Saturday, January 24, 2015


      When I was 3 years old my favorite word was “why?”.   I think it still is … I imagine it is part of the “human condition” to be curious. In many areas of life it is just plain really hard to get “for sure” answers.  (Still, the older I get the more I am quite content to live with what I can’t explain.)
Why is the sky red?
      Since the earliest time, we humans have been very good at developed explanations that took away the anxiety of 'not knowing'. 
How did we get fire? – “Crow flew to the sun gods fire and stole a burning stick in his beak – but carrying it back to man, so much smoke covered the bird that ever since his feathers have been black.”

Frogs developing from unliving mud...
Why do we have frogs each spring? “A dry lake floor can produce new frogs directly from the mud when rain fills the lake.”   (Spontaneous generation)
Why does the sun move across our sky each day? “The sun is the wheel of a great chariot that Zeus drives across the sky each day.”

Zeus in his chariot
“Breathing bad air at night causes sickness…”
Why do we see everything move around the earth? “The Earth is the center of the universe, and the sun, moon, stars travel around us…”
      We, in our culture are still guilty of buying into simple solutuons
“When my cracker falls to the floor if I pick it up in 5 seconds its OK – no ‘germs’.”
“This fellow told me about this medicine that you can buy through the mail that cured his arfthritis…” 
"Relieves pain instantly!"
Why are the ice fields of the Artic and Antarctic melting? –“Its just normal climate variation – no need for concern.”
      How do I know what I know – For example - Who do I trust to tell me if I should have my children get inoculations against measles - the entire medical community or one doctor who has since lost his license to practice?  How did you form your views on Global warming?  We tend to accept the ideas of sources we trust – some trust Fox News, I trust the views of the scientists doing careful studies in the field.  I taught my students, "when you view an article, Always ask who wrote it… check other sources…"
Franklin showing that lighting and electricity were the same thing

      In the age of Ben Franklin – ‘science’ was a gentleman’s pastime.  The early study of electricity, chemical properties, wildlife studies were conducted primarily by wealthy men with a curiosity and not much knowledge.  They often shared notes with each other – From these roots developed the idea that ideas must be tested by experimentation.  We know today that nothing in scientific studies can be proven ‘correct’ – But if by rigorous testing it cannot be disproved then the idea stands.  (Think of the structure of an atom, the sun at the center of the solar system, gravity, the germ theory… all “theories”. 
One way of viewing atoms - the 
              Any respectable scientist today knows that his or her ideas must be open to scrutiny by the scientific community.  And for that reason ‘findings’ are published through scientific journals so that others can retest and refine the results.  Take the case of scientists who claimed to have produced low temperature hydrogen fusion 1989.
Science worked as it should – The original scientists undoubtedly made an  error, they published their results, it was discovered when no one could replicate their work. Have you heard someone say “A scientist said…” Remember that ideas must be open to scrutiny by the scientific community before something is considered to be probable – one study alone lacks authentication.
Michael Faraday making a public demonstation of electricity

       Some areas of human existence are not open or suitable for scientific examination. We mold our lives around basis beliefs of morality, justice, responsibility, and caring.  Some of these ideas are cultural, some involve the choices we make.  My structure of beliefs defines me as a person and gives my life meaning.  My beliefs cannot be compared or examined by experimental testing – For example, I define my religious beliefs as a Progressive Christian, (read more) I believe that the Bible was written by many individuals; each based on their best concept of the divine; but each reflecting the culture and beliefs of their time.  Still I find truth here that is of primary importance in living my life.  My beliefs in this area of my life do not preclude me from pursuing knowledge through scientific studies.

This is what got Galileo into so much trouble - he had the audacity to say that the Earth was not the center of our solar system  - but the Sun!
       It is troubling today to see that many Americans mistrust scientific results.  When we are sick most of us are quite willing to take scientific knowledge regarding treatment and cure of our maladies.  When it comes to  technology in our computers and cars, the benefits of satellites and electronic networks we happily accept it… But some questions are ‘red flags’ for many… “How old is the earth?”  “How did humans originate?” “Evolution of life on earth?” “the existence of DNA as the vehicle for genetic instructions in almost all life forms on earth”.
The "conceptual image" of the atom has beef refined from the idea that man y learned in school - now we think of  it as a whole complex of particles existing in a series of energy fields around a common nucleus - even this model will continue to be refined as research continues
       I suspect that Frank Oppenheimer  was correct when he spoke of his concern ov er the growing "knowledge gap"… Oppenheimer.  As science becomes more technical, requiring more knowledge, mathematics,  and education to understand the current science; a gap has grown between the work of the scientists and the ability of the public to understand and willingness  to support the work.  In fact the ‘unknowable’ quality of science has become scary and intimidating to many. 
Massive amounts of CO2 have been released from our burning of fossil fuels - CO2 is a known source of global warming
At the same time many in America find the global problems of today frightening – and there is a desire in many to seek to retreat to a time when life was simpler and when we as a nation faced easier problems than today.  There are many groups and churches today that seek to provide just that message.  For me, I value my belief system to provide a structure to my life… and I value new knowledge that is available to us through scientific studies.

Galileo standing up for his beliefs about the nature of the universe - speaking against the dogma of the Church.