Cosmos 13: Who Speaks for Earth?

by Shane L. Larson

Let me tell you a story about me that many people don’t know. When I was in junior high school, I was a small, exceptionally nerdy child who loved Star Trek, science, games of all sorts (provided they didn’t involve “teams” or “athletics”), and learning. My very best friend of the day was a similarly minded young gentleman, who introduced me to computer gaming (“Colossal Cave”, which we played on the mainframe at Ball Aerospace, where his father worked), World War II aircraft, and car mechanicing. He also had epilepsy. It was frightening when he would have seizures, because he would go blank and suddenly it was like he didn’t know me or anything about the world around him. I don’t recall how long these episodes would last, but what I do remember is his father would swoop in, and sit with him for time, and eventually my friend would be back, and we’d be off to explore the world again.

A scar on the orbit of my left eye; stitches in my 7th grade year. The scar has faded slowly over the years, but is still obviously there if you know to look for it.

A scar on the orbit of my left eye; stitches in my 7th grade year. The scar has faded slowly over the years, but is still obviously there if you know to look for it.

Now, as was often the case in the cruel world of middle-school aged children, we were the target of bullies. My locker neighbors reveled in shutting my locker each time I opened it, or knocking all my books on the ground so I was tardy to next period. Once they took my prized possession of the day, the Collected Novels of H.G. Wells; when I decided that day to fight back, I was bodily thrown across the room into a metal chair, gouging myself on the orbit of my left eye, requiring 7 stitches and leaving a scar I still have today. My best friend was a similar target, with more serious consequences because the physical bullying would often trigger a seizure. The school administration took an all too common viewpoint on these matters: no one saw it, so it is your word against theirs. An odd viewpoint in light of the amount of blood streaming down my face (I don’t know what the bully had told them, but to be fair I had bit him when he had me in a headlock).

Me and my family, in my high school years. My mom and dad instilled in all three of us boys a robust sense of justice.

Me and my family, in my high school years. My mom and dad instilled in all three of us boys a robust sense of justice.

Now my parents are the most moral, upstanding people I know, and taught me a deep personal philosophy about justice. Now, in the wisdom of my adulthood, I like to hang quotes from Gahndi on it, like “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”  But really, what I remember are words from my Pa: “Bullies are really just cowards, so knock them down. And make sure the bastards don’t get back up.”  The matter all came to a head on a late winter day during my 7th grade year. My best friend had his head bashed against a locker, which triggered a bad seizure. No teacher saw it happen, but I resolved it was going to stop.  At the end of lunch period that day, I bought an extra milk, and opened the carton on both sides. I remember one of my other nerdy-friends standing next to me saying, “Aw, how are you going to drink that now?” I didn’t answer; I was standing behind the locker-basher, who was sitting at a table. I upended the carton of milk over his head, and beat the tar out of him. The event instigated one of the largest food fights the junior high school had ever seen, and I was awarded a 2-week suspension, which I took without argument.

One of the most often reproduced Apollo images; Jim Irwin on the plain at Hadley, in front of the Lunar Module Falcon and Lunar Rover. [NASA Image AS15-88-11866]

One of the most often reproduced Apollo images; Jim Irwin on the plain at Hadley, in front of the Lunar Module Falcon and Lunar Rover. [NASA Image AS15-88-11866]

The aftermath was the most important. My friend and I were never the target of these particular bullies again; nor were we the target of a somewhat wider group of bullies who had always circled on the fringes of our lives. This kind of mayhem was far outside the boundaries of what was expected from me. The event somehow incited some people to ask what really happened, and to pay attention. After a long discussion with the faculty advisor about the event and the reasons behind it, my National Junior Honor Society membership was maintained. My suspension was lifted a week early, so my friend and I both could attend a school assembly featuring Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin, whom we met and talked with! But most importantly, my science teacher docked my term project about the anatomy and life cycles of frogs from a 100% to an 80%, dropping me a letter grade in the class. It blemished an otherwise admirable middle-school academic record. She never said a word, and just kept right on treating me like the scientist she seemed to know I was going to become. She reinforced a lesson my parents had already touted — there are always consequences, even when you are doing the right thing, but it shouldn’t stop you from doing the right thing.

Now, in my adulthood, I still carry that same overbearing, black and white opinion about justice, and an unfailing opinion that people who can stand up should stand up for those who can’t. It is something that I often think about as I push my way blindly forward in my career.  What do I do everyday, when I’m not writing this blog for you to read?  I’m a scientist; an astronomer. What does that have to do with bullies and childhood scraps? Everything in the modern world.

A white dwarf is the skeleton of a star like the Sun, long after it has died. It has about the mass of the Sun, but is the size of the Earth. [Image by STScI]

A white dwarf is the skeleton of a star like the Sun, long after it has died. It has about the mass of the Sun, but is the size of the Earth. [Image by STScI]

In my everyday life as a professional scientist, I spend my time thinking about astrophysics, exploring our understanding of how gravity influences the evolution and life of white dwarf stars, the ancient cooling skeletons of stars that lived their lives like the Sun. Some days, I teach intro science classes to young women and men bound for careers in business, medicine, law and management; people who may never take another science class in their lives, nor think all that much about science ever again. Every now and then, one of them asks me, “What is understanding white dwarfs good for?” There are a whole host of reasons related to how stars act as astrophysical laboratories, simulating conditions that are difficult and expensive to replicate on Earth, and how the knowledge has applications to technology, energy, and medicine.  But the real reasons, the important reasons are these:

(1) Astronomy, unlike bench science in a laboratory, in an exercise in looking, thinking, and understanding Nature from afar. The practice of astronomy teaches us how to think deeply about the Cosmos, how to unravel the secrets of Nature, and not fool ourselves into thinking something false. More than any other science, astronomy teaches us to be harshly critical of our reasoning, to be brutally honest about what we know and don’t know, and to be quite certain of our conclusions when we say them out loud.

secretCancer(2) Every person has a deep seated sense of wonder, waiting to be ignited and tapped. We cannot know who or what will inspire those who see the future for us, but we know it will happen, just as it has happened in the past to people named Steve Jobs, Temple Grandin, Dean Kamen, Rachel Carson, and a thousand others. We explore, learn, and teach the wonder of the Cosmos with the certainty that it can and will inspire someone someday to consider a life in science and technology, a life in service to our species and our planet. The consequences of not teaching people about the wonders of astronomy are almost too awful to contemplate. What if the next Newton never discovers science? What if the cure to cancer is hidden inside someone who is never inspired to continue their education?

(3) Lastly, in a world increasingly dependent on science and technology, science has become a weapon.  Not a a tangible device of destruction (though there are certainly plenty of examples of those), but a psychological bludgeon used to prey on those who have weakness or uncertainty in the realms of science and evidence based reasoning. The Earth faces an uncertain future in terms of its long term evolution, and the survivability and impact of our species on this planet. Special interests, driven by economics, politics, or ideology, have become the bullies of the modern world. Their tactic of choice is the subversion of knowledge and evidence-based wisdom, using modern media to sow uncertainty and discontent, holding the world hostage in a constant state of confusion and embittered debate. The weapon against those with shallow vision and self-serving interests is critical thinking, and common cause.  For the first time in all the history of the Earth, we have both. The practice of science is the human species’ profound realization of the process of critical thinking; it’s only goal, is to seek the truth with unflinching respect for the evidence and facts. Technology has given us the ability to communicate, directly and personally, with every person on the planet.

In a 1990 essay for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Carl Sagan wrote, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”  This is a trend that has not changed in the two decades since; if anything, it has become exacerbated as technology and mobile technology has interlinked our world and become enmeshed with our daily lives.

Smartphones and carburetors, two of the great mysteries of the modern world. Making sure everyone can explain their inner workings is not the goal of science literacy.

Smartphones and carburetors, two of the great mysteries of the modern world. Making sure everyone can explain their inner workings is not the goal of science literacy.

The danger is not that people don’t understand the workings of a smartphone touchscreen or the purpose of a carburetor.  No, the true danger lies with people being told what they should think about a complex and interconnected world, instead of being able to think critically about how trustworthy the information being passed to them is. The best way for the citizenry of the Earth to protect themselves from charlatans is to know how science works. The second best way is for scientists to put some more skin in the game.

Science cannot be limited to those who practice it; it cannot be an esoteric playground of wonder and imagination for the privilege of a few.  What scientists know must be explained and popularized for the citizens of the world; people must understand that the purpose of science is to improve their lives, and it has.  Modern medicine has erased crippling diseases, satellites girdle the world providing a never-ending stream of data about the weather and evolving state of the planet, and telecommunications technology has deprovincialized knowledge to build a global community. The world-spanning internet has made communications instantaneous and egalitarian, exposing a vast fraction of the world to the wisdom and art of our species, but also connecting all of us instantaneously to the abject horrors our race is capable of, and showing the implacable forces of Nature casually destroying human constructs. Science is all around us.  It is not perfect, but it has repeatedly demonstrated an unfailing ability to change the world.

There are plenty of vocal scientists and active science communicators.  Phil Plait (twitter: @BadAstronomer) is a robust opponent (among many other things) of the anti-vaccination lobby. James Hansen and Michael Mann (twitter: @MichaelEMann) are prominent faces in the battle against climate denialism. Jennifer Ouellette (twitter: @JenLucPiquant) writes and blogs tirelessly about science and mathematics.  But there need to be more — many more. It is estimated that only 5% of the labor force in the United States are practicing scientists or engineers. That is an extraordinarily tiny fraction, so there is a challenge for everyone.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

On the part of the scientists, the challenge is to talk with your neighbors, talk with your friends, talk with anyone who will listen. There has been a slow and steady decline in the public percpetion of the value of scientists and academics in general.  This has been widely discussed recently in light of an excellent OpEd by Nicholas Kristof. Many academics have taken great affront to this article, but as I tell my 7-year old: how you act is up to you, but how people think you act is up to them. If you want people to change how they think of you, then you have to change how you act (especially when they are watching). In this case, many many decades of unremitting dedication to the urbane life of an academic, steeped in our own traditions and mindsets, have burned bridges that should never have been severed. Scientists are particularly bad at this, and we see the results — charlatans are slowly eroding public confidence in science to the point where despite overwhelming evidence, people don’t know what to think about the future of our planet or species. Richard Feynman always said, “Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves.”  Our job is to help people understand that.

George Bernard Shaw.

George Bernard Shaw.

On the part of everyone else, the challenge is learn to think critically, just as you do with everything else in your lives — you are the ones who are going to decide the future of our civilization, with your money, your actions, and your votes. Talk with your neighbors, talk with your friends, talk with your children.  Honor the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw, who admonished us to “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” We are being bullied, scarred for life, and we don’t even know it.  Forces within our society think they can play on our fears, for their own benefit, by encouraging us to doubt and deny our hard-fought ability to reason.  It’s time to fight back against these nebulous and callous forces, with the most powerful weapon we have: science. Denial of science is a denial of our birthright, an abandonment of a legacy of 40,000 generations of human beings who have walked before us.

With all the long future days of our planet and our race in front of us, there is but one task before us: preserving the lives of the citizens of the Earth, be they human or not, and ensuring the future habitability of this planet, the only place in the Cosmos we know, with certainty, where any form of life can and does survive.

We speak for Earth, you and I.  Our loyalties are to the species, and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and fluorish is owed not just to us, but to the Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

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Final Note: This closing quote, is the closing quote from Cosmos as well. Thank you, Carl, for a journey that defines much of what I think, say, and do every day of my life. From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return, now and for all eternity.

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This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE

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