From Star Gazing to Sustainability
Jonathan Yavelow, Biology Department, Rider University
Bartley 1010; Tuesday, Thursday, February 12, 4:30 p.m.; ACS Approved
A call from a scientist to the liberal arts to respond to a story of our common origins by creating a culture necessary for sustainability.
The natural sciences together provide evidence for our common origins and how the deep past is embedded in what we are now. We are made today of protons that were formed soon after the big bang, the carbon and oxygen that were fused inside a star billions of years ago. All of the elements on earth that are heavier than iron were made by a supernova that burst and ignited the formation of our solar system over 4.5 billion years ago. The life that we have inherited comes from the earliest and simplest form of it that first emerged about 3.8 billion years ago. The way we are put togerther - our eyes, backbone, wrists, two legs and two arms, and so much else - is a gift from creatures who lived hundreds of millions of years ago. So much of our culture today finds its origins in our human ancestors who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa.
We share a common past with each other and with nature. The response of many people to this story is to seek to sustain the nature from which we have emerged and which sustains us now. Can those in the liberal arts fields - politics, ethics, art, history, literature, philosophy, theology, and others - create a culture that leads to the policies required for sustainability?
We live in a world dominated by science and technology. Consider our heated and air conditioned homes, our various forms of transportation, our modern medicine and lengthened life expectancy, our computers and the internet, our energy-rich lives giving us free time to ponder philosophical questions and be entertained.
There is a new cosmology that grows out of science that is more fascinating than the wildest fiction. This new science-based cosmology was founded on scientific thinking over the last 400 years. Both the story and science as a way of knowing about the natural world continues to be on the periphery of most cultures in the world despite the fact that cultures have fully adopted (or wish to adopt) the fruits of science and technology.
Consider a first step towards a truly sustainable and peaceful world as intuiting the lessons of the new cosmology – chief among them that human beings are integral with the natural world. Thomas Berry has said that we can’t have peace among humans until we have peace with the earth. This talk will review some of the thinking that has given rise to our science-based cosmology and introduce ideas for discussion about the value of the new cosmology as a critical step to addressing our environmental problems.
Gazing at a Vocation in Science
Jonathan Yavelow, Ph. D. in Cell and Molecular Biology, is a member of IBHA and participated in the IBHA 2014 conference. He has been a biology professor at Rider University for 32 years. He does research in breast cancer, funded by NIH as well as other cancer research foundations. He has taught science and non-science majors, as well as many team-taught classes with colleagues from both the sciences and the humanities. These team-taught classes have expanded his perspective on science to include viewpoints from philosophy, political science, and literature. He recently was one of a few senior faculty to participate in a year-long program aimed to improve college teaching. Dr. Yavelow’s teaching begins with seeing his students where they are, rather than where he would wish them to be. He finds that unfortunately, many of today’s college students read very little, have short attention spans, and are constantly interrupted by their smart phones. It is with this in mind that he has written Star Gazing to Sustainability: Appreciating the Scientific Process (Kendall-Hunt).
Star Gazing to Sustainability is a short (30,000 words) science story showing how evidence discovered through research in the major science disciplines may be combined into one comprehensible account, the science portion of Big History. The story celebrates the beauty and power of scientific thought. It is written for non-science majors enrolled in college science core courses. It differs from traditional scientific textbooks in that it includes all of the sciences and seeks to elicit science appreciation by drawing on them to present a history of the universe, from the Big Bang through the evolution of life. Descriptions of experiments, together with data from each of the science disciplines, is set off in boxes so as not to interrupt the flow of the book. These sections focus on how we know certain scientific facts rather than just what we know. This story not only shows our common origins; it also shows how embedded nature is in us. We are that part of the known universe that can reflect on itself - and can choose to help sustain our small portion of a vast universe.
The process of writing Star Gazing began in the summer of 2010, when I enrolled in a course on a new science-based cosmology at Genesis Farm, Blairstown, NJ, taught by Sister Miriam MacGillis. This course emphasized that a sustainable future requires people to feel that they are a part of nature. As a follow-up to this course, I team-taught two different classes. The first class (Fall, 2010), taught with an environmental activist/community organizer, was titled “The Environment: A Conflict of Interests.” It became clear while teaching this class that many students were conflicted between scientific and religious points of view about their role in the world. When the scientific viewpoint contradicted their religious viewpoint, they just ignored the data. This class focused on how to use objective thinking to prioritize various points of view, and many students viewed it as an epiphany in their own lives. The second class (Fall, 2011) was team-taught with a chemistry professor and was titled “From the Big Bang to the Origin of Life.” Students in this class were primarily music majors who related to science as a collection of facts. Focusing on the question “where do we come from?” made the class more relevant for them and was a way of integrating the scientific information into their lives.
During the 2011-2012 academic year, I was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, invited by the well-known physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson. While researching this book, I expanded beyond my own field of biology into astronomy/physics, chemistry, and geology.
While at the IAS for the academic year, I wrote Star-Gazing to Sustainability. I spent about half of my time teaching and half working at the Institute. Feedback on various drafts of this book from both first-semester college science students and non-science majors in the Baccalaureate Honors Program was particularly helpful to me.
Reflections on a Book
There is a crisis in both science appreciation and science literacy, both in students and in the general public. This crisis undermines the ability of society to deal rationally with its societal and environmental problems. Science appreciation precedes science literacy. There is both joy and insight in science. I wanted to capture both through an account that unified all the science disciplines.
My book, Star Gazing to Sustainability, describes the history of the universe, basing the account on the evidence discovered through scientific research. Beyond the knowledge of facts and methods, science literacy requires empowering yourself to think critically. This has political as well as scientific value. If people become science literate and are confident in asking, “how do you know . . .?”, then we will build a stronger participatory democracy.
When many students hear scientific words, even those describing the various fields of science such as physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, or sustainability, they are already turned off. Often, their experience is that learning science and reading science books are impossible, boring, and exhausting activities. They would like to learn about their place in nature, but they feel inadequate. This book is for individuals who are open to giving science another try. It presents science within the framework of the Liberal Arts. A love of science may begin for some with learning about their place within the universe story. As the first sentence of the book suggests, “Stories bind people together.” Our individual lives are bound together with all others and indeed with the entire universe.
The world in which we live can defy our senses. The Earth spins at 1,000 miles/hour, yet it doesn’t feel to us as if it is spinning at all. In addition, the Earth is traveling at an average rate of 66,000 miles/hour around the sun in one year. Again, we don’t feel that we are moving, but we are. Scientific insights from astronomy, chemistry, geology and biology yield a story. It begins with the stars and the origin of the chemical elements, progresses to a supernova explosion and the subsequent formation of our solar system and the Earth as a dynamic planet capable of sustaining and evolving life.
What is sustainability and why should we behave sustainably? It involves more than recycling and planting trees. It is a mindset linking our understanding of the global ecology of the natural world with good planning for the future. The science-based story of the universe and our origins leaves no doubt that we are intimately part of nature and the environment is part of us. Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen; animals take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Our burning of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) sustains our energy-rich life styles and increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even though this is hard to believe -- we are affecting the global climate.
Why can we believe a scientific fact more than a random guess or a whim? The process of criticism, debate, theoretical understanding, and experimental verification adds to the credibility of scientific facts. Credibility is not just from the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion. It is also from the community of scientists, who verify the observations and debate the conclusions. After many years, the information continues to accumulate so that scientific theory becomes scientific fact. The scientific process is always open to falsification; at some point in the future, we may generate data that will require us to change our thinking. The history of science shows this to be true. To quote Albert Einstein:
“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
Good teaching conveys both information and knowledge. For example: when students look at identical gene sequences between humans and whales, they learn the details of the experiments but often they don’t appreciate the significance of our evolutionary relationship to whales. It is not sufficient to review what we know and how we know it; we must also reflect on this information and ask how it affects our world-view. The connection between learning and true understanding is rare in science education. Many students talk about the scientific details, but often they don’t integrate the significance of the data into their personal lives. This book is an effort to address that issue.
Let’s take the following information at face value –we are on a tiny planet (Earth), racing and spinning through space in a huge universe that is expanding at the rate of thousands of miles per second. How does that make you feel? Insignificant? Meaningless? So, shall we reject the scientific facts about our universe because they make us uncomfortable? Marcelo Gleiser, professor of philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College, has argued “we are a rare accident and thus not pointless.” Gleiser reminds us of the difference between life and intelligent life:
“…We matter because we are rare and we know it… The joint realization that we live in a remarkable cosmic cocoon and can create languages and rocket ships in an otherwise apparently dumb universe ought to be transformative. Until we find other self-aware intelligences, we are how the universe thinks. We might as well start enjoying one another’s company.”
Star Gazing to Sustainability presents scientific information by using the unique approach of integrating what we know, how we know it, and how it affects our perspective on the world. Science is an iterative process; if data are obtained that disprove a hypothesis, then the hypothesis needs to be modified. This is humbling to the scientist, but also empowering to anyone who practices critical thinking.
To encourage critical reading and to engage the reader, reflections are incorporated in the book. These reflections are from non-science major students who have read drafts of this book Adding the voice of students to the book both adds to the readability of the text and anticipates questions and thoughts that may be in the readers’ minds. Here are two examples of student reflections:
“For the average person, what is most important about science is outlook. The ideas presented came about through imagination, observation, experimentation, and analysis. This is a thought process labeled as the scientific method. From what one can observe, most people don’t use this process outside of school unless they become scientists. For shame! This is a terrible way to go about living. Mankind has this thought process for a reason. Humans are not like other animals. We can plan ahead. Unlike a rabbit, which can’t see what effect it has on the environment, people can see. All it takes is a little knowledge, scientific thought, and open-mindedness. If there is one common thread among the vastly diverse disciplines of science, it is about being open-minded and questioning as much as it is about new discoveries.
“Even though it took 9 months to create you, it took millions and millions of years of mutations and evolution to create humans.
“It’s crazy how something as minor as winning the lottery has the same chance as the Universe and life being created.”
Earth is our only home. We are deeply attached to our home environment. We need thought leaders to see the world as it is. Then we can more effectively work together to build a better future. We will need to find solutions to scientific and technological challenges and then overcome problems at the level of implementation. The scientific method is a path forward. This is a slow, patient and deliberate process. Leave your bias at the door, and I believe the wings of creativity and the potential of the human mind are up to the task. Here is a final student reflection:
“There is no reason for us as a nation to not approach the environmental crisis with the same open-mindedness as demonstrated in all of the disciplines of science.”
This presentation is co-sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Departments of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography and the Environment, and the Center for Energy and Environmental Education.