Eureka: The intersection between science and culture

Last weekend, I started a new job, writing a monthly column on science and culture for The New York Times Magazine. The column is called Eureka. In the first edition, I look at “flip-flopping” politicians and examine what factors actually make people likely to change their minds on deeply held beliefs.

Hint: It’s not data and evidence.

Scientists have been studying attitudes and preferences for more than a century; those topics are bound to the origins of social psychology itself. Some of the earliest research, like William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s five-volume set, “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America,” published in 1918, revolved around the attitudes of immigrants: how they lived, what their neighbors thought of them, how they changed as they became Americans.

In the last decade, psychologists have focused increasing attention on moral attitudes. Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the Stern School of Business at New York University and author of “The Righteous Mind,” told me that researchers have been especially interested in the way emotions and attitudes interact. Moral attitudes are especially difficult to change, Haidt said, because the emotions attached to those preferences largely define who we are. “Certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how you prove your identity,” he said. “It’s as though we circle around these ideas. It’s how we become one.”

Read the rest of the column at The New York Times Magazine

Image: …Experiments…, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mpeterke’s photostream

Upcoming events in Kansas City and Lawrence

I’m going to be speaking in Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City in about a week.

Both events are centered on Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy.  Before the Lights Go Out is about some of the big-picture nuance that gets left out of the day-to-day chatter about energy. What are the big trends that will shape what we can and can’t do over the next 40 years? How does our electricity infrastructure work, and why is that infrastructure a lot more interesting (and a lot more complicated) than most laypeople realize? There’s a lot of storytelling, and some fun and funny history of how our current infrastructure came to be. There’s critical analysis explaining both why we have to solve our energy problem, and why solving it is going to be harder than many climate hawks want to believe. In general, the book is meant to make a confusing subject accessible and offer a more nuanced perspective on a topic that tends to be very ideology driven.

Thursday, August 30, 7:00 pm — The Raven bookstore in Lawrence

I’ll be back in my college town to talk about the weird, messy history of electricity, and the ways that writing online can help build a better book. Join me at 6 East 7th Street, Lawrence, Kansas.

Friday, August 31, 7:00 pm — Prospero’s Books in Kansas City

My event at Prospero’s will cover a lot of the same ground as The Raven event, but will get more in-depth on the engineering of how our electric grid works and why this flawed system affects what we can and can’t do to solve our energy problems. RSVP for the Prospero’s event (and get address info) on Facebook!

Image: Electricity, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from elycefeliz’s photostream

Blackouts in India: What’s it mean for us?

I’m currently putting together a BoingBoing post about the problems with the American grid and efforts to solve them. Two things you should know about the India blackouts, though.

1) You can’t really make a 1-to-1 comparison between grid problems in India and grid problems in the U.S. We both have problems, but also have different grids and different issues affecting those grids. My understanding from researching Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electricity infrastructure in the U.S., is that we aren’t currently in danger of imminent massive-scale blackouts like what they’re experiencing in India. That said, if we don’t make updates, we could have big problems in the future.

2) Extreme weather and increasing electric demand will stress and break any grid, anywhere. It happens all the time in the United States. We just have pretty good systems for dealing with it.

More to come! But if you want to know more about how grids work and why they fail, this would be a pretty good time to read Before the Lights Go Out!

Three upcoming events in New York City

I’m going to be in New York May 26 through May 30th and I’ve got three big public events set up during that time.

May 28, 3:00 pm: Join Dean Putney, BoingBoing’s intrepid tech guru, and me for an informal Memorial Day picnic in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. We’ll be meeting out front of the Brooklyn Museum and we’ll be bringing bubbles. You bring your food and any cool projects you’d like to show off to other Happy Mutants.

May 29, 6:00 pm: I’ll be talking to the Science Writers of New York about my book, Before the Lights Go Out, the process of book writing, and the benefits of working online. The talk will be at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, 219 West 40th Street, in room 330. It’s free and open to the public, but you do need to RSVP. If you want to buy a copy of Before the Lights Go Out, I’ll have some on hand to sell and sign. They’re $24 and I can accept cash or check.

May 30, 6:30 pm: I’ll be leading a panel on decentralized/distributed electricity generation. From DIY home power projects, to the benefits (and problems) of fitting smaller scale power into the grid, this panel will look at what happens when we start making electricity on a smaller scale. Joining me are Chris Hackett—host of the Science Channel’s Stuck with Hackett—and Susan Covino of PJM Interconnect, one of the independent organizations that controls movement of electricity around the grid. Again, this is something you should RSVP for.  It’ll be at 199 Lafayette Street, Third Floor, in Manhattan. If you want to buy a copy of Before the Lights Go Out, I’ll have some on hand to sell and sign. They’re $24 and I can accept cash or check.

Hope to see you at these events!

Events in the Bay Area – May 2 and May 3

I’ve got a whirlwind tour of book events set up in the Bay Area for May 2nd and May 3rd. All of these events are open to the public, but you do need to RSVP for some of them.

May 2

Noon: Speaking in San Francisco to the San Fran chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The subject: Electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy.

6:00 pm: I’ll be giving the same presentation in Berkeley to the Berkeley Science Review.

May 3

Noon: Speaking in Berkeley at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the “6 Things Scientists Can Learn from Science Journalists”.  Building 90, room 3122.

7:00 pm: Speaking in El Cerrito at Barnes and Noble. I’ll be talking about Before the Lights Go Out, and about why I think online comment sections were a key part of helping me write a better book.

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Book launch party for Before the Lights Go Out – April 19th in Minneapolis

Please join me April 19th, 6:30 pm, at the Bakken Museum to     celebrate the publication of Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy in the United States.

I’ll be giving a talk about our energy past, present, and future. There will also be a book signing, snacks, and an opportunity to experience electricity first-hand with the help of the Bakken’s shocking Leyden jar.  If you’re not familiar with the Bakken, it’s a whole museum dedicated to the history and science of electricity. The perfect place to celebrate a book about the electric grid. 

The party is hosted by the Bakken Museum, the Minnesota chapter of the US Green Building Council and the AIA Minnesota Committee on the Environment. The evening is sponsored by the Weidt Group.

The event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited to 70.

More about my talk:

Putting the Fun Back in Infrastructure

Electricity just happens. Flip a switch, and the lights turn on. The system is reliable enough and invisible enough that it’s easy to spend your entire life not knowing how it works, even though you use it every day. But in an age of limited resources and environmental change, ignoring our electric infrastructure is a luxury we can no longer afford. The good news: Infrastructure is fascinating. Maggie Koerth-Baker explains how our flawed and surprisingly precarious electric system evolved, how it controls what we can and can’t do to solve our energy crisis today, and what we can learn about the future of energy by studying its past.

Win a signature for your copy of Before the Lights Go Out

Would you like a signed copy of Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy?

The book comes out on April 10th and pre-orders have already started shipping. Between now and the end of April, you can earn a fun prize for telling other people about my book.

Tell people on your social networks that you’re reading Before the Lights Go Out. This applies to Facebook, G+, or Twitter. When you talk about it, be sure to tag me in the post—@maggiekb1 on Twitter, Maggie Koerth-Baker on Facebook and G+—so I know that you mentioned the book.

In return, I’ll send you a sticker with my signature and personal thank-you. You can put it in your printed book and create an instant signed copy. Or, if you’re an e-book reader, you can put the sticker on … something else. Maybe your e-book reader. Maybe your pet/baby. Either way, it’s yours!

Lots of events in March, April, May

Holy batman-and-robin, I am going to be traveling a lot over the next few months. The biggest jaunt—three weeks away from home in a row—kicks off next week. During that time, I’ll be in Pennsylvania, Boston, Colorado, the San Francisco Bay area and New York City. Check out my books page for a full events list. Hope to see you there!

A Guided Tour of Hell: Review of William Vollmann’s “Into the Forbidden Zone”

Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan, by William T. Vollmann. Byliner Originals, 2011. (Nook/Google Ebook/Sony eReader/iTunes bookstore/Kindle Single)

(This review was written for Download the Universe—a new group blog dedicated to reviews of science e-books and apps. No dead trees allowed. Read more reviews at DownloadtheUniverse.com)

On March 11, 2011, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded ripped apart a swath of eastern Japan. About an hour later, a huge tsunami wave tore through the wreckage, leaving behind a trail of salinated sludge and a burgeoning nuclear disaster.

You know all of this already, of course. In fact, at this point, the narrative of what happened in Japan—what’s still happening, really—has been repeated so many times that you might be tempted to think there’s no reason to read yet another take on this situation.

But you should set those thoughts aside. At least, you should set them aside long enough to read William T. Vollmann’s Into the Forbidden Zone, a 70-page narrative that tells the beautiful, heartbreaking story about the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake and highlights two of the key problems with the way this tragedy has been covered in the popular press.

Vollmann isn’t a science journalist. In fact, he’s primarily a novelist. If you’re looking for a lot of technical details on the science of earthquake prediction, or the real risks of radiation exposure, he can’t help you very much.

But, on the other hand, I think that’s part of what makes this book so powerful. As someone immersed in the science of news, it’s easy to lose track of what an event looks like from any other perspective. As an American, far removed from the actual event, it’s easy to get so caught up in seismometers, early warning systems, and debates over nuclear energy—in other words, what could happen to us someday—that we forget about the people all this stuff really did happen to 11 months ago.

Vollmann’s book brings the real story—how an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown have affected the Japanese people—back to the forefront, where it ought to be.