Science’s Greatest Strength

One thing that sometimes comes up when we’re talking about Scientific Theories, is that Science changes. It isn’t static. Some of the science that I learned about in school is different from what I teach now. Science may be wrong. Some students think this is bad: “Why learn science if it changes? Why bother if it isn’t right?”. But this is actually Science’s greatest strength.

The confusion stems from a misunderstanding of what science really is. Science is about trying to find out the best explanation for how the natural world works. Think about that. It’s not how the world works, but really is our best current explanation for how it works. As we learn more, our explanations may change.

Once we thought that the Sun rotates around the Earth. It certainly looks that way. But if everything rotates around the Earth, then there are some strange things in the sky that have to be explained. The planet’s retrograde motion. Why Venus has distinct phases, but Jupiter doesn’t. These can’t be explained by having the Earth in the center. But long ago it was the best explanation we had.

Later on, Copernicus and Kepler came up with better explanations. The Earth isn’t in the center, the Sun is. The Earth is just a regular planet orbiting the Sun. This very neatly explains retrograde motion and Venus’s phases.

But it wasn’t quite right. Careful observation showed that something was funny with Mercury’s orbit. It wasn’t quite where Newtonian Mechanics expected it to be. Clearly, something was wrong with our understanding.

Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity explained the change in Mercury’s orbit. Mercury is so close to the Sun’s gravity that there are relativistic effects on its orbit.

So as our understanding increased, our explanations got better. The scientific theories changed. Science doesn’t change because it’s wrong, it changes because it improves. What was wrong was our understanding at the time. But at the time it was the best explanation we had. What you learn now is our best current explanation. If it changes in the future, it will be because we learn more, which is a Very Good Thing.

Happy Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the day that a few things happen. The sun gets as far south as it gets. Today is the shortest day of the year. Tonight is the longest night of the year. Today is the first day of winter.

Since the winter solstice marks the start of the days getting longer, it was important to ancient people. There are various monuments that signal when the solstice is. These include Stonehenge, Newgrange, and even the Georgia Guidestones.

Why do people doubt Climate Change?

Many people in the U.S. don’t think that Climate Change is happening, even though a vast amount of evidence shows that it is. Justin Farrell, at Yale University, looked into the reasons there is so much polarity on the subject. He examined two decades of public texts on the subject, and found that there are over 150 organizations that have something to lose is alternative sources of energy are promoted.

In looking at the data, he found that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to give out information that was meant to polarize that organizations with public funding. He also found that the corporate funding influenced the content, and lead to a digression from actual science.

In short, he suggests that contrarian efforts by some actors seeking to mislead the public have caused so much confusion that many Americans are no longer able to figure out who to listen to or believe. He suggests that his research also highlights the needed for more information dissemination from publicly funded sources to counter those that are backed by corporations.

Here are some links to actual scientific information on Climate Change and Global Warming.

  1. Climate change: How do we know? [NASA]
  2. Global Climate Change Indicators [NOAA]
  3. Evidence for Global Warming [Skeptical Science]
  4. Global Warming Science [Union of Concerned Scientists]
  5. Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense [Scientific American]
  6. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems [Nature]
  7. Ecological responses to recent climate change [Nature]
  8. Tropical Glacier and Ice Core Evidence of Climate Change on Annual to Millennial Time Scales
  9. Ice Core Evidence for Climate Change in the Tropics: Implications for our Future
  10. Modern Glacier Retreat on Kilimanjaro as Evidence for Climate Change: Observations and Facts
  11. Archaeological and palaeoecological indications of an abrupt climate change in The Netherlands, and evidence for climatological teleconnections around 2650 BP

Hour of Code

We did Hour of Code today. There just aren’t enough students learning how to program these days. The US doesn’t have as many programmers as just a decade ago. This is a problem, and exposing students to programming may ignite a spark that will help them decide to learn how to program. The kids had fun seeing how to draw on a screen using commands. Here’s hoping that some decide to learn how to control computers.