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All posts for the month November, 2006

I was watching a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director for the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York city, the other day. In it, he talks about what made him a nerd and some of the seminal experiences in his life of science and research. I was struck by a story he told about taking an art survey course during his freshman year in college. He’d been a science nerd his whole life, and art must have seemed like a foreign country to him.

He got through it and came away with a better appreciation of the connectedness of all things in life, art to science, science to humanity, and so forth. It got me to reminiscing about my own journey as a nerd. I didn’t start out as one, or so I thought. But, then I remembered how inquisitive I was as a kid. I HAD to know how things worked. So, I’d be out in the yard of our old house in the country, picking blades of grass and tearing them apart into smaller and smaller pieces so that I could see what they were made of. This was before I knew about things like atoms and molecules. Once I’d learned about those fundamental bits of matter, and had an idea about chemical elements, I wanted to be able to see THOSE and figure out THEY worked.

That led to me getting a microscope for Christmas one year. It was for me, but my dad was into it, so Santa had written “TO Carolyn and Daddy” on the gift tag. I remember that we explored a lot of tiny things together, my dad and me. And, as I’ve written in some of my books, my dad was the first one to drag me outside to see the stars.

Once I saw them, I think the idea of astronomy was set in my head for good. It was a good many years before I actually ACTED on learning more astronomy (like, by taking actual astronomy classes), although we certainly had enough books around the house with pictures of Saturn and Jupiter and constellations. I’d pore over those and then try to correlate them with what I saw in the sky.

In college I didn’t study astronomy as a major. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, but at 18 I was ready to tackle something different from science: music. I’d recently begun piano lessons and was ablaze to understand the background of the pieces I was learning to play. Hence, I became a music history major. But, I was one of the few majors to also take as many science classes as I could including two semesters of astronomy, biology, geology, etc. My music advisors thought I was nuts. I thought THEY were nuts for not wanting to know more about the universe. hey were slightly more impressed when I signed up for art history, linguistics, world history, and other “liberal arts” classes in between my forays into science.

Well, I never did get that degree in music history, because I got fed up with the attitudes at the music school. I switched to education, got a teaching degree, and upon graduation, ended up working at a newspaper. And, newspapers are great places to be if you’re curious about things that happen. I got my start science writing at The Denver Post, and after I left there to go back to school, my journalism experiences stood me in good stead when I FINALLY decided to major in astrophysics. You see, both astronomers and journalists ask the big questions. They also ask the small questions. They’re in search of a story, an explanation, a reason why something happens, who made it happen, when it happened, and how it happened.

Where was I going with all this? That science is connected to being human? That asking questions is being human? That wanting to know how things work is being human? Yup. All those. And, if you haven’t figured it out, being that nerd is also being human. I think that’s abundantly clear in Neil’s movie, called “The Soul of a Nerd.” As I listened to him talk about drawing pumpkins in art class, and then drawing the SPACE between the pumpkins, I knew exactly how he felt.

Kind of interesting today to read that some brain cells in humpback whales have previously been found only in humans, apes, and dolphins. Also kind of interesting to read lately that the effects of global warming are being felt in lakes in Africa as well as glaciers at the poles. So, I was also somewhat piqued to read that the United States National Science Teachers Foundation turned down an offer of free copies of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” movie because (as they claimed) they were afraid that other groups would want to give them “propaganda” as well.

It turns out that what they may be afraid of is losing the monetary support of Exxon Mobil Corp, which supplies millions of dollars and lesson plans giving their side of the global warming debate to teachers. As an editorial writer in the Washington Post wrote on Sunday, “It’s bad enough when a company tries to sell junk science to a bunch of grown-ups. But, like a tobacco company using cartoons to peddle cigarettes, Exxon Mobil is going after our kids, too.”

Exxon isn’t the only corporate donor to get in on the bandwagon of directing science teacher attention away from some inconvenient truths. Shell Oil and the American Petroleum Institute have virtually unfettered access to teachers and students (our children), yet a movie that could give some badly needed balance to teachers as they try to explain the global warming issues to students is turned down. An inconvenient truth, indeed.

You know, the universe isn’t stupid. It runs by the numbers. Those numbers say that for every action there is a consequence. If you bring together a cloud of gas and dust and stir it up, all things being equal, in a few millions or billions of years there’ll be a star and maybe some planets form in the cloud. If conditions are right, chemicals may combine to form life on a planet. And, if things don’t go wrong, that life may evolve to understand its surroundings and maybe even explore the stars. It’s kind of elegant if you sit and think about it for a while.

During the lifespan of a star like the Sun, the existence of life on our planet is a mere blip of time. In the life of a galaxy, the birth and evolution of life on Earth isn’t even an eyeblink, not even a nanosecond of galactic time. Life is precious for that very rarity of its existence in time and space. There may be other planets with life, but like the time span of our existence, those life forms also exist in the blink of the cosmic eye.

Still, we live in the here and now, on a planet that we are changing by our very existence—a planet we still barely understand. We’re just now developing the tools of science to help us understand the changes we’re bringing to our world. Now we need to get rid of the very human trait of hubris and face what we’re doing with open eyes and minds. The universe doesn’t care if we live or die, but WE do. And for now, Earth is the only planet we’ve got and the diversity of life on its surface and under its ocean waves is precious.

Which brings me back to whales. We’ve been killing them for centuries. Turns out they’re more closely related to us than we thought. Maybe we’re killing our cousins. Now that we’re fouling our Earthly nest and pretending that global warming doesn’t exist, we may well be dooming humanity in a not so distant future to live on a planet that isn’t so pleasant to be on. Just as we’ve made the oceans a deathtrap for whales and overfishing the doom of fish species. I think that’s a darned sight more important to worry about than whether or not exposing ALL sides of a complex science issue to students will somehow harm an oil company that is now on record as trying to buy out science teachers in the United States.

Science is about looking at ALL evidence, studying all aspects of a physical situation, and making some decisions based on that evidence. It’s not about buying opinion or directing research and education to a pre-ordained end based on economic or political interests. Shame on the NSTA and shame on the sponsors who try to direct science education and open inquiry into directions that are, well, un-open, unscientific and verging on looking dishonest.

It has been raining here for days. I think global warming is becoming a reality, since by mid-November you’d think we’d have a little snow. Not that I’m complaining… a mild autumn is a good thing for the spirit.

Speaking of spirits, I read where the Mars Global Surveyor didn’t phone home about a week ago, and now its scientist and controller teams are trying to get it to log in and talk to them again. They’re in hopeful spirits it will get back in contact, but they’re also going to use the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to take a picture of the ailing orbiter when the two spacecraft pass within 90 miles or so of each other this week. This may help them diagnose the problem and find a way to get MGS to phone home. I hope they get MGS working—it’s been a marvelous machine, giving us “flyover” views of Mars that have reshaped our view of the Red Planet.

If the weather’s clear here, I hope to get out on Saturday and check out the Leonid meteor shower. It might be a good one this, as the folks at Sky & Telescope report. If it’s clear out your way, check ‘em out!

Finally, I’ve disabled comments on this thing until I can figure out why they don’t work. If anybody wants to write me comments, please use my email address at: cc dot petersen at gmail dot com (to foil spammers for at least a minute).