Defending Science



Scores of independent scientific advisors to the EPA were recently told that their membership on the Board of Scientific Counselors would not be renewed in August. The move seems like part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to quash the dialogue on climate change, an unsurprising move given the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA along with Trump’s own rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Unsurprising, but alarming.

From the moment Donald Trump took office, the White House website removed information on climate change. Even though a consensus of scientists agrees that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming and that the warming is largely due to human activity, Republicans have stubbornly refused to address the issue. Recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry (not exactly a rocket scientist) denied the correlation between global warming and human actions. It’s as if a group of Republicans were standing in the rain and insisting there was a drought.

The politicization of science is not new.  The season finale of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein, depicts Jewish scientists being dismissed from the prestigious Prussian Academy and books by Jewish scientists such as Einstein being burned in a massive fire by Nazi soldiers. The series also demonstrates Einstein’s outspoken objections to his discoveries being used to create weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout history, political powers have interfered with scientific discovery that did not advance their agenda, or that conflicted with their beliefs. Galileo is a perfect example of how politics (and, to a degree, religion) can affect the reception of new scientific ideas.

The ability of scientists to work independently of political agendas is vital to discovery and progress. Nowadays, the issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccines has become a political football. So has research on climate change. Meanwhile, an ice melt the size of Texas has been discovered in Antarctica. Sea levels are rising, and global weather patterns are being disrupted, with potential for devastating complications.

It’s time to allow scientific inquiry to inform our political decisions and not the reverse.


It’s All Relative



I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.




Bad Hair Day



I have a confession to make. I once “unfriended” someone on Facebook who posted the gratuitous comment “Bad hair day?” in reference to my profile picture.

Now, I am not the thinnest-skinned person I know, but this comment struck me as mean-spirited and uncalled for. I wasn’t polling my FB friends on my new hairdo, for instance.

So I could really relate to an article from Sunday’s Chicago Tribune by family matters columnist Heidi Stevens. Like most columnists, Ms. Stevens has a small photo of herself that appears with her weekly column. In the article, she detailed all the nasty comments she receives from readers about her hair, which is thick and wavy.

I was appalled not only by the thoughtlessness and spite evident in the comments. I also agreed with the main point of her article, which is that as a professional woman, she should be judged by her ideas and writing, not her appearance.

Apparently, Heidi Stevens is in good company. She cited such high profile women as Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg as being plagued by regular criticism of their hair. Yet there are no snide comments made about men in the political or professional sphere. Can you imagine if people had said to Albert Einstein, “Interesting theories, but I just can’t take you seriously with that hair”?

Why do people get in such a tizzy over women’s hair? I think it has to do with the prominence of hair as a sign of health, vitality, and sexual attractiveness. Think of all the commercials and full-page, glossy magazine ads that tout hair products for women. In fact, women of certain cultures and religions cover their hair as a way to discourage men from viewing them as sexually attractive.

Yet, as Stevens points out in her article, she is not a model or actress whose looks are even tangentially a part of her profession. She is a journalist, and she would like people to focus on her words, not her looks.

Interestingly, Stevens focused on hair yet again in yesterday’s Tribune column. She wrote about a young mother whose two-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. The brave mother is collecting donations toward childhood cancer research by offering to have people see her either cut off her long ponytail or shave her head.

Since our society finds a woman’s hair so important to her identity, this act shows true courage and is sure to attract donations from many people who can’t resist the audacious idea of seeing a woman shorn.

I realize men care about their hair too, their main concern being the loss of it. But it just doesn’t impact their work life, and no one judges a man because he is bald. A woman goes gray, and she is an old crone. A man goes gray, and he is distinguished.

I have lived with hair issues my entire life. It is thick, curly, and often out of control. I would just like people to judge me for what I say and do, not how my hair looks. When it comes to a woman’s looks, I subscribe to that age old expression of many a mother, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”