AAAS Meeting

I’d like to share a few experiences from the AAAS meeting in San Diego last weekend.
First and foremost, and most relevant to this blog, was the DoSER (Dialog on Science, Ethics, and Religion) reception, held annually at these meetings. This is an AAAS sponsored program. At the reception, AAAS Vice President Al Teich and Francis Collins announced that Jennifer Wiseman will be the new Director of DoSER. She will take this role as a joint appointment in addition to becoming NASA’s chief scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope in a few months. She is vice president of the ASA council and will be president next year. Teich also announced that Templeton had agreed to fund DoSER for four years. One of the major objectives of the program is to bridge the communities of evangelical Christians and of scientists. We’ll be working closely with Jennifer during the coming years to make progress on this daunting but important task.

I don’t usually attend the award ceremony but this year Francis Collins received the Philip Hauge Abelson award for outstanding service to science and society. He was only given two minutes for an acceptance speech but he did well as usual.

I was surprised that there seemed to be relatively few papers on paleontology and anthropology this year, at least compared to last year. I had thought Ardi would be featured but apparently that’s old news by now. There were many sessions on dealing with climate change. Comments on that will be posted in that thread.

One theme of great interest to me was the 50th anniversary celebration of the laser. Ted Maimon constructed the first laser on May 17, 1960, only a few years after Charles Townes had built the first maser and then published a design for a laser. Several symposia recounted the history of this development and went on to describe the impact of lasers in our world and to discuss future directions.

Ed Moses gave an excellent overview of the National Ignition Facility. Construction of this facility began about 15 years ago and is now poised to achieve fusion within a year or two. They have already successfully fired all the lasers and met the timing targets to impinge all laser pulses on a 5mm gold cylinder. I recall sending one of our x-ray lithography experts to NIF about 10 years ago to participate in a review of the feasibility of this incredibly large project. Their vote of confidence seems to have been well placed. They have built 192 lasers that generate a total of 1.8 megajoules and 500 terawatts of ultraviolet laser energy. Whether or not fusion will ever be an economically viable energy source is still unknown but the science and technology inventions underlying this project will undoubtedly pay off. More information can be found at the NIF website.

Another laser talk by Nobel prize winner David Payne focused on the use of lasers in telecommunications. Erbium doped amplifiers and Ytterbium doped fibers have literally transformed the field. I was impressed with the progress in fiber lasers. Using reflectors on the ends of a short piece of fiber and pumping it in the right way leads to a powerful continuous wave laser. They have now demonstrated a 10kW CW laser and think they can get higher. This is likely to open up lots of opportunities of new applications for lasers.

A topical plenary session by Carol Greider on her 2009 Nobel prize-winning work on telomerase, was very impressive. She described the importance of telomeres, the repeating sets of TTGGGG that terminate each chromosome. These telomeres tend to shorten during each cell division and can ultimately lead to cellular malfunction. She then showed how they designed and carried out experiments to elucidate the role of telomerase, which restores the length of telomeres. Even those of us who weren’t biologists felt we could understand and enjoy the talk.

Another plenary talk of interest was the future of stem cell research. I was particularly interested in the 5 year program recently started on ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) since my father died of ALS. This time they are focusing on astrocytes that surround the motor neurons.

Finally, several ASA’ers helped staff the booth which we share with several other organizations (Zygon, CTNS, and PASTC). There’s usually a slow stream of people coming by to talk. We can’t afford to give out fancy gizmo’s like many of the booths but we can attract those who are interested in science and faith. Those who stopped to talk include those who expressed zero interest, those who didn’t know the two could be connected, aggressive anti-genetic engineering advocates, young-earth creationists, Jewish scientists curious about the approach from Christian perspectives, and many more. We gave out lots of brochures as well as some journals and newsletters. Hopefully we can gain more visibility.

Next year, the AAAS meeting will be in Washington DC. Maybe some of you can come help us there!

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