Words of Wisdom

Today was a little bit different. Today was the first day all four of the SAGE III interns were together, so our mentor Charles decided to talk about something important with us: the flaws of our own brains. This conversation began with the question, “What is science?” After a few moments of silence I spoke up and said something along the lines of, “The medium through which we seek to understand the universe. Wait, no. medium; not the only one.” To which Charles responded that science was simply “the making of knowledge.” I liked that.

Science ignores any kind of meaning altogether. Rather than answering the question “why,” science seeks to answer the question “how.” It does this by making falsifiable assertions, meaning claims that are testable. And the main postulate of science is that the laws of the universe are self-consistent (and they constrain us, ultimately). But just like everything else good in this world, science has its flaws. The biggest, most apparent one is bias. In the investigation of knowledge, we must actively seek out eliminating our biases. Charles says if there is one thing he wants us to get out of this summer, it is that the human brain is a biased organ.

So we scrolled through a long list of cognitive biases (click here to read about them), and I found myself thinking Oh gosh, that one’s me. Oh, that one too. Oh dear. I have a lot of these. I had to remind myself that many of these biases can actually be traced back to an evolutionary reason, just like so many other aspects of human behavior and cognition. Anyway, the point was to get us to realize just how many of these biases we hold without even really realizing it. In science, we have to actively try to be aware of these biases to produce the most precise, accurate, and reliable data product we can.

This can get cloudy when you throw in groupthink, which I am sure you have heard of before. We humans exhibit certain behaviors that keep us belonging to a certain group, whether it be not speaking up when we disagree with the group, “blocking” dissenting views in order to preserve the harmony of the group, or thinking that the group is so morally right and can do no wrong (doesn’t it kind of sound like political parties?). This is dangerous, as it is extremely polarizing. It’s a bad sign if no one is challenging the results or methods, which is why the IPCC was deemed a non-scientific organization upon the ruling that minority reports would no longer be allowed.

Ultimately, I think what Charles wanted us to realize was that in science, if you get your desired result, that should send you a red flag. You should probably do the experiment or observation again, follow the scientific method again, just to make sure you eliminate your own biases. Of course science has improved significantly and is continuing to improve every day, but these biases can (and do) still creep in.

Well I thought that was a fascinating topic, and I plan to continue to revisit my own biases. I hope you will too! If you’re still reading, I’ll talk a little bit about some of the tasks I began today…

I started learning IDL, a data analysis programming language I haven’t used before. It is commonly used in atmospheric science and physics, so I suppose now would be a good time to pick up that skill. I also began working on a Python script one of the mentors uses that reads binary files from the spacecraft giving information about what time it is on the various subsystems and on the ISS. Timing is incredibly important in space systems, which is something I have quickly realized in my time here. Timing is everything. I will eventually have to improve this script and be able to extract several different times to convert to the GPS time.

Finally, for all you math and aerospace nerds, I began learning about quaternions! I won’t take the time to explain them but they are essentially hypercomplex numbers of rank 4, and they are suitable as rotation operators.

I am probably boring you to death now so I’ll just end by saying that today was the first day since I’ve been here that nothing went wrong, and my car started! Cool. I hope to continue that trend.


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