Saturday, April 29, 2017

Affirming Science in Silicon Valley on Earth Day 2017

You can also read the article here.

Nobel Laureate Dr. William Moerner addressing the huge gathering
at the March for Science rally in Downtown San Jose on April 22. 

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- “I was 26 years old when my mother died of breast-cancer,” said Dr. William Moerner, a professor at Stanford and winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry ‘for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.’ He marveled at how far the treatment of breast cancer had come, thanks to science, compared to the painful and crude treatment his mother had to endure in the ‘70s.

Moerner was one of several speakers at the “March for Science” rally in downtown San Jose at the Plaza de Cesar Chavez on Earth Day, April 22. “Today we carry supercomputers in our pockets,” he said. “We are harvesting energy from the sun without damaging nature.” Addressing climate-change deniers, he said, “Science is true whether or not you believe it,” drawing vigorous applause from his listeners who had come together to protest the policies of the ‘Denier-in-Chief’ in the White House. As to what each of us can do, the Nobel-laureate suggested that we learn how to detect fake science, how to explain the value of science to others, and to kindle our curiosity by figuring out how things work. “It’s even fun!” said Moerner, someone who should know.

About 10,000 of us – scientists, artists, students, teachers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and concerned citizens of every stripe and persuasion – had gathered in San Jose to affirm our faith in the importance of science in shaping our lives and in keeping our planet healthy. Similar rallies had taken place in all 50 states and in more than 500 cities around the world in seven continents.

I looked around. The posters, many made of recycled papers as befitting an Earth Day celebration, were pithy, thought-provoking, forceful, factual and witty in a nerdy way.

“The oceans are rising and so are we.”

“Evidence-based policy, not policy-based evidence, a.k.a. alternative facts.”

“No Science, Art or Humanities. No Freedom.”

“Super callow. Fragile ego. Trump you are atrocious."

“Without science you wouldn’t be taking that picture.”

“The ‘upside’ of climate change: Mara-a-Lago under water.”

“Atoms make up everything. So does he.”

The combination of outrage and passion – outrage at Trump’s destructive policies and passion for the health of the earth (“There is no planet B”) – was ineffably inspiring.

Jennifer had a ‘scientific’ message for people: “Think like a proton. Be positive.” Francesca had bedecked herself as Miss Liberty: “May we always have the liberty to seek the Truth.” Arthur used a metaphor from chemistry: “If you’re not a part of the solution, you‘re part of the precipitation.” Third-grader Eli, standing next to his approving father, was clear about his career: “I want to be president an engineer when I grow up.”

There were more women than men, debunking the myth that girls are not into science. 5-year-old Sophia, perched on her mother’s shoulder, declared: “I love science.” A woman weaved her way through the crowd: “Back off, man! I’m a scientist!” Another woman warned of the danger of learning science from politicians and not from scientists like her. Dvina, a native of San Jose currently working as a medical researcher at the University of Munich in Germany, was using her vacation time to reinforce the theme of the rally: “Science not Silence.” The proud parents of 3-month-old Lucia had pinned this sign to her stroller: “Forget princess! I want to be a rocket scientist.”

Dr. Jose Cabrera, a chemistry professor at San Jose City College elicited roars of approval when he identified the critical role community colleges play in America’s educational system and his impassioned plea to young people to consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields as careers. (Disclaimer: Dr. Cabrera was my mentor at City College during my tenure process as a math faculty.) “We are seeing the spread of pseudo-science in our country,” he said. “We must distinguish between science and pseudo-science and learn to see the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.”

The math-themed signs were especially fascinating. Charles, a biophysics PhD from UCSF wanted everyone to know why the irrational number Pi matters: “3.14159 makes everything just so fine!” Crystal’s message was simple with profound implications: “I love Math.” But the most incisive message came from Dora and her 6th-grader son, Adrian who had designed posters praising the contributions of 8th-century mathematician al-Khwarizmi, considered the father of algebra. Married to an American, Dora is a Bulgarian who was praising a Muslim mathematician from olden times! Only in immigrant-rich America was this possible.

Tracy Van Houten, a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), also extolled the value of STEM, particularly for girls and minorities. “Scientists are underrepresented in our government,” she said. Of the 535 members of the Two Houses of Congress, only 11 are scientists. “That’s less than 2 percent! We have to not only protect science but also scientists,” she said. “We will prevail because Trump fears facts and facts are on our side.” Houten had to recently make a wrenching decision. “I was exploring the universe but gravity pulled me back to earth. I loved my job at the JPL,” she said, “but I felt the fierce urgency of now, this calling to rescue our country from partisan muck and science-deniers and put science back at the center of decision-making.” After Trump’s election, she quit her JPL job and is now running to represent the 34th Congressional District of California in the Congress.

The rally was billed not as a protest but as a march to affirm the value of science and to demand that the Trump administration use facts rather than polarizing and paralyzing ideologies to frame policies. We have a president who ignores evidence in favor of opinion, who has picked, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a man who denies that carbon dioxide is a primary source of global warming. Trump’s proposed budget would cut $12.6 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services, including $5.8 billion from the National Institute of Health alone, with potentially disastrous consequences for medical research. His ban on immigration threatens our scientific institutions like MIT, a significant percentage of whose faculty is foreign-born.

What will it mean for America if Trump has his way? Byron, a marine biologist, shared his perspective with me at the rally. “I don’t believe Trump will succeed. He will probably be neutered by division within his own party. His policies are likely to grind to a halt. But we can never be sure, so we have to keep up the momentum.”

The most moving moment at the rally came when I ran into 14-year-old Justin, a sophomore at the local Bellarmine College Preparatory. Justin suffers from Wilson’s disease, a rare inherited disorder caused by the mutation of a certain type of gene that leads to liver inflammation and reduced kidney function. “If it were not for drugs like syprine developed by scientists at 
Wilson’s Disease Association
, I wouldn’t be here. I owe my life to medical science.”

Friday, April 21, 2017

Lack of Tax Returns Puts Trump on Trial

“Where are you from?” I asked the couple who had greeted me with big smiles.

“From Sierra Nevada,” the wife replied.

When my eyes widened, the man said, “No, not the one in Spain. The one in California!”

We laughed.

Around us, in front of the City Hall in San Jose, people were gathering for the April 15 Tax March, part of the nationwide rally to demand that president Trump disclose his tax returns for transparency and accountability.

Vida and husband Bill, along with daughter Lauren, son-in-law Steve and 1-year-old granddaughter Lilian, had driven 170 miles from Arnold, a picturesque town in the high Sierra, to join the march.

“We have a moral obligation.” said Vida, “Trump must know he is accountable to the people of the United States.” She and Bill had come prepared with posters they were waving for passersby to see: “Trump can’t fool all the people any time” and “No Tax Reform until we see your Tax Returns for twenty years.”

By noon, our numbers had swelled to about 700. Cars whizzing by honked to indicate their approval as we filled the spring sky with resonant chanting:

“Hey hey, Ho, ho. Donald Trump has got to go!”
“No more secrets, no more lies. Show your taxes, show your ties!”

I looked around. The posters told the story as well as any storyteller could. Three generations of Turner family of San Jose held up posters that read “Wanted: Trump’s Taxes” and “Nevertheless, She persisted.” The Turners are the driving force behind “Indivisible East San Jose,”
 one of the 5983 Indivisible groups nationwide that had spontaneously been formed after Trump became the president.

Other signs included “Use Trump’s Taxes to pay for his wall! Do not use my taxes!” 

“7 trips to Mar-a-Lago but cuts to kids’ programs, EPA, Libraries. Shame!” 

“What are you afraid of? Treason?” 

“Real Men Show Their Taxes!” 

“Did You Lose Your Taxes Like You Lost the Popular Vote?” and so on.

One particularly creative San Josean put Trump’s tax fiasco in perspective by identifying the seven presidents before him who had released their tax returns with a check box next to their names but a big red X next to Trump’s. Lida, a naturalized American citizen from San Leandro, designed her own: “Manchurian Idiot.”

Shelly, a 66-year-old activist, spoke of her philosophy: “Peaceful resistance is the answer. Each one of us must care for the other. Trump doesn’t care. I have to do my part to show I don’t support his ideas.”

At the downtown Cesar Chavez Plaza that was our destination, the megaphone belonged to anyone with anything to share with the marchers. No politicians or celebrities or big names, just ordinary Americans expressing their concern about the direction the country was heading under Trump. “We have lost the thought war,” said a woman. “We did not vote, thinking it would be a cakewalk for Hillary. We have got to get the vote out, retake the Congress, the Senate and, of course, the White House.” Another speaker asked the rally to be vigilant about Republican gerrymandering. But mostly it was about the unacceptability of Trump holding himself above the law, about issuing executive orders that violated the fundamental values of America, and about lack of transparency in not disclosing his tax returns. “Before the election, Trump kept talking about Obama’s missing birth certificate,” said a young African-American. “What we want to know is why his tax returns are missing!”

The rally was not just about tax returns, it was about building a community and imbuing it with hope and purpose. The passion in the march was palpable. “I see people’s power in action,” said John standing next to me, clearly energized. “I will be a part of every march in San Jose, climate march, science march, any march that unites us so we can get Trump off White House as soon as possible. The future of our country is at stake!”

I stopped by the campus of San Jose State University (SJSU) that’s within walking distance of City Hall. I had taught at this university many years before but nostalgia was not the reason for my visit. I wanted to re-read the plaque honoring two of SJSU’s most famous student-athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

To refresh the reader’s memory, 200-meter sprinters Smith and Carlos represented the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. Smith won the gold medal and Carlos the bronze. At the podium during the award ceremony, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner to express their disillusionment with a nation that tolerated, and even encouraged, racism against African-Americans. Millions of Americans were outraged. They were vilified, suspended and received death threats but Smith and Carlos never relented, never apologized. "We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country," Smith said years later.

37 years on, in October of 2005, Smith and Carlos were honored by their alma mater with statues capturing their iconic, unforgettable image at the Olympics podium. The plaque states that they were honored because they stood for “justice, dignity, equality and peace.”

I felt a shiver down my spine as I read those words. Here we were, almost half-a-century later, and our country is awash with what seems to be even more virulent forms of injustice, indignity, inequality and hostility than what Smith and Carlos saw and felt in 1968.

How could we have regressed so much? I wondered. What made it possible for someone like Donald Trump to become the president of the United States?
Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Only a Donald Trump could have pulled off the unique feat of combining both tragedy and farce in his first 100 days in office.

Yet the Tax March I attended has given us hope that we can bring about the change we seek. As Candy Basso, a member of the Indivisible Blue Sisters said at the Chavez Plaza, “I never protested in my life until now. I was in the blue bubble. I want to thank Donald Trump for one thing. He has awakened us. The silent majority is silent no more.”