In the week since President Donald Trump took the oath of office, scientists have taken to social media en masse, decrying the new administration’s plan to dismantle climate regulations, reports that the administration has censored government scientists’ speech and the coining of the term “alternative facts.”
But Michael Eisen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, thinks that the situation requires more drastic action. So on 25 January, he announced on Twitter that he will run for US Senate in 2018.
Eisen, who is best known as an advocate for free access to scientific publications and as co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals, may have a viable path to elected office. Dianne Feinstein, the 83-year-old senator from his state, California, has indicated that she might not run for re-election in 2018.
Nature caught up with Eisen to ask him about his plans. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NASA Chief Scientist…pretty cool title, right? The office represents all the scientific endeavors at NASA, ensuring they’re aligned with and fulfilling the administration’s science goals.
After more than three years as Chief Scientist, Ellen Stofan is departing for new adventures. We caught up with her to ask 10 questions about her role and what she will miss most after she leaves the agency. Take a look…
1) What were some of your expectations coming in as NASA’s chief scientist?
When I started as Chief Scientist, all I knew is that I would be science advisor to the Administrator, Charlie Bolden, overseeing the agency’s science portfolio. What I did not realize at the time was the degree that I would be impressed by him.
Charlie is an amazing leader who deeply cares about each and every person at this agency. He makes everyone feel valued. That is why NASA has just been voted by our employees for the fifth straight year as the Best Place to Work in the federal government!
2) What do you think it the next big thing for NASA science?
Looking across our science portfolio, I think the most exciting area, which actually connects everything we do, is the search for life beyond Earth. People have long wondered if we are alone, and we are now actually going to answer that question in the next few decades. We are exploring Mars, where it is very likely that life evolved at around the same time life evolved here on Earth. Conditions on Mars deteriorated after about a billion years, so life either went underground, or became extinct. It will likely take future Mars astronauts to find the best evidence of Mars life.
We also are planning to explore the ocean worlds of the outer solar system, like Europa, where we might find life in subsurface oceans. Beyond our solar system, the thousands of planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope have made me very optimistic that we are close to finding an Earth 2.0—though that will take us a little longer.
3) NASA science rewrites textbooks all the time. What is something you’ve seen here that has the potential to occur in the future that will change the textbooks for kids of tomorrow?
For kids 16 and under today, for every day of their life, we have been living and working in space on board the International Space Station. Now we are ready to take that next step in the coming decade, to move humans beyond low-Earth orbit where we have been for such a long time, out to the vicinity of the moon and then on to Mars.
These kids are the “Mars generation,” and the exploration of Mars will change our outlook in profound ways, from looking back at Earth – that will just look like another star – to finding evidence of life beyond Earth. So it will not just change science textbooks, it will change how we look at ourselves when we become a multi-planetary species.
4) Behind every pretty space image is a team of scientists who analyze all the data to make the discovery happen. What do you wish the public knew about the people and work that goes into each of those pretty pictures?
It really does take a team. When I go out and talk to school kids, I tell them learning how to be a good member of a team is so important in life. You need to learn to be a leader and a follower, and above all a listener. Our teams at NASA are becoming more and more diverse, which is incredibly important. If everyone looks the same and comes from the same background, they are likely to approach problems the same way. And when you are trying to do tough things – from addressing climate change to sending humans to Mars – you need the best team, which means a diverse team.
5) We have a lot of opportunities for citizen science. What’s one opportunity you wish everyone knew about that they could get involved with at NASA?
Go to www.nasa.gov/solve where you can find all kinds of great opportunities to join us at NASA in searching for planets around other stars, exploring Mars, helping us gather data about this planet, and tackling technology challenges. We really are stronger together, and getting the public involved in what we do is helping us get more good science every day. Even more importantly, it lets people know that science is fun!
6) What changes did you make at the agency while you were there?
As Chief Scientist, I got to work on a lot of fun challenges, from our strategy on how to get humans to Mars, to learning about and promoting the research we do every day on the International Space Station. But one of the things that I am most proud of is that, working with my team, NASA now collects voluntary demographic data on all of our grant proposals. Implicit or unconscious bias is all around us; we may act on deep-seated biases that we don’t even know we have. The first step in dealing with bias is seeing if you have a problem, and that is what the data collection will tell us.
7) You worked a lot with kids as the agency’s Chief Scientist. How important do you feel STEM education is for NASA?
We need the next generation of scientists, doctors, computer programmers, technologists and engineers, and NASA provides the inspiration and hands-on activities that help get kids interested in science. Because of climate change, we are facing rising sea levels, changing patterns of agriculture, and changing weather. We need good engineers and scientists to help us mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce carbon emissions.
On top of that, we live in a society that is dependent on technology; I don’t think most of us can go very long without checking our smartphones. But as technology becomes more complex, we need everyone in society to have at least a basic understanding of it, and that’s where the importance of STEM education comes in. We are ALL consumers of science and technology. We all need to be informed consumers.
8) What solar system destination are you still most excited/eager for NASA to still go explore?
As a planetary geologist, I am most excited by one of the ocean worlds of the outer solar system. Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, is an amazing little world where it rains, and the liquid forms rivers, lakes and seas. But this liquid is actually liquid methane and ethane –basically gasoline, rather than water – due to the extremely cold temperatures out by Saturn.
Titan is an excellent place to explore to help us better understand how oceans and atmospheres interact, and maybe even understand more about the limits of life. We think water is critical to the evolution of life, but Titan may tell us that having a liquid is the most important factor.
9) What will you miss most?
It’s the people of NASA whom I will miss the most. Everyone I work with is so committed to the mission of this agency—pushing back the frontiers of science and technology to accomplish great things for the nation. NASA represents the best of this country. We demonstrate that with hard work and determination, we can explore the universe, our galaxy, our solar system and our home planet.
Our partnerships with other space agencies from around the world and with the private sector here have shown me that great teams accomplish great things. I like to say that NASA is the keeper of the future—we don’t just wait for the future to happen. We work to create it every day.
10) In your opinion, after seeing everything you’ve seen here, why should people care about the science at NASA?
At NASA, we gather the data to help answer the most fundamental and profound questions: Where did we come from? How does our planet and our universe work? What is the fate of our planet? It is only by exploring, by making measurements, by answering scientific questions that we can move forward as a society. And in doing so, we push technology and engineering in ways that benefit us every day right here on Earth.
NASA makes measurements that show how the sea level is rising, how Arctic ice is melting, and how weather patterns are changing. We also gather data to help farmers grow more crops using less water, help understand our water resources, and do the research to improve forecasting. These data keep us secure and improve the quality of life on Earth every day.
Anthemius of Tralles (ca. 474 – ca. 534):
a professor of geometry and architecture, authored many influential works on mathematics and was one of the architects of the famed Hagia Sophia, the largest building in the world at its time. His works were among the most important source texts in the Arab world and Western Europe for centuries after.
John Philoponus (ca. 490–ca. 570):
also known as John the Grammarian, a Christian Byzantine philosopher, launched a revolution in the understanding of physics by critiquing and correcting the earlier works of Aristotle. In the process he proposed important concepts such as a rudimentary notion of inertia and the invariant acceleration of falling objects. Although his works were repressed at various times in the Byzantine Empire, because of religious controversy, they would nevertheless become important to the understanding of physics throughout Europe and the Arab world.
Paul of Aegina (ca. 625–ca. 690):
considered by some to be the greatest Christian Byzantine surgeon, developed many novel surgical techniques and authored the medical encyclopedia Medical Compendium in Seven Books. The book on surgery in particular was the definitive treatise in Europe and the Islamic world for hundreds of years.
The Venerable Bede (ca. 672–735):
a Christian monk of the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow who wrote a work On the Nature of Things, several books on the mathematical / astronomical subject of computus, the most influential entitled On the Reckoning of Time. He made original discoveries concerning the nature of the tides and his works on computus became required elements of the training of clergy, and thus greatly influenced early medieval knowledge of the natural world.
Rabanus Maurus (c. 780 – 856):
a Christian monk and teacher, later archbishop of Mainz, who wrote a treatise on Computus and the encyclopedic work De universo. His teaching earned him the accolade of "Praeceptor Germaniae," or "the teacher of Germany."
Abbas Ibn Firnas (810 – 887):
a polymath and inventor in Muslim Spain, made contributions in a variety of fields and is most known for his contributions to glass-making and aviation. He developed novel ways of manufacturing and using glass. He broke his back at an unsuccessful attempt at flying a primitive hang glider in 875.
Pope Sylvester II (c. 946–1003):
a Christian scholar, teacher, mathematician, and later pope, reintroduced the abacus and armillary sphere to Western Europe after they had been lost for centuries following the Greco-Roman era. He was also responsible in part for the spread of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in Western Europe.
Maslamah al-Majriti (died 1008):
a mathematician, astronomer, and chemist in Muslim Spain, made contributions in many areas, from new techniques for surveying to updating and improving the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi and inventing a process for producing mercury oxide. He is most famous, though, for having helped transmit knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to Muslim Spain and Christian Western Europe.
a physician and scientist in Muslim Spain, is considered to be the father of modern surgery. He wrote numerous medical texts, developed many innovative surgical instruments, and developed a variety of new surgical techniques and practices. His texts were considered the definitive works on surgery in Europe until the Renaissance.
Constantine the African (c. 1020&–1087):
a Christian native of Carthage, is best known for his translating of ancient Greek and Roman medical texts from Arabic into Latin while working at the Schola Medica Salernitana in Salerno, Italy. Among the works he translated were those of Hippocrates and Galen.
the foremost astronomer of the early second millennium, lived in Muslim Spain and greatly expanded the understanding and accuracy of planetary models and terrestrial measurements used for navigation. He developed key technologies including the equatorium and universal latitude-independent astrolabe.
Avempace (died 1138):
a famous physicist from Muslim Spain who had an important influence on later physicists such as Galileo. He was the first to theorize the concept of a reaction force for every force exerted.
Adelard of Bath (c. 1080 – c. 1152):
was a 12th-century English scholar, known for his work in astronomy, astrology, philosophy and mathematics.
from Muslim Spain, introduced an experimental method in surgery, employing animal testing in order to experiment with surgical procedures before applying them to human patients. He also performed the earliest dissections and postmortem autopsies on both humans as well as animals.
Robert Grosseteste (1168–1253):
Bishop of Lincoln, was the central character of the English intellectual movement in the first half of the 13th century and is considered the founder of scientific thought in Oxford. He had a great interest in the natural world and wrote texts on the mathematical sciences of optics, astronomy and geometry. In his commentaries on Aristotle's scientific works, he affirmed that experiments should be used in order to verify a theory, testing its consequences. Roger Bacon was influenced by his work on optics and astronomy.
Albert the Great (1193–1280):
Doctor Universalis, was one of the most prominent representatives of the philosophical tradition emerging from the Dominican Order. He is one of the thirty-three Saints of the Roman Catholic Church honored with the title of Doctor of the Church. He became famous for his vast knowledge and for his defence of the pacific coexistence between science and religion. Albert was an essential figure in introducing Greek and Islamic science into the medieval universities, although not without hesitation with regard to particular Aristotelian theses. In one of his most famous sayings he asserted: "Science does not consist in ratifying what others say, but of searching for the causes of phenomena." Thomas Aquinas was his most famous pupil.
John of Sacrobosco (c. 1195 – c. 1256):
was a scholar, monk, and astronomer (probably English, but possibly Irish or Scottish) who taught at the University of Paris and wrote an authoritative and influential mediaeval astronomy text, the Tractatus de Sphaera; the Algorismus, which introduced calculations with Hindu-Arabic numerals into the European university curriculum; the Compotus ecclesiasticis on Easter reckoning; and the Tractatus de quadrante on the construction and use of the astronomical quadrant.
Jordanus de Nemore (late 12th, early 13th century):
was one of the major pure mathematicians of the Middle Ages. He wrote treatises on mechanics ("the science of weights"), on basic and advanced arithmetic, on algebra, on geometry, and on the mathematics of stereographic projection.
Villard de Honnecourt (fl. 13th century):
a French engineer and architect who made sketches of mechanical devices such as automatons and perhaps drew a picture of an early escapement mechanism for clockworks.
Roger Bacon (1214–94):
Doctor Admirabilis, joined the Franciscan Order around 1240 where, influenced by Grosseteste, Alhacen and others, he dedicated himself to studies where he implemented the observation of nature and experimentation as the foundation of natural knowledge. Bacon wrote in such areas as mechanics, astronomy, geography and, most of all, optics. The optical research of Grosseteste and Bacon established optics as an area of study at the medieval university and formed the basis for a continuous tradition of research into optics that went all the way up to the beginning of the 17th century and the foundation of modern optics by Kepler.
Ibn al-Baitar (died 1248):
a botanist and pharmacist in Muslim Spain, researched over 1400 types of plants, foods, and drugs and compiled pharmaceutical and medical encyclopedias documenting his research. These were used in the Islamic world and Europe until the 19th century.
Theodoric Borgognoni (1205-1296):
was an Italian Dominican friar and Bishop of Cervia who promoted the uses of both antiseptics and anaesthetics in surgery. His written work had a deep impact on Henri de Mondeville, who studied under him while living in Italy and later became the court physician for King Philip IV of France.
William of Saliceto (1210-1277):
was an Italian surgeon of Lombardy who advanced medical knowledge and even challenged the work of the renowned Greco-Roman surgeon Galen (129-216 AD) by arguing that allowing pus to form in wounds was detrimental to the health of he patient.
Thomas Aquinas (1227–74):
Doctor Angelicus, was an Italian theologian and friar in the Dominican Order. As his mentor Albert the Great, he is a Catholic Saint and Doctor of the Church. In addition to his extensive commentaries on Aristotle's scientific treatises, he was also said to have written an important alchemical treatise titled Aurora Consurgens. However, his most lasting contribution to the scientific development of the period was his role in the incorporation of Aristotelianism into the Scholastic tradition.
Arnaldus de Villa Nova (1235-1313):
was an alchemist, astrologer, and physician from the Crown of Aragon who translated various Arabic medical texts, including those of Avicenna, and performed optical experiments with camera obscura.
John Duns Scotus (1266–1308):
Doctor Subtilis, was a member of the Franciscan Order, philosopher and theologian. Emerging from the academic environment of the University of Oxford. where the presence of Grosseteste and Bacon was still palpable, he had a different view on the relationship between reason and faith as that of Thomas Aquinas. For Duns Scotus, the truths of faith could not be comprehended through the use of reason. Philosophy, hence, should not be a servant to theology, but act independently. He was the mentor of one of the greatest names of philosophy in the Middle Ages: William of Ockham.
Mondino de Liuzzi (c. 1270-1326):
was an Italian physician, surgeon, and anatomist from Bologna who was one of the first in Medieval Europe to advocate for the public dissection of cadavers for advancing the field of anatomy. This followed a long-held Christian ban on dissections performed by the Alexandrian school in the late Roman Empire.
William of Ockham (1285–1350):
Doctor Invincibilis, was an English Franciscan friar, philosopher, logician and theologian. Ockham defended the principle of parsimony, which could already be seen in the works of his mentor Duns Scotus. His principle later became known as Occam's Razor and states that if there are various equally valid explanations for a fact, then the simplest one should be chosen. This became a foundation of what would come to be known as the scientific method and one of the pillars of reductionism in science. Ockham probably died of the Black Plague. Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme were his followers.
Jacopo Dondi dell'Orologio (1290-1359):
was an Italian doctor, clockmaker, and astronomer from Padua who wrote on a number of scientific subjects such as pharmacology, surgery, astrology, and natural sciences. He also designed an astronomical clock.
Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336):
an English abbot, mathematician, astronomer, and horologist who designed an astronomical clock as well as an equatorium to calculate the lunar, solar and planetary longitudes, as well as predict eclipses.
Jean Buridan (1300–58):
was a French philosopher and priest. Although he was one of the most famous and influent philosophers of the late Middle Ages, his work today is not renowned by people other than philosophers and historians. One of his most significant contributions to science was the development of the theory of impetus, that explained the movement of projectiles and objects in free-fall. This theory gave way to the dynamics of Galileo Galilei and for Isaac Newton's famous principle of Inertia.
Guy de Chauliac (1300-1368):
was a French physician and surgeon who wrote the Chirurgia magna, a widely read publication throughout medieval Europe that became one of the standard textbooks for medical knowledge for the next three centuries. During the Black Death he clearly distinguished Bubonic Plague and Pneumonic Plague as separate diseases, that they were contagious from person to person, and offered advice such as quarantine to avoid their spread in the population. He also served as the personal physician for three successive popes of the Avignon Papacy.
John Arderne (1307-1392):
was an English physician and surgeon who invented his own anesthetic that combined hemlock, henbane, and opium. In his writings, he also described how to properly excise and remove the abscess caused by anal fistula.
Nicole Oresme (c. 1323–82):
was one of the most original thinkers of the 14th century. A theologian and bishop of Lisieux, he wrote influential treatises in both Latin and French on mathematics, physics, astronomy, and economics. In addition to these contributions, Oresme strongly opposed astrology and speculated about the possibility of a plurality of worlds.
Giovanni Dondi dell'Orologio (c. 1330-1388):
was a clockmaker from Padua, Italy who designed the astarium, an astronomical clock and planetarium that utilized the escapement mechanism that had been recently invented in Europe. He also attempted to describe the mechanics of the solar system with mathematical precision.