Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nathan hopes to explain science and do some other stuff while he's at it

At the encouragement of a number of people, I'm starting the completely unpretentiously titled Nathan Explains Science for several purposes.

First, this gives me an place to tell you about science news that I think is interesting but that isn't necessarily going to get published in Science News or Nature's news section. For a variety of reasons, social science news especially doesn't get discussed as science, and that's unfortunate because there are scientific results coming out of psychology, political science, and economics that are vitally important for understanding the problems we face and the solutions we should pursue. In fact, there are a lot of old results that people should know about but don't because social science news seems less attractive than, say, finding a galaxy farther away than any other.

Second, this gives me a place to be a bit more conversational in tone, which I think makes it easier for me to explain science. Space considerations and other reasons often mean that science news outlets never get around to telling you about cool stuff like SO(3) symmetries in nature and their role in theoretical physics. I want to tell you what that is, why it's important, and why it's awesome. (It's the set of rotation symmetries in three dimensions, and it's important because it's a fundamental symmetry of nature—no matter which way you face, the laws of physics are the same. Symmetries like that matter because through a result called Noether's Theorem they imply conservation laws such as conservation of energy, which, you know, underlies almost all of our understanding of physics.)

Third, this gives me a place to advertise stories I write for other publications. So far, there are four of those:

Finally, as a scientist and especially as a political scientist, I see a lot of news stories that make me think the public (and journalists) don't really understand what science is, what it tells us, and what it's good for. This is especially true for social science—people really don't understand things like why government often seems unable to give us clean air or what the consequences of leverage in financial markets are. So I will spend some time commenting on the news when science of one sort or another helps us understand it.

Above all, I hope to convey my excitement for science and my belief that understanding the world through science is both fun and valuable to people like you. I am hopeful that isn't a pretentious aim.

Stay tuned for a post on the actual effects of Fox News on your political beliefs, and please tell your friends!

P.S. I'm using Google's AdSense in the perhaps vain hope of generating income. We'll see how it goes. If you find it annoying, please tell me, because the last thing I want to do is annoy you.