Kepler was not a creationist!

This is Johannes Kepler in 1610. Notice, he is not holding a Bible.

Yesterday, I mentioned the Creation Museum’s state of the art planetarium, and this video describing it. It’s director, Dr. Jason Lisle, says the problem is, when you go to regular planetariums, “you get some good science, but you also get some evolutionary storytelling. You hear about the big bang and the billions of years…” and then he goes on to say how his mission is to show how his god just made it look that way.

I thought, okay that’s kind of funny. But another part of the video stuck with me, and bothered me. Lisle starts talking about Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, and how their cool new HD projector can create graphics that illustrate these laws. Then he breathlessly continues: “We can show people how the planets actually orbit. And Kepler of course was a Creation Scientist, and that’s something I didn’t learn about when I was in school but we’re gonna make sure people get that information here, that Kepler was a devout Christian and started from the Bible.”

This is a job for the History Truth Squad!

Kepler was a Creation Scientist? Kepler lived from 1571 to 1630. He taught in Graz Austria until 1600, when he left to avoid being forced to convert to Catholicism (during the Counter Reformation). In 1610,
Kepler heard of Galileo’s discoveries and his trouble with the Inquisition, and published two books confirming Galileo’s telescope observations, which were a great support to Galileo, since by this time Kepler was Imperial Mathematician to Emperor Rudolph II.

Why did Galileo need support? Because the church didn’t like his theories. The Inquisition made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and Galileo recanted.
The Inquisition, you may recall, was free to torture and kill anyone who didn’t say they believed what the church insisted was biblical truth. This truth you could be tortured until you agreed with “started from the Bible,” just like Dr. Lisle’s.

So Kepler was a Christian. Okay. Everybody was a Christian. They didn’t even have a word for western Europe; they called it Christendom. Kepler was an educated man. That means, he’d been to a seminary, because all the schools belonged to the church. So you’d expect to see some religion in his scientific writing — which was all written in Latin, by the way!

But the question is, do Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion incorporate his religious beliefs? Do they rely on miracles, or math? While it’s reasonable to suggest that Kepler’s willingness to challenge Biblical accuracy owes something to his religion, since he was living during the Protestant Reformation, the real lesson here is that Kepler was a man of his times who managed to make a scientific discovery that transcended his times. But he was deeply embedded in his times. In 1613 Kepler published another book analyzing the Bible and proving that based on its own internal chronology, Jesus could not have been born when the church said, but instead must have been born in 4BC. This might not seem like a big leap out of the box, for those of us who don’t believe Jesus actually lived. But in its day, it was a pretty earthshaking “proof” of error in official church doctrine. In 1616 Kepler’s mother was accused by the church of being a witch, and held for four years. Kepler defended her at her trial, and she escaped being burned at the stake.

All of this, I hope, goes to show that Kepler was a complicated character living in a complicated time. Calling him a “Creation Scientist” as if that means he stands arm in arm with people like Dr. Jason Lisle is absurd. It’s a perversion of history. And think about it: why do they need to do this? Can’t they find a single modern, world-class scientist who’s actually made a noteworthy contribution to astronomy or physics, who would consent to be called a Creation Scientist?

Water is life

“Water is Life” (Frank Herbert)

Astronomers have discovered the biggest supply of water in the known universe. It holds 140 trillion times more water than all the oceans on earth, This water is 12 billion light years away, though, so it’s not going to help us solve our drinking-water issues here at home.

The reason this discovery is remarkable, is because it shows in a very graphic way, that there’s a lot of water in the universe, and there always has been. The quasar this water vapor surrounds is really far away, so water isn’t a local, special condition of our immediate astronomical neighborhood. And since the microwave emissions of this quasar took 12 billion years to cross space and get to us, they left their source when the universe was only 1.6 billion years old. That means, there’s been water for a very long time.

Neither of these conclusions are surprising to scientists, of course. But for the rest of us, I think it’s interesting that the most basic ingredient of our type of life is out there, all over the place. Maybe they won’t be phased at the Creation Museum. Did you know they have a high definition, digital planetarium? What for? To explain how their deity got the light from those distant galaxies to earth in just a few thousand years. Really.
Watch “The Planetaruim” video. But, I digress. I’m impressed. The conditions for life seem to exist throughout the known universe, over nearly all of its history. That’s pretty cool!

How fast is it melting?

This just in, and it’s not from some Al Gore sponsored lefty think-tank. It’s from NASA. The alarming words in the report: exponential mass loss.

One big uncertainty is how fast ice sheets can respond to warming. Our best assessment will probably be from precise measurements of changes of the mass of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which can be monitored via measurements of Earth's gravitational field by satellites.

Figure 2 shows that both Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are now losing mass at significant rates, as much as a few hundred cubic kilometers per year. We suggest that mass loss from disintegrating ice sheets probably can be approximated better by exponential mass loss than by linear mass loss. If either ice sheet were to lose mass at a rate with doubling time of 10 years or less, multi-meter sea level rise would occur this century.


Don't drink the water

We’ve all watched the documentaries, and stopped buying bottled water. That’s why the news I received in the mail today is so disappointing. In todays mail, there was a slick, glossy brochure from the City of Keene. My wife almost thought it was junk mail and threw it away. But it wasn’t. It was an admission of negligence, buried in a pile of public-relations BS.

The document is called “
Quality: Annual Water Report,” and the front page features a large glass being filled with clear, pure water, and the Keene city seal. In the introduction on the second page, the water department tells us how proud they are to present their annual water quality report. On the third page, we learn that Keene’s water contains the microbial parasite Cryptosporidium, which causes nausea, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea that “most healthy individuals can overcome…within a few weeks. However, immunocompromised people are at a greater risk of developing life-threatening illness.” The report does not say what the effects of repeated exposure are on healthy people, but I’d imagine they might include more or less chronic nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. “Although filtration removes Cryptosporidium,” the report says, “the most commonly used filtration methods [meaning, the ones Keene is using] cannot guarantee 100 percent removal.” Well water from the Court Street and West Street aquifers is not filtered at all, according to the report. This would be the water that supplies not only my home, but the local hospital and at least two old-folks’ homes.

The Court Street and West Street well fields are known to be vulnerable to contamination. In a 2002 study, both water sources got several “high susceptibility ratings.” So it’s really unclear to me why the city would not have corrected this problem by filtering its sources. Are we not paying high enough property taxes to afford a safe supply of tap water? REALLY?

So far in 2011, Keene has violated clean drinking water standards ten times. The violation in each case was turbidity, or cloudiness in the water. This cloudiness “tells us whether we are effectively filtering the water supply.” Although the pamphlet insists that turbidity has no health effects, the city admits that “
turbidity can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth.” (Their italics)

Let me get this straight: you don’t filter the water, in source fields that are historically at high risk of contamination, and that interferes with disinfection. So what’s the solution? Oh, just use more disinfectant?

But wait! For about half of 2009, Keene was violating the city’s Treatment Techniques standards. So they started adding more polyaluminum chloride to reduce the organic material in the water. But this, combined with the high levels of organic carbon, raised the levels of “disinfection by-products.” The two main byproducts were trihalomethanes (chloroform) and haleoacetic acids (HAA). According to the pamphlet and other sources (
here and here), these compounds are known to “lead to adverse health effects, liver or kidney problems, or nervous system effects, and may lead to an increased risk of cancer.” The city claims that there were no “disinfectant by-product violations,” but I wonder who sets the limits? Chloroform levels as high as 54 ppb were detected (the violation level is 80), and HAA levels reached 38 ppb (violation = 60).

The steps Keene is taking to resolve these problems with its water supply, according to the pamphlet, amount to just this: “
The settings on the discharge valve of each filter will be modified to restrict the backwash discharge rate of flow, or the programming will be changed to result in the discharged water being directed to the waste tank instead of the clearwell. Either of these solutions will prevent this high turbidity occurrence in the future.” (Their italics) I’m sorry, but at this point I’m not buying it. If it had been as simple as flipping a switch, it would have been done years ago. Changing the settings on the filters will not change the condition of water that is not filtered! And it won’t get the Cryptosporidium, the chloroform, or the HAAs out of my drinking water.

I hate to say it, but I’m going to start buying bottled water. And I’m going to seriously consider not paying my City of Keene water tax anymore.

Knowledge, Memory, Identity

This week Jonathan Rees asks “Why take history classes when you can Google anything?” He calls attention to an interesting memory study, and to Nick Carr’s post about it at his blog, Rough Type.

Carr quotes
Emerson’s 1857 essay “Memory,” that “memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump.” Carr seems to be suggesting that the unique “cohesion” that comes from each person’s experience of the world, is a big part of individual identity. So it’s no surprise he sees a problem in the results suggesting that online information is changing the nature of memory.

According to the study Carr is responding to, test subjects were more likely to remember the location of information rather than the information itself, if they believed they would be able to access that info freely on the web. I think this is interesting, but I’m not as alarmed as Carr. The process of building these associative, personal webs of “cohesion” from data may work as well at one level higher of abstraction. It's knowing the url of your text rather than memorizing the words. Yes, you can say that knowing where your English/Spanish dictionary is, is not the same as being fluent in Spanish. But you really don’t sense that difference, until you’re dropped in the middle of a South American city, and need to communicate with the locals to get your next meal.

And that’s the big difference, I think. Until we get outside the world of knowledge (facts gathered from texts, whether paper or electronic) to the world of experience, it’s a distinction without a difference. I’m going to remember my Spanish much better, if I need it to get through the day in Santiago, than if I have a quiz next Friday.

So it’s about motivation, and the personal, practical importance of memory in our lives. This has obvious implications for educators. “Why do I care?” is not just a pain-in-the-butt student question, it’s the basis of building “cohesion.”

Jonathan Rees picked a couple of interesting quotes from the Carr blog to comment on. The first one outlines this “Google Effect on Memory,” and when I read it I thought of the stories I’d once heard about bards who could recite epic stories from memory. They used a set of mnemonic tricks I’d love to be proficient in — but as a culture we pretty much forgot them as soon as reading and writing became prevalent. Was this a loss? For individual brainpower, probably. But it was a gain for knowledge overall, because now we don’t have to spend our lives “becoming” one text, like the characters in
Fahrenheit 451. We can read a thousand, and expand our horizons.

I don’t think the availability of online sources reduces us to a set of walking “bookmarks.” Online sources are ephemeral. You learn that the first time you lose access to something you really wanted to cite, because they took down that page. More important, knowledge of whatever type is such a pale, powerless thing when compared with experience, that I just can’t get excited about the issue. People should get up from their desk chairs once in a while and
do something!

Jonathan writes about picking the right facts to teach, and I agree. The other thing that occurred to me, after the thought about the bards, was about narrative. We use story elements, themes, narrative arcs, and causal threads to organize a lot of this information. A history that avoids causality, as James Loewen says most high school textbooks do, is a meaningless jumble of facts. Whether we like it or not, we’re back in the dangerous world, I think, of

But the question of motivation is still a huge one. Why should people care what we say about history, or calculus, or economics, or literature? If we really address that “so what?” issue, we might find a way to make our stories stick in the minds of students. We might even find a way out of the crisis in higher education…

The new beach

Extreme Ice on PBS Nova last night. There were some really startling images of the changes in mountain glaciers (which are doomed, and this will be a nightmare when it happens, because a third of the world's people depend on glaciers for drinking water) and also of Greenland meltwater and glacial calving. On the companion website, there are a series of illustrations of what the coastlines would look like in a couple of places, if sea levels rose 17 feet (which is what they expect if Greenland's ice all melts) or 170 feet
(if all ice in Antarctica melted). And also what would happen if sea levels fell 400 feet — corresponding to the approximate sea level during the last glacial maximum, about 20,000 years ago. The illustrations are interesting. I wouldn’t buy land at elevations below 25 feet, in any case. That's my personal bet, based on the melting of some of the Greenland ice and the West Antarctic ice shelf, which projects over the ocean, and is at much greater risk than East Antarctic ice. And my bet for time is 25 years.

And, just for fun, here's a pic of me with my Dad & Sister, looking at my first glacier, the source of the Rhine river. Long ago. I wonder what it looks like now?

No Singularity

Good article on BoingBoing called “The Singularity is Far: A Neuroscientist’s View.” David J Linden is the neuroscientist, and he provides a lot of good nuts and bolts illustrations of why nanobots won’t be buzzing around in our brains anytime soon.

Linden’s big argument with Ray Kurzweil, though, is that Ray applies
Moore’s Law not only to science and technology, but to the insights they produce. Linden concedes that the data sets may be increasing at an exponential rate, but he insists that our understanding of the brain and consciousness is “stubbornly linear.” This is also the case in other fields with exploding data sets, Linden says. How many real “aha” moments have come from the genome project so far? Well okay, one big one: that Europeans are 4% neanderthal.

My quibble with Ray is slightly different. I’m always surprised that no one ever seems concerned about the distributive justice question when we get to talking about mind uploads. I'm pretty sure that means that only rich white guys with connections to silicon valley VCs need apply, right?

But actually, I've always suspected that if Ray ever did manage to upload his consciousness to the cloud, it would only take him about a nanosecond to become Skynet from the
Terminator movies. Just a thought...

Disney history

Thanks to my Dad for sending this clipping from the Sacramento Bee editorial page. California was long seen as the "antidote" to Texas' reactionary textbook adoption board.  It was responsible for nearly as much purchasing as the Texas board, an it leaned the other way.  But two wrongs don't make a right.  I think I agree with Lehrer: mandating that diverse groups are "accurately portrayed" and then saying those portrayals "must not reflect adversely" on anyone is absurd.  And it certainly shouldn't go by the name of history.  

I don't completely agree with Lehrer's argument against what he calls history as therapy (and quoting Schlesinger Jr. opens a pretty big can of worms).  Of course, I wouldn't call it therapy.  I'd call it setting the ethnocentric record straight, and I'd say that's an important role of history.  "Revisionist" isn't a dirty word.  If we're not revising our histories, we're not learning anything.  

The question Lincoln didn't ask in the passage quoted, although I suspect he was aware of it, was: Whose history?  Whose truth?

Any questions?

Motor Fuel Consumption 1919-2008

My environmental history

So I’m working at finishing this PhD in History at UMass, but in the meantime, I’m stealing some time from my dissertation to put up a series of short talks about American Environmental History, for regular people. I think this is really important. My daughter just took “AP Enviro” during her senior year, and is going on to an environmentally focused college. People like her need a little historical context, to help them understand how we got to where we are, and what we can do about it.

I’ll be posting a series of 18 short (15 to 20 minute) talks, about what I think are the most important issues in environmental history. The viewer I’m imagining while I’m doing this is a high school, college, or home school student — although I hope that anyone who’s interested in the American environment and how it got this way will find these useful. The first talk I’ve completed will actually end up being Chapter Two in the project. It deals with the European discovery of the Americas. It’s
here; the project’s main page is here.

Labor vs. Management?

Jonathan Rees has posted a series of interesting blogs about online teaching over the past several days. The latest is in response to my comment, “can they stop me from teaching online?” Rees pointed out that in the current scenario, teachers are “labor” rather than “management.” I responded with this:

I agree, pulling a bunch of teachers together and building a “school,” whether physical or virtual, is a job — and involves a skill-set — that nowadays “belongs” to administrators. Not unlike the way publishing, marketing and distributing books is currently “owned” by a specific (and shrinking) group of people. But this wasn’t always the case.

I’m fascinated by the little regional publishers of the early 19th century. Yes, the economics of their situation was different: transportation and communication costs were often much higher than they are now. But so were per-unit production costs. Given those factors, they had a very interesting skill-set. Most of them also published regional newspapers, almanacs, farming, cultural, and political periodicals. Many of them were involved in radical politics of one type or another: anti-masonic, free-soil, secularist. Whatever niche they chose, they had to know their audience’s interests, have something interesting to say, and master the technical process of getting that message out.

To bring this back to online history, I do think technology provides an opportunity to redefine the basic bundle of skills/tasks/products. A lot of the expense of college for students involves the “administrative” rather than the strictly academic parts: dorms, classrooms, sports teams,…administrators. These are some of the things the web could disintermediate, and lower the cost of education to students. But I agree, educators would have to take on some administrative roles, if we wanted to offer an online alternative that met the current set of accreditation requirements, built during (and FOR) the age of brick and mortar schools.

So the long-term task might be to redefine education so that it belongs to the student rather than the institution. This may make it more “pedestrian” and task-oriented, but also more democratic. The short-term task would be to reverse-engineer the education process, asking ourselves each step of the way, “what is this for?” The very-short term task for me, is to identify an underserved market and some unique, valuable content, and put it out there. Supporting myself this way is not job one. The Arctic Monkeys gave away a lot of free music at first — but the music was great and people came back and bought it.

But further, I’d also say that “labor” is the role teachers chose. They had a hand in setting up the present system. The idea was probably, “okay, what we want to do is mold young minds and do research to extend knowledge in our field. Let’s hire some clerks to take care of the details for us.” So, how did the situation get so far out of hand? Why do schools need so many administrators? Wouldn’t it be in the best interests of both teachers and students, to use technology to eliminate some of this expensive overhead?

But there’s a huge difference between being “labor” and being an individual contributor. Yes, although hopefully it’s new and fresh and important for each student who goes through the survey, after a couple of semesters teaching it, the course is pretty much routine for the teacher. Seems to me, this means two things. First, it’s the
process of exposing new students to this material that excites many of us. Second, there’s a difference between the up-front work of creating and implementing a curriculum for the first time, and the work of continuing to teach that survey year after year.

And we’ve got to ask ourselves, what are the real learning outcomes we’re chasing? Sure, it’s important for people to understand how we got where we are, especially if they want to do something about our present problems. That’s the content part we provide in lectures and readings. The work that the students do, though: isn’t that mostly about learning to think critically and to write clearly? Maybe it will turn out that providing effective content and being a critical thinking or a writing coach are different skills. After all, they’re done by different people in the present scheme of things. Professors lecture; TAs lead interpretive discussions and grade papers.

I’m not suggesting technology directs us toward a particular arrangement at this point — maybe it does, but I don’t see that yet. What I do think, is that the web allows us to question everything; not doing so suggests we like the way things are.

Old Home Days

Went to “Old Home Days” in Harrisville this morning. There was a blacksmith working at a portable coal forge; a bouncy house for the kids to jump in; Green Keene Teens were selling laundry soap, bread, and crafts; and the local library was selling off some of its old books.

I got three volumes of The Granite Monthly, from 1880, ’82, and ’83. Looks like there are a lot of interesting articles, mini-biographies, and essays about subjects like slavery and emancipation in New Hampshire. I noticed here’s also a 4th of July oration by Daniel Webster, which I may take a look at this weekend.