Relative Uncertainty

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As The Daily Utah Chronicle incarnation of this column bids its farewell, I confess a dirty little secret: I have always disliked opinion articles. Not because of the authors, certainly all very talented writers, but because of the inherent nature of the editorial: so very often, a forum for 1) pseudo-certainty, 2) pseudo authority, 3) untested and sometimes untestable, assertions.

Yet I admire the cats who take on the brave editorial task of engaging necessary discussions, no matter how futile or unsolvable.

I do not anticipate a solution to the long-standing gun control debate to emerge from an editorial piece, but at least that piece will demonstrate that freedom of speech continues to be alive and well (even if my Alpha Editor will not allow me to say “f***”).

The appeal of writing a science column is not that you escape the first two “pseudo” labels mentioned above. Oh no. It is that you sometimes escape the third.

It is the pleasure of knowing that you are writing about something cool, and as a welcome bonus, writing about something that can be either be right or wrong: you can state that Republicans are more patriotic than Democrats, but you?ll never know if you are correct or incorrect?because the question is not structured in a way that permits a real answer.

Generally, science is less about finding the right answers than it is about asking the right questions.

It is the promise of differential outcome that makes science a field worth writing about, among many other things?and I hope I have covered some of the major ones in the past 10 weeks. It was always a surprise, therefore, that not many people were writing about science in The Chronicle; as I leave, I?d like to ask a favor.

There are no small amounts of political, religious or morality pundits in the popular media, and in an era where every issue bears much complexity, this is a good thing. But in contrast, the relative shortage of science commentators is disturbing, especially considering the impressiveness of what occurs in science today: last week, an article in Science magazine reported a breakthrough in the field of quantum atom optics.

I am not convinced that deserves any less commentary than George W. Bush?s latest mispronunciation.

The lamented Carl Sagan, in his usual tradition of describing science better than anyone ever has, opened the second chapter of his Demon-Haunted World by claiming that not talking about science seemed to him perverse. With due consideration to the busy life of the researcher/professor/student, maybe we are not doing enough.

Here, then, is an open invitation to the scientists and science aficionados out there: let?s write about science. Not just in peer reviewed journals or Scientific American, but also in popular media: newspapers, magazines, bathroom walls. As you read this, there is an opening in the Daily Utah Chronicle for a person who knows and cares more about science than about Provo?s latest conservative misadventure: it?s a fun gig, and I strongly recommend it.

There are lingering perceptions of science that are tremendously mistaken, and in my mind, allowing their existence is akin to letting racial stereotypes go uncorrected (although, sure, some are inherently true: every weekend at my mom?s house reaffirms the stereotype that no matter how hard you Anglos try to make potatoes interesting, homemade Mexican food is simply tastier. Oh, and don?t bother writing in “hey, he just made an untestable claim!” I know I did. It?s just that I?m right).

A common perception is that science is boring. And for the testimonial cases on X96?s computer career ads, that is probably true.

It is more likely, I think, that science is often taught in a boring manner, that maybe its full potential gets downplayed in a society where most people prefer to subscribe to other philosophies, or maybe it requires much more training before it can be fully appreciated. But if you are one of those rare loons who wonders about the big questions?questions of universal, not just societal value, science is the path.

All we do, as science writers, is consistently remind ourselves and others of that fact.

Let me extend a great deal of thanks to Scott Lewis, legendary Opinion Editor-Dude, for giving me the opportunity to write about subjects I?ve always enjoyed reading. The man deserves many kudos, as the American natives would say, and appreciation for his return next year. Now if he?d if only let me swear more often?

Special thanks go to my laboratory partners Sarah Booth, Aaron Schapper and David Allen for their weekly feedback: if it wasn?t for these blokes, you would have read some really confusing paragraphs.

Thanks to boss Dr. Monti for letting me write these columns during work hours. Interestingly enough, I must also thank my colleague Chris for being so consistently wrong in every possible subject: your uncanny ability to piss me off, mate, inspired many a column. Guys like you are the best cure for writer?s block.

Then there?s Dr. Clive Jennings White. The tragedy of science, ladies and gentlemen, is that we don?t have more scientists like this man: a real teacher, dangerously inquisitive, brutally honest and lethally clever. I owe you a pint, mate, and really, you aren?t half bad for an Englishman.

And of course, thanks to the readers, all three?no, 10 of you. If you are ever in the Boston/Cambridge area, look me up?we?ll have a drink and talk bosons.

If you are interested in applying for the science columnist position Carlos is so graciously vacating, contact Scott Lewis at 581-7041 or send him an email at: [email protected]