Flawed Human

2 06 2011

You are fundamentally flawed. It’s okay. So am I. Every human who has ever lived has shared the same set of shortcomings. I am talking about the failings intrinsic to human perception. People tend to think they have a good handle on things when, in fact, our brains and our senses are not wired for rational thought and clear perception. They have been wired for survival and quick reaction.

If one does not recognize that they could get something wrong when it seems so obvious, this can lead to some pretty big mistakes. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke about the frailties of human perception during a Q&A session. (The video is below.)

The reason we have something like science is that a few of us have recognized that it is very easy for people to make mistakes when approaching a question without any structure. We tend to see things from a unique perspective that can skew perceptions. We can easily jump to conclusions without going through the intervening steps of actually analyzing the situation or object in question.

These attitude and tendencies make sense from an evolutionary point of view. If a prehistoric human or one of our ancestors was too rational or took too long to analyze a situation, it could be deadly. If an early human saw a shape some distance away, it would be safer to assume that shape was a predator. It could have been a boulder, completely innocuous. However, by leaping to that conclusion, that early human may have saved his own life.

Calm, reasoned inquiry and a structured analytical thought process can help us make sure we are on the right path and, ultimately, will get us better information.

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Teach doubt in school

18 02 2011

I enjoyed my time in high school. I still value that experience a great deal. It helped me start to figure out who I am and where I want to go. In particular, the science programs had a big impact on me. From the Saturday Science program there that I participated in as a 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grader, to the four years of science that I took there, to the scholarship I won from the North Central Science Department at graduation, it was a great place to learn. Looking back, however, there was something missing, a lesson in reason and skepticism.

I did not really get into skepticism – real skepticism – until my junior year in college. Basically all that happens in high school science classes is learning the specific subject in question, be it physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, or some other subject. The scientific method is only briefly glossed over in the first class each year.

I think that in order for science classes to really teach science, they must teach the philosophy behind it, as well as the actual means. This can take a couple of forms. It could be a dedicated course, within the schools’ science curriculum. This course would  give students a firm grounding in rationality, skepticism, and inquiry. It would teach them how to question and test claims. The alternative to this solution would be to include a more in-depth lesson in the scientific method and scientific inquiry that might last a week (5 class sessions) or so.

I would make the argument that while we improve our education system across the country, we should look at where our science curricula might be lacking. We certainly could do with more rational analysis and thought in this country.





The Messier catalog is weird

5 02 2011

Charles Messier was a French astronomer who lived from 1730 to 1817. He was a comet hunter. In the process of cataloging comets, he frequently stumbled across objects that, to him, initially appeared to be comets. He compiled a list of 110 of these objects, which is now called the Messier catalog.

Andromeda_Galaxy_(with_h-alpha)

M31 - Andromeda Galaxy

These Messier objects are now well known to nearly all astronomers. Most of these are spiral galaxies or globular clusters. M57, also known as the Ring Nebula, is a planetary nebula.

When I first learned about the Messier catalog and the reasons behind its creation, I was a little confused. Why would someone make a list of things they are not looking for? I suppose it makes sense that if you are committed to a somewhat repetitive mental task, you would want to make it easier for yourself to avoid common mistakes. That is the likely initial purpose of the catalog.

I suppose that through an 18th century telescope, it might be a little difficult to distinguish between a comet, a galaxy, a globular cluster, and a planetary nebula. While telescopes did enable astronomers to see deeper into space than they had in the centuries before, 18th century telescopes are put to shame by their 20th and 21st century counterparts.

Messier cataloged galaxies centuries before we knew what galaxies really were. It was not until the 1930’s that Edwin Hubble proved conclusively that they were, in fact, extragalactic objects and were millions of lightyears distant. In Messier’s time, people simply assumed that they were just nebulae.

Whatever the Messier catalog’s initial reasons for existing, it gives amateur and professional astronomers a great jumping off point for observing relatively nearby objects.





Astronomy Course Schedule, Mark I

31 01 2011

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I have been toying around with the idea of going back to school for my Astronomy Bachelor’s degree. I may even continue on to a Master’s degree. I am not certain if I have it in me to the full PhD/postdoc route. But grad school is a decision to be made a year before graduation.

I talked with an Astronomy/Astrophysics academic advisor at Indiana University back in December. Here is the rough course schedule we came up with.

  • Summer 2011
    • MATH-M211 Calculus I (4 credit hours)
  • Fall 2011
    • MATH-M212 Calculus II (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P221 Physics I (5 credit hours)
    • AST-A221 General Astronomy I (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2012
    • MATH-M311 Calculus III (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P222 Physics II (5 credit hours)
    • AST-A221 General Astronomy II (4 credit hours)
  • Summer 2012
    • MATH-M343 Intro to Differential Equations with Applications I (3 credit hours)
    • MATH-M303 Linear Algebra for Undergraduates (3 credit hours)
  • Fall 2012
    • MATH-M312 Calculus IV (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P331 Theory of Electricity and Magnetism I (3 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P441 General Astronomy II (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2013
    • PHYS-P332 Theory of Electricity and Magnetism II (3 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P453 Intro to Quantum Mechanics (3 credit hours)
    • AST-A451 Stellar Astrophysics (3 credit hours)
  • Fall 2013
    • AST-A305 Modern Observational Techniques (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2014
    • AST-A452 Extragalactic Astrophysics (3 credit hours)

Nearly all of my liberal arts and non-degree credits are done and were taken recently enough that I can count them toward this degree. I will also need to take an intensive writing course at some point in this degree program. Given all that math and physics, it would be a welcome break.

I am making a pretty big assumption with this course schedule. That assumption is that I quit my steady, well-paid, job with health benefits and go back to school full time for another three years. That is a decision I am still wrestling with and I am far from making a decision. This is really just a thought exercise for me to see how long it would take me to complete this degree that I have been eying since  2007.





Rationality could keep us from extinction

5 01 2011

I was inspired to write this when I saw a video of Dan Dennett discussing the possible future of religion and it really made me think and hope.

The gist of Dennett’s comments were that, as has happened throughout recorded history, people become better and better educated. As this happens, organized religions are forced to update their positions on various issues. Religions and information do not mix well. The recent flood of information to the entire world, via the internet and other media, has informed people of the larger world and all its people and beliefs. In the modern world, it is exceedingly difficult to shut this out and shield your children from it.

Here’s where my thoughts and hopes come in. If more parents would accept the information age for what it is and allow their children to explore, analyze, and find their own answers, we would be better off. I am not, however, advocating a completely hands-off approach to parenting. Parents should expose their children to science in depth and allow them to investigate competing religions to their own.

We live in a time when humanity could snuff itself out in a week or a generation. Things like war, unmoderated pollution, and unpreparedness for natural disasters could prove ultimately fatal for our species. The key to avoiding extinction and providing for humanity’s long-term survival is to have a generation of well-educated, reasonable, and rational people making decisions and solving problems. Education and an decrease in indoctrination from religious parents will not just make the Earth a better place to live, it could save our species.





More than a body of knowledge

28 12 2010

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grand children’s time … when awesome technologi­cal powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representi­ng the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgea­bly question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes­, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguis­h between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstiti­ons and darkness.”

-Carl Sagan





Clinging to relevance

14 12 2010

I have been thinking about the relationship between religion and science lately. It has always been a strained, complicated relationship. To be honest, I really have never understood the conflict. They seem to deal with two very separate areas of human thought. Then it struck me, this was not always the case. During the Dark Ages, the church dictated what science could and could not say. Today, we have a battle for relevance between science and religion and religion is losing.

There is a long history of religious institutions acting as a road block to scientific or social progress. The Catholic Church censured Galileo for his scientific conclusions. Baghdad was the center of scientific discovery on Earth for centuries until conservative Islamic forces took hold. Then there is the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, claiming that it is sinful because it prevents new life. (This seemed like an odd argument, seeing as that is the explicit purpose of contraceptives.) In 2009, the Pope went as far to say that condoms help spread the AIDS virus. He said this on a trip through Sub-Saharan Africa, where about 22 million people are infected with HIV. There are a host of other examples.

Really, what we can see here is a religious establishment, centuries old, that is finding its ship in shallower and shallower waters. With the increasingly educated global population and the persistent advance of scientific knowledge, it is harder for them to maintain previous public opinions. There is little religious leaders can do about this trend except try to modernize their respective faiths much as possible.

In a world where fewer and fewer of our problems can be solved with faith and spirituality, religion can no longer offer us the advice or insight we need. If anything, it is doing the exact opposite at a time when we cannot afford many mistakes. Humanity needs clear thinking and a sharp turn toward rationality if it is to survive.