Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Boldly Go Unbiased!

Maybe it is because I'm a feminist, or because I've experienced decades of gender bias in the sciences, or because as a science songwriter, I work diligently to be gender sensitive and inclusive in my lyrics, I don't know why, but when I came across explicitly gender biased lyrics in a kid's science song yesterday, I got pissed and had to take action. Monty Harper is a children's science songwriter and performer who is doing good work in science outreach to kids in Oklahoma where he is based. I learned about him yesterday when I received an email he posted to a listserv of science songsters requesting financial support for a CD music project he is working on "Songs from the Science Frontiers" featuring his original songs about science research in Oklahoma. The project sounds worthy of support and I was even more impressed with his using the online funding service Kickstarter to try to fund the production costs. I was ready to click and fund, until I listened to the sample song, "Ain't it Beautiful, " a cute diddy about USDA scientists in Oklahoma trying to combat the Russian wheat aphid which is a major pest worldwide of wheat, barley, and other cereal crops. The gender bias was in the hook:

Ain't it beautiful; Ain't it clever
Ain't it just about the best news ever
How science feeds our global needs
When man and nature work together

Man and nature? Just hearing and seeing that antiquated generic gender biased word representing all humanity made my stomach turn. This is a new song. This song was not written in 1955 before civil rights or gender bias and equity issues became part of our common social knowledge. So I contacted Mr. Harper and told him I was interested in his project and possibly supporting it but that I had an issue with his gender biased lyrics and suggested that he change the lyrics to be more gender neutral. After all, girls and women are at least half of the global population and girls and women are severely underrepresented in the sciences, it seems like a no brainer to try to be as inclusive in educational lyrics as possible. Why not change the lyric to "When humans and nature work together" or use the term 'people' or 'we.' Mr. Harper was as resilient as the modified wheat grain. He replied:

Unfortunately our language has gender bias built into it. The word
"man" in "Ain't It Beautiful" is meant in the sense of "mankind." I
think most people get that....I'm not sure using the word equates to perpetuating a bias.

Well Mr Harper, scientific research would suggest otherwise. In a quick online search I found a study on gender bias in the english language which concluded:

This evidence demonstrates that the use of "generic" masculine and even other grammatically neutral terms in effect serves to exclude women from the English language. The resulting masculine bias in our language reflects and reinforces the pattern of male dominance in society.

We need to err on the side of perpetuating inclusion and not exclusion in education and especially in the sciences. In my opinion it is lame and sexist to continue to use such outdated and biased lyrics in a science song for kids! I can't support a project that perpetuates gender bias in any form. Look, even Star Trek the Next Generation changed the famous final frontier motto from:

" boldly go where no MAN has gone before."
" boldly go where no ONE has gone before."

Star Trek is so universally inclusive, "one" includes ALIENS!!!! We should aspire to be as inclusive with our species.

Mr. Harper, please modify your lyrics so they are gender neutral and inclusive so that all children can be inspired and included in the final frontier of science. That is a project I can and will support.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Irrational Dreams of Space Colonization

Irrational Dreams of Space Colonization
Lynda Williams
Peace Review, a Journal of Social Justice
The New Arms Race in Outer Space (22.1, Spring 2010)

Since Sputnik was launched over 50 years ago and the first human walked on the moon
12 years later, we have associated the exploration and colonization of space, specifically
the Moon and Mars, as a necessary pursuit to guarantee our survival as a species, and to
satisfy an evolutionary drive to explore and inhabit worlds beyond our own. Space
enthusiasts claim that it is our manifest destiny, an expression of the human spirit, to
explore and colonize the solar system. World-renowned scientists such as Stephen
Hawking have made calls to colonize the Moon and Mars in order to preserve the species
due to the inevitability of certain future doom on Earth by environmental destruction,
plague or warfare. Commercial space developers promise private trips to space and
beyond, infusing dreams of space wanderlust and enthusiasm for space travel in citizens
who could never even afford such expensive and lofty excursions. Corporate space
interests promise the certainty of achieving these goals along with new technological
advances and resource riches from space exploration that will rival those gained from the
Apollo moon missions. This article will examine the validity of these threats and
promises, and their environmental and ethical consequences to life on Earth.

The Destruction of Earth Threat

According to scientific theory, the destruction of Earth is a certainty. About five billion
years from now, when our sun exhausts its nuclear fuel, it will expand in size and
envelope the inner planets, including the Earth, and burn them into oblivion. So yes, we
are doomed, but we have 5 billion years, plus or minus a few hund red million, to plan our
extraterrestrial escape. The need to colonize the Moon or Mars to guarantee our survival
based on this fact is not pressing. There are also real risks due to collisions with asteroids
and comets, though none are of immediate threat and do not necessitate extraterrestrial
colonization. There are many Earth-based technological strategies that can be developed
in time to mediate such astronomical threats such as gravitational tugboats that drag the
objects out of range. The solar system could also potentially be exposed to galactic
sources of high-energy gamma ray bursts that could fry all life on Earth, but any Moon or
Mars base would face a similar fate. Thus, Moon or Mars human based colonies would
not protect us from any of these astronomical threats in the near future.

The Destruction of Earth’s Biosphere

Life on Earth is more urgently threatened by the destruction of the biosphere and its life
sustaining habitat due environmental catastrophes such as climate change, ocean
acidification, disruption of the food chain, bio-warfare, nuclear war, nuclear winter, and
myriads of other man- made doomsday prophesies. If we accept these threats as
inevitabilities on par with real astronomical dangers and divert our natural, intellectual,
political and technological resources from solving these problems into escaping them,
will we playing into a self- fulfilling prophesy of our own planetary doom? Seeking space
based solutions to our Earthly problems may indeed exacerbate the planetary threats we
face. This is the core of the ethical dilemma posed by space colonization: should we put
our recourses and bets on developing human colonies on other worlds to survive natural
and man-made catastrophes or should we focus all of our energies on solving the
problems that create these threats on Earth?

Human Life on The Moon and Mars

What do the prospects of colonies or bases on the Moon and Mars offer? Both the Moon
and Mars host extreme environments that are uninhabitable to humans without very
sophisticated technological life supporting systems beyond any that are feasible now or
will be available in the near future. Both bodies are subjected to deadly levels of solar
radiation and are void of atmospheres that could sustain oxygen-based life forms such as
humans. Terra- forming either body is not feasible with current technologies or within any
reasonable time frames so any colony or base would be restricted to living in space
capsules or trailer park like structures which could not support a sufficient number of
humans to perpetuate and sustain the species in any long term manner.

Although evidence of water has been discovered on both bodies, it exists in a form that is
trapped in minerals, which would require huge amounts of energy to access. Water can be
converted into fuel either as hydrogen or oxygen, which would eliminate the need to
transport vast amounts of fuel from Earth. However, according to Britain's leading
spaceflight expert, Professor Colin Pillinger, "You would need to heat up a lot of lunar
soil to 200C to get yourself a glass of water." The promise of helium as an energy source
on the moon to is mostly hype. Helium-3 could be used in the production of nuclear
fusion energy, a process we have yet to prove viable or efficient on Earth. Mining helium
would require digging dozens of meters into the lunar surface and processing hundreds of
thousands of tons of soil to produce 1 ton of helium-3. (25 tons of helium-3 is required to
power the US for 1 year.) Fusion also requires the very rare element tritium, which does
not exist naturally on the Moon, Mars or on Earth in abundances needed to facilitate
nuclear fusion energy production. There are no current means for generating the energy
on the Moon to extract the helium-3 to produce the promised endless source of energy
from helium-3 on the Moon. Similar energy problems exist for using solar power on the
Moon, which has the additional problem of being sunlit two weeks a month and dark for
the other two weeks.

A Moon base is envisioned as serving as a launch pad for Martian expeditions, so the
infeasibility of a lunar base may prohibit trips to Mars, unless they are launched directly
from Earth. Mars is, in its closest approach, 36 million miles from Earth and would
require a nine-month journey with astronauts exposed to deadly solar cosmic rays.
Providing sufficient shielding would require a spacecraft that weighs so much it becomes
prohibitive to carry enough fuel for a roundtrip. Either the astronauts get exposed to
lethal doses on a roundtrip, or they make a safe one-way journey and never return. Either
way, no one can survive a trip to Mars and whether or not people are willing to make that
sacrifice for the sake of scientific exploration, human missions to Mars do not guarantee
the survival of the species, but rather, only the death of any member who attempts the

Space Law and Space Ethics

The technological hurdles prohibiting practical space colonization of the Moon and Mars
in the near future are stratospherically high. The environmental and political
consequences of pursuing these lofty dreams are even higher. There are no international
laws governing the Moon or the protection of the space environment. The Moon Treaty,
created in 1979 by the United Nations, declares that the Moon shall be developed to
benefit all nations and that no military bases could be placed on the moon or on any
celestial body, and bans altering the environment of celestial bodies. To date, no space
faring nation has ratified this treaty, meaning, the moon, and all celestial bodies,
including Mars and asteroids are up for the taking. If a nation did place a military base on
the moon, they could potentially control all launches from Earth. The Moon is the
ultimate military high ground. How should we, as a species, control the exploration,
exploitation and control of the Moon and other celestial bodies if we can not even agree
on a legal regime to protect and share its resources?

Since the space race began 50 years ago with the launch of Sputnik, the space
environment around Earth has become overcrowded with satellites and space debris, so
much so, that circumterrestrial space has become a dangerous place with an increasing
risk of collision and destruction. Thousands of pieces of space junk created from launches
orbit the Earth in the same orbit as satellites, putting them at risk of collision. Every time
a rocket is launched, debris from the rocket stages are put into orbital space. In 2009
there was a disastrous collision between an Iridium satellite and a piece of space junk that
destroyed the satellite. In 2007 China blew up one of its defunct satellites to demonstrate
its antiballistic missile capabilities, increasing the debris field by 15%. There are no
international laws prohibiting anti-satellite actions. Every year, since the mid 1980s, a
treaty has been introduced into the UN for a Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space
(PAROS), with all parties including Russia and China voting for it except for the US.

How can we hope to pursue a peaceful and environmentally sound route of space
exploration without international laws in place that protect space and Earth environments
and guarantee that the space race to the moon and beyond does not foster a war over
space resources? Indeed, if the space debris problem continues to grow unfettered or if
there is war in space, space will become too trashed for launches to take place without
risk of destruction.

The private development of space is growing at a flurried rate. Competitions such as the
X-Prize for companies to reach orbit and the Google Prize to land a robot on the Moon
has launched space wanderlust in citizens throughout the country who dream of traveling
to space. The reality is that there are few protections for the environment and the
passengers of these flights of fancy. The FAA, which regulates space launches, is under a
Congressional mandate to foster the industry. It is difficult if not impossible to have
objective regulation of an industry when it enjoys government incentives to profit.
We have much to determine on planet Earth before we launch willy nilly into another
race into space and a potential environmental disaster and arms race in outer space.

Spaceship Earth

If we direct our intellectual and technological resources toward space exploration without
consideration of the environmental and political consequences, what is left behind in the
wake? The hype surrounding space exploration leaves a dangerous vacuum in the
collective consciousness of solving the problems on Earth. If we accept the inevitability
of Earth’s destruction and its biosphere, we are left looking toward the heavens for our
solutions and resolution. Young scientists, rather than working on serious environmental
challenges on Earth, dream of Moon or Martian bases to save humanity, fueling the
prophesy of our planetary destruction, rather than working on solutions to solve the
problems on Earth.

Every space faring entity, be they governmental or corporate, face the same challenges.
Star Trek emboldened us all to dream of space, the final frontier. The reality is that our
planet Earth is a perfect spaceship. We travel around our star the sun once every year, and
the sun pull us with her gravitational force around the galaxy once every 250 million
years through star systems, star clusters and all the possible exosolar planets that may
host life or be habitable for us to colonize. The sun will be around for billions of years
and we have ample time to explore the stars. It woukd be wise and prudent for us as a
species to focus our intellectual and technological knowledge now into preserving our
spaceship for the long voyage through the stars, so that once we have figured out how to
make life on Earth work in an environmentally and politically sustainable way, we can
then venture off the planet into the final frontier of our dreams.

Lynda Williams

Physics Instructor, Santa Rosa Junior College

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Expanding Your Horizons: Tween Science Pep Rally

Yesterday I performed a science pep rally for about 200 tween girls at the annual Expanding Your Horizons conference held at Sonoma State University. According the the EYH website, "Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics™ conferences nurture girls' interest in science and math courses to encourage them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.' Girls (and some boys too) are bussed in from several counties for a half day of workshops with fun hands-on activities lead by real live female scientists and engineers. The conference ends with a motivational talk by a woman scientist - an astronaut if they are really lucky - who shares their story of how they beat the odds and became a successful scientist. Or, on a few rare occasions, they get a science singer, me, who does something entirely different.

I couldn't tell them the true story of how I got into physics, because quite frankly, I am not a good role model. I hated school, never studied, and math and science bored me to tears. I flunked algebra, got a D in physics and refused to take biology because I would not dissect animals. I didn't get turned on to science and math until I was in college and it was through my own curiosity that brought me to it, not a graduation requirement. In retrospect, I regret not studying math and science (and music) in high school because being a delayed science learner created a real and permanent mental handicap for me. If the parts of a young forming brain involved in 'higher' mathematical reasoning are not used, then the neural pathways in those areas are not established or are pruned away: If you don't use it, you lose it. I surmise that since I wasn't using those parts of my brain, I'm missing some essential neural connections for doing math and science.  My neural net connections are seriously twisted and though I'm still smart and able to do science, it takes me more time to work problems through my funky mental wiring, which is a serious handicap in the academic world of timed exams and cognitive conformity. Luckily, my plastic brain compensated by giving me a holistic intuition about nature and a crazy knack for putting science into song and theater. My brain is so weirdly wired that I prepped for my graduate oral exams by writing songs about Maxwell's equations (no, I did not sing during the exams but I wish I had!)

I use multiple learning styles for my multiple intelligences but I wonder what value that has in academia because by the time I sing, dance, write, mime and paint the derivation of electromagnetic waves in vacuum, the proverbial bell has rung and time has run out. Sadly, our educational system doesn't allow time for true inquiry based learning or for 'different learners' to think differently if that means to take more time to think. Hence, I do believe that had I studied math and science in high school while my brain was forming or pruning those fast neural connections that process higher math reasoning, I would have suffered less about feeling too dumb to do science and done better in academia. Would I still be a freaky-artist-science-geek? I believe so but the point is, my story is way too messy and complicated to tell tweens in a 30 minute science pep rally. So I gave the following talk instead, this is part of it, as best as I can recall, and with some editing.

(I'm taking out he call and response type pep rally yelling that helps to engage and settle down seat twitching tweens such as 'Shout if you are having fun,' "Shout if you are from Napa County," etc. Every question in my talk is actually a call to the audience to shout the answer back, but I don't know how to make that work in a writing. Note: call and response is critical for a successful tween science pep rally!)

Hi everybody! It is great to be here today to celebrate Expanding Your Horizons! Hey! Do you know what that phrase means? What to they mean by 'your horizon'? They mean your future! And this conference is all about expanding your future potential by learning math, science and engineering. At the workshops today, you learned about science and technology and the many exciting careers you can have in those fields. You heard that if you want to purse a career in science or engineering, it is absolutely necessary for you to study math and science, right? It is true - if you want to be a research scientist, or environmental engineer, or an astronaut, or a doctor, or a math teacher, or a CSI chemist, or any science or tech job, you have to know math and science. Well what I want to talk with you about today is that even if you don't pursue a career in science or engineering, you still need to know math and science. EVERYBODY needs to know math and science, even if you want to be a professional football player or dancer. Every person needs to know math and science in order to live in our high tech scientific world.

Now many of you may be thinking or saying: "I like science but I am not good at it. I can't do math because it is too hard. My brain doesn't think that way." Well you are partly right, math and science are hard and anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. But what isn't hard that is worth pursuing? Is it easy to be a great dancer? Do you wake up one day and instantly you can play the guitar? Of course not. It takes practice, practice and more practice to do anything difficult well. But you'd be wrong in saying that your brain doesn't think mathematically. Every one's brain is mathematical. It is a fact. Every time you reach your arm out to catch a ball, your brain is doing a zillion calculations to put your hand in the right place at the right time. Math was invented by human brains just like your brains. But it takes practice to learn it, to figure out how the language of math, of how our brains reason, and put it on a piece of paper as an algebraic equation. Do you wake up one day and -bang- you can speak another language perfectly? Of course not! It takes practice and a lot of embarrassing mistakes to learn a new language, but you do it, so you can live in a world where that language is spoken. Math is like that. If you learn math, then you can live in the world of science, which is the world we live in. And math and science are like sports. The more you practice, the stronger and smarter you get. But it isn't easy and it takes time. So be kind and patient with yourself as you would be learning any other challenging and worthwhile thing.

OK, so what if all that doesn't mean beans to you. You are just not interested in math and science and couldn't care less about it. Well let me try to make it more personal, and more scary. There are real and serious problems you will face in your life, whether you like it or want it or not that will involve science, and if you do not become scientifically literate, and by 'literate' I mean to be able to read, speak and engage in conversation and debate about science, you will be in trouble. Our modern high tech world is dependent on science and technology, isn't it? As an adult you will have to make many decisions that require scientific literacy. For example, what if a big company wants to build a factor in your neighborhood that puts waste into the air and water? They say it is safe but others say it is toxic especially children. How do you figure it out? Who do you believe? Or, what if there is a new experimental drug your grandma can try to cure her cancer, how can you decide if it is worth the risks? Or what if people tell you nuclear power plants are safe and you should vote to pay for them? Should you eat genetically modified food? What about giving your children vaccines? What science should our tax dollars pay for? What would you vote for? Solving global warming? Cancer research? Finding life on other planets? What about building big solar energy collectors in space? Good idea or bad idea? What if you are on a jury and have to decide if the crime scene evidence warrant putting a criminal to death? And a million other scientific questions you will face in the future that are indeed a matter of life and death. A sad fact of our times is that people lie to sell stuff and get rich. You know it is true. And so I ask you, how are you going to know who is lying or telling the truth? How are you going to handle these complicated issues if you are scientifically illiterate? Will you just believe the white guy in the white coat? Turn over all your power to the so called 'experts'? "Oh, my brain doesn't think that way, you decide for what is safe for me and my baby." Come on! Do you want to live that way? You don't have to.

I think it would be GREAT if you decide to pursue a career in science and engineering, it is a very rewarding job and I encourage you to consider it. But quite frankly, I don't care what career you choose, you still need to know math and science. What I do care about is that you become smart, well educated empowered citizens who have the knowledge and ability to understand the complicated scientific world world you live in, so that you can make educated decisions, and if necessary speak scientific truth to power, to protect yourself, your family, your community and our planet. If you want to be a player in the expanding horizon of this high tech scientific world, you need to be scientifically literate and that means you need to study math and science at least through high school. You need to study math and science NOW. And here is why.

Let me tell you a little about how brains work. Right now your brain is growing and forming. As far as we know, it does most of the growing and forming until you are in your early 20s so now is a critical time in your brain development. What you lean now, will affect the way your brain works for the rest of your life. When you learn something, neural pathways and connections are formed for that sort of thinking to happen. The more you use those connections, the stronger they become. It is sort of like muscles - the more you exercise them, the stronger they get. It may hurt at first but the more you lift weights, the easier it gets. Similarly, the more you think about math, the stronger those neural connections get and the easier math gets. Learning math hurts at first because your brain is changing shape, just like your muscles in your arm! That is why it is so important that you are patient with yourself and trust that the more you do math, the easier and less painful it will get. However, there is a very significant way in which brains are not like muscles. With muscles, if you stop exercising and get weak, you can just work out again and build the muscles back up. You don't permanently lose your strength. With brains on the other hand, if you stop using the neural connections to do math, the brain literally prunes them away. If you don't use it, you lose it! Now, clearly you can still learn math as an older adult, but, trust me, it is so much more difficult. The brain is less plastic when it is older - it is harder to teach an old dog new tricks! Therefore, it is very important FOR THE REST OF YOUR THINKING LIVES that you learn math and science NOW while your brains are forming these neural connections of complex reasoning. Learning math and science while you are young will make you smarter for the rest of your lives, whether or not you become scientists and engineers.

You are growing up in very exciting and complicated times. On one hand, technological development and scientific discoveries are occurring at what seems to be speed of light rates - it is hard to keep up and make sense of it all! And at the same time, we are swamped with a lot of bad news of doom and gloom about our environment: global climate change, polluted air and oceans, fish too toxic to eat, species extinction, the list goes on and on - it can be overwhelming and downright depressing! And it is perplexing: if science and technology are so advanced and are progressing so quickly, why do we still have so many environmental problems? If we are so smart, why are we so stupid?

The fact is, very little science and technology is used to solve our environmental problems today. Most science and technology is used to make stuff to sell and make money for corporations. Your cellphones, computers, video games, the internet, all those high tech goodies come at a very high environmental price. For the past hundred years or so since the beginning of the industrial revolution, our species, humans, have been living like a locust on this planet, consuming everything in our path towards so-called "progress." We chop down forests, over fish the oceans, consume all the natural resources we can to build stuff to sell to get rich, and then dump our waste in the air and water. These natural resources will not last forever and the environment can not absorb pollution forever. We have belched so much carbon dioxide into the air from cars and factory smoke stacks that we are changing the planet. Global climate change threatens the health and habitats of not only humans but also of all the other creatures who live on Earth: plants, animals & insects. The cost for keeping the high tech engine of capitalism going is the degradation of our environment. Although the irresponsible use of technology is largely to blame for our environmental problems, we must use science and technology in new creative and responsible ways to solve them.

It is a very sad fact is that even though you didn't cause any of these problems, you are the ones who will inherit them, and either your generation will fix them (if they can be fixed) or you will pass them down to your own children. And that is why is so very vital for you to be scientifically literate, so you can understand science and technology and how we can use it responsibly to help solve the environmental problems facing us. So whether you become a scientist or an engineer, or a dancer or farmer or cook, every person in this room must learn math and science and become scientifically literate. It will make you smarter and it will empower you with the knowledge you will need in the expanding horizons of our future.

Well, that's about all I have time to recall for now. I also talked about lovons and spaceship earth, and hell, I also sang 7 songs! It takes much longer to write this than it does to say it, that is for sure. Stay tuned, maybe someday I'll video tape one of these shows and put it online. For some of the songs I did perform, check out my youtube channel: einsteinangel