Computing Applications

Explaining Science and Engineering

Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

The human suffering caused by the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor damage in Japan have saddened us all. As we watch the ongoing struggle to cope with the complexities of a multifactor crisis, we can offer technical and logistics assistance where appropriate, extend emotional and social support to our friends and colleagues, and draw insights, as we always do, for possible responses to future disasters. Each such challenge reminds us that the interplay among complex, dynamical systems is subtle and deep, and that chaos, not just in its popular definition, but in its deep mathematical sense, is ever present, lurking in the shadows, aided by its old friend entropy.

Public Communication

Beyond generating an outpouring of international concern and highlighting the interconnectedness of our society and our shared humanity, the events in Japan have also thrust a plethora of scientific and engineering terms into the international news media and public discourse: tectonic plates, subduction zones and fault planes in the lithosphere; tsunamis, fluid dynamics and wave shoaling;  nuclear fission, criticality, neutron moderation and half-lives; atmospheric dispersion, the jet stream and diffusion processes.

As I have read the international newspapers, watched the television reports, listened to the radio interviews and scanned the web sites, I have been struck by the challenges each news organization has faced in explaining technical concepts in intuitive and readily accessible terms. Whether it be explaining logarithmic earthquake scales (e.g., the Richter scale), where a unitary delta corresponds to an order of magnitude difference in magnitude; radioactivity and half-lives, where exponential decay reduces the quantity of material; or the subtleties of dose equivalent radiation exposure measurements, Sieverts and food life cycles, successful explanations depend on both the knowledge of the reporters and of the audiences.

All too often, I have heard inaccurate descriptions of scientific processes or hyperbolic assessments of risks, neither grounded in facts or statistics. This is, perhaps, a teachable moment, where we can highlight the importance of scientific and engineering literacy across all of society, not just among a cadre of technical experts.  

Scientific Literacy

Regardless of what we might hope, no engineering structure, whether a nuclear reactor, tsunami sea wall, or earthquake resilient building can be perfectly safe, fully effective or absolutely resistant. Nor can all possible outcomes be anticipated in a natural disaster. One can only plan and assess, then execute accordingly, drawing on the best practices and knowledge currently available, and then learning valuable lessons from each failure.

Our society depends deeply on scientific and engineering advances – including those in computing – for they are embedded in our communication systems, manufacturing processes and supply chains, food production and processing, logistics and transportation, energy production and environmental interactions, and economic mechanisms.  Societal understanding of scientific processes and terminology, as well a shared appreciation for the engineering design balances among costs, functionality and risks are essential to informed debate and decision making.  

In turn, that understanding rests on our continued investment and support for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, from advanced technical degrees to general awareness of science and engineering principles among all our citizens.  We must continue to make STEM and computing exciting and accessible, for we live in a technological society, with all its incumbent implications.

Meanwhile, I continue to wish my friends and colleagues in Japan the very best. Their struggle is our struggle.

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