Guest Blog Post by Tad Theimer, NAU Professor of Biology
Flagstaff is a city of science. We are literally surrounded by science. Up on Mars Hill there lies Lowell Observatory, to the north the Museum of Northern Arizona, the offices of the USGS, to the east and west the laboratories of GORE, to the south Northern Arizona University, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, TGen, the Naval Observatory, to mention but a few.
So I stand here as a scientist in a city of scientists. How many of you out there are scientists? How many the family or friends of a scientist?
It’s been said that you know you are a scientist when you wake up on a Saturday morning and think, “I could walk the dog, I could read the paper, I could go for a run, but what I really want to do is analyze that new data set, or sneak off to the lab for one more quick experiment.” And all your friends and families of scientists have seen that, you’ve seen them sneak out the door late at night or early in the morning. So we here all know that inside the breast of every scientist beats a heart as passionate, as driven, as that of any artist, musician or poet. Scientists do what they do because they can’t help themselves. They are driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, by an insatiable hunger to understand the world. That relentlessness, that dogged curiosity, is something folks who haven’t been around scientists may not realize, and as a result they may underestimate the power that stands here today. Because that same passion, that same resolution, that scientists bring to doing science, scientists will also bring to defending science. And that is why we stood here last year, and why we stand here today and why we will be here next year, and the year after that, and the year after that!
So we here in Flagstaff understand what science is, why it is important, and that we must help others understand the important role science plays in our lives. The speakers who went before me articulated that very well. But there is another point about science that we have to make folks understand. Scientists follow data to whatever truth they may lead, regardless of the implications that truth may have. And so scientists sometimes discover inconvenient truths, truths that make us have to question the way behave toward this earth, toward each other. Truths that are inconvenient because they come with costs. The cost of making sacrifices today so that our children and grandchildren can have a decent world to live in tomorrow. This is an important role scientists play, and
I have been trying to think of a simple analogy to help folks understand that important role of science, so let me try this out on you:
Let’s imagine that my inconvenient truth is that I only have $10 in my bank account. But because of this magical piece of plastic called a credit card, I can buy a car, I can buy fancy food and delicious drinks. And some of my friends will support me in ignoring my inconvenient truth because they like to ride in my car and drink my drinks and eat my food. But one or two of my friends will take me aside and say “Tad, what are you doing? You’re acting crazy! You only have ten bucks! If you keep this up you’re heading for financial ruin!” Now we all know which one of those friends is the most valuable. It’s the one with the courage to stand up and tell me the truth even though I didn’t want to hear it. And that’s what scientists do! They are the friends who stand up and tell us the truth even when we don’t want to hear it!!
We are passing through dark days for science. Honesty, reliability, consistency, responsible conduct. These are the cornerstones of science. These are also the foundations of a civil society. Yet every day these ideas are mocked, denigrated, cast aside! We live in a time when integrity has been replaced with irresponsibility, where falsehoods hold the same credence as facts. It is no wonder that we sometimes feel dazed, in a world turned upside down.
These are dark days, but we have seen darker. When I am most in despair for this world, I am reminded of Galileo, that great scientist who dared to follow his data to an inconvenient truth, that radical idea that the earth was not the center of the universe, fixed and immovable, but instead moved around the sun in its orbit. Today that seems like a ridiculously harmless fact, that the earth goes around the sun, but at the time, it was a very inconvenient truth, for it flew in the face of religious dogma. So at the age of 70, Galileo was dragged from his home, thrown in prison and eventually brought before the Inquisition in Rome, forced to kneel and to recant his life’s work, to state that the Earth was immobile and did not move in its orbit. But the story is told that as Galileo walked out of that room, he whispered under his breath, “and yet, it moves!” And so might we say to those who deny climate change today, “and yet, it changes!”
You can ignore the truth for a while. You can walk away from the Paris climate accords, you can tell your administrators to strike out all references to human-caused climate change. You can confuse the electorate by saying climate change is still debated, that there is no consensus. You can ignore the National Academy of Sciences and 17 other scientific societies that have stated that human-caused climate change is real and needs to be addressed. You can ignore all that and build yourself a beautiful house of cards. But eventually that house of cards will fall. Scientists know this. Scientists understand the meaning of that old Buddhist saying: “There are three things in this world that cannot long be hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth”!
Make no mistake, the walls of ignorance are strong, especially when reinforced by girders of greed and self-interest. But history has shown us that that stone of ignorance will yield to the cold, hard steel of science-based fact. It is for us today to follow in the footsteps of all those scientists and believers in science that went before us, to pick up those hammers of steel and bring them down on that rock of ignorance, knowing all the while that those walls will not fall to one blow, or to a thousand, but the point is to keep on hammering, to keep those hammers ringing. So I say, make those hammers ring here in Flagstaff, but also make ring so that they can be heard down in the statehouse in Phoenix. Make those hammers ring here in Flagstaff, but also make them ring so that they echo in the halls of congress back in Washington. Make those hammers ring here in Flagstaff, but most importantly, make those hammers ring so that they rattle the very walls of the White House! Make those hammers ring!
What did you do on YOUR summer holiday?
Sisilia Sinaga is a senior at BASIS Flagstaff who spent her summer as a volunteer intern at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff. Sisilia has a head start on her senior project focusing on her keen interest in artificial intelligence and neural networks. Alicia Vaughan, the Director of Student Affairs at BASIS, partnered Sisilia with her mentor Dr. Ryan Anderson at the Astrogeology Science Center. Because Sisilia already has a strong math and coding background, she was able to step into one of Dr. Anderson’s projects with the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Ryan and Sisilia are using PySAT (Python Spectral Analysis Tool), a program that Ryan is developing to analyze spectra like those returned by the ChemCam instrument on the Curiosity Mars Rover. ChemCam shoots a laser at rocks and soil on Mars, breaking them down into a spark of plasma. The spectrum of light emitted from the spark contains a fingerprint of the chemical elements in the target. Sisilia is working on using neural networks to more accurately read that spectral fingerprint and dete4rmine the chemistry of the rocks and soils of Mars.
Neural python is the language within python that uses a library called TensorFlow™ to create neural networks. TensorFlow's website states that it was originally developed by researchers and engineers working on the Google Brain Team within Google's Machine Intelligence research organization for the purposes of conducting machine learning and deep neural networks research, but the system is general enough to be applicable in a wide variety of other domains as well.
Artificial neural networks (ANN's) are computing systems inspired by organismal nervous systems. Useful in image recognition ANN's can learn to identify images that contain a specific mineral by analyzing example images that have been previously labeled with that mineral.
Sisilia's biggest passions are computers, engineering, physics, astronomy, and math. She loves to program and write code in her free time. She is in her school's robotics club and participates in FTC competitions. She is also in the National Honor Society and volunteered with STEM City to assist students. Her first challenge was to fix the earthquake simulator at Killip Elementary School! You can see, via this video from Killip, that she was successful!
We wish Sisilia every success as she continues her senior project and pursues being accepted by her preferred university!
Thank you Sisilia for all you have done to advance STEM in STEM City!