Monday, May 12, 2008

Capstone Project Blog

I am going to be doing something a bit new. I am scheduled to graduate in December 08 and I have a senior Capstone Project to do and I thought it would be fun, as well as therapeutic, to blog about it.

First, a description of my project (from the formal proposal):

“In July 2007, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds announced that the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota had been chosen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the site for a new Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL). South Dakota had already invested considerable state monies in preparing the former Homestake mine for this purpose and in lobbying the NSF and the scientific community generally. The Governor, in persuading legislators and the public to make the investment in the mine’s rehabilitation, in addition to the obvious economic benefits, frequently touted the benefits of having such a facility to education, particularly science education.

There have been successful partnerships between large laboratories before, notably FermiLab in Batavia, Illinois. This research will propose to answer the questions of:

· What does it take, on the part of a laboratory or research institution, for a successful partnership with local schools?

· What does it take, on the part of local schools, for a successful partnership with the laboratory or research institution?

· To what extent does a community’s understanding of, and attitudes towards, the methods and findings of science affect the success of such partnerships?

While the United States is still a world leader in science, its lead is rapidly dwindling. A study published in the 11 August, 2006 issue of the journal Science revealed that, out of 32 European countries and Japan, America ranked virtually at the bottom of the list in the percentage of their citizens that accept biological evolution as the driving force behind the diversity of life on Earth. At the top of the list were the northern European countries, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden respectively. The only country surveyed that is less accepting of the fact of biological evolution than the United States is also the only majority Muslim country in the survey, Turkey; which according to the CIA World Fact Book is 99.8% Sunni Muslim (Miller, et al.).

Fundamental research is often conducted at public expense and justifying this expense to citizens is difficult to do if those same citizens believe that evidence-based inquiry into fundamental questions threaten their most basic beliefs. If the United States is to maintain its position as a world leader in science this will have to change and forming effective, fruitful partnerships between schools, communities, and researchers is one way of doing this.”

Having come back to the Black Hills of South Dakota in the fall of 2005 to finish my Bachelors degree after leaving in 1983 for my Navy career, I was excited and a wee bit proud to hear that the old Homestake mine was being seriously considered by the NSF for their new underground laboratory. As I reacquainted myself with the cultural mindset of my childhood home, I was a little less sanguine about the reception that the lab, and the personnel running it, might receive.

I was particularly chagrined by the 2006 abortion battle and could not help but ask myself if accomplished, enlightened scientists would want to pack themselves and their families off to such socially and culturally provincial place. Had the state government even considered how the work done at the lab (i.e. fundamental physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology of deep underground life) would be received by South Dakotans—given that it runs counter to the religious world view of a sizable part of the state’s citizens? On a humorous note, I pictured a Monty Python or Mel Brooks-type mob storming the DUSEL with torches and pitchforks to put an end to their godless quest to understand the laws governing the universe.

I have a lot of research yet to do on the subject and I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the thorough treatment of evolution in the local high school science curriculum when I recently had the opportunity to look it over. I do still want to find out if the Rapid City Area Schools (hereafter abbreviated RCAS) allows students to “opt out” of certain parts of the standard curriculum if their parents have objections to the standard curriculum.

Stay tuned for more…

Works Cited

Miller, Jon D., et al. "Science Communication: Public Acceptance of Evolution." Science 313.5788 (2006): 765-66.

Thoughts on a Human Tragedy

Tragically, the places likely to be devastated first and worst by Global Environmental Change (GEC) are the poorest, most overpopulated regions of the world. There are many elephants in the room that need to be dealt with and one of them is culture (and that includes religion). The governments of such countries must realize that their (predominantly) patriarchal cultures in which women are treated like breeding livestock and that are beset by rampant overpopulation, illiteracy, and lack of economic opportunity, must change. The problem is, no one is going to come right out and say that "The culture of _________ is primitive, backwards, and positively maladaptive in the 21st century."

When natural disasters strike regions where life is already marginal at best due to overpopulation, the loss of life is magnified many times over. Not to pick on Myanmar and Bangladesh, which recently suffered terrible natural disasters, but Western, industrialized countries did not overpopulate those nations. The citizens of those countries did. They were ignorantly following the dictates of their culture, the kind of dictates that have no place on an Earth of nearly 6.7 billion human beings. The first person to say any such thing publicly will undoubtedly be called a “racist,” some reading this may well call me that.

I am not a racist; we are all pretty much the same with respect to our innate biological capacities and what differences there are between individuals have nothing to do with skin color. I am saying that certain cultural practices (i.e. treating women like 2nd class citizens, refusing to educate them, and at the onset of menses, forcing them to marry much older men who demand they produce lots of healthy male children) have deleterious effects that can ripple across a globe as crowded as ours. I am saying, that in countries plagued by rampant poverty and overpopulation, responsibility for the consequences need to be laid right where it belongs, on the doorsteps of the “cultures” that facilitate the poverty and overpopulation in the first place.

This is not to say that the West does not have its own elephants to deal with, because it does. I am stunned by the idiocy of American automotive makers that offer free gas to induce fools to buy SUV’s instead of actually doing something to make said SUV’s use less gas! In America, people must be made to feel the cognitive dissonance of thinking that what their adult neighbors do for consensual fun in the privacy of their bedroom should be regulated by the “state” but “by God, if I want to drive my Cadillac Escalade that gets 16 mpg on my 60 mile daily commute, that is my God-given right as an American, at least until the Rapture™.”

Humanity will not continue to flourish on this planet in the future by declaring valid criticisms of short-sighted or antiquated cultural practices “off limits.” What will get us though the next century and a half or so is the absolute intellectual honesty to call a spade a spade with respect to behaviors and practices that are short-sighted, ill-informed, or just plain stupid, even at the risk of offending someone’s cherished cultural values.