On scale and perception

A crucial component of everyday cognition is the ability to think about scale: how big something is in relation to how big something is represented. 

Scaling is what allows an architect to represent an entire floor plan on a poster-size sheet of a paper. Scaling is how geologists represent billions of years on one timeline. Shrinking enormous sizes down to the scale of human perception allows us to engage our visual and spatial cognitive systems to reason about things we would otherwise have to represent abstractly. (Have you ever seen 1 billion of something all at once?) 

My lab, in particular, has been working on strategies to foster scaling ability and learning whether that ability can transfer from the abstract to the concrete. The strategies we’ve used have tapped into a learning technique called alignment, that is nicely demonstrated with this visualization which made its way around the internet last week (not to forget the classic Powers of 10).

I began thinking about posting on this topic after seeing this video (posted on flowingdata.com) about the inequitable wealth distribution in America. What struck me about the video is the comparison set up between what Americans THINK the wealth distribution is versus what it actually is. While I think the video is an excellent demonstration of the power of visualization, I take issue with the premise that what people THINK a distribution is reflects a desire to attain that distribution. An alternate hypothesis is that people THINK the distribution is less skewed than it is because representing enormous scales (and scale discrepancies) is difficult, and not something we are trained to do. 

Scaling is an important component of spatial thinking, one with ramifications on public policy. Think about the enormous time scales on which global temperatures have changed before the past hundred years compared to the shockingly short time scales on which global temperatures are changing now. Take a moment today to exercise your scaling skills, and change the way you think about the world.


Response (canned) and reply to an open letter about science funding

In response to my open letter (emailed directly to my congressional representatives), Pat Toomey replied with this, seemingly, canned response:


Dear Steven,

Thank you for contacting me about scientific research funding. I appreciate hearing from you.

I value your input on scientific research funding and the role it plays in driving innovation and economic competitiveness. I also understand your support for increased federal funding for this issue. That said, our nation is facing a $1 trillion deficit, and the President’s latest budget proposal continues this unsustainable path for years to come. All areas of government spending must be carefully examined so that we can put our nation on a path toward fiscal solvency. Inevitably, tough choices will have to be made, and making such choices is something that I have promised to the people of Pennsylvania.

Now that the Fiscal Year 2013 budget process is completed, please be assured that I will keep your views about federal funding for basic scientific research in mind. Your input is helpful as Congress begins focusing on the Fiscal Year 2014 budget and how we can correct our fiscal path, help foster job creation, and improve the economy for all Americans.

Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.



Pat Toomey
U.S. Senator, Pennsylvania



My reply, unedited:



Some math:
$1 trillion deficit = $1000 billion.
Total requested funding of 3 major science agencies for FY 2013 (NIH, NSF, NASA) = approximately $56 billion
56/1000 = Science funding accounts for 5.6% of the total deficit.
Let’s be austere and cut 50% of this spending, or a total of 2.8% of the deficit! We’ve saved ourselves 28 billion dollars!
Of course, as a result, half the science labs in the US fold in the coming years. Maybe some of the top scientists may relocate to the UK, China, or Germany, where governments are investing in science, resulting in the direct loss of jobs in the US (not just the scientists, but their labs, techs, grad students, etc.); but maybe not. Maybe they just stop contributing to science.
Science which promotes economic growth at a faster rate than the influx of labor and capital. Science which promotes economic growth at a faster rate not for the US any longer but for its global competitors. And that $28 billion we saved by slicing basic science research? That money would have been made up, by some estimates, twice over.

Scientific funding creates good jobs. Families USA has estimated that each $1 billion of NIH research grant funding creates more than 15,000 jobs with an average wage of $52,000 a year and generates $2.21 billion of new business activity.


See, this is not a simple economic equation. It requires foresight, smart investment. Consider a family struggling to pay for its lifestyle, and incurring massive debt. Don’t buy the fanciest, most expensive alarm system money can buy, but slash out the money Mom and Dad need to pay for gas to get to work, or the kids need to get to school. There will be nothing left to protect.
Oh, and that math at the top of this letter – slicing education money is a good way to ensure no one catches up with your bogus arguments. Of course, that’s a separate issue.

An open letter in support of science funding

I sent the letter below to all of my congressional representatives via this link: http://www.capwiz.com/fabbs/mailapp/

Please consider doing the same as our political leaders decide what to do as we approach the fiscal cliff.


To whom it may concern:

Slicing budgets for basic science stymies all societal growth. Growth in
major sectors of the economy will suffer irreparable damage as a result of
cutting funding for basic science research.

Think the US can compete on the world stage without world class scientists
creating the cutting edge? Think you will inspire a generation of young
people to engage with science as a solution to society’s problems if they
see research institutions fail and progress stagnate? Think we can solve
the problems that haunt us today without insights and development from

Think again. Want to cite that study on [green jobs; benefits of preschool
education; effects of a crumbling infrastructure]? Sorry, results pending;
scientists solving big problems await funding.

I, and my colleagues from the science community, urge you to think
responsibly and about the future as we approach the fiscal cliff. I
understand that cuts must be made, but do not cut the future to save the

Thank you for your time.


Steven M. Weisberg