Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Candle In The Dark

9/30/07 – 10/6/07
by C. Zaitz

Do you remember Carl Sagan? Back in the early 1980’s, Carl Sagan was the voice of science. Scientists envied him for his fame and comedians imitated him due to his juicy enunciation of words like “nucleosynthesis” and “billions.” I was an impressionable 13 year old when Cosmos: A Personal Voyage first aired. Cosmos was Sagan’s illustrated ode to science and scientific thinking. Not only did he reveal the latest findings in astronomy, he discussed everything from the origins of life to the prospect of space travel, touching on biology, chemistry and physics. He framed phenomenon on earth within the larger context of the entire universe.

Who can forget the giant “Cosmic Calendar?” Sagan fit the whole history of the universe into one year, starting with the Big Bang on New Year’s Day. Humans started walking upright around 9:30 pm on December 31st, the very last day of that same year. Recorded human history begins at 11:59:45 pm. The voyage of Christopher Columbus happened on the very last second before midnight. Sagan reminded us that everything that has ever happened, everyone we’ve ever known about, any deeds ever done, occured in the last minutes, the last seconds of the history of the universe.

Later in life Sagan wrote a book called, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. He wrote extensively about the importance of skepticism and scientific thinking in our daily lives. He rallied against the influence of pseudosciences like astrology and ufology, while being a strong proponent of the search for extraterrestrial life. Sagan warned against sloppy thinking, and came up with the “Baloney Detector,” useful ideas to keep in mind when forming ideas. “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.” ”Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified. (Can it be tested?) Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?” And Occam's razor has been used in countless debates: “if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.” Why go supernatural when something can be explained by natural laws of science?

Carl Sagan died in 1996 of a rare bone cancer, but his legacy lives on. This fall the Henry Ford Community College Planetarium is showing each of the 13 episodes of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on Fridays at 11:15 am. The doors are open to anyone interested, and there is no admission fee. The episodes are updated with new graphics and commentary by Sagan and his widow Ann Druyan. The ideas and words of Carl Sagan speak to us over the decades. Who can forget his famous quotes, “We are all star stuff” and, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.” It’s hard to leave the planetarium not feeling a little richer, a little wiser for having thought about our place in the great scheme of things. Even if you don’t agree with every thing he says, Carl Sagan was nothing if not an inspirational educator and popularizer of science. He made the process of scientific inquiry interesting, and he gave us perspective by describing the grandeur and curious nature of the universe and our local part of it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Music to My Ears

9/23/07 - 9/29-07
by C. Zaitz

I love music. I’ve studied it, I listen to it, and I play it. I started piano lessons when I was five and after years of practice I can make music that sounds good to my ears. But the sweetest sound I’ve heard in a long time came from a human voice, and it made this music, “My daughter never liked science before, but now she likes it.” This was from a mom I met at Parent’s Night in the girl’s school where I’m teaching.

I’m still flying from hearing those words. There’s nothing that makes an educator feel better about the difficulty of teaching many classes every day, the long hours of correcting labs, grading tests, and crafting lessons, than to hear that they made a difference. It makes me very happy when young teen-aged girls, just entering puberty, are still excited about science. When I hear that the older girls in their later teens are still curious and interested, it makes me feel even better. We often lose girls in science at that age, and I think one reason is that they don’t know why it’s important. But I tell them why. It teaches them how to think. And that takes practice.

The first time you ice skate can be frustrating, as can your first karate lesson, or your first attempt at driving a stick shift. They all require repetitive practice. So does scientific thinking, but many of us don’t naturally tend toward it. We have to practice our thinking, our language, and our ability to reason. We all have habits, but to make science a habit requires the same kind of practice that cooking or playing football does.

So how can we practice scientific thinking? By reading a lot. Scientific questions come from observations and prior knowledge, gathered by humans since they first started painting bison hunts on cave walls. We have to know stuff to ask questions about it. Books and periodicals are important, but we get a lot of information from on-line sources. On-line science news can be convenient, but we run the same risk there that we run by getting our news from TV, and that is getting information from biased or non-reputable sources. Which leads me to the subject of critical thinking.

We should think critically about what we read and hear and see. Critical thinking doesn’t mean to “criticize,” it means to be discerning and evaluate the information we get. If we start with reputable sources, perhaps do a little research before we read, we can avoid wasting our time reading information that is not based in science, meaning based on facts or testable information.

Believing what someone tells us just because they speak the loudest isn’t using sound judgment, and certainly hasn’t done our nation much good in recent history. We can all think for ourselves, and yet sometime we choose not to. Sometimes we buy into other people’s ideas because they sound good to us or fit in with our belief system. I am as guilty of it as anyone, but I know what it takes to think critically and to avoid our personal biases and prejudices: practice, practice, practice. And that’s how you can get to Carnegie Hall, or to Mars!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

All Things Being Equal

September is one of those transitional months. School–aged kids know instinctively what fall means, and now many Michigan adults find themselves school bound for work related retraining. Even at work the feeling can change; no more “sliding out” early on Friday afternoon to find a favorite beach or an empty picnic table. There’s a palpable crispness in the air, a curt bustle in our motions, as if we still had to gather in the crops before the first hard frost.

The equinox approaches. Day submits to the creeping onslaught of night. Practically speaking, we have to walk the dog before it gets dark. We don’t linger outside talking to neighbors as late. The balance of power between light and dark is coming to equilibrium. We could relax in the abatement of burning rays from the sun and enjoy the lessening humidity and moderate temperatures, but we know what comes next: the utter and complete domination of a Michigan Winter. Can you hear the distant bells tolling for our dying summer?

Equilibrium of night and day means that the stars appear earlier. You don’t have to stay up very late to see the mighty planet Jupiter hovering low in the western twilight sky, or to see Princess Andromeda and her hero Perseus playing out their ancient story in the deepening night. So let’s quell those morose tolling bells and enjoy the equinox, for it brings some of the most interesting constellations and the biggest of planets to the early evening sky. Plus, fall in temperate Michigan is nothing to sneeze at! (Unless you suffer from allergies as many of us do!)

I like to think of autumn “advancing” because that word reflects what’s happening in the sky. The Sun, positioned against a background of very distant stars, seems to be marching eastward little by little. We can’t see this happening because the blue day sky prevents us from seeing the stars and the sun at the same time. The only change we can detect is the advancing of sunset, minutes earlier each day. If we could watch the process from space, we would see our home planet plodding along its normal course around the sun.

One result of this plodding motion is that the constellations that have been with us all summer are now getting lost in the glow of the sun. It also means that the star patterns that you’ve seen in the sultry summer mornings are now visible much earlier in the evening. Instead of the Summer Triangle adorning the sky all night, it will be fading not long after sunset. And the glorious and familiar constellations of fall, our friends Perseus and Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Pegasus, have migrated from early morning apparitions to familiar players in our evening heavenly tableau.

All things being equal, we can enjoy the moderate temperatures, the early evening sunsets, and the convenient timing of the crisp and clear fall night sky. The equinox occurs on September 23rd, the day when the sun rises due east, sets due west, lingers in the sky for half of the earth’s rotation, and goes down in time for us to take a break from the bustle of fall and enjoy the twinkle of the celestial bodies in the autumn sky.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

All Over the Map

9/9/07 - 9/15/07
by C. Zaitz

I write about astronomy. At least, that’s what I say I’m writing about. But I tend to be all over the map with my topics. I’ve talked about Jamestown, Dinosaurs, Snorkeling and even the weather. It’s not because I have Attention Deficit Disorder, it’s because Astronomy can be all over the map too.

Astronomy encompasses a lot of other sciences, leading down a road that passes through towns like physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and it even goes to territories like philosophy and religion. Forgive my extended metaphor, but astronomy is rather like a path or a trail that leads to many different places. Of course, the vehicle driving astronomy is curiosity, the same thing that drives all the sciences. Curiosity, and the desire to make our lives better and easier.

Take Google Earth, for example. You can download a program to your computer that allows you to zoom in on practically any place on earth, as if you were orbiting our planet and had an amazing zoom lens that allowed you to see, in some cases, who planted a new tree or where dirty water is pouring into our streams. That sounds like science fiction, but it’s not; it’s easy, fun and useful as well. Curious to see what Madagascar looks like? You can, and not just a colored blotch on a world map; you can see the actual landscape from a bird’s eye view. You can visit the Coliseum in Rome, and see the four presidents at Mount Rushmore. And thanks to scientific technology, it’s available to anyone who can use a computer.

Scientific knowledge allows us to keep satellites in space to take the pictures, and it allows us to understand optics and information storage. Scientific inquiry allows us to use quantum tunneling in our electronics, and allows the global sharing of information. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it. But some people may feel like it’s an invasion of privacy, or feel the Orwellian “Big Brother is watching us” uneasiness.

Perhaps it’s our ability, or maybe our need, to be curious and question things that is important, especially now when it’s difficult to accept what science is telling us about global warming and climate change. We have the data that tells us that our world is changing. Information is coming to us from all over the map. But we cannot forget that it is ultimately our interpretation of information that matters.

Interpretation comes from our background knowledge, such as from our education, our experiences, and what we’ve heard, read, or seen on TV. And that can truly be a mish mosh of ideas, of reality and faux reality. But the more we get information from reputable sources, from primary and authoritative sources, the better informed we can be in our interpretations. Science allows us to rely on experiments and observations to try to explain things. But many areas of science are open to interpretation, and misinterpretation, if we’re not discerning.

Information may seem to be all over the map, but we can use all of the tools at our disposal to interpret and synthesize it. And the best tools we have are the sciences. They may be disparate areas of study, but they all stem from our attempt to understand our universe, and ourselves.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.