Science’s ups and downs: Pollution, dark energy, a set of postdoctoral fellowships and more

A dramatic few days for science — a stunningly disproportionate resurgence of confidence in the usefulness of the old notion that the universe was created by a mysterious force known as dark energy, as well as a federal agency’s attempt to justify an end to a popular post-doctoral fellowship program and what the proposal called “unsustainable” funding.

Dark energy shot up in The Pollution Nexus’s weekly survey. Even though dark energy has essentially been on the defensive since last November, when a combination of gravitational effects and vigorous, though now reduced, speculation about universes with fine-scale dimensions, it jumped more than 80 percent among scientists, scientists ranked it as the third most important reality in science, and 95 percent were certain of its existence. A major article in The New York Times recently did a fantastic job of explaining the buildup of evidence, but part of the problem is that while “creeping around the edges of perception” has been common in science and all manner of human endeavor, we have been slow to become aware of it.

The news is more somber for a controversial fellowship program. The National Science Foundation, a component of the Department of Commerce, announced on Tuesday that the Experimental Radio Astronomy Fellowship would end, due in part to an obvious need to control costs in a challenging fiscal environment. The ERAF allows postdoctoral scientists to continue their work while acting as unpaid assistant professors.

I was the first person to suggest that President Trump fire Secretary of the Army Mark Esper for ineptitude at that agency, which oversees federal research. I would say the same about the National Science Foundation’s ERAF program.

A few other oddities from past weeks:

Cloud hacking. Cloud computing is wonderful, but a new study has found that people using cloud-based devices, including laptops, phones and tablets, were infected with viruses 1,200 times per week during a two-year period. The firm performed this analysis on almost 1 million devices between 2015 and 2017. It says that nearly 20 percent of everyone studied infected their device at least once.

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