Yesterday, my son shared the video below – Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “We Stopped Dreaming (Episode 1)”. It took me back to childhood memories when I was inspired to be a scientist. I remember watching the Apollo launches. I think I remember listening to the Gemini 4 space walk – I was four, and my father recorded it on reel-to-reel, but I don’t remember him ever replaying it. I remember staying up late and falling asleep…thankfully to be awoken by my mother just before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. …Skylab, …the test flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.
Years later, I left behind aspirations of a science career (practicalities…how much money does the average physicist make anyway?) for one of engineering, but the love of space, cosmology, NASA…all still with me…which is why what Neil deGrasse Tyson is saying in this video saddens me all the more.
I worry that decisions Congress makes doesn’t [sic] factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow.
Apart from the applicability of that to just about any of the current Congress’s decisions, he’s dead right in this specific instance. We are not funding science. We are not encouraging and developing engineers. We are failing in educating our young people, not only in the technical fields, but in general.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares 15 year olds in 65 industrial countries. From the 2009 report:
The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among OECD member countries to measure how well 15-year-old students approaching the end of compulsory schooling are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies. The assessment is forward-looking: rather than focusing on the extent to which these students have mastered a specific school curriculum, it looks at their ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in curricular goals and objectives, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school.
“…to meet real-life challenges.” Care to guess how the U.S.A. fared in the latest, 2009, assessment? You can see here for yourself, but I’ll spoil it:
- Reading – 17th (out of 65)
- Mathematics –31st (significantly below the average)
- Science – 23rd
We fail. We fail across the board. We fail where it matters. I’m not sure how we will fare in the 2012 PISA, but I seriously doubt we’ll improve. Our system doesn’t support it anymore.
Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their book “That Used to Be us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, quote Matt Miller, one of the authors of a 2009 McKinsey & Company report titled The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, who said
They [American students] are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.”
I don’t know what the answer is. I admit a selfish cop out – we home educate our children – so I don’t think often on what can or should be done; we’ve taken responsibility for preparing our children ourselves. Still, one simple solution seems to be to promote science, math and engineering.
And we start doing that by not cutting NASA’s budget.
Fat chance. How much would YOU pay for the universe?
This is a highly entertaining and mind-stretching talk by Lawrence Krauss from 2009. The title is “A universe from Nothing,” and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Enjoy.
Here are a few of Krauss’ quotes from his talk:
The universe is flat,
It has 0 total energy,
And it could have begun from nothing. (min 40)
Why is there something rather than nothing? There had to be. If you had nothing in quantum mechanics, you’ll always get something. It’s not simple. . . but it’s true. (Min 41)
We live in a universe dominated by nothing. 70% of the energy in the universe resides in empty space. And we don’t have the slightest idea why it’s there. (min 42).
We now know that “we are more insignificant than we ever imagined. If you get rid of everything we see, the universe is essentially the same. We constitute a 1% bit of pollution in a universe that’s 30% dark matter and 70% dark energy. We are completely irrelevant. (min. 43).
There may be other universes that aren’t conducive to life, and lo and behold there isn’t life in them. That’s a kind of cosmic natural selection. (min 46:00).
[History of string theory in 10 seconds.] (min 49).
Strive for cosmic humility. The recognition that we don’t know far more than we know. (min. 50).
Galaxies are moving away from us at an increasing rate of speed. In 100 billion years, “all evidence of the big bang will disappear.” Scientists living then will derive a picture of the universe that is completely wrong. They will derive a picture of the universe being one galaxy surrounded by empty space that is static and eternal. Falsifiable science will produce the wrong answer. (min. 52).
We live in a very special time: The only time when we can observationally verify that we live at a very special time!” (min 52).
The universe remains mysterious, and that is great (min 53).
Guttmacher Institute recently sent me a mass email sternly criticizing false research suggesting that women who have had abortions are more likely to have mental illness. It turns out that this is not true. What is stunning is the abysmal methodology of the criticized research. Here is an excerpt from Guttmacher’s site:
A study purporting to show a causal link between abortion and subsequent mental health problems has fundamental analytical errors that render its conclusions invalid, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Guttmacher Institute. This conclusion has been confirmed by the editor of the journal in which the study appeared. Most egregiously, the study, by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues, did not distinguish between mental health outcomes that occurred before abortions and those that occurred afterward, but still claimed to show a causal link between abortion and mental disorders. The study by Coleman and colleagues was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2009 . . . .
“This is not a scholarly difference of opinion; their facts were flatly wrong. This was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data,” says Julia Steinberg, an assistant professor in UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry. “The shifting explanations and misleading statements that they offered over the past two years served to mask their serious methodological errors.”
The errors are especially problematic because Coleman later cited her own study in a meta-analysis of studies looking at abortion and mental health. The meta-analysis, which was populated primarily by Coleman’s own work, has been sharply criticized by the scientific community for not evaluating the quality of the included studies and for violating well-established guidelines for conducting such analyses.
“Studies claiming to find a causal association between abortion and subsequent mental health problems often suffer from serious methodological limitations that invalidate their conclusions,” says Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute. “In thorough reviews, the highest-quality studies have found no causal link between abortion and subsequent mental health problems.”
Even when identified, spurious research can have far-reaching consequences. Mandatory counseling laws in a number of states require women seeking an abortion to receive information, purportedly medically accurate, that has no basis in fact. Among other things, mandatory counseling can require that a woman be told that having an abortion increases her risk of breast cancer, infertility and mental illness. In reality, none of these claims are medically accurate. These laws not only represent a gross intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship, they serve to propagate misinformation, intentionally misinforming the patient on important medical matters.
At the end of a social event on the weekend before Mardi Gras, a casual friend asked a surprising question. I was bedecked with beads, primarily in purple and gold. This Catholic friend comes up and says something like, “Why are you all dressed up for the Christian holiday? Don’t you believe that anyone who believes in God is stupid?”
Dumbfounded. It took me a moment to parse this and compose a reply. As we were all heading out the door, I didn’t have time to fully answer all the implied misconceptions. So I said something on the order of, “I don’t think that; I know many smart people who are faithful.”
Let me first detail a minor misconception. Sociologically, rituals are important. Mardi Gras (literally Fat Tuesday, also Shrove Tuesday) was adopted by Christians from the earlier Carnival, and Saturnalia before that. It is a long standing late winter festival ending the season of harvest plenty in the days when food preservation was limited, and entering the lean period of rationing until the spring produce appeared (greens, lambs, milk, etc). And festivities are fun, whatever the nominal purpose. The Holy Roman church had so successfully rebranded all the pagan festivals that most Christians are unaware of the deeper not-Jesus purpose behind them, even as they embrace all the pre-Christian trappings.
But the big issue is the perception that I, an an atheist, think that Christians (the majority faith at present time and place) are stupid. Many converted Atheists do vehemently decry their former faith and deride its practitioners, as do Dawkins and Hitchens. My parents converted from religious to irreligious, and so I was raised without a particular god and with their lower expectations of people of faith. But that didn’t stick.
I grew up as a closeted atheist. On Sunday mornings I was dragged to a secular Sunday School where I had to wear jacket and tie from the age of 5. It didn’t fool my church going peers. I opted for the less hated liberal-Jew label that try to explain that all invisible friends seemed equally improbable to me. I endured various epithets in public schools hurled at non-Christians by the God fearing. But as I grew older and my peers become more reasonable, I started talking to them about such things.
I was actually less surprised to find people of deep faith at my fairly-high-standards college than I was to find sports fans. One of my closest college friends was a Young Earth, Born Again sort. I admit that I would sometimes light his fuse in a room full of geology or astronomy types, just to see to what heights his rationalizations could wax. (Anyone else visualizing Ceiling wax?)
I have also been reading arguments from both sides of the God conjecture since puberty. The problem is not whether one side is smarter, but which is the set of assumptions on which their sense of reality rests. Either cause and effect are real and the universe is knowable through a continuing and contentious process of observation, documentation, and modeling (science), or else the continually meddling god of Christianity is possible, as was declared by ancient authority. The majority of the American founders were Deists who believed that if there was a creator God, he did not meddle in the day-to-day affairs of men. I can accept that God, but still don’t believe in it. Cosmologists and astronomers are pushing his creative acts farther and farther to the margins.
So although I acknowledge the high correlation between less-learned people and deep faith, I do not assume that having faith implies that people are stupid.
I’m in the process of watching a (Great Courses) video course titled “Understanding DNA, Genes and their Real-World Applications,” taught by Professor David Sadava. In today’s lecture (#5) he asked whether one’s original cell still exists in each adult. Each of us came from one cell, a fertilized egg, which divided, then divided again, on and on. Sadava’s question was whether our original cells might still be alive somewhere in our adult human bodies, decades later. His answer was that there is no compelling reason to assume that that original cell is not still “somewhere” inside of you, one cell among the 60 trillion cells that make up your body.
At Edge.com, V.S. Ramachandran began his talk titled “Adventures in Behavioral Neurology with this description of the brain:
Let me tell you about the problem confronting us. The brain is a 1.5 kilogram mass of jelly, the consistency of tofu, you can hold it in the palm of your hand, yet it can contemplate the vastness of space and time, the meaning of infinity and the meaning of existence. It can ask questions about who am I, where do I come from, questions about love and beauty, aesthetics, and art, and all these questions arising from this lump of jelly. It is truly the greatest of mysteries. The question is how does it come about?
When you look at the structure of the brain it’s made up of neurons. Of course, everybody knows that these days. There are 100 billion of these nerve cells. Each of these cells makes about 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons. From this information people have calculated that the number of possible brain states, of permutations and combinations of brain activity, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.