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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"The New Science: Imagining the Unimaginable"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Lecture to Dallas Museum of Natural History

October 22, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good evening to all, and thank you, Nicole {Nicole Small, CEO of the Dallas Museum of Natural History}, for a kind introduction. I'm very pleased to be with you tonight, and I'd also like to thank Lucy Brittian of the Museum for her assistance with my visit.

One of the deep satisfactions of my tenure as director of the National Science Foundation has been the breathtaking comprehension of science and engineering as one vastly interconnected enterprise, and it is from that vantagepoint that I will speak tonight.

[title slide: "The New Science: Imagining the Unimaginable"]
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I've entitled my talk "The New Science: Imagining the Unimaginable," for only by taking an over-arching view across the scientific disciplines—from muons to memes, from fractals to pheromones, from joules to genes—can we begin to envision how this great, interwoven enterprise will shape our world more decisively than ever before, transforming how we educate young and old, how we provide health care, and even how we view the cosmos.

Early in his career, Albert Einstein had already recognized these linkages with his words, "It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the unity of a complex of phenomena that to direct observation appear quite separate things."

[convergence zone with superimposed quote]
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Across all of science today, much of the excitement of discovery ignites at the interfaces of disciplines. The sea itself provides a metaphor for this, where water masses of different temperatures converge, gyres form, polynyas appear, upwelling occurs, and nutrients collect at the interfaces.

Of course, convergence zones may appear, shift and disappear; although ephemeral, they are often where nutrients mass and where fish and seabirds up the food chain concentrate to feast. Just so are the interfaces between physical science, engineering and biology, and now the social sciences: discovery foments in these "hyphenated" zones.

Other deep realities are also shaping the new science.

  • Mathematics is becoming more than ever the fundamental language of science.
  • Complexity infuses and illumines all of science and engineering.
  • International collaboration is now the norm in the borderless world of scientific thought.
  • New tools of vision are opening our eyes to frontiers at scales large and small, from quarks to the cosmos. Indeed, science progresses in synchrony with the refinement of cutting-edge instruments.
  • Spectacularly large databases, accumulating in fields from astronomy to genomics, underscore that we are living in an exponential world.
  • Shared cyberinfrastructure will expand our ability to collaborate and will accelerate progress across the board. As NSF's chief computer scientist, Peter Freeman, puts it, "We are planning for facilities that a chemist can use this morning, a physicist can use this afternoon, and an earthquake engineer can use tonight."
  • Also part of what we imagine is to interweave research and education into a seamless whole, and to make science and engineering more inclusive of now underrepresented groups.

[Three bullets: Frontiers in: Science of Learning, Genomics, Astronomy and Astrophysics]
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Discoveries in three dynamic, yet quite disparate, disciplines help to illuminate the outlines of the new science. These are: the science of learning, genomics, and astronomy and astrophysics.

[stylized fMRI brain]
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A legitimate question might be why we need a science of learning. I'm reminded of an observation made by a physicist, Joe Redish of the University of Maryland, who recently recounted a conversation between two of his students—one a senior and one a freshman. The older student commented, "Redish makes you think—that's his goal" which the younger student replied, "It's fine if I have to think, as long as I still get an "A"!

As Redish himself then observed, "Education is harder than physics!"

[Baseball picture with words, "Imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science..."]
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"Imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science." Alison Gopnik, writing in the New York Review of Books, makes that analogy with humor but also, perhaps, with a grain of truth. Young children, she says, would read about baseball technique, answer quizzes about baseball rules, and occasionally hear stories about baseball greats. Some coaches would argue that students should drill in fundamental baseball skills. "Undergraduates might be allowed," says Gopnik, "to reproduce famous historic baseball plays. But only in graduate school would they, at last, actually get to play a game."

[screen shot: children's video game]
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James Paul Gee, a University of Wisconsin professor of reading who watched his four-year-old learn and enjoy long and challenging video games, believes that such games embody some interesting principles of learning. Inspired to attempt a popular video game himself, he found it extraordinarily difficult.

"How in heaven's name do they sell so many of these games when they are so long and hard?" he asked himself, noting that subsequent games just get longer and more challenging. His conclusion: "...the theory of learning in good video games fits better with the modern high-tech global world today's children and teenagers live in than do the theories (and practices) of leaning that they see in school."

These are admittedly provocative words, and they do not take note of changing approaches in science and math education, yet they do underscore the need to develop the emerging science of learning.

[Science of Learning]
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The science of learning is a broad canopy arching over diverse scientific streams. The social sciences investigate the nature of perception and memory, and the role of motivation and emotion in learning. Biosciences cover the gamut from molecular to behavioral foundations of learning. Cognitive neuroscience brings us insight into the neural basis of learning in humans and other species. The physical and information sciences and engineering are now creating machines that learn. Educational sciences cover pedagogy from schools to colleges to lifelong learning.

[genes to learning and behavior]
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Here's another argument for a science of learning—showing that components of learning operate at every scale from genetic to digital to societal. To truly investigate learning, we must integrate insights from every level through collaborations between biologists and engineers, or between psychologists and computer scientists. Such research builds the basis for the classroom of the future, even the foundation for learning beyond the classroom, and for educating our future workforce. The National Science Foundation is now setting up Centers for the Science of Learning that will explore these frontiers.

[fMRI brains with dyslexia]
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At the neuroscience level, the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technique—or fMRI—has revealed new insights about dyslexia, the common reading disability that has afflicted many talented people. This powerful imaging technique—which arose from obscure research on the energy state of an atom's nucleus, not from cognitive science--has now revealed that regions of the brain operate differently in dyslexics, as seen in these images by Guinevere Eden of Georgetown University. These insights have spawned new educational strategies to teach people with dyslexia to map symbols to corresponding sounds. Intervention early in children's lives seems promising.

[snake and snake brain]
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A special and little understood type of learning--spatial learning—underlies much of science, from visualizing molecules to the structure of the earth to a surgical procedure to a rocket engine. Much research has been done about how we learn to read, yet we do not know how people acquire—or how to teach--these important spatial skills.

David Holtzman at the State University of New York is studying the brains of snakes for clues to spatial learning. Adult snakes experience ongoing neurogenesis faster and throughout more of the brain than do mammals, so activities affecting neurogenesis can be identified more readily in snakes. This snake has been trained to find an escape hole by following either visual cues or a mouse odor, with each activity an example of spatial learning. The inset of a snake's brain illustrates cells produced after a spatial learning experience.

A broader question is whether the environment—especially cognitive activities in the environment--can increase the number of neurons in a snake's brain, or even whether neurogenesis could be sped up in the brains of mammals, including humans. This research begins to lay the groundwork to explore such questions.

[child/adults with sandbox experiment]
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How spatial skills develop in the child's brain is the focus of research by Nora Newcombe at Temple University. Her data seem to indicate a "fundamental transformation of spatial thought between 18 and 24 to 30 months," she says. 18-month-olds, for example, can find an object in a sandbox but can't remember its location very well after being distracted. Insights about why a child finds a peek-a-boo game such fun actually have relevance to robotics—as in teaching a robot to navigate a new environment such as a collapsed building, or perhaps rough terrain on another planet.

[three girls with math blackboard in background]
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At the social level, it has been shown that stereotypes matter in learning, for poor expectations can lower test performance. For example, if women and blacks are subtly reminded of gender or racial differences in performance, they may score lower on tests.

Females who view math intelligence as a fixed trait—"There's really not much I can do to change how well I can learn calculus"—do not develop as strong a sense of belonging to their calculus class.

[virtual handshake]
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The science of learning also feeds into the concept of human-centered computing—that computer systems should dovetail with and expand human capabilities instead of forcing humans to adapt to machines. The virtual handshake depicted here is still a fantasy, yet being able to touch and smell may be important to virtual learning and other tasks. Medical instructors say that surgeons need to be able to smell—part of perceiving when they have nicked a vessel, for example.

[comparison of old and new airplane cockpits]
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Pilots, especially in combat aircraft, must process complex information and make rapid-fire decisions, yet the traditional cockpit display at left is a cumbersome way to convey information fast. This type of format, bristling with dials, was actually inherited from the steam engine, because the Wright brothers and their contemporaries had no other models available. The contrasting, more intuitive display at right has been developed at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition at the University of West Florida. It engages a pilot's central and peripheral vision in a comprehensive way, enabling a pilot to perceive a plane's status in a fraction of a second, instead of taking several seconds as required with the old display.

[Craig Venter's dog "Shadow" and dog genome]
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I move now to genomics, my second scientific frontier. This is Shadow, the nine-year-old standard poodle owned by genomic entrepreneur Craig Venter and the first dog to be sequenced, as announced just last month. Next to Shadow is Ewen Kirkness who led the sequencing effort. It will not shock you to learn that dogs have many more genes linked to smelling than we do. Yet, dogs and humans share 18,500 genes, well over half of the total of human genes. Some 360 genetic diseases of dogs have human counterparts, and only human beings have a more extensive clinical literature.

Comparing our genomes to those of other species has brought some surprises. It used to be speculated that human beings had about 190,000 genes; we now know that we actually have about 30,000, about twice that of a roundworm, and that we share nearly half our DNA with yeast. We also now recognize that the number of genes is overshadowed by the complexity of how those genes interact.

[genomic sequencing: bases versus cost over time]
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This powerful tool of genomics is also getting cheaper to use. As the graph shows, the costs of sequencing are dropping rapidly; the graph plots bases sequenced per dollar from 1985 to 2013.

When the human genome project began, sequencing a single DNA base cost about $10; in 2003, it costs only an average of three cents a base. According to some estimates, the "thousand dollar genome" could be a reality in the next five years.

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Imagine sitting in your doctor's waiting room for an hour or so waiting for your very own genomic sequence to be unraveled, enabling medical advice tailored precisely to you. Nanopore technology, shown in an artist's conception here, is pointing the way to ever-more-rapid genome sequencing. A Harvard University project uses ion beams to "shrink-wrap" a pore down to the right size (about two nanometers, or 40,000 times smaller than a human hair). Then a DNA strand is pulled through the nanopore like a noodle. The idea is that each DNA base will interfere with an electrical current in the pore in its unique way, reporting its identity like a bar code, at incredible speed.

[SARS virus collage]
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Insights from genomics are reverberating from one end of bioscience to the other—from anthropology to ecology to biophysics and beyond. Canadian and U.S. researchers were able to map the genome of the SARS virus in about a week. Although a SARS vaccine could be years away, progress in genomics, and collaboration around the globe sped by information technology, may shorten the time frame considerably.

[fin and blue whales]
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Genomics has already proven its worth in what might be called "conservation forensics." In 1999, DNA technology enabled a sample of whale meat sold in Osaka, Japan to be traced to a particular whale—a hybrid of a blue and a fin whale, which had been harpooned off Iceland. (The pictures here show a blue whale and a pair of fin whales.) As the authors of the study, Frank Cipriano and Steven Palumbi, wrote in the journal Nature, "Such techniques can be useful in genetic monitoring program developed for the future regulation of the whaling industry and for international management of whaling stocks."

[NSFPR 03-84]
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Genomic insights are also pushing back the limits to our understanding of what life needs to exist. Just a month ago, as this NSF press release portrays, Science Magazine featured "Strain 121"—a microorganism that lives at 121 degrees C—the hottest existence known, in a black smoker on the Juan de Fuca ridge off the northwestern United States. Its discovery was reported by Derek Lovley and Kazem Kashefi of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the organism was isolated by John Baross at the University of Washington.

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Only in the past few years have we begun to employ the powerful new tool of genomics to identify "what's out there"—and microbiology has benefited perhaps more than any other field. One focus for such research is the microbial communities of Yellowstone National Park. As NSF microbiologist Matt Kane remarks, "The variety of environmental gradients and habitats probably harbors more microbial diversity than any other single site on our planet."

Here at a Yellowstone thermal spring, a team led by David Ward of Montana State University is indeed probing a new concept of species. The research team is exploring the mixed origin of genes in a genome—some inherited conventionally and others acquired through lateral transfer from organisms in the environment. The traditional concept of species falls short of being able to describe these communities of microorganisms.

[diagram of metagenomics approach]
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A new approach called metagenomics encompasses the community rather than the species as the unit of study. The process begins by recovering large genomic fragments directly from microbial communities. All the DNA in representative samples is sequenced, thereby revealing the proteins produced by microorganisms, without having to culture them. The community genome provides a comprehensive picture of the gene functions distributed among individual members.

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The bacterium Wolbachia has brought us quite another genomic surprise. Wolbachia is found in some 20-70% of arthropods around the globe; here we see it depicted in its interaction with a small parasitic wasp. In the spirit of the observation that "smaller fleas...have smaller still to bite 'em, and so proceed ad infinitum," the wasp is laying its own eggs inside the round white egg of a butterfly. The hatched wasp larvae consume the butterfly egg and emerge as new wasps.

The wasp's egg, in turn, is the blue, oblong shape; the arrow points to the brightly stained Wolbachia bacteria that accumulate at the end of the egg destined to develop into the wasps' reproductive organs. Most startling, the bacterium can alter the reproductive capacity of the host wasp so that only infected individuals can reproduce with each other. This might eventually lead to new species, arising in quite an unconventional way.

With each new genomic revelation—whether discovery of a new extremophile, gene transfer, or interspecies genetic exchange-we confront new questions about what it means to be alive. We have even found life on earth that does not require sunlight.

But disciplinary convergence carries us into even stranger realms. As astrobiologist Chris Impey of the University of Arizona said at a recent NSF astronomy symposium, we may find that life does not need carbon chemistry and that life on earth is not unique.

[Pelican Nebula]
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This launches us to my final "unimaginable" frontier of astronomy and astrophysics. At our astronomy symposium, one speaker after another emphasized that a startling picture of the universe has begun to emerge just in the past decade, and some of these revelations are only a year or two old.

[Kirshner's evolution of universe from Big Bang to present day acceleration]
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  • "We are in an extravagant universe—not your father's universe," said Robert Kirshner at the symposium.
  • "Cosmologists are now in a more sophisticated state of confusion today," said Christopher Stubbs.
  • "It is indeed a very strange universe," said Neta Bahcall.

[Milky Way]
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In the beginning of the 20th century, the Milky Way, our own galaxy, was the entire known universe. Today, however, astronomers use much better light sources to probe much further back in time.

[brighter stars for longer distances]
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Here, in this example from Harvard's Robert Kirshner, supernovae serve as superb light sources to let us look a few billion light-years into the past. As one astronomer put it, supernovae are powerful cosmological probes—like a string of 100-watt light bulbs stretched out into the universe.

[Pie chart: dark energy and dark matter]
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Now, separate lines of evidence from physics and astronomy are converging to give outlines of a new picture of the universe. This chart seems to take us into the realm of science fiction, since it shows that known matter is perhaps only 4% of what exists. As for the two major components of the universe, we have named these components dark energy and dark matter, but we do not know what they are. We do know that a battle is raging, as dark matter slows the universe down and dark energy speeds it up.

[VLA and HST colliding galaxies]
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Astronomers for some time have observed not only through optical frequencies but with "radio eyes." These two contrasting images of colliding galaxies—the upper right from the Hubble Space Telescope and the left from the ground-based radio telescope, the Very Large Array—offer complementary information, for each instrument "sees" differently.

[Frances Halzen table: expect surprises]
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New astronomical tools have always brought unexpected revelations, and with each new window on the universe we can anticipate more. From Galileo's optical telescope, intended for navigation, came the discovery of Jupiter's moons. From Hubble's optical telescope, aimed at nebulae, came the realization of an expanding universe. From Jansky's radio telescope, developed to pick up radio "noise," came the discovery of radio galaxies. The list goes on—x-rays, intended to watch thermonuclear explosions, brought us knowledge of gamma ray bursts. Now we have a telescope at the South Pole, buried in the ice sheet, looking for neutrinos from far-flung space.

[planet transiting in front of star]
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One last frontier of recent astronomical discovery has been the pinpointing of some 100 giant extrasolar planets—planets beyond our own solar system—around stars like our sun. But how would we know if we found a planet suited for life, at least earth-like life? This slide demonstrates a new technique to detect smaller planets: when a planet passes in front of a star, the star dims somewhat (that's the trough in the graph).

[Earth, Venus and Mars comparative spectra]
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The Earth in space is very small and very faint, and comparable in size to Venus, yet its spectrum from space is very different from that of Venus. Water and ozone are very prominent components of our own planet's spectrum—an insight derived only when looking at our own planet from afar, as if it were extraterrestrial.

[Earth orbit sunrise]
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I conclude now with this view from space of the delicate gossamer veil of the earth's atmosphere, a spectacular panorama provided to us by the convergences of science and engineering, and a view that provides a launch pad for our imaginations. Einstein also said that "Imagination is more important than knowledge," and indeed, every discovery I have cited tonight began as a spark of imagination. Thank you for joining me on this journey to interconnected frontiers.



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