Tag Archives: children

The Dreams and Fears of Children

by Shane L. Larson

I was walking through my daughter’s school recently, and passed a display that had slipped by my gaze for more than a week.  It was in the days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and the bulletin board displayed a large poster with the full text of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the masses assembled for the March on Washington.

Surrounding the speech were quarter sheets of paper, written in the large and wandering text of those who are just learning to express themselves to the world, capturing with open and startling honesty the dreams of a first grade class.  What surprised me so deeply is how little those simple notes reflected what my parental mind and little boy memories thought of as the dreams of childhood.  No dreams of being a superhero, no dreams of flying to the Moon, no dreams of visiting the pyramids of Egypt, nor dreams of swimming on the Great Barrier Reef.  Most poignantly what these children called their dreams were in fact the desire to be rid of the innermost fears of their hearts, to see the world act to address those things that frightened them most about the future.

Roughly half of those fears were about children.  In our media-saturated culture, these children were painfully aware that there were other kids in the world, not unlike them and their friends, who suffered violence, abuse, hunger and poverty.  Such terrible weights for shoulders so small to bear.

The other half expressed fears about the future of this planet.  Fear of the effects of wars ravaging our civilization.  Fears that there would be no trees or no polar bears in their future.  Fear that the bad air (a particular problem in northern Utah) was never going to get better.  Fear our stewardship of this planet is not what they would do if handed the reins right now.  Terrible worries from small minds that should be engaged in the simple pleasures of childhood –– sparkly rocks, catching bugs, stomping in puddles, and dunking cookies in milk.

The fears of our children are a painful mirror, reflecting our own deepest concerns about the future of our world and our species.  Their concerns reflect the roots of the underlying issues that frame so much of the rhetoric of our politics and the incessant, thoughtless political soundbites spewed through the hosepipe of social media.  Our children are not little rocks, unaware of the world around them.  They are highly observant students of the world, absorbing and processing every tiny bit of information they are exposed to within the framework of their own worldview.  The most remarkable gift of their young cerebral processors is the ability to cut through all the crap that dominates big-person discussion of these issues and get right to the heart of the problem.  What if there are no trees in the future?  What if there is no water for farming and large cities?  What if the pinnacle of achievement of our civilization is to fight wars over the question of what happens to you after you are dead?

As a scientist, I know my community bears a tremendous responsibility to address these fears, particularly with regards to the complex interface between humans, our planet, and the other lifeforms we share it with.  The choice of a career in science means becoming well versed with the tools to gather data, developing the ability to quantitatively answer questions about big problems, and having the skills to make predictions about the future while offering candid assessments about certainty of your results.  The responsibility of a career in science is to follow the rules of science, and vigorously defend the conclusions of science even in the face of oppression.  The rules are this (these are Sagan’s Rules, which I find to be the most succinct and honest to the process of science): (1) there are no sacred truths, all assumptions must be critically examined, and arguments from “authority” are worthless without evidence. (2) whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised.  The Universe is not bound by how we wish it to be, and we must have the courage to not shirk the truth because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

A colleague of mine from American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.aaas.org/) recently noted that the resistance to change comes from two viewpoints.  The first kind of resistance is that arising from issues challenging deep core beliefs: stem cell research skirts by the unknowable question of when life begins, cosmology is often diametrically opposed to beliefs about the origins of the Universe, and natural selection clashes repeatedly with creationists.  The second kind of resistance is to problems of such magnitude that the path of least resistance is opposition to a viewpoint founded on established observational facts.  The clear example here is the opposition to climate change.  The economic and ecological ramifications of a rapidly evolving climate are enormous, insurmountable on the modern timescales of political power, possibly insurmountable across a human lifetime.  Mentally it is far easier to latch onto those few uncertainties that lie on the outskirts of the enormous consensus of the scientific community.  Mentally it is far easier to invest in an alternative knowledge system of selective information designed to support your viewpoint –– opinion replaces fact as the currency of importance.

There is an apparent simple truth in this observation –– the rhetoric of the modern world is driven by fear, the fear of being wrong.  It is true of our politicians, it is true of our scientists, it is true of our Facebook friends, it is true of our spiritual leaders, it is true of me and you.  Fear is so much easier to respond to than reason.  An easy observation to make, and a difficult fact to live with.  But there are enormous consequences if we ignore this simple fact.  I refuse to accept that we are okay living with such fears and okay with letting the fears of our children go unanswered.

“All art requires courage.”  So remarked Anne Tucker, the curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  I like to think that her axiom is broader than art.  Science requires courage.  The courage to ask questions which may be uncomfortable in light of societal prejudices.  The courage to understand the dislike or denial of science as a human fault and find a way to make our understanding of Nature compelling. Facing the future on Earth requires courage.  The courage to know that there are no certainties.  The courage to accept inescapable truths.  The courage to know that the necessary actions may not be popular or easy.  The courage to know that inaction and denial are unacceptable paths forward.

Standing in front of that bulletin board, I know what we have to do.

Fear of the future should not be the dreams of our children.

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Pigeons, the Internet, and the Meaning of Science

by Shane L. Larson

Albert Einstein famously remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.  The aperture through which we view the world around us and understand its workings is called “science.”  We make observations of the world, organize that empirical knowledge into patterns that seem logical and meaningful, then try to use those patterns to predict the future and explain the past.

There is, I think, an unfortunate tendency in today’s world to identify someone as a “scientist” only if they practice science as a profession.  This is as silly as only identifying a “cook” as someone who works in a restaurant downtown.  If you prepare food at home, for yourself or your family, out of necessity or simple joy, most of us would be perfectly happy calling you a “cook.”  But does the same candid use of the word “scientist” for everyone display a disingenuous labeling, a callous disregard for what we mean by “scientist?”  I’m sure some of my scientist colleagues, notorious for their rigid-mindedness and narrow world vision are bristling at this very moment.  But I’m okay with that, because I think it depends on what you mean by “scientist!”

The defining character of “science” is that it is an endeavour to understand the world.  The essential truth of this self-motivated journey of discovery is that it is, as far as we know, a uniquely human endeavour, driven solely by our curiosity, by our desire to understand.  Science is a manifestation of our desire to understand everything!  Where we came from, why water flows downhill, how a bug’s wings sometimes look clear and sometimes look irridescent, why we need to sleep, how our children can be so like us and so different, why trees don’t grow old and die like humans, how did octopi learn to spit ink, why are kumquats so delicious, how did there come to be rings around Saturn, why aren’t metals transparent, and an uncountable number of other questions.  By extension then, the defining character of a “scientist” is curiosity.  It has been my observation that everyone is curious about something, ergo, everyone is a scientist.

There are degrees to be sure, just like there are degrees of “cook.”  I’m not going to walk into Noma in Copenhagen and go toe-to-toe with Rene Redzepi, but I can still make a mean lasagne and entertain my dinner guests.  Similarly, many of you might not be comfortable debating the principles of Bose-Einstein condensation with Carl Wieman, but I bet you have still conducted an idle experiment with your microwave to understand the best possible conditions under which to nuke a chocolate chip muffin to perfection.

Flex your curiosity for a moment.  As an exercise, try Googling “draw a scientist.” Predictably, you get a dizzying array of mad scientists in lab coats with beakers, an ocassional Doofenshmirtz, and every now and then a hand drawn self portrait of a child labeled simply, “Me.”  Moreso than anyone else, even professional scientists, children know how to explore.  They constantly experiment, interpret, and reexperiment on the world.  Their entire lives are geared toward one thing: discovery and understanding and relenquishing all concerns to the overriding and insatiable curiosity that drives them from one activity to the next with passion, excitement and an uncrushable zest for new experiences.  Children are, by definition, young scientists.  They explore for no other reason than they want to know.  They collect empirical data, and change their notions of the world based on their observations.  Usually their explorations don’t gain them anything other than a deeper appreciation for the world around them, but sometimes they learn something they can use in the future, like leaving your sweater in the sun makes it deliciously warm when you put it on (as my daughter recently told me).

Let me tell you a story about another exploration that may not lead to anything, but has some important scientific lessons buried deep inside it.  I stumbled on this as a consequence of two apparently disjoint observations.  First, I live in rural Utah, nestled up against the Rocky Mountains in the southern end of Cache Valley.  My skies are dark because there is a lot of dirt between lightbulbs out here, but it means getting reliable broadband internet service is hard.  Second, I have a friend in Colorado who recently brought a homing pigegon to her house with her kids, then released it to fly back to its roost at the Denver Museum of Natural History.  About this time, you are scratching your head wondering “What do these two things have to do with each other?” and wondering whether or not it might be worthwhile to stop reading now and go see if you can find old episodes of “Sanford & Son” on YouTube.

The story about the homing pigeon caused me to initiate a common activity in the modern world: I went to the source of all knowledge and Wikipedia’d “homing pigeons.”  This predictably led to a random walk through the tree of knowledge (sometimes called “The Problem With Wikipedia”, http://xkcd.com/214/), until I stumbled upon something quite magnificent and awesome: the use of pigeons as an internet transfer protocol.  The “IP over Avian Carriers” is a defined protocol for communicating data between two points.  It began as a joke on April 1 in 1990, but as with many things, there is a deep kernel of truth for those willing to entertain the notion.  Imagine a pigeon carrying a micro-flash card, which by today’s standards is capable of holding 10 gigabytes of data or more.  A homing pigeon could cover roughly 30 miles in a hour, competing quite handily with most broadband connections!

To prove this point, in 2009 a South African telecom company hosted a pigeon race between their pet pigeon Winston and a local broadband provider.  Winston carried a 4 GB microSD card about 60 km in 2 hours, 6 minutes and 57 seconds, including upload and download of the card on both ends.  Winston won handily; the broadband transfer was only 4% complete when he finished.  Winston now enjoys the rockstar life of a tech and interent hero (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzsa4Byrso0).

What lessons can we take away from the “Pigeons are Better than Internet” experiment?  I think there are three.  First: The people who conducted this experiment are nerd heroes.  The should be everyone’s heroes for displaying unabashed curiosity and exemplary zest for life and knowledge.  Second: Nature is well adapted to many tasks, like transferring information from one place to another, and we are always going to be trying to catch up.  We should observe, mimic, and strive to attain the efficiency, simplicity and beauty of Nature’s solutions.  Third: the nerds who thought up the extremely cool experiment are scientists.  And so are you.  Everyone is a scientist.  On the surface, there was no real reason to test the speed of pigeons versus broadband internet, but someone had the audacity, the curiosity to try.  And in some small way, we learned something new, something that we should probably pay attention to.

Everytime you look at the sky and predict the weather based on past experience, you are solving a complex problem in climatology. Everytime you adjust the length of time you cook your muffins, you are conducting an experiment in thermodynamics.  Everytime you shim and adjust the door to your laundry room or bracket the shelves in your pantry you are engineering a better solution to the one that your housebuilder started with.  Does this mean you should be out designing new bridges or building particle colliders in Switzerland?  Maybe not — that takes years of training and skills you might not have yet.  But that doesn’t mean  you shouldn’t do science; that doesn’t mean you can’t discover something new, nor does it mean you shouldn’t be aware of the world around you.

Take a cue from your children.  Go out, explore, experiment, and understand the world around you!  Discover something new, build a backyard catapult (read “Backyard Ballistics” first, http://amzn.com/1556523750), invent the next must have accessory for everyday life (like Coffee Joulies, http://www.joulies.com/), or simply gaze into the deeps of the Cosmos with a pair of binoculars.  Above all else, remember that you are a part of the human voyage of exploration — a majestic, sweeping epic of self-discovery that has spanned thousands of years.  Take the next step, and share what you find with the rest of the world.  Be the scientist that I know is inside you.

For the moment then, I leave you.  I have an SD card, and somewhere around here, a cat…