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STEM and the Public Eye

Being out of school, ironically, helps me think better. It also lets me go mano-a-mano with my television set. There's something fishy about what's in the Public Eye: a blind spot.
In fact, the blind spot can be dead-center of what the Public Eye is looking at, and go completely unnoticed.

We're in a time of need. The unprecedented downturn we are seeing must be matched with an unprecedented recovery. In all industry and business sectors, the world is turning to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) to save money or embiggen their market presence.
Unfortunately, STEM is mostly ignored, and it's getting worse.

The Witless and the Witness
CNN just showed their science/tech staff the door, and now kowtows to their chief meteorologist, a climate change denier. The rest of the media, suffering from bankruptcies and a dispassionate base, aren't faring much better.
Science/technology articles, when they make the press, constantly misrepresent how science works and what scientists find. The witless, like CNN, prefer a bold title and fake conflict. This determines how people see science.
Technology is also out of the news. The iPhone made headlines, but what about its workings? We all could've done with more articles like this: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=how-it-works-touch-surfaces-explained
In a world where top-of-the-line technology is amazingly accessible, people are being intimidated and shut out. It's distressing.

I was recently reading ERV, the blog of a graduate biology student. Her criticism of bad journalism in her field (HIV research) got the attention of one journalist, who broke into an Office-Space-like rant on how journalists were people persons, and scientists couldn't explain their work or its implications.
Eh... even if scientists' writing is like Swiss Cheese and doesn't reach the scope that a journalist has up on their dais, their writing is still important. It's the report of a witness to the science involved, and it offers a public a way to offer questions and add their own perspective. The scientist's own perspective tells us how the work was done and how they reached their conclusions, with a tilt towards the personal rather than the technical.

What I'm trying to say is, I'm reading both sources, and the witnesses are offering a real perspective which has to do with the direction of our future. In other words, what counts. As more scientists feel comfortable writing online, we may find a way for interested students to get started on a career of scientific inquiry.


The Defunct and the Deficit
In case you haven't noticed, our economic situation is fail-tastic. I believe that our entire way of life is threatened, no exaggeration.
Our economy has become sickened. Just as a virus makes cells that act like healthy cells but promulgate more viruses, subprime loans and shaky business models overwhelmed the market. These systems have now fallen apart, but we need a strong foundation to begin our unprecedented recovery.

That foundation should be STEM. The right research in science and engineering will fix our energy and manufacturing deficits. The right research in the mathematics of finance will make our economy secure. The only way to make sure the right research is done: do a lot of research and sort out the best. That's the way science has been done, painstakingly, for a couple centuries.

Fortunately, we have much better connectivity between the sciences - a problem which has kept research from quick and public advancement. I read an excellent article about how the internet and video conferences put a lid on a SARS pandemic. I also recall articles on scientists doing research based on papers they read online, the "witness" articles with scientists discussing work in a public setting, "science cafes" set up for an even more public setting, and college students researching and producing their work using online media tools.
A decade ago, such efficient research would be impossible, even for the top scientists who could access the articles. Now amateur scientists do it, and have their work picked up by the big leagues.


Huge Small Businesses
I get a good deal of my news from nobody in particular. Reddit, a social news website like Digg or Mixx, handles hundreds of thousands of user submissions, clicks, and opinions each day. I believe fewer than ten people have worked on the site over a few years of operation.
Organizations like Wikipedia operate on piecemeal donations yet are consulted worldwide.

How is this even possible? We ought to marvel at this more.
I like to believe that this will produce something which Facebook, Reddit, and Google search are just precursors. But how does David supersede Goliath?

They don't have to. From my dorm room, I have taken advantage of free programming services provided by Google, Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook. Instead of taking on corporations with billions of dollars, a two bit start-up can use pre-built utilities like maps, video, and social networks to power their business model.

Science-wise, technology can change how we run programs in health, education, and service. I can imagine a Facebook app where sick people enter symptoms in exchange for recommended treatments. The app then tracks symptoms across networks and location to form better recommendations and watch for any outbreaks. DHS and the CDC would pay millions for it.


Teleporting into Portal
In July, I read an article about a "teleportation" experiment where an IBM OpenSim character had moved into LindenLab's Second Life. I've never understood Second Life, particularly since I found out it wasn't object-oriented.
The experiment gave me a vision which addresses the problems in Second Life (flying genitalia, graffiti and terrorism, emptiness). Virtual worlds and social networks both have a dual focus: a personalized identity and shared space for friendly interaction.
Facebook, Google, and MySpace have recently opened similar "teleportation" services for using identities and friend information on other websites.
I see virtual worlds, probably based on OpenSim, all being interconnected. When you jump from world to world, you operate under the restrictions of that world. A company may use their virtual world for presentations and forums, and require avatars to wear business attire and use business card identities. This person may then jump to a popular world to hang out with their science fiction club. The people they meet there get access to a character profile, which feeds updates to their real social stream.
I don't see this as making someone's identity follow them, but instead making it so that the effective uses work, and worlds cannot be manipulated by rogue users.


Diverting versus Diversifying
I'm not asking for STEM work at the expense of everyone else. Ultimately, STEM is involved in paying it forward. The arts have embraced technology, especially for sharing work. That's going to get better and more technical, with online tools to edit video and share artistic development.
Engineering-wise, you wouldn't buy a car unless a good deal of artistic genius had gone into it. People especially are hoping for fuel-efficient cars that aren't repulsive.
Finally, our science fiction novellas would be stranded without the theoretical work to support them.

The quiltwork of STEM is the stuff of dreams. We stereotype the lab coats as bad writers and clunky musicians, and puff up the arts as emotive and groundless. But just as artists experimented with the paints and techniques that made their work so lasting and valuable, so do our engineers and mathematicians innovate through bursts of creativity. That is why the architectural engineer will not reach for her calculator on inspiration, but for paper and charcoal. That is why every storywriter who first finds his readers through the internet will think differently from those who started with typewriters and letters to literary magazines.

We need to fund a healthy and diverse STEM, without destroying that system. The efforts made to bring an understanding of STEM into students' and adults' lives cannot be a diversionary one. You can't expect people to stop sustaining their families and working for a living for a pedantic talk on Ganymede. What they can identify with are things like the human urge to push the envelope, to explore and dare ourselves to dream up solutions. To watch people commit themselves to the success of a mission, to see their groundbreaking work bring us closer to understanding the mystery of life - bring those into the living room, put that on television, and people will identify with that.
My mom did some math sessions with some elementary school kids here. After the Phoenix lander had touched down on the Martian tundra, my mom brought in a picture and told them a little about it. They were captivated. A little bit of our humanity went out and touched another planet. We're contagious.


Anyhow: Conclusion
I'm going to be looking into all of this stuff. If I'm right about STEM being able to raise mountains and part seas, it ought to be the best way to promote itself.
There's good material being written about our government's plans to fix STEM education and research. But returning to the virus metaphor, the government is weak and possibly still 'infected'. Beyond government's reach, we have to reintroduce STEM topics in the new and old media, and give talented innovators support. Technology-based solutions shouldn't be kept to special books about "Web 2.0" - it should be part of every economic discussion.
The only way to do that is a massive awareness and STEM confidence campaign. Preferably reaching children in a way that encouraged all people with an interest in STEM to contribute.

One final thing:

The solution for Fermat's Last Theorem came through unusual applications of new mathematics. Our gadgets fail spectacularly at being creative; it is only through human ingenuity that we can make such strides. Said the triumphant mathematician:
Sometimes it was a question of modifying things a bit, doing a little extra calculation. And sometimes I realized that nothing that had ever been done before was any use at all.

Then I just had to find something completely new; it's a mystery where that comes from.
-- Dr. Andrew Wiles


Time to get some pencil and paper.

Videos:
Junior Achievement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDXeETjN8l0
2009 Resolution for STEM: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTlM7XEQ28o
Sally Ride on girls in STEM: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKYhU2T3w7U
Obama on Science Leaders: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMlXNrBxM0g
Obama on STEM diversity (PDF): http://www.sciencedebate2008.com/www/AWSSWEObamaMcCainResponses.pdf
Globalized Car Industry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7v_LLkEIYc0
Global Engineering in Colleges http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9dy0cNCY38#t=20s
Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMQXAaZZdV4