Think Cosmically, Act Globally

Astronomy education is a great way to raise awareness of the impact of human activities on Earth systems.

An early mantra of the environment movement, when ecology was entering our cultural consciousness, is “think globally, act locally.”  While the phrase came from a Scottish land use planner in the early decades of the 20th century, it became a catch phrase to encourage people to take a larger view of the impact humans have on our planet’s systems.  These days, humans have implemented policies and educational practices designed to move us toward thinking in these terms, however our ability to change is still limited, with resource extraction continuing to occur on a massive scale, and some environmental degradation actually accelerating.  Short-term thinking about resources continues to hold sway, without considering  if future generations will have any resources left to extract or about the impact on the overall system.

A number of years ago, I found myself involved as a leader of a local environmental organization in the timber country of Oregon.  During a program, we had a local astronomer present to the membership.  Introducing the astronomer, I reminded those in attendance of the old mantra “thing globally, act locally,” and suggested we might better start to “think cosmically, act globally.”  This phrase has stayed with me, and I have pondered how we might shift the focus of people to a greater spatial and temporal awareness than what we usually have.  

Humans are not particularly good at thinking in time spans longer than a human life, or even in segments of a lifetime.  Our memories are short and do not always include events that happened early in our own lives, let alone those our parents and grandparents experienced.  History is this remote telling of things that happened, but not to us.  Likewise, we have a difficult time looking forward beyond an immediate future, although many are able to take a long view (such as saving for their eventual retirement, and even that is limited to a relatively small segment of the population).  

Different branches of science concern themselves with temporal scales outside our normal experience.  Archeology and paleontology examine a deeper past, discerning patterns in the evolution of species and the development of human culture.  Climate scientists investigate the past and, using current data, project future trends.  As noted in a previous post, these two areas of science, evolution and climate change, present challenges for many in their understanding and acceptance of their validity, perhaps due to a lack of temporal thinking when it comes to time scales longer than a human life.  Or individuals may have a worldview where humans are separate from the natural world, and they act accordingly.  In essence, it is a worldview where humans are not native to this planet and can do what we wish without having to deal with the consequences of our action, even if there is an acknowledgement our children or grandchildren will have to confront the results of our current activity.

A few sciences require this sort of spatial and temporal thinking, beyond our usual experience.  Geology is one of them as we gaze into the deep past and below Earth’s surface to create a four-dimensional model of over 4.5 billion years of history.  Part of that history involves the evolution of life, and part involves the co-evolution of planetary systems such as the hydrosphere and atmosphere.  It is impossible to separate these elements from one another when considering climate science.  

It is possible astronomy education is the vehicle to raise awareness of the impact of human activities on Earth systems.  Astronomy and its siblings planetary science and astrobiology include the investigation of atmospheres, defining the properties supportive of life as well as creating the tools for more extensive investigation of planetary systems (in the sense of the systems on planets, not the array of planetary bodies around a star).  Astronomy can help us to think cosmically, and how there are habitable zones not only on individual planets, but around stars and within galaxies.  Placing Earth in a cosmic context can help us understand how fragile the global ecosystem is.  When cultures use up a local resource, they are able to pick up and migrate to a new area, where the cycle of resource extraction and depletion begins anew.  For us on Earth, once we deplete our resources, there is nowhere else to go, although this is a common theme in much science fiction.  All we are left with are the wastes from their extraction.

Founded in 2019, Astronomers for Planet Earth is a movement recognizing the fragility of our planet, and how we must adopt a cosmic perspective to fully understand our home.  As they put it, “there is no Planet B.”  Bringing together astronomy students, educators, and scientists from everywhere on Earth, Astronomers for Planet Earth aim to create change in how we view not only our planetary home, but ourselves.

Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

This post originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Posted in Astrobiology, Astronomy, Climate Change, Earth History, Education Matters, Environmental Issues, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

 Interpreting Change

 Time and our limited perceptions frequently obscure the impermanence of the world.

On a recent hike in the coastal redwoods, a solitary old growth tree stood.  A short fence surrounded it, and a nearby sign announced it as an example of what once had blanketed the slopes and valleys.  Without this tree, a casual visitor may not have noticed the forest was filled with second- or even third-growth trees, although they may have noticed all the stumps.  Redwood lumber is prized for its ability to withstand rotting, enduring for years beyond a fir or pine structure.  Redwoods grow fast, springing from the stumps and downed “nurse” logs without the need for replanting.  A 50-year-old forest with sizable trees may obscure the fact of past harvesting of the trees unless you are conversant with the other characteristics of an old-growth forest.  Forests such as this may give us the illusion of a nature that self-corrects with little action on our part other than leaving it alone for a few years.

As visitors to natural areas we anticipate seeing the same features and views we first saw reading National Geographic as a child.  And usually nature cooperates, with landscapes little altered other than human intrusions.  Visiting Yosemite Valley we may notice the scars of rockslides on the valley walls, and maybe even see one ourselves.  Most people would see those slides as a rare occurrence without realizing much of the topography is a result of downslope movement of one kind or another.  In the visitor’s mind, the landscape is timeless, looking much as it did when the early popularizers such as John Muir first described the setting.  

In school, we learn about how the world was very different in the past, although you have to go quite far in the past to find a time when it would have appeared appreciably different — much longer than what human history can hold.  Even a clearcut in the coast redwoods starts looking as it once did within a single human lifespan, visual evidence of how nature really does stay the same even when we interfere.  Apparently.

Humans are able to recognize change within their own lives as they age and experience various stages of growth.  We are even able to note the aging of our parents as they become someone different than the people we grew up with, although the changes took place so slowly we were barely aware of them.  Maybe it is the same phenomenon that makes me continue to see my unchanged self when looking in the mirror.  My aging has crept up on me without any apparent drastic changes to my appearance.  Even the events of our lives don’t appear to create too many distinctions.  The marriages of two of my children and the birth of a grandchild remind me I have aged, however the visage in the mirror remains a younger self who isn’t possibly old enough to have grandchildren.  

The slow changes in our landscape and global systems are perhaps similar: The changes are too slow and incremental and taking place elsewhere for us to notice.  Even the increasing occurrence of large events such as polar vortexes, unprecedented wildfires, and the melting of the polar ice caps are tangential to our own lives, at least for most of us, and our immediate environment continues to show little to no change.  Scientists attempt to use data to demonstrate the magnitude of the climate changes taking place, however these don’t match with our daily experience or expectation of the permanence of the world.  As noted previously, humans struggle to think in the time scales on which most global changes take place.  When presented with actual images of locations taken many years apart most people are able to pick out the differences, even in places such as redwood forests and the cliffs of Yosemite.  But the basic background is much the same.  Going back still further, we have only renderings of what we imagine it must have looked like, using data from tree rings or ice cores or accumulated sediments to argue for the truth of what we present.  In the same way, renderings of potential future impacts are frequently used to project what eventual outcomes may look like.

One of the things educators do to engage students when they are unable to bring an actual phenomenon into the learning environment is to bring in an analogous one.  When used appropriately, these analogues can stand-in for the actual phenomenon we wish the learners we are interacting with to understand enough to explain using evidence they collect themselves.  This requires creating concrete learning opportunities that are open-ended enough to allow students to form their own conclusions, and not just to participate in confirmation activities.  Climate change education tends to use the same data sets, asking students to recreate the same graphs they see in the media.  Having every student in every classroom using the same data points to create the same graphs does nothing to create even a momentary cognitive dissonance as they struggle to make sense of their experience.  The outcome is predetermined with no room for individual thought.  In an extreme point of view it is almost indoctrination, where critical thinking and dissent is disallowed.  What we want is for young learners to have the opportunity to examine a phenomenon, not just a data set, gather evidence, then make an argument explaining the phenomenon based on their own evidence.  Ideally the phenomenon is one they encounter in the context of their own lives.

Change is all around us.  And it always proceeds at its own pace, usually at one we are unable to observe at a single glance, or even within the constraint of a single human life span.   Even then other factors may obscure the perception of change.  The solution for educators is surely not simple, and it may involve looking at how learners experience the world over their entire school career.  Some standards encourage the observation of patterns decipherable over the course of a single year.  The ones we as science educators concerned with the state of our planet must bring into student experience are those we can only decipher over many.  A singular experience is not enough to convince someone of the impact of slow change.  To truly understand, many experiences over a lifetime and more are necessary.

This post originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Posted in Climate Change, Education Matters, Environmental Issues, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Immediacy of Data

Scientific discoveries rarely take the fast track.

The 2020 election cycle can teach us an important lesson about the nature of the scientific endeavor.  Namely, how researchers rarely have the instantaneous “aha” moment when everything becomes clear and a scientific theory springs forth ex nihilo.  The immediacy of our society in many ways demands explanations without the hard work of collecting adequate evidence to support a particular model for a phenomenon.  This is true for elections, where people have an expectation of knowing an outcome even when there is still outstanding data, or even when the preponderance of evidence suggests a conclusion other than a desired outcome. It is also true for the development of any health intercession, where it takes time for tests and trials to ensure its safety and efficacy.  And it is true for the development of other new scientific knowledge.

Science is a story of starts and stops, of tentative theories discarded or enhanced depending on subsequent findings.  The timeline for the discovery of gravitational waves started over a century ago with the ponderings of Henri Poincaré, then with Albert Einstein and his development of the General Theory of Relativity.  Even Einstein cast doubt on the implications of his own theory, particularly because the solutions to the equations required a singularity.

The first gravitational-wave detectors were built in the 1960‘s, however the data collected was suspect.  The following decade produced indirect evidence for gravitational waves, inspiring further research and refinements to the detectors.  It took the sensitivity of the second-generation LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) to finally provide incontrovertible evidence for gravitational waves only a few months shy of a century after Einstein’s prediction of them.

As a society, we are somehow more comfortable when solutions are arrived at in much shorter time frames.  The aforementioned “aha” moment is in direct conflict with how actual science is done, with the necessity of peer review and continued testing of ideas to see if they in fact reflect the observed phenomena.  In this sense, all theories are tentative pending further investigation and refinement as new evidence comes to light.  The quest for a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus is a case study in how science is, and is not done.  The development time for several versions of a vaccine for the coronavirus were far shorter than what is normal for such an effort.  Even with that short time frame, politicians, as well as the general public demonstrated impatience with the process, thinking scientists should have had a solution, in this case a working and FDA-approved vaccine, within a very short time after the need arose.  

The peer review process is designed to weed out ideas with inadequate evidence, and ensure the data presented does actually lead to the proposed outcome.  It is good to remember the words of Carl Sagan how “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  Many people in the political realm make claims without accompanying evidence.  At the same time they fail to recognize the need for adequate evidence to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of a health intervention. Scientific rigor demands evidence collected with great care to ensure there are no mistakes.

In science education, particularly in support of the Next Generation Science Standards, there is a premium placed on student gathering of evidence, reasoning about the evidence, and communicating evidence-based explanations in their explorations of phenomena.  To demonstrate the necessity of teaching science in this manner, all one has to do is read the news to see how evidence, or the lack thereof, is used to justify either a conclusion or the usefulness of a solution.  To read and interpret the news critically is an important skill, which science education is well placed to address.  

Along with news of politics and pandemic, we also read about the discoveries of the collisions of distant black holes and neutron stars sending out waves of gravity detectable with our most sensitive instruments.  There is confidence in these results from the many years of work in developing theories — and the hardware — to explore these extreme events.  The explanations of what is taking place is also not static, undergoing constant refinement as new evidence comes to light.  Research does not stop just because we arrive at a logical explanation or solution.  Nor does it stop because the result is popular and people think further research is unnecessary because they already heard there was a solution.  Ideas and theories are frequently discarded if new evidence no longer fits the model.  

Both politics and science are at times messy endeavors.  Science however, more often reveals beauty and elegance in the universe.  And while it might not always get it right the first time, we are assured when applied judiciously, science is a self-correcting endeavor.  

This post originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

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Infecting Students with Enthusiasm For Astrobiology

The virus that causes COVID-19 offers a teachable moment for thinking beyond our earthly limits

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora (2015, Orbit Books), a starship undertakes a multi-generation voyage to the star Tau Ceti to colonize the moon of one of the planets.  The science-fiction book details the challenges the crew and colonists experience living in the controlled and limited environment of the spacecraft.  Upon reaching their destination, numbers of colonists disembark for the surface of the moon, named Aurora.  At first, the environment on Aurora appears promising, until colonists begin to die from exposure to a previously undetected prion.  The colony institutes a strict quarantine, denying people who had gone to the moon’s surface access to the ship.  This causes a schism, with some deciding to remain in an attempt to terraform Aurora, and the rest opting to make the long return trip to Earth.  One remaining colonist who went to the surface is forced to remain quarantined in his shuttle for the entire voyage back to Earth.  During the trip, those on the spacecraft lose contact with those who remained on Aurora.

While not a perfect analog for the current COVID-19 pandemic and the need to quarantine those exposed to the coronavirus, Robinson’s novel does have some parallel themes.  I’m referring particularly to the need to quarantine people exposed to a previously unknown and undetected novel infectious agent and the deadly nature of the infection.  While prions and viruses are not the same, the characteristic they share is a lack of “normal” cellular structures, which makes them both not fit the standard definition of “living.”  (The main difference between them is a prion is a bundle of misfolded proteins, and a virus contains either RNA or DNA.)  

We can use this idea of viruses and prions not quite fitting the standard definition of life to investigate interesting questions asked in astrobiology. For example, what is the definition of life? Under what conditions can life exist? Where does life exist? How can we detect life?  

The last question is particularly apt in that without normal cellular processes and their waste products, both viruses and prions are potentially undetectable when searching for life on distant worlds.  In Aurora, for example, the colonists did not recognize the contagion even though they meticulously screened the environment for any signs of life — a point showing how little we actually know about life and its requirements.  We may not have the ability to recognize it when we find it.  In many ways, we are stuck in an Earth-centered point of view, where everything has to conform to our human expectations.  While viruses and prions push on the boundaries of what we consider life, they can also help us understand the conditions under which life propagates.

Using the coronavirus as a starting point, educators can engage students in interesting and relevant investigations of the nature of life.  Since we don’t yet have any examples of life beyond Earth, stories such as Aurora can provide a speculative venue for students to examine in their investigations of living systems.  Astrobiology is not a distinct science itself, integrating ideas and methodologies from other fields: chemistry, astrophysics, meteorology, oceanography, geology, biology.  This integrated nature of astrobiology lends itself to inclusion in a variety of classes, including cross-curricular efforts as students investigate the nature of societies and migration. Such lessons can enhance  students’ ability to communicate effectively, both persuasively and in their descriptions of the science underlying human exploration of space.

As a society, we seem to anticipate our first contact with alien life will take the form of intelligent creatures appearing on Earth, or our making contact with them either through our radio telescopes, or on a first mission beyond our solar system.  This anticipation also relates to the ongoing fascination with UFOs, including recent releases of government documents some people suggest confirms the presence of craft not of this planet in our skies.  It’s a hubris of sorts to anticipate there are creatures like us flying around the galaxy, and taking special interest in what is taking place on Earth.  While the physical geocentric model of the universe was put to rest hundreds of years ago, we maintain a psychological, sociological and spiritual geocentrism where Earth and humanity occupy a privileged position in the greater cosmos.  

It is far more likely the first life we discover beyond Earth will bear more similarities to the coronavirus than ET.   Microorganisms dominated life on Earth for most of its history, and there is every reason to think distant worlds will have experienced a similar evolutionary history.   The coronavirus is teaching us the realm of microorganisms still controls much of what takes place in Earth’s biosphere, including human activities.  To place these forms of life, including those on the boundaries of life, in a greater context may take an astrobiologist to explain. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a teachable moment for learners to explore the nature of life, with considerations for human expeditions to distant worlds, all through the lens of astrobiology.

Image: Astrobiology at NASA

This post originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

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