≡ Menu
Share

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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • john moore April 24, 2017, 10:50 am

    Excellent!
    The important omission in her comments is the relationship of over-population to global warming. In my life the human population has grown from about 2B to about 7.4B people. That growth has created corresponding pollutants, including the most dramatic contribution to global warming.

    Currently. population growth has slowed slightly to about 80M per year, but still, a great contribution to global warming.

    IMO the reason scientists ignore the over-breeding issue is because it is like a third rail politically, involving religious claims and even a first amendment right to over-breed. There is a lot of science about carbon reduction, etc. that is mere trivia compared to the danger to the planet from over-population. It is time for the issue to come out of the closet.

  • Jane Haines April 24, 2017, 10:55 am

    How today’s decisions will affect our future descendants seven generations in the future, and the need for scientific literacy to guide today’s decisions — thanks very much for writing this article.

  • STEPHEN MILLICH April 24, 2017, 11:15 am

    If the human population were one billion people what crises would earth be facing?

    • John Moore April 24, 2017, 12:21 pm

      It’s 7.4 Billion, and contributes to every crisis . It will only get worse without education about this challenge to today and our future,

      • Dan Turner April 24, 2017, 2:28 pm

        I think Stephen means that if the human pop was ONLY 1 billion, we either wouldn’t have many of these problems, or that they would be of a much smaller and more manageable magnitude.

        • John Moore April 24, 2017, 2:53 pm

          I absolutely agree that if there were only 1B people, humanity and the enviorment would be in good health and the quality of ethics, much better

        • Myrleen Fisher April 24, 2017, 2:58 pm

          And the good news (?), Dan & Stephen, is that we just might achieve that 1 billion population number in the not so distant future, given our ability to stubbornly deny the causes of climate change and our escalating warlike tendencies. In the end the Earth will go on and on and heal itself….just imagine!

          • Dan Turner April 24, 2017, 9:24 pm

            Actually, I believe that we may witnessing the Earth in the process of “shedding” us. Too bad we’ll take so many other millions of other species w/us.

  • Bob Coble April 24, 2017, 9:06 pm

    Arlene’s address, as was the speeches by Rachel Sa of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and State Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, was absolutely outstanding and to the point. It is sad that those in control of the national government have become disgraceful science deniers.

  • Natalie Gray April 24, 2017, 10:38 pm

    Excellent speech. I concur with the concern on population growth. I remember when the United States openly advocated for Zero Population Growth, in the 70s. We were making inroads and empowering women. I believe Reagan ended that program. It must be practiced worldwide, but how? The religious climate won’t let it happen I fear.

  • Julie Engell April 25, 2017, 7:40 am

    There’s plenty of science denial going on at the local level, too. It’s not just the province of our national government. All you have to do is look at how our local decision makers deal with environmental review in the development process, the water mess we’re in, the way we ignore the impacts of agricultural pesticides on human health (I could go on and on) to find local examples.

    Bernie Sanders advocated for free college tuition, and I suspect it would have required a major shift in our spending priorities (fewer guns, more butter) as well as a more progressive tax structure. I was disappointed that the Democratic leadership and most liberal pundits ridiculed the idea as just so much fluff. To me the right question to ask is not “how can we possibly afford to do that?” The right question is “how can we NOT afford to do that?” If we want to compete in a global economy, if we want to create communities that can survive the long-term effects of the climate change already upon us, let alone the change coming under the most optimistic climate change models, if we want to build peace in an increasingly fractured world, if we want a population educated enough and tech-savvy enough to preserve democracy itself, then we’re going to have to produce the best educated people the world has ever seen — not just in science, but in the arts because creativity is at the heart of it all.

    As Natalie said, we’ve known of the need for population control since at least the early 70s, but like climate change, a rational energy policy and maintenance of national infrastructure, little to no progress has been made. The economic challenges of reducing population can be huge. A smaller young population supporting a larger old population is tough and will take all the brains and creativity we can muster to do it. But we continue to spend our public resources enriching the few and enhancing economic and social inequality, deepening the divides among us and engaging in endless warfare. We desperately need a well-educated populace, but instead we’ve elected the Ignoramus in Chief and the pundits among us can’t seem to ask the right questions.

  • Stephen Schweitzer April 25, 2017, 8:21 am

    No discussion about the purveyors of bad science, Monsanto and Dow who profit from poisoning our environment?

  • Tom Schneider April 26, 2017, 9:47 pm

    Thank goodness for the disclaimer at the beginning of the article – Haffa’s views, “do not reflect those of the university”. Her opinion certainly would be a grave disservice to the integrity of a real science department! In a Bernie Sanders free education dream world, you could say in this case, that the students were getting what they paid for. Yes, the climate is changing. No, we can’t definitively prove it is due to human activity. Anytime climate change “facts” have to be based on a “consensus” of so-called scientist/climatologist opinions, there’s no science there. But there certainly are opinions…..and politically motivated ones at that!