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

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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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Looking Behind Abstractions

Very large and very small numbers are abstractions.  Frequently they are useful in illuminating some natural phenomena, however many people have a difficult time comprehending such numbers.  We don’t usually deal with these sorts of numbers in our everyday lives.  When a particular phenomenon is very large or very small, is taking place a vast distance from us, or there are a great many objects involved, scaling is often used to make it easier to think about them.  In my work, we are always seeking better tactics to represent phenomena in concrete ways, to make them accessible and understandable.   In these cases, a number may represent a measurable quantity.  We strive to connect people to the phenomenon under investigation as something they can experience, and how numbers are tools to help us know something about what is taking place.

There are a lot of numbers in the news lately having to do with the current COVID-19 pandemic.  And for many people, it is difficult to relate to what the person using the numbers is trying to convey.  There are so many different interpretations, and misinterpretations, it makes it difficult to trust what we hear and read.  The basic message is, for the most part, large numbers are bad.  But what do those numbers really mean?  We can hardly conceive of these numbers, let alone they are a result of people infected with something so small it will pass through tiny gaps in the fiber of our masks.  If we do what is recommended to protect ourselves, it is possible we won’t have a direct connection with anyone who ended up adding to the very large numbers.  Until we know someone who has the virus, the numbers are only abstractions, they are not concrete enough for us to relate to let alone grieve for the many who have lost their lives.

It brings up a distinction noted in a different context in a previous post.  Most often, numbers are used in transactions we engage in during our daily lives.  In this context we might have a better handle on the use of very small and very large numbers, particularly when they apply to financial transactions.  We seek out transactions bringing us and our families the greatest benefit, either now or at some specified time in the future.  The numbers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are frequently used to turn the human toll into a series of transactions.  Perhaps not done intentionally, however it does remove us from having a sense of relationship with those who are suffering because of the pandemic.  In this case the use of large numbers may serve to erect barriers between us.  At times numbers are seemingly used to obscure or obfuscate, an effective strategy because of the difficult time many people have with the abstraction.

The current administration, and the former extractive industry lobbyists and executives who are in charge of the nations lands and parks, are apparently taking advantage of the distractions of the COVID-19 pandemic to push through a different kind of transactional agenda.  They see no economic benefit in clean air, water, or undeveloped swaths of land.  If anything, they have the view their protection gets in the way of economic activity.  An example of this is how, reversing a previous ruling, the EPA has signed off on development of the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.  Plans are for a massive open pit mine within the headwaters of rivers running into Bristol Bay, the richest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

The large numbers involved in explaining the plans involved for the Pebble Mine are abstractions, and really only describe the transactional manner the mining industry and current administration see the beautiful and fragile landscape of southwestern Alaska.  They have no relationship with the land, or the animals and plants which live there.  Without going there to walk among the mountains and streams it is a challenge to make what might happen concrete, and not an abstraction of numbers.  The numbers tell us little of the phenomena associated with the impact of mining on the land, air and water.

Imagine if you took a standard aquarium, and removed the little colored pebbles at the bottom.  In their place, put crushed ore rocks from a mine such as the Pebble.  The ore in these rocks are sulfide minerals, with some sulfate and oxide minerals to go along with the host rocks.  The aquarium has a system circulating water and air, bubbling up through the rocks at the bottom.  The interaction of water and air with the ore minerals will soon change the characteristics of the water, turning it toxic, eventually killing the fish in the tank.  While you might think this is only an experiment, there is a real life example of this.  An open pit mine in Butte, Montana is in rocks similar to those in the Pebble prospect.  When they stopped major mining activities, they also turned off the pumps keeping groundwater from accumulating in the bottom of the pit.  Within a few years, the pit turned into a lake.  In several infamous incidents, flocks of geese attempted to land on the lake, and promptly died from the toxicity of the water.  The prolonged contact between water and the ore body had leached toxic compounds out of the rocks, creating a poisonous stew.  The Berkeley Pit is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, and they use noise making machines to discourage waterfowl from using the lake.

6.2.1981 Red Dog Creek, Deadlock Mtn.

Red Dog Creek in June 1981, Deadlock Mountain in the distance. The ore body of lead-zinc sulfides is exposed on the surface. The creek and rocks are stained red from minerals dissolved in the water. The water is toxic, and does not support fish.

This is the potential future for the Pebble Mine after the ore runs out, in a place far wetter with a shallower water table than in Butte, Montana.  Every mine has a finite life span of economic feasibility for extracting minerals.  Unlike a salmon fishery, which is a living, reproducing system, and would continue to provide jobs, income, and sustenance well into the future.

Grief is an emotion associated with loss, and with relationship.  We may grieve for a friend or family member who contracts the coronavirus, but not for the other 150,000 and counting people who have died in this country during the pandemic.  Their death is an abstraction.  Without having visited the Pebble prospect and developing a relationship with the land and its life, it remains an abstraction making it difficult for people to grieve the loss when the mine is developed.

About 600 miles northwest of the Pebble prospect is the Red Dog open pit mine.  A Canadian company owns and operates the mine, the ore is processed in British Columbia, and the metals sold to customers in Europe and Asia.  The mine is in Alaska.  The products and profits from the mine are not staying in the country where the mine is located.  A beautiful, remote place is gone forever to support other countries.  Once the ore runs out in another decade, they will leave behind a big hole in the ground, a pile of discarded rock, and an artificial lake filled with a toxic broth.  This is the future for virtually every open pit mine, including the Pebble Mine.  All the more reason to grieve for what once was there, and to fight and advocate for a new administration to again reverse the EPA’s ruling, denying development of the Pebble Mine.  Knowing a place removes it from the realm of abstraction making it possible to truly grieve.

Red Dog today…


The EPA says the Red Dog Mine is one of the worst industrially polluted sites in the country. Opened in 1989, the mine is the largest producer of zinc worldwide and is expected to stay open until 2031. Credit: Robert Cummings/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The way it was…

6.2.1981 Red Dog prospect

Red Dog prospect before the mine, June 1981. The gray rocks just above the helicopter and stretching to the left is the ore body on the surface.

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