Tag Archives: Science

Calling all Scientists

There is something missing from the world today … actually, there are a great many somethings missing from the world today.

I refer of course to the species that have gone extinct throughout history. Some of these extinctions occurred naturally over a great span of time. Others occurred as a mass extinction caused by some cataclysmic event. dino

The “natural” rate of extinction is about one-five species per year, but in recent history, scientists have estimated about twelve species per day are going extinct!!

At this rate of acceleration, it appears we may be heading for another mass extinction. This time it will be the end of the Age of Mammals (the Cenozoic Era).

We as humans discuss a lot of issues, politics, religion, social injustice, and yes even the environment. But where we seem to focus our attention is at the very high level, big picture aspects. When we talk about the environment we talk about the ice caps melting (which will take a long time and have obvious widespread effects), we also talk about our grandchildren and providing them with clean air and water. Long-term, big picture stuff.

But what about the small things? The microbiology of Earth? EO Wilson, a microbiologist, speaks out about the importance of insects and microorganisms. For example, he talks about a tiny marine-bacteria in the oceans that was only recently discovered, in 1988. They are now considered to be one of the most populace life forms on Earth, and one of the smallest. This sub-microscopic entity is now thought to be the leading producer of photosynthesis in the ocean.

These are things that go unknown and unnoticed to most people. Because of this ignorance of the world around us. We continue to generate contaminants that we think are protecting us, but are probably actually leading us down the path to extinction. Many small organisms and insects are absolutely vital to our survival, but we spread pesticides and antibiotics with ease.

Wilson has a dream of knowledge, spreading knowledge of every species on Earth and how they might interact with and support our own selves. He calls it the Encylopedia of Life. The idea is an opensource online encyclopedia where scientists can log their knowledge about any and every species on Earth.

That fits into what we discuss in class very nicely, I think, it is basically a scientific forum for sharing information and knowledge. It could inspire a movement to help save some of these species that we unwittingly rely on for life.

Another TED talk given by Wilson is a call to young scientists to take up the mantle of research and discovery. It seems Wilson has a concern about a reduced interest in the field of scientific research. He cites a fear of failure as what he thinks is the reason for this decline. Amusingly, he spends some time trying to convince the audience that math isn’t that hard to learn, and he goes so far as to say that professors and academics should focus less on mathematics, and more on imagination. He suggests that if you make a brilliant discovery, or have a brilliant idea, you can always hire a mathematician to join the research team.

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Not Your Parents’ Cosmos

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A couple weeks ago in class we briefly discussed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent pulpit-styled rhetoric and how science seems to be changing its tactics to gain more recruits. Initially, I didn’t find the approach very irritating, as I’m all for spreading the gospel of science. But after watching a couple episodes of the new Cosmos, I’m beginning to feel my hackles twitch.

Tyson wrote and produced an episode that spends a great deal of time focusing on the plight of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno. Friar Bruno was a forward-thinking stargazer of the 16th century who questioned the orthodox view of the universe and suffered the grand price for his heresy. He was, no doubt, a heroic figure who moved the conversation forward, but so were Galileo, Copernicus, and a slew of other great minds. His inclusion was conspicuous to say the least and hints at an agenda that wants to wiggle a finger at the religious establishment, which, in my opinion, has no place in serious scientific television.  I find myself siding with the creationist Danny Faulkner who, in this article, basically says ‘if you’re going to go there, you’d better be prepared to take some guff.’

The Sagan era

While the new Cosmos is definitely a feast for the eyes and imagination, it lacks the rigorous focus of its predecessor. Sagan’s Cosmos was all about the business of science and nature. Of religion, Sagan seemed to have no opinion. His door was locked to the debate. At the same time, Sagan had a way of using the wonder and awe of nature to speak his philosophy for him. He seemed a man more fond of the questions than the answers, questions that produce new theists and scientists alike. From that standpoint Sagan could’ve been loosely defined as an evangelist, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Sermonizing science

I’m not sure what to make of Tyson’s, almost confrontational, approach, nor do I think it’s particularly suited for Cosmos. It is not the job of Science to invalidate religion for the masses. Nor should it be in the business of defending evolution against creationists or debating the merits of the fossil record with Young Earthers–the trilobites and triceratopses speak for themselves. Scientists like Tyson ought to keep their eyes on the sky, keep testing and re-testing their hypotheses, and politely opt out of the discussion.

At its core, science is unbiased observation. It’s an often dry and thankless job uncovering those kernels of discovery. The same sober handling of the data should accompany its delivery to the public, voiced by someone who sounds more like an astrophysicist and less like a televangelist.