Set foot on an alien world, on average three to four billion miles from the warmth of the sun.
On July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zipped past Pluto, scanning the dwarf planet in unprecedented detail. Using data from that flyby, The New York Times created a seven-minute virtual reality film. Fly over Pluto’s rugged surface, stand among the icy al-Idrisi Mountains and touch down in frost-rimmed Elliot Crater. The film was produced in collaboration with the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the Universities Space Research Association.
Hardly anybody knows basic science and technology these days. Few of us are going to wade through the National Academy of Sciences report. We depend on intermediaries to tell us what to think, and a lot of them are also scientifically illiterate. Most journalists are generally more interested in controversy than in evidence. Environmental activists are in the business of opposing, and have no interest in solving real-world problems like providing heat and light at a reasonable cost. The people who actually know how things work – engineers and technology types – tend to be uninterested in politics and are poor communicators. Meantime, some of the most deeply anti-science activists (like the artfully named Union of Concerned Scientists) are quoted as if they were neutral actors for the public interest.
Some of my dearest friends harbour irrational fears about nuclear power, agricultural chemicals and anything genetically modified. They consider themselves enlightened, and since enlightened people are against these things, they are too. These beliefs are an expression of identity, just as a belief in creationism is part of the identity of a Southern Baptist.
Fifty years ago, enlightened people campaigned to ban the bomb. Today, they campaign to ban GMOs and modern agriculture. Vivienne Westwood, the famous British fashion designer, hand-delivered an anti-GMO petition to the British government earlier this month. Asked about people who can’t afford expensive organic food, she declared that they should “eat less.” She believes one of the problems with non-organic mass food is that it’s too cheap.
But in most parts of the world, food is not too cheap. And the fear-mongering campaign against genetically modified food by the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth has been a serious setback for global food security, depriving millions of people of more nutritious, affordable and sustainable food sources. “The actions of Greenpeace in forestalling the use of golden rice to address micronutrient deficiencies in children makes them the moral and indeed practical equivalent of the Nigerian mullahs who preached against the polio vaccine,” says Mark Lynas, an environmental activist who reversed his position on GMOs and now campaigns for them. “They were stopping a lifesaving technology solely to flatter their own fanaticism.”
The kind of doomsayers who warn that oil sands and pipelines will wreak environmental devastation are often the same people who warn that modern agriculture will prove catastrophic. These people are not harmless. As Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, observed, “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”
Mystery Science provides open-and-go lessons that inspire kids to love science — by making it easy for elementary school teachers to deliver an incredible science lesson without a science background.
Rather than following a textbook approach to science vocabulary, Mystery Science employs hands-on activities to engage students with the wonders of science and expose them to the joy of scientific inquiry at an early age.
The site, created by former Facebook product manager for News Feed Keith Schacht and former LePort Schools science director Doug Peltz, makes it easy for teachers to deliver an incredible science lesson without a science background. With funding from a seed round led by 500 Startups, Mystery Science aspires to bring the unique approach Peltz created to every classroom. Lessons are aligned with Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards and designed to supplement existing curriculum.
“Elementary teachers are in an impossible situation, they’re expected to teach and be experts on every subject. Unfortunately the system too easily forces science to be an afterthought, given that few elementary teachers have a background in science and school funding is so tightly tied to test results in reading and math. Teachers understandably fall back on a textbook approach, which results in students being exposed to science vocabulary but never the mysteries behind the science. So we’re creating a new approach with less prep for teachers and more learning for students,” said Peltz, who taught science in the classroom for seven years before teaming up with Schacht to create the site.
Students in the United States rank 20th out of 34 countries in science, a situation that has not improved in the last five years despite a renewed focused on science and math education (PISA, 2012). “In spite of the national focus on STEM education, there is little focus on elementary science education. But these are the formative years when it’s most important,” said Schacht.
“Mystery Science supports teachers in exposing students to the joy of scientific inquiry at an early age,” Schacht continued, “We want to create that perfect ‘a-ha’ moment for students while helping elementary teachers who often struggle to teach science on top of every other subject.” Online modules include everything educators need, from visuals and videos, to step-by-step activity instructions and click-to-order materials.
While participating in a limited pilot with elementary teachers across the country, Katy Hyatt from Walnut Elementary in Iowa saw a marked difference in her class: “After starting Mystery Science, we had parent-teacher conferences and a parent remarked that whatever I’m doing with science right now, it’s really engaging. This mom’s son was coming home each night and telling her what he learned that day, taking her outside to look at the moon and find the constellations.”
The Mystery Science website is now live at mysteryscience.com. There, teachers can watch a video to learn more, explore a sample lesson, and sign up to participate for the upcoming school year.
Among the many changes the Nobel Prize brought to Schmidt’s life: travel hassles. Here’s what he said it’s like to carry a Nobel medal aboard an airplane:
“There are a couple of bizarre things that happen. One of the things you get when you win a Nobel Prize is, well, a Nobel Prize. It’s about that big, that thick [he mimes a disk roughly the size of an Olympic medal], weighs a half a pound, and it’s made of gold.
“When I won this, my grandma, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, wanted to see it. I was coming around so I decided I’d bring my Nobel Prize. You would think that carrying around a Nobel Prize would be uneventful, and it was uneventful, until I tried to leave Fargo with it, and went through the X-ray machine. I could see they were puzzled. It was in my laptop bag. It’s made of gold, so it absorbs all the X-rays—it’s completely black. And they had never seen anything completely black.
“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’
I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’
They said, ‘What’s in the box?’
I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.
So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’
I said, ‘gold.’
And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’
‘The King of Sweden.’
‘Why did he give this to you?’
‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’
At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”
“Western governments have pumped billions of dollars into careers and institutes and they feel threatened,” said the professor.
“I can tolerate being called a sceptic because all scientists should be sceptics, but then they started calling us deniers, with all the connotations of the Holocaust. That is an obscenity. It has got really nasty and personal.”
“Richard Lindzen, the professor of Atmospheric Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology – who also appeared on the documentary – recently claimed: “Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves labelled as industry stooges.” [Link]