Science and Mr. Cranky-Pants

One day, not too long ago, I met a scrooge of a man, but instead of Christmas he seemed to have a hearty dislike of science and basic research. I don’t think it was based on being religous and creationist, just grumpy. I was sitting in a cafe reading on my iPad, he sitting nearby. He was just looking about and curiously asked me about my iPad, what did I do with it or was it simply a toy?

I said, no it wasn’t just a toy, I use my iPad like a computer and use it for many things related to my work. “Oh, and what do you do?” he asked. I told him, I am an astronomer researching the physics of stars. At that point, the cafe became dark and chilly and the man looked like he was about to jump up and proclaim “bah humbug.” Instead, he snickered and asked what’s the use of doing that?

What is the use of stellar physics? It is a form of basic science, understanding the building blocks of the universe, how life can exist about the Sun and other stars. It increases our collective knowledge, and helps us find our place in the universe. Indirectly, it helps spawn new technology and provides a venue for general science education.

My response illicitted nothing but another snicker, and the comment that he hoped his tax dollars didn’t help fund my research. It was my turn to ask why.

He said that tax money should be spent on doing useful research only, but that was only his opinion, as if to excuse his accusation that I am wasting my time and his money. But, understanding stars helps us understand x-rays, lasers and so on. We can observe x-rays from the Sun and other stars and by understanding how the x-rays are generated in better detail we can transfer that knowledge to medical physics, etc. Without basic research by Einstein, lasers might not have been invented and we might not have dvd players, precision laser cutting and welding nor laser pointers that we use to annoy cats, just to name a few.

I don’t know why I was surprised, but the man proceeded to explain that the Sun does not have x-rays, for which I had to convince him otherwise, and that his opinion was based on him being a skeptic and that he paid precious money in taxes. Money too precious to be wasted on such frivolousness. At this point he seemed more like Scrooge or maybe Gollum.

I wish I could have changed the man’s opinion, but I think his head was deeply buried in the sand or possibly somewhere else and no contrary opinion could pierce that thick skull. I would call him a luddite but that might insult luddites. Maybe, if I could summon three ghosts to visit in one night, maybe Yuri’s night, that might change his perspective. One could be the ghost of Isaac Newton, who could show him the basis of curiosity and the power of mathematics. The ghost of science present could Charles Townes, who co-invented the laser, who could show him how he benefits from basic science no matter how obscure. The ghost of science future could be someone with lots of technological gadgets, that are all broken and no one knows how to fix, suffers from hunger because global warming has decimated farming, is poorer because the ghost has no usable skills for which to earn a living and suffering from serious case of stupid caused by too much reality television and not enough reality. Apologies to Charles Dickens for my poor analogy and to Margaret Atwood if I copied some of her themes from her compelling Massey Lectures.

I was shocked by the man’s sentiment and ignorance. But, it seems to be a growing sentiment. Congressmen in the US questioning the role of the National Science Foundation, as if they should decide which research should be funded. The Canadian government changing the role of the National Research Council from funding science to pursuing only economical technologies, trading basic research for get rich quick technologies and hoping for another BlackBerry... but maybe not Nortel. There are too many attacks on basic science these days, sometimes in the name of economic hardships, sometimes in the time of the taxpayer but rarely in the name of common sense.

This is ironic. Basic science has powered much economic development since the second World War. In 1945, the report “Science: the Endless Frontier” led to the creation of the National Science Foundation to promote and fund basic and applied research. It was recognized that science would help drive economic growth and development. And this is true today. Is it coincidence that Silicon Valley and many other tech hubs are situated near prominent research universities? Basic research drives technology innovations, and it is not easy to predict which research will lead to winners. The time scale from basic research to markets can be decades, maybe more, and can build ideas from many disciplines. An election cycle is simply too short of a time.

It is a tough question how much funding science should get and what research projects should share in the funding but I lament how science appears to be perceived more and more as a waste. But, one can hope that this attitude is the exception and not the norm.


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Constellations from other perspectives

The night sky is one of the few things that every pain and culture has in common. Every culture in the world has watched the stars at some point. Astronomy has helped cultures develop, the Vikings and Polynesians used stars to help navigate the oceans. Astronomy helped with the development of the calendar, for instance the mound in Newgrange in Ireland that was used to measure the day of the winter solstice through a small opening where light shines through. As cultures learned about the sky, perhaps they developed stories about the stars, their own constellations.

However, the constellations we learn about these days are Eurocentric. This is because, in the northern hemisphere, the constellations were described by early Greek and Persian astronomers and became part of the lexicon of modern astronomy; especially when the International Astronomical Union used these constellations as a basis to map the sky.

The modern view of the constellations, I.e. Scorpio, Orion, etc. all came from Greek astronomers but other cultures defined their own constellations based on their society's experiences. In particular, First Nation groups in both North and South America developed their own view of the cosmos and their own constellations. For instance, the Mi'kmaq nation of eastern Canada have their own constellations. Coincidentally, in the location of the Big Dipper, the Mi'kmaq define a bear constellation, I.e. where the constellation Ursa Major is found (Great Bear). Based on the movements of this constellation throughout the year, the Mi'kmaq created a myth about the bear to describe the changes of the seasons. I paraphrase the story here from the following sources ( Clark, E. Indian Legends of Canada, 1960 and Dempsey, F. 2008, JRASC, 102, 59).


The Great Bear and the Seven Hunters

In the spring of every year, the great bear (the four stars of the big dipper) wakes from her hibernation in her and den and she leaves in search of food. While the bear is searching, she is spotted by one of the hunters, chickadee. But chickadee is too small to hunt the bear on his own, so he summoned his fellow hunters for help. Chickadee and his six companions birds chase after the bear, with robin in the lead followed by chickadee, moose bird, pigeon, blue jay, and two owls. (The closest three are the handle of the Big Dipper)

The seven hunters chase the bear across the sky throughout the summer and into the autumn. But, by then the most distant hunters lose the trail of the bear and fall off the chase. First the two owls lose the trail and soon after blue jay and pigeon give up the chase. The remaining three keep trying and by mid-autumn catch up to the bear.

As the three hunters close in on the great bear, she stands on her hind legs to defend herself. Robin aims at shoots the bear with an arrow, but being so close he is covered in splattered blood. He flies into a nearby maple tree to shake the blood off of his feathers. The blood spills onto the trees making the leaves red.

Chickadee eventually catches up to robin and the two build a fire and begin to cook some the bear meat. When the meat is ready the moose bird joins the duo. But moose bird is clever, he knew the others managed to kill bear and it would take time to prepare the meat. If moose bird took his time then he could arrive when the meat is cooked and would not need to do any work. That is why a moose bird shows up at the end of any hunt. Even though moose bird did not help robin and chickadee still shared their food.

Throughout the winter the skeleton of the bear lies on its back, but the its spirit enters another bear waiting for spring when the bear rises again and the hunt begins anew.


This story hints at the richness of astronomical lore in these other societies. From the story, one can envision how by watching the constellation one could develop a calendar and time the passing seasons. It also hints at similarities with European astronomy in that both groups have a bear constellation, however it is unlikely that any First Nation culture from Canada or Northern US would define a constellation as a scorpion, they would not have experience with scorpions.

As astronomers we seek facts and knowledge about the universe, but we tend to forget (conveniently) that our knowledge is seeded in the Greek tradition and then the western tradition of facts and numbers. There is still much knowledge we can learn by exploring the sky lore of other cultures and by discussing these other traditions encourage other ways to engage with astronomy.

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Stellar Astrophysics in Lijiang

I returned a week or so ago from a couple of conferences, one in Lijiang, China, and one in Naples, Italy. I’ll write about the latter conference in a later post. The conference in Lijiang was titled The 9th Pacific Rim Conference on Stellar Astrophysics and featured a number of presentations and posters on various aspects of stellar astronomy from star formation to Cepheids to black holes. This conference was also interesting because it coincided with an international summer school organized by the International Astronomical Union.

In the conference, I spoke about the star Betelgeuse and a new method to measure its mass based on observing the change in the amount of light from the center of the stellar disk to the edge. This is because the change of light depends on the structure of the outer layers of the star, and more important on what fraction of the stellar radius is the depth of the atmosphere. If we can measure this atmospheric extension then we can measure the mass of star. I applied the method to observations of Betelgeuse to determine its mass. I gave a second talk on the Cepheid mass discrepancy, see my earlier post. In this talk, I discussed if winds could explain the mass discrepancy for Cepheids in our galaxy and the discrepancy of Cepheids in the Large Magellanic Cloud. I found that winds can explain the result for Galactic Cepheids but was inconclusive for the Magellanic Cloud Cepheids. Still more work to be done.

Other talks were much more interesting. There was a talk showing that the Earth and Sun currently in the middle of a bubble in the interstellar medium where there is less gas. The bubble was created by supernovae that exploded a long time ago. Another talk discussed the habitability of planets orbiting a very low mass, cool star called an M dwarf. This is important because these stars are among the most common in the universe and therefore most extrasolar planets are likely to orbit these stars. One of my favorite was an talk discussing observations of a type of binary stars called Algols, where the speaker showed a plot suggesting that in these systems the binaries will merge and form one star. It was a bit of a subtle plot but very cool.

The most interesting part of the conference was meeting the students from the summer school. These students came from many different parts of Asia, including Vietnam, Nepal, and even North Korea. It was a unique opportunity to learn about these cultures and astronomy in their home countries. I really liked the meeting and look forward to the 10th Pacific Rim Meeting on Stellar Astrophysics.
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