Proprietor’s note: Arlene Haffa was among the speakers at Sunday’s science march in Monterey. Here, with her permission, are her remarks. She teaches chemistry and biology at CSU Monterey Bay but she wants it made clear that the views expressed do not reflect those of the university.
We just heard an excellent statement on the importance of science literacy on the health of the ocean. I am hoping to convey a more general urgency for scientific literacy and its role in shaping civil societies.
Science is not an “us” versus “them” issue. It is not conservative or progressive. It is integral to our very existence. Without science we could not have civilization. Thus, in order to preserve our civilization, and provide hope for a better future, we need science education.
How many of you have used science today? Did anyone use their cell phone? Let’s give a shout out to science!
When we partake of these fruits of science we are “standing on the shoulders of giants,” a phrase first used by Bernard of Chartres to compare the then contemporary 12th century scholars to dwarfs standing on the ancient giant scholars of Greece and Rome.
Whose shoulders might you be standing on now?
Cell phones’ shoulders include astronomy, rocketry, electricity and those with the ability to put forth new ideas.
There are the shoulders of Aristarchus of Samos, an ancient Greek astronomer who determined the sun was the center of the universe rather than the earth. This was in conflict with both the current scientific dogma and religious doctrines and was not proposed again until 1543 by Copernicus just before he died. On the other side of the earth the shoulders were put into the foundation of our cell phones during the 11th century Song Dynasty in China, with the invention of gun powder and rockets as recorded by Wujing Zongyao.
Another set of shoulders belonged to the Italian Galileo Galilei, who preferred to be convicted of heresy by the Roman Inquisition in 1633 and spend the rest of his life under house arrest for his view that the earth rotated around the sun rather than say it wasn’t true. Galileo also contributed to the scientific method, a viable telescope, and the military compass among other things.
Your cell phone relies on Sir Isaac Newton, a 17th century English mathematician who gave us classical mechanics, the laws of motion and universal gravitation.
People now had the foundations in planetary sciences, and rocketry necessary to imagine the future.
Science fiction works of the French Jules Verne and English HG Wells spurred interest in interplanetary travel in the early 20th century. This was coupled to ballistic advances due to war, the shoulders of Tsiolkovsky and his application of the rocket equation to space travel, and Potočnik who described geostationary satellites.
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite in 1957 under the direction of chief rocket scientist Sergei Korolev. And it was a science fiction writer again, Arthur Clarke, who first wrote about using 3 geostationary satellites for mass communications.
These shoulders that made cell phones possible are from all across the earth- Greek, Chinese, Italian, German, Russian, Slovene, English, and the United States of America.
Go science! Give it up for the cell phone!
On the flip side of this technology that allows for better interpersonal communication, as well as access to information, there is an imbedded inherent risk.
Science, and the technology it creates, poses moral and practical challenges.
Who has read Frankenstein? Or seen the film? The novel is a great example of science doing Godlike things. The idea of being able to make or manipulate life itself makes science thrilling, benevolent and transformative, but at the same time so frightening and unsettling to those who don’t understand.
Dr. Frankenstein was dedicated to finding a cure for mortality. But, he created a monster instead. How do we manage the power that science offers? How do we make sure that science is put in service of good and not evil?
Science is power. Knowledge is power. Science isn’t inherently good or bad, but it comes with responsibility.
Thinking back to Galileo’s military compass: It made the firing of cannons more accurate. This could reduce collateral damage, but could also increase ballistic accuracy.
Rockets by delivering payloads kill humans and damage the earth. Rockets by delivering communication satellites bring humans together.
I find a similarity between Galileo and our secretary of defense, James Mattis. Secretary Mattis has publically asserted that climate change is real, and a threat to American interests abroad, and the Pentagon’s assets everywhere. In this he is standing on the shoulders of scientists, and at odds with many of his peers. He is using science rather than political pressure to draw his conclusions in an effort to protect the United States.
We should appreciate the secretary’s willingness to put American interests first above the disapproval of his colleagues. The scientific community is overwhelming convinced that the truth of the matter is that the climate is changing, and the people have something to do with it.
In regard to climate change, some imagine the scientists are personally gaining from the science. In my opinion this is more like Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal’s contributions to the fields of pressure, vacuums, and hydraulics are likely imbedded in rocketry, but it is his philosophical dilemma that I paraphrase here. He argued that any rational person should live as if God exists. For, if God does actually exist, there is only a finite loss of some pleasures, whereas one stands to receive infinite gains and avoid infinite losses.
Our nation is currently in a conflicted debate as to whether climate change is the truth, or something we should deny. If climate change is real, then it is the greatest threat facing all of humanity and our earth.
A rational person should live as though climate change exists. For if climate change actually does exist, there is only a finite loss of some pleasures (like the combustion engine, or coal burning power plants), whereas one stands to gain the retention of the earth as we know it and civil society.
While education is my primary professional purpose, I also perform research, and was asked to speak about it.
My research is working to address climate change as it relates to agriculture. My colleagues and I are studying how to help the agricultural community best manage fertilizer and irrigation, so that our food can be grown in economically and environmentally sustainable ways. Nitrogen is one of the most necessary ingredients of fertilizer. While nitrogen is the 5th most abundant element on Earth, it wasn’t discovered until 1772 by the Scottish physician, chemist and botanist Daniel Rutherford. He called it “noxious air”. Then Justus von Liebig made the agricultural sciences blossom in the late 1800s when he discovered its importance to plant growth. The agricultural revolution was started in 1903 when the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, and his business partner developed the Birkeland-Eyde process to remove nitrogen from the air, and create solid fertilizers. I am standing on these shoulders.
Agriculture is a $4 billion industry in Monterey County, and our growers help to feed the people of the earth. Fertilizer is expensive, but seen as a good investment to insure crop success. However, if more fertilizer is applied to a field than the crops can absorb, the excess is either leeched into the groundwater, or emitted into the atmosphere. I work with NASA scientists Forrest Melton who is using satellite data to help inform growers about when to irrigate, and Kirk Post who is helping to assess nitrate leeching as a function of the amount of fertilizer and water applied, with the chemical analysis help of Erin Stanfield. UC Cooperative Extension scientists are calculating how much nitrogen ends up in the crops. My lab is adding the last component to the nitrogen budget by measuring the excess nitrogen emitted as nitrous oxide into the air. Nitrous Oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 x more potent than carbon dioxide. Most of the nitrous oxide emissions are a result of excess fertilizer. This part of my research rests on the expertise of Stefanie Kortman.
Ag research is saving farmers money, feeding more people, and making the earth more sustainable.
Do we have any Neal de Grasse Tyson fans in the house? He said: “The good thing about science is that it is true whether you believe it or not.”
It is difficult to change the world, or the opinion of those that do not want to face the truth. To deny science is to deny truth.
However, scientific literacy can help all of us be better citizens, and help to create the type of world we want to give to future Americans. The Native American 7th generation principal is codified in the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. It says that in every decision, be it personal, governmental or corporate, we must consider how it will affect our descendants seven generations in the future.
Scientific literacy makes us better consumers and wiser voters.
The current generation diligently strives to advance science, in order to become the shoulders for those in the future. For this to be insured, it takes funding, and policies that promote science. We should be grateful for our next speaker, the Honorable President of the California Senate, Bill Monning. He is a leader that has supported science education in our state and thus has helped to preserve our planet, and our democracy.
I would like to thank him for this, and I thank you for your attention