Alda, Krauss explore science and art during ASU Origins event

January 16, 2015

On stage before a packed house at the Orpheum Theatre, multi-Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated screen legend Alan Alda and ASU Origins Project director and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss held a revelatory, passionate and often witty conversation as part of the inaugural Origins Project Dialogue, Jan. 15.

The theme of the dialogue, “Science and Art: Long Lost Lovers,” tackled the communication links between science and the humanities, curiosity and the joy of discovery, and the importance of science education and literacy in politics, democracy and the future of our society. Screen legend Alan Alda and ASU physicist Lawrence Krauss Download Full Image

“Alan Alda is probably the one person in the world that everyone likes,” said Krauss as he introduced Alda and his long list of achievements to the captivated crowd of 1,300 in attendance.

While Alda is best known for his landmark role as Hawkeye Pierce on "M.A.S.H.," he’s also held a lifelong interest in science, hosting “Scientific American Frontiers,” and channeled his scientific passions into numerous acting roles, plays, documentaries and now, at 78, a professor at the State University of New York's Center for Communicating Science.

“One of the things I think I can contribute is all the things I’ve learned in my life about communicating, about trying to be truthful and simple as a performer and as a writer. I think I can convey that to scientists and show them the connection to their own work,” said Alda.

At the center, Alda challenges scientists to improve their communication skills and audience empathy through improvisation exercises, and in the annual Flame Challenge, where scientists are challenged to explain a basic scientific topic, such as "What is sleep?" in language an 11-year-old can grasp.

“Alan has become in many ways a spokesman for science,” said Krauss.

A half-century ago, British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, in “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” wrote about the historic split between art and science being a major impediment to solving profound societal challenges.

“I was sort of a victim of that divergence,” said Alda. “When I was in high school, I was still very curious about science, but I knew I wanted to be a writer and an actor. And they just didn’t go together in those days. We weren’t taught in a way that brought them together, which is more common now.”

“I actually wanted to be an actor,” said Krauss. “I got involved in that, but it was kind of a snob thing. It just didn’t seem intellectual enough.”

During Krauss and Alda’s wide and free-ranging discussion, this central theme was touched upon in their mutual admiration of scientific heroes such as Nobel Prize-winning scientists, including physicist Richard Feynman, a role played by Alda on Broadway in “Q.E.D.,” and more recently, chemist Marie Curie in “Radiance,” a play written by Alda.

“Her curiosity led her to look at what other things can give out rays,” said Alda. “If you give up curiosity-driven research, you are going to give up a major part of our understanding of the universe.”

“Feynman said that science is imagination in a straightjacket,” said Krauss, explaining that whatever wonderful ideas a scientist may come up with to attempt to solve a problem, ultimately it’s constrained by experimentation. “Science, as beautiful and elegant as it is, if it doesn’t hold water when it comes to reality, you throw it out.”

Krauss and Alda emphasized that perhaps scientists’ failure to adequately communicate and connect the dots between basic science and technology, such as the development of the transistor leading to today’s smartphones, may be why the public, or the politicians who make decisions on funding science, often don’t see the point of basic research.

“Fifty percent of the gross national product of the United States right now is based on curiosity-driven research from more than 30 years earlier,” said Krauss. Alda pointed out that there is a direct line you can trace over a century of discoveries, from Einstein’s theory of relativity to the technology that makes GPS possible. “The very members of Congress who say, ‘Why should we fund this? What is it good for?’ are themselves carrying around GPS in their pockets.”

By the end of the evening, their dialogue, followed by an audience Q&A session, revealed that science and the arts should not be viewed as strange bedfellows, but rather, all interwoven into the same exciting fabric of the human experience.

“And that excitement can be contagious,” said Alda. “We need to catch that virus of the beauty, the adventure of science, because it’s one of the great pleasures of life, one of the great things that humanity has produced.”

“The real beauty of science is, like art and literature, the ideas, and what makes us human, the pleasure of being human,” said Krauss.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Are investors returning to the Phoenix-area housing market?

January 20, 2015

Investors appear to be returning to the Phoenix-area housing market. The latest monthly report from the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University examines that new trend, as well as the possibility of a future supply problem. Here are the highlights of the new report on Maricopa and Pinal counties, as of November:

• The median single-family-home sale price went up 5.5 percent from November 2013 to November 2014 – from $200,000 to $210,990. Mike Orr Download Full Image

• President Obama announced a housing plan in Phoenix last week that might help create both more demand and a supply problem.

• Investors are returning to Phoenix, with their percentage of the area’s home purchases up over the past four months.

After the housing crash, Phoenix-area home prices shot up from September 2011 to summer 2013. Then, the median single-family-home price rose just another 5.5 percent from November 2013 to November 2014. Realtors will note the average price per square foot went up about 5 percent. The median townhome/condo sales price actually dropped 2 percent.

“Prices in the Phoenix-area housing market remained relatively flat in 2014, when you take into account the general level of inflation,” says the report’s author, Mike Orr, director of the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice at the W. P. Carey School. “When you look at the change in the mix of sales – with more expensive luxury homes being sold – there is not much real upward price momentum.”

Orr adds there also isn’t much downward price momentum because both supply and demand remain relatively low. The number of single-family-home sales dropped 9 percent from November 2013 to November 2014. The low demand has largely been masking the fact that the market also has a low supply of homes – a situation that appears to be getting worse.

“The rate of new listings has dropped significantly since April, and active listings even dropped slightly in November, which is unusual and signals a weakening supply,” explains Orr. “It would not take much of an increase in demand to overwhelm the current level of supply, and if this occurs, we should expect prices to start rising once more. We will have to wait and see how first-time home buyers react to the new lending environment in 2015.”

Orr’s concern about the potential supply problem stems from a number of things meant to stimulate housing demand:

• down payments being reduced to 3 percent on certain Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac conventional loans

• continued drops in mortgage interest rates for all types of loans

• reduced mortgage insurance premiums announced by President Obama in Phoenix last week

Orr weighed in on the president’s new housing initiative by saying it may help middle-income renters buy their first homes. However, he also doesn’t think the overall impact will be that great.

“By the government’s own numbers, it will only add 250,000 sales nationally over the next three years – increasing sales only about 1.6 percent,” Orr says. “It’s a step in the right direction, but only a small step. A resurgence in home buying will probably occur anyway.”

Meantime, foreclosures remain well below long-term averages for the Valley. Completed foreclosures were down 39 percent from November 2013 to November 2014. Earlier, the loss of these bargain properties prompted a trend of investors leaving the Phoenix area for cheaper areas of the country, but now, that’s changing. The percentage of residential properties bought by investors was up to about 16 percent in November, the highest level since May. All-cash purchases are also back on the upswing.

“While investor purchases are still below the peak levels we saw in the Phoenix area after the housing crash, the levels have started to recover over the last four months,” says Orr. “However, we may see fewer international buyers in the market now because of the recent dramatic rise in the value of the dollar against most foreign currencies.”

Rental-housing demand in the Valley remains strong, partly because many people had their credit damaged during the housing crash, and also because millennials are waiting until later in life to enter the home market. Rents rose 4.8 percent in the Phoenix area from November 2013 to November 2014.

Those wanting more Valley housing data can subscribe to Orr’s monthly reports at