Illusions and Reality

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” -Albert Einstein

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco 30 December 2009

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The AGU Fall Meeting is an enormous gathering of scientists from all branches of the Earth Sciences.  The attendance was advertised as around 15,000 people.  One of the most notable things was that although the attendance was comparable to some of the NECC conferences that I have attended, the energy was nowhere near as frantic.  It was very interesting to experience a large conference where people seemed to moving in a calm way rather than frantically rushing from session to session.  I wondered if it had to do with the personalities of educators vs. scientists or whether it had to do with the fact that at AGU there is a much broader range of interests by the participants so they are not all hoping to get into some of the same sessions.

While at AGU, I tried to attend sessions that were both educational in nature as well as scientific.  Many of the sessions that I attended had a connection to Climate Change and I wonder if that is more of a personal bias or a reflection on the fact that climate change is a very trendy topic in science these days?  Some of the science sessions were extremely esoteric and I didn’t completely understand the science that was being presented.  But overall, I enjoyed both the science and education sessions that I attended.

Christmas Tree at Union Square

I had a chance to hear some of the most well known climate scientists speak about their work, including some that have been involved in the so called, “Climategate” controversy.  I was most impressed with the communication style of Richard Alley who is incredibly passionate about his work and with the willingness of Michael Mann to not dodge around the stolen email issues.

The most impressive things that I saw were some of the work being doing with visualizations on virtual globes.  There were a number of interesting project presented, but the most impressive were those with Google Earth.  There are some fascinating tools being developed as part of Google Earth and they have great education and outreach potential for scientists and educators.

I also had some time to enjoy a bit of sightseeing in San Francisco.  The city was beautifully decorated for Christmas and there was one fantastically sunny day which I spent part of down at the Fisherman’s Wharf area.  The last night there, we went to Ghiradelli Square and had ice cream – I had Kona Coffee Ice Cream with melted dark Ghiardelli Chocolate on top…a heavenly combination.

More pictures from my trip to San Francisco are on Flickr.


State Department, Snow, and Christmas Around DC 7 December 2009

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National Christmas Tree

This week was a really busy and fun week.  I heard Randy Olson give a talk on his book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist“, participated in a digital video conference between Copenhagen, Denmark, Nuuk, Greenland, and Washington, DC, gave a presentation at NSF, went to the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, heard about USA for UNHCR, and went to the USAF Band holiday concert just to name a few things.

The week started out with a seminar at NSF where Randy Olson gave a talk on “Don’t Be Such A Scientist“, a book that he has written about science communication.  He is a marine scientist who left academia and went to film school.  Since then he has made two documentary films, “Flock of Dodos – The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus” and  “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy“.  It was a very interesting seminar which highlighted the need for scientists to be better communicators.  One of the things that he said, that really resonated with me was that the conflict between scientists and the anti-science forces can be thought of as “the cubs scouts versus the mafia”  I think that there is something to be said for scientists taking a more active role in confronting the anti-science coalition rather than just ignoring or dismissing these people.

Tuesday, I went over to the State Department with my sponsor to participate in a digital video conference between Copenhagen, Denmark, Nuuk, Greenland, and Washington, DC.  The meeting was a Joint Committee Meeting.  The Joint Committee is a partnership between the United States, Greenland, and Denmark whose goal is to “work on concrete, joint projects and programs on the environment, science, health, and technology, trade and tourism, and education and culture.” (US Embassy in Denmark)  At this meeting Renee and I spoke about the Greenland Joint Science Education tour that is sponsored by NSF.  It was really neat to be able to visit the State Department and to talk with people in Copenhagen and Nuuk.

Later in the week, the Einstein Fellows sponsored our first “brown bag” at NSF.  Brown bags are lunch time presentations given at NSF that anyone can sponsor.  Lots of the presentations that I have been to have been in this brown bag format.  The first Einstein Brown Bag was “The Current State of K-12 STEM Education.”  I was one of the presenters and gave an overview of what STEM education is like in a small, suburban, indepentdent, parochial school.  Our presentation was extremely well attended by the NSF community.  It was standing room only and there were people sitting and standing in the hallway listening to our presentations.  We were all very pleased with the turnout and got great feedback from those who attended.

On Thursday evening I was extremely lucky to be able to attend the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse in front of the White House.  I had applied for the ticket lottery


The President (just to the right of the red dot, Malia) at the Tree Lighting

and had not gotten tickets, but one of the other Fellows did get tickets and he gave me one.  It was a wonderful event!  The entire first family was there, the President gave a nice speech, the First Lady read “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, and Sasha and Malia helped to push the button to light up the tree.  Malia also wore a bright red coat, which is very helpful in locating the President in my pictures which were taken from quite a distance.  As part of the ceremony there was a small concert of Christmas music which included Sheryl Crow, Jordin Sparks, and Celtic Woman just to name a few of the artists.  All in all it was a lot of fun to be there and see the lighting of the tree.

Friday night, I went to a reception for USA for UNHCR at Teatro Goldini, an Italian restaurant on K Street.  UNHCR is the United Nations refugee agency and the reception was intended to learn a bit more about the organization as well as what we can do here to help refugees around the world.  I was left feeling both sad and grateful by this event.  I am grateful that an organization like this exists, but very sad that it is necessary.  After the reception, Margie and I walked down to the Ellipse to take in the National Christmas Tree and the Pathway of Peace which features trees representing all the states and territories of the United States.

On Saturday, there was more holiday fun when I visited the Conservatory at the US Botanical Garden and went to the US Air Force Band’s Hooray for Holidays concert.  The Botanical Garden has holiday displays with a

Smithsonian Castle at the Botanical Gardens

huge Christmas tree, a scale model of the buildings along the Mall, and a room full of model trains.  The buildings are all handmade – cast in resin and then covered with dried botanical materials.  The model of the White House was updated this year to include the Obama girls’ swing set.  The model trains are set in a storybook garden that features the homes and settings of many fairy tales, with tracks winding all around them.  After my visit to the garden, I went over to meet some Fellows to attend the concert


Norwegian Tree at Union Station

at DAR Constitution Hall.  The US Air Force Band was amazing and the concert also featured the Singing Sargeants.  The concert’s theme was music from holiday movies and TV shows.

The whole day really helped get me in the holiday spirit, a process that was aided by the factthat it was snowing as well.

The final day of my very holiday weekend, I visited Union Station to see the Norwegian

Christmas display and did a little shopping at the Holiday Market.  The Norwegian Christmas display consists of a large tree and a Norwegian holiday scene with mountains, villages, and model trains.  The display is given each year as a gift from the people of Norway to the people of the United States in appreciation for our help during and after World War II.  The Holiday Market is a street market that lasts throughout the month of December and features all sorts of local artisans and merchants which change throughout the season.  Although it was a very cold day, Margie and I had a great time doing some Christmas shopping there.