The New Ambassadors of Science

WEEK IN REVIEW / by Evan Lerner /

Francis Collins and Regina Benjamin are tapped, SpaceX races NASA into orbit, a Pew Poll on the public perception of science, and Microsoft releases Feynman lectures.

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Which is why Collins should be held as a good ambassador and role model. Despite some deeply unscientific statements on his website, this is a person who has radically shifted his spiritual beliefs about human origins based on the evidence of the natural world. Unless he greenlights a multimillion-dollar investigation into how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, he can be trusted to keep the physical and metaphysical aspects of his life separate when it counts.1 

But for those pining for the good old days of science ambassadors, there’s always Richard Feynman. Bill Gates is presenting the physicist, educator, and bongo enthusiast’s 1964 Cornell lecture series for free via Project Tuva. The site wasn’t built entirely out of the goodness of Microsoft’s heart, however. Project Tuva shows off the capabilities of Microsoft Research’s Silverlight web app, which does deliver some nifty interactive elements and could be a boon to science communicators in and of itself. 

“I think someone who can make science interesting is magical,” says Gates in his introduction to the series. Feynman certainly fits Gates’ criteria, but to ask the magical question on everyone’s mind this week: What would Dumbledore do? He’d tip his pointy cap to the memory of a true wizard of science communication, Don Herbert, who would have turned 92 last Friday. 

This Week in Rocketry

This week the private company SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into orbit for the second time in five tries. With it was a Malaysian remote sensing satellite, RazakSat, the company’s first commercial payload. Others will surely follow; the company already has a contract with NASA to haul cargo up to the International Space Station starting next year. 

Meanwhile, NASA’s Endeavor had been waiting a month to haul a new crew up to the station, and after a series of fuel leaks and weather delays, finally got its chance this week. The shuttle looked like it could be left on the launch pad on its sixth consecutive attempt, but took off through gray skies on Wednesday. The workhorse of the US space program is in the twilight of its long career; NASA may tap SpaceX to fill its role as well once the shuttle is retired, which could be as early as 2010. SpaceX is planning to test Falcon 9—the vehicle on which its human-rated Dragon capsule is slated to rest—later this year.

1Update 7/17/09: It should be noted that Collins will step down from his role at BioLogos once he begins at the NIH.

Originally published July 17, 2009

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