Highlights from AAAS 2016

Physics 9, 24
Van Gogh’s true colors, research in the era of “megascience,” and more from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
(Left) Art Institute of Chicago/Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection; (Right) The Art Institute of Chicago
(Left) Vincent van Gogh's The Bedroom (1889), in which the walls and door appear blue. (Right) A digital rendering of the painting, based on a scientific analysis of the pigments in the paint, shows how scientists believe it looked originally.

Science is an increasingly global endeavor, and the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in Washington DC, was focused on the theme of global science engagement. How can scientists tackle challenges that go beyond any one nation’s borders? How do we achieve the international cooperation needed to tackle “big science” that no country can afford on its own? Resolving these questions will be essential if researchers want to address climate change, fight deadly infectious diseases, and build experimental facilities that push the frontiers of science—all topics discussed at the meeting. Here’s a sampling of the many talks we heard.

–Matteo Rini and David Ehrenstein

Van Gogh’s True Colors

At the Art Institute of Chicago, a new exhibition brings together all three versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles—one of the most famous bedrooms in art history. Today the walls in the paintings are a chilly blue, but Francesca Casadio, the museum’s lead conservation scientist, explained that blue is probably not their original color. Speaking on the day the show opened, she described years of research aimed at determining the true colors in Van Gogh’s work. Casadio and her colleagues took a minuscule chip from one of the paintings and used a combination of laser and x-ray spectroscopy techniques to determine its molecular composition. They discovered the residues of a pink pigment, derived from insects, that rapidly fades when exposed to light. Combined with the unscathed blue pigment, it would have made the walls a much warmer purple. Casadio explained that the analysis sheds light on the emotions of the artist, who likely rendered the original white walls in shades of purple to convey a sense of the tranquility that he hoped to attain. A rendering of the painting in which the faded colors have been digitally restored is part of the exhibition.

The Future of Megascience

Global collaboration and mammoth facilities are needed to tackle fundamental problems in physics. In a symposium dedicated to “megascience,” Sergio Bertolucci of CERN in Switzerland, Gabriela Gonzales of LIGO in the US, and Yifang Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences discussed the challenges—and payoffs—of running global projects. These include next generation particle colliders at CERN and in China to study the Higgs particle and test beyond-standard-model theories; an expanded network of gravitational wave detectors, with new observatories located in Japan, India, and Germany; and neutrino experiments at Fermilab in the US and Jiangmeng in China. A challenge for these projects, which have billion-dollar price tags and may take decades to produce results, is having the financial stability to focus on objectives that are broader and longer-term than those of any one country or politician. The speakers also said that the management of such facilities has to be flexible, so that they continue to run if individual countries pull out. But despite being focused on long-term goals, large research facilities do offer near-term benefits to society, which the panelists said should be better emphasized. For example, they train thousands of scientists and engineers, and they develop new technologies that spin off into medicine and electronics.

Don't Call It a War on Science

A segment of the public is suspicious of the science on topics such as vaccination and genetically modified food, leading scientists to feel embattled. But several experts explained why viewing the situation as a “war” is counterproductive and advised scientists to focus instead on improving communication with the public. Mark Largent of Michigan State University said that, contrary to most scientists’ impressions, parents who don’t fully vaccinate their children are often well-informed and have confidence in medical authorities. But they have understandable concerns, such as the number of shots and the involvement of drug companies. Responding to these concerns is the best way to nudge parents toward vaccination, he said. Roberta Millstein of the University of California, Davis, also discouraged scientists from the “us against them” mindset of a war. Using the example of genetically modified food, she said that dialogue reveals that many skeptics agree with proponents on the facts and the risks but disagree only on the significance of those risks.

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