Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reasons for Optimism

With another Europe trip coming up on Saturday, I haven't had much time for blogging or even for reading, except for a few articles here and there. Despite $4 gas and the various negative themes in the news, I found three articles in the last day or so that give me some reasons for optimism.

The term "maverick biologist" sounds like a character in a Michael Crichton novel, but Craig Venter really is one. He has generated his share of controversy with his methods and statements, but he has done amazing things and is not afraid to take on big problems. This interview in Newsweek describes his current project which involves genetically engineering bacteria to "eat CO2" and make fuels we can use in our cars. If this works out, it could obviously be world changing. He is talking about useful results in years, not decades.

When I do educational outreach events and talk about space, astronomy, science, and engineering, young girls will be as interested in this stuff as young boys - but older girls, not quite so much. While it's really true that girls can do anything, they often don't consider science and technology to be socially acceptable options. This is related to various stereotypes and probably peer group pressure, but it might be changing. Revenge of the Nerdette is another current Newsweek article with this description: "As geeks become chic in all levels of society, an unlikely subset is starting to roar. Meet the Nerd Girls: they're smart, they're techie and they're hot."

And finally a rare (for this blog) political note. A few weeks ago I read an article talking about Barack Obama and the Muslim world. It is no secret that Obama is a Christian, but that his father was a Muslim. The point of the article was that in Islamic tradition, the religion of the father is passed to the child (unlike in Judaism, where it is considered to go with the mother). So rather than embracing Obama as a Christian with a Muslim heritage, this article suggested that many Muslims would consider Obama to be an apostate, one who has given up Islam for another religion, and this is a very bad thing in Islam.

But today in the New York Times, I read this essay by Thomas Friedman, reporting from Egypt. The many Egyptians he has spoken with are amazed and pleased that Obama is the Democratic nominee, and they see this as a positive thing for America and for the world, even if they know that Obama himself is not a Muslim. Friedman writes, "It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Democrats’ nomination of Obama as their candidate for president has done more to improve America’s image abroad — an image dented by the Iraq war, President Bush’s invocation of a post-9/11 “crusade,” Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and the xenophobic opposition to Dubai Ports World managing U.S. harbors — than the entire Bush public diplomacy effort for seven years."

Of course things are complicated and I imagine that the radical elements in Islam would not see a President Obama in such a positive light. But to me, Obama's candidacy is another reason for optimism, and I hope he is elected president this fall (I plan to contribute my vote and a few dollars to support this hope). We need to rejoin the world.

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