Science And Beauty In Boston: A Weekend of Whales, Tomatoes, and Dark Matter

 @rpalmerscience
on February 19 2013 9:12 AM

Thousands of scientists descended on Boston on Presidents Day weekend to show off their research, talk shop and contemplate the future at the 2013 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

 

The meeting is the largest general scientific conference in the world, and offered something to satisfy every kind of science enthusiast imaginable.

 

In one lecture, “Modernist Cooking” author and former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold explained why wine tastes better after being run through a blender. The rapid agitation of the blender provides more surface area to aerate the wine. Instead of just breathing, it's practically hyperventilating – which is probably what a wine purist would do if you pour his $28,500 bottle of Montrachet 1978 into a Cuisinart.

 

At one discussion of the latest insights into whale biology, researchers from the Smithsonian described how they can use 3D printing technology to study ancient whale fossils.

 

Arizona State University scientist Cheryl Nickerson, who keeps a lab aboard the International Space Station, related how studying bacteria in the low-gravity environment of Earth's orbit could lead to new vaccines for a number of diseases, including the common food-borne pathogen salmonella.

 

One discussion concerning the ongoing search for dark matter largely struck a tone of optimism. Scientists have been looking for evidence of dark matter for decades, to no avail. But in 2015, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN will come back online after taking a two-year break for a power upgrade that should make it more feasible for researchers to spot the signature of this invisible material. At that same talk, University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner promised to eat his laptop if anyone was able to prove the existence of non-Newtonian gravity.

 

The theme of the weekend was “The Beauty and Benefits of Science,” so naturally, one has to wonder: what do scientists find beautiful about their profession?

 

“Studying something scientifically is like studying a musical score,” says University of British Columbia psychologist Janet Werker, who presented research at AAAS exploring how bilingual babies pick up on grammar cues. “The more you know, the greater the aesthetic experience. In other words, science gives us a set of tools that allows us to appreciate the elegant intricacies of complex systems of all kinds.”

 

When asked what makes science beautiful, University of Florida horticulturalist Harry Klee, who's working to make a tastier tomato, waxed a bit wistful.

 

“What is beautiful and getting rarer is the ability to take your research in entirely new and unpredictable directions,” Klee said in an email. “To follow a thread because you believe it is interesting and important, no matter the direction.”

 

Jeremy De Silva, a Boston University researcher who studies the evolution of the human foot, was saddened by the thought that people might feel threatened by science, or think it's a cold, distant examination of the natural world that strips it of beauty.

 

“In my opinion, this is completely wrong," De Silva says. "Science gives us a way to examine our world -- not the way we want it to be, but the way it actually is – a world that is astonishingly old, complex, and yes, beautiful.”

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