Saturday, June 16, 2012

Career Advice for New Grads

A few days ago I was describing my old engineering job to one of my physics students.  I summarized the role I played as a structural engineer for an astronautical space company, ensuring that satellites that were launched into space would not break during rocket launch or during the thermal cycling of Low-Earth orbit.  I would optimize the parts for cost and mass, and then know that these multi-million dollar hunks of metal and composite fiber would encircle our planet relaying electromagnetic signals for years to come.

Then came a question that I get asked a lot: "Why did you leave?"

I left a few years ago, and had a difficult time answering this question clearly and accurately at that time.  Now, having practiced my response to "Why did you leave engineering to teach physics?" about a hundred times, I am beginning to better understand it myself.  While major career decisions are seldom one-dimensional, the ultimate reason that I left my 'cool' job tinkering with high-tech space equipment is quite straight forward.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Carl Sagan: The Greatest Storyteller of Science

When I mention the name "Carl Sagan" in my physics classes, only a small minority of my students recognize it.  It is a shame, as in my view, he is the greatest author of science non-fiction of all time.  It is also surprising, as he was the leading physics rock star of his time: His masterpiece, The Cosmos, has amassed an audience in the area of five hundred million (it exists as a TV series and an accompanying book).  A leading astrophysicist and genial communicator, Sagan inspired wonder, and helped to attract a generation of scientists to their field.

Sagan has been on my mind over the past month as I made my way through what has become my new favourite non-fiction book: The Demon-Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark.  It happens to be the last book that Sagan wrote.  Published in early 1996, it was his love letter to science and his parting message to us all; he died later that year at the relatively young age of 62 after a long battle with myelodysplasia.

Unlike much of his previous work, The Demon-Haunted World deals less with the behaviour of nature and more with the practice of science.  He details the importance of critical thinking among all members of society and methodically rips apart the practice of mysticism and pseudoscience through detailed analyses of ghost mythology, astrology, witchcraft and, in particular, UFO 'encounters'.

What makes this work so special is the complete treatment that each of these diverse topics receives.  While most readers of science non-fiction are skeptical of alien visitors, they rarely go the extra step, and ask why a non-negligible proportion of people claim to have been abducted by green extraterrestrials.  The conclusions presented in this book enter the realms of psychology and psychiatry, and the discussion follows  fascinating directions that I did not see coming.  For example, I had not considered the fact that most alien abductees claim to have been taken advantage of sexually in a space ship, and most of them also have a history of being sexually abused.