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The Stony Brook Press - Volume 32, Issue 2

The Stony Brook Press - Volume 32, Issue 2

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Swagger in SPACE
Swagger in SPACE

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Published by: The Stony Brook Press on Sep 29, 2010
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If you were to thumb through any serious scientific journal, you wouldmore than likely find a collection of es-says peppered with words that leavemany ordinary, competent individualsscratching their heads in confusion.Terms like “qualia,” “comorbidity,” and“presupposition” make it hard for any-one not familiar with their usage to dis-cover exactly what the authors mean.Indeed, many college students readthrough their textbooks or listen totheir lectures without ever grasping orretaining much of the information. Be-cause of this, science remains a shadowy entity that permeates nearly every cor-ner of society, but whose true essence isonly understood by a select few.For physicist Brian Greene andactor/director Alan Alda, this divide be-tween society at large and the scientificcommunity is a problem of communi-cation, and one that needs solving. OnSeptember 23 in the Staller Center,Greene and Alda led an informative dis-cussion into the relationship betweenscience and communication, sharingtheir personal experiences and howthey feel the communication processcan be improved.Alda, best known for his role asCaptain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye”Pierce on the 1970s television series
 M*A*S*H 
, began the discussion by ask-ing Greene, whose ability to make com-plex scientific concepts understandableis world renowned, why the process of communicating science is so important.Greene’s response took three parts,the first two of which, he maintains, areobvious. First, we live in a nation wherescience is a prominent part of society and that one cannot have a democracy unless a broad community understandswhat is going on within it.His second response was a practicalone. Because scientific research is oftenfunded by taxpayers, people shouldknow what their money is going to-ward. He felt his third and final pointwas the most important. For some, theexperience of science as a listener or ob-server is vague and unattractive. Yetwhen led to understand and experiencescience as the scientist does, they “lightup,” as Greene put it.Alda built upon this by saying that,“Science is the greatest detective story.”He said the end product takes prece-dence over the process and most of thetime scientists are seen as arbitrarily finding things out. Society often only sees the end result and doesn’t get to ex-perience the mistakes, the trials and thefailures that led to a particular discov-ery. Alda thinks these wrong turns arefascinating and believes that mistakesare scientifically necessary. Greeneagrees, stating that “99 percent of sci-ence is wrong” and that the journey leading to a result is rarely discussed. It’snot that science can’t make up its mind,he said, but that we haven’t seen it allyet.Greene also voiced his frustrationwith the over-dramatization of science.Each new discovery is hailed as rewrit-ing the books, while in reality, mostonly add another chapter. He said theidea of declaring something a “new dis-covery” is counter-productive. In his ex-perience working on the PBS NOVAseries,
The Elegant Universe
, Greene feltmany programs apply arbitrary effects,like drum rolls or flashes of light,adding that, “Sophisticated ideas don’tneed explosions to be exciting.” Follow-ing from this, Alda asked Greene whathe feels are the hallmarks of scientificeducation. Greene adamantly re-sponded that it’s important not to sac-rifice scientific integrity for the sake of others’ understanding. This can be ac-complished, he said, by incorporating itinto a story. Greene described the ap-proach he uses in his books, which hecompares to drawing a bridge betweenwhat people know and what they don’tunderstand, gently introducing them tonew ideas as they go along. It is set up tomake abstract ideas more comfortable;he makes people feel and reason as thescientist does. Alda agreed, stating, “Weare not trying to dumb it down, but toclarify it.Alda talked about his experienceworking on the program
Scientific American Frontiers
, which also ap-peared on PBS. When interviewing sci-entists and experts behind the scenes,he discovered that their concepts andideas were much easier to understandwhen they were presented in a moreconversational manner. It was as if oncethe cameras were turned on the scien-tists went into what Alda called “lecturemode.” It got Alda thinking about howa different approach to science could beimplemented. That was the beginningof Alda’s novel idea, which would laterbecome the Center for CommunicatingScience here at Stony Brook. The centeris sponsored by Brookhaven NationalLaboratory and Cold Spring HarborLaboratory.More than just a commercial plugfor the Center, the conversation be-tween Greene and Alda illustrated howthe relationship between science andcommunication can be improved forthe better of mankind. At the very endof the presentation, an illustration of Alda’s passion and natural gravitationtoward science came in the form of asimple experiment. To help answer anaudience member’s question, Aldaasked Howard Schneider, Dean of theSchool of Journalism and Co-chair of the Center for Communicating Science,to stand across the stage with an empty glass in his hand and then instructedhim to walk over and place the glass onthe table between himself and Greene.Bewildered, Schneider did so without very much effort. After setting the glassdown, Alda asked him to repeat the ex-periment, only this time he filled theglass to the brim with water and toldhim he could not spill a drop. Schneiderwas much more engaged this timearound, as was the entire auditorium.That kind of concentration and partici-pation, Alda said, is what himself,Greene and everyone working at theCenter for Communicating Science aretrying to draw from the public.In a society that emphasizes the im-portance of science, it is the public’sright to understand and share in thatexperience. What Alan Alda and BrianGreene are striving toward are solutionsto challenges that many college studentsdirectly face in every reading and every lecture they encounter. Beautiful andabstract concepts, often lost beneathtechnical jargon and intoxicating ver-bosity, once grasped, can fill any humanbeing with awe, wonder and excitement,and that excitement should not be re-served solely for a select few.
2
news
 Vol. XXXII, Issue 2 | Wednesday, September 29, 2010
It Was a S
 M*A*S*H 
of Science
By Steven Licardistand Erica Mengouchian
Erica Mengouchian
Brian Greene (left) and Alan Alda (right) discussing the importance of communicating science.
 
The Stony Brook Press
3
News
Salary Shuffle at SUNY Central
Bowing to public and legislativescrutiny, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zim-pher announced she and her top deputy would no longer pay themselves hous-ing allowances totaling $150,000 peryear, at a hearing before the State Sen-ate Committee on Higher Education.Zimpher refused to withdraw raises re-cently awarded to three senior SUNYofficials totaling $30,000 each, but an-nounced she would rescind an offer fortwo of the officials to receive housing al-lowances, which would have amountedto $99,000 per year.As the Rolling Stones say, you can’talways get what you want,” Zimphersaid at the hearing. “The decision comesfrom my belief that a big part of leader-ship is compromise.”Zimpher had been called on thecarpet by the Committee on Higher Ed-ucation to answer questions after
The Albany Times Union
reported she hadawarded $30,000 raises each to threetop executives who were already mak-ing more than $200,000 each per year,in spite of deep funding cuts from thestate that prompted Zimpher to fur-lough 221 SUNY central employees.
The Times Union
also reported onmulti-million dollar renovations cur-rently underway at SUNY headquartersfor “lavish” office suites for Zimpherand her team, citing unnamed SUNYinsiders. The paper also publicized theChancellor’s July decision to lay off aten-member security team at SUNY’sAlbany headquarters, despite an inde-pendent report indicating that thebuilding would be unsafe and vulnera-ble without security guards.Alarmed by the media reports, par-ticularly in light of SUNY’s desperatepleas for greater autonomy, Higher Ed-ucation Chairwoman Sen. Toby AnnStavisky (D-Queens) and Sen. Kevin S.Parker (D-Brooklyn) called Zimpher totestify on September 24, along with CarlHayden of the SUNY Board of Trusteesand Monica Rimai, Zimpher’s topdeputy and Chief Operating Officer forSUNY. Rimai came to SUNY in 2009along with Zimpher from the Univer-sity of Cincinnati, and Hayden hadchaired the search for the new chancel-lor, which resulted in Zimpher’s ap-pointment. Zimpher earns a salary of $490,000 per year and Rimai earns$325,000 per year; Haydens position onthe board is unpaid.To quell concerns, Zimpher andRimai announced at the hearing they would give up their yearly housing al-lowances of $90,000 and $60,000, re-spectively, and those savings would beused to fund the $90,000 in raisesawarded this month to three top SUNYofficials. The pay raises, recommendedby Zimpher and approved on Septem-ber 15 by the SUNY Board of Trustees,were awarded to John J. O’Connor, Jo-hanna Duncan-Poitier and DavidLavallee. The three officials, along withRimai, make up Zimpher’s ExecutiveCommittee.Duncan-Poitier began at SUNY lessthan one year ago in October 2009. Shewas formerly a senior deputy commis-sioner for the New York State EducationDepartment. Zimpher appointed her tothe post of Chancellor’s Deputy for theEducation Pipeline, tasked with over-seeing “cradle to college” initiatives by streamlining public education fromkindergarten through college. In addi-tion, she was recently appointed to bethe Vice Chancellor for Community Colleges, and Zimpher testified that ad-ditional responsibilities deserved a$30,000 raise. Duncan-Poitier nowmakes $250,000 per year and has accessto a university car.O’Connor serves as the secretary of SUNY and the president of the SUNYResearch Foundation. He was recently given the additional title of Senior ViceChancellor for Research and Innova-tion. Zimpher testified that O’Connorwould be tasked with overseeing SUNYpartnerships with private corporations,warranting a $30,000 raise, bringing hisnew salary to $275,000. O’Connor hadbeen offered a $39,000 housing al-lowance, which Zimpher rescinded atthe hearing.Lavallee was hired in 2009 asSUNY’s interim provost and was for-merly the provost of SUNY New Paltz.Zimpher testified that SUNY could notafford to continue searching for a per-manent provost, so Lavallee’s appoint-ment has been extended for two moreyears. Zimpher said that he holds theadditional titles of Senior AssociateProvost and fills “several other posi-tions” in the provost’s office. In addi-tion, Zimpher said at the hearing thatLavallee was recently given even moreresponsibilities.“I added to his agenda oversight of the SUNY Global Center and the ViceChancellor for Global International Af-fairs, and I felt that I was asking thisperson to do more than one job,” Zim-pher said. She felt that his numerous re-sponsibilities warranted a $30,000 raise,bringing Lavallee’s new salary to$315,000. Records indicate that Lavalleehad been receiving a $60,000 annualhousing allowance since 2009, whichZimpher said would be revoked.But SUNY already pays a ViceChancellor for Global Affairs $180,000a year, plus a $54,000 annual housing al-lowance. Records indicate that MitchLeventhal was appointed to the post inSeptember 2009 and came from theUniversity of Cincinnati, along withZimpher and her top deputy Rimai.SUNY officials did not respond torepeated requests for comment on theoverlap in positions.At the hearing, SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman Carl Hayden testi-fied that the salary increases were dis-cussed over two meetings of the SUNYBoard of Trustees: the first occurred lastMay in an undocumented executivesession; the second came this Septem-ber, when the salary increases were ap-proved.The hearing also included discus-sion of a $3 million renovation projectunderway at SUNY headquarters,which unnamed SUNY sources havecharacterized as a lavish officemakeover in
Times Union
reports.“Although it pains me to dignify such sleaze by remarking on it, there isno Taj Mahal under construction atSUNY Plaza,” testified Hayden. He saidthe renovations are part of plan to bringobsolete infrastructure up to date, andthat Zimpher is moving to the fourthfloor of SUNY headquarters so “she andher senior leadership team can be to-gether.”A large portion of the hearing alsofocused on SUNY central’s July decisionto lay off its ten-member security force.Sen. Stavisky produced an independentreport of a security analysis performedin June by Linstar Security Systems,which said that getting rid of the secu-rity force would render the building un-safe and vulnerable. Rimai testified shewas unaware of the report and Stavisky promised to provide her a copy.“Since Chancellor Zimpher’s ar-rival, a pervasive culture of apathy andoutright hostility towards security ex-isted,” Robert Rogers, formerly the chief security officer at SUNY, testified at thehearing. He said he and his team weretrained emergency responders and now,in their absence, the staff they used toprotect could be vulnerable in the eventof a situation requiring first aid, or evento invasions by protesters.The committee demanded thatSUNY officials provide several docu-ments to back up their testimony, to bereviewed in coming weeks.News of SUNY central’s spendingdecisions drew harsh criticism from leg-islators around the state, including hereon Long Island.“If you want to know why peopleare so upset with their government andwhy they have lost faith in so many of their institutions, you don’t have to look much further than this recent episodehere at SUNY,” Sen. Kenneth LaValle(R-Port Jefferson) wrote in a statementthat was read aloud at the hearing in hisabsence. “At a time when middle classfamilies are doing more with less andother SUNY employees are being toldto stay home and give back a portion of their pay each month, these raises havesent a terrible message.”“These pay raises are uncon-scionable,” Assemblyman Fred Thiele(I-Sag Harbor) said in a statement.“SUNY, including Stony Brook, hasagain proven that they have become atop-heavy bureaucracy that is moreconcerned about preserving their own jobs than public higher education.”Stony Brook spokeswoman LaurenSheprow declined to comment on thehearing or on SUNY’s spending deci-sions.
By Colleen Harrington

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