Affirming Science in Silicon Valley on Earth Day 2017

Nobel Chemistry Prize winner joins ‘March for Science’ in San Jose

By Hasan Rahim, SJCC Math Faculty

Dr. William Moerner addressed the crowd at the March for Science rally in dowtown San Jose on April 22. Photo by Hasan Rahim.

“I was 26 years old when my mother died of breast cancer,” said Dr. William Moerner, a professor at Stanford and the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.” He marveled at how far the treatment of breast cancer had come, thanks to science, compared to the painful and crude treatment his mother had to endure in the ’70s.

A mother and daughter participate in the March for Science. Photo by Hasan Rahim.

Moerner was one of the several speakers at the “March for Science” rally in downtown San Jose at the Plaza de Cesar Chavez on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22. Addressing climate-change deniers, he said, “Science is true whether or not you believe it,” drawing vigorous applause from his listeners who had come together to protest the policies of the “Denier-in-Chief” in the White House.

About 10,000 of us – scientists, artists, students, teachers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and concerned citizens of every stripe and persuasion – had gathered in San Jose to affirm our faith in the importance of science in shaping our lives and in keeping our planet healthy. Similar rallies had taken place in all 50 states and in more than 500 cities around the world in seven continents.

I looked around. The posters, many made of recycled papers as befitting an Earth Day celebration, were pithy, thought-provoking, forceful, factual and witty in a nerdy way.

“The oceans are rising and so are we.”

“Evidence-based policy, not policy-based evidence, a.k.a. alternative facts.”

“No Science, Art or Humanities. No Freedom.”

“Super callow. Fragile ego. Trump you are atrocious.”

“The ‘upside’ of climate change: Mara-a-Lago under water.”

“Atoms make up everything. So does he.”

The combination of outrage and passion – outrage at Trump’s destructive policies and passion for the health of the earth (“There is no planet B”) – was ineffably inspiring.

A father and son at the March for Science in San Jose. Photo by Hasan Rahim.

Dr. Jose Cabrera, a chemistry professor at San Jose City College, elicited roars of approval when he identified the critical role community colleges play in America’s educational system and his impassioned plea to young people to consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields as careers.

“We are seeing the spread of pseudo-science in our country,” said Dr. Cabrera who was my mentor at City College during my tenure process as a math faculty. “We must distinguish between science and pseudo-science and learn to see the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.”

The math-themed signs were especially fascinating. Charles, a biophysics Ph.D. from UCSF wanted everyone to know why the irrational number Pi matters: “3.14159 makes everything just so fine!” But the most incisive message came from Dora and her 6th-grader son, Adrian, who had designed posters praising the contributions of 8th-century mathematician al-Khwarizmi, considered the father of algebra.

Married to an American, Dora is a Bulgarian who was praising a Muslim mathematician from olden times! Only in immigrant-rich America was this possible.

Tracy Van Houten, a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), also extolled the value of STEM, particularly for girls and minorities.

14-year-old Justin, a sophomore at Bellarmine College Preparatory. Photo by Hasan Rahim.

“Scientists are underrepresented in our government,” she said. Of the 535 members of the Two Houses of Congress, only 11 are scientists. “That’s less than 2 percent! We have to not only protect science but also scientists,” she said. “We will prevail because Trump fears facts, and facts are on our side.”

Houten had to recently make a wrenching decision after Trump’s election. She quit her JPL job and is now running to represent the 34th Congressional District of California in the Congress.

The rally was billed not as a protest but as a march to affirm the value of science and to demand that the Trump administration use facts rather than polarizing and paralyzing ideologies to frame policies. We have a president who ignores evidence in favor of opinion, who has picked a man who denies that carbon dioxide is a primary source of global warming, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Trump’s proposed budget would cut $12.6 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services, including $5.8 billion from the National Institute of Health alone, with potentially disastrous consequences for medical research. His ban on immigration threatens our scientific institutions like MIT, where a significant percentage of the faculty is foreign-born.

What will it mean for America if Trump has his way? Byron a marine biologist, shared his perspective at the rally.

“I don’t believe Trump will succeed,” Byron said. “He will probably be neutered by divisions within his own party. His policies are likely to grind to a halt. But we can never be sure, so we have to keep up the momentum.”