker Bush, aka Bush 1 or Bush 41.

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1 Response to Remedial reading… from the Huffington Post and The Economist

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    “Most of all, though, science has brought self-knowledge, for it has put humans in their place in two contradictory ways.” The author bases this assertion not on self-knowledge, which can be known only from within, but on external knowledge. Such external knowledge can affect us only at the level of the surface, reasoning mind, while self-knowledge requires a deep understanding of our mind and body, including the much large so-called sub-conscious or unconscious mind. This requires deep introspection and examination of our minds and bodies at very subtle levels, where we find that we consist of particles which arise and pass away with great rapidity, no substance, nothing to cling to. At the surface level, we cling to the apparent reality, we see ourselves as solid, continuing entities, we develop attachments to this illusionary self, we react with liking and disliking to things which affect this imaginary I; we lack self-knowledge, and until we learn to follow the wisdom of “Know thyself, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” we will fail to realise our potential as human beings.

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