A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, October 3, 2011

Slightly Askew

“What do you mean, the earth is tilted?” 

I could almost hear my interrogator’s annoyance, despite the fact that I was squinting at her words in a chat box.  The question glared at me from my screen, and my heart sank.   This unseen woman was my personal nemesis. Another one who slept through fourth grade earth science.  From here on, the script might as well have been pre-written. I’d try to explain Life, the Universe, and Everything to her in fifty words or less.  I would fail.  And then I’d hate myself for failing.

The problem is, I have a personal delusion: I dream of a realm in which the average American citizen understands and embraces science.  Actually, it’s even worse than that -- I want everyone to like it, too.  In my imagination, cubicle-dwellers, short-order chefs, and CEOs all eagerly test hypotheses on their lunch breaks: what is the relationship between microwave wattage and melted-cheese viscosity?  I picture grizzled fishermen and cheerful grandmas chatting about quasars and nebulae while waiting for packages at the Post Office. In my fantasy world, everyone knows the difference between viruses and bacteria, and anyone could explain why we have leap years.  And then I read an article that brings me back to reality. Almost half of American adults believe that astrology is scientific.  I need to figure out how to stop taking this so personally.

Even though I know it’s hopeless, I still try to make my geek-heaven a reality.  On a daily basis, I attempt to craft lyrical and lucid prose about subjects such as carbon cycles and permafrost thaw.  It’s part of my job, but it’s also part of my psyche.  Even when I’m not at work, my dorkiness oozes out in every direction.  I prattle to my kids about the functions of internal organs – a habit that has interesting results.  At the age of two, Lizzy called plaintively from her crib, “Mommy, my bladder is full!”  Recently, Molly pedantically corrected a kindergarten teacher, “You know, feelings don’t really come from the heart, they come from the brain.”  A few months ago, from the car seat in the back of my vehicle, I heard Lizzy’s instantaneous response to her sister’s challenge to think of a word starting with ‘U’: “Uterus!”  I tell the kids the details of photosynthesis, and the atomic mechanics of solar nuclear fusion.  Sometimes when they ask me a question – will Thomas the Tank Engine sink if I put him in the bathtub? Does Elmer’s Glue work on plastic? Does the cat like oranges? -- I tell them to make a hypothesis, and test it.  I just can’t help myself.  I’m a scientist. 

In fact, at the moment when I was asked to explain the tilt of our planet, I was the Official Scientist.  That is to say, I was sitting at home wearing shorts and a grubby t-shirt, my laptop balanced on my knees, using my pathetically slow typing skills to communicate on-line about the multiple causes of long-term climate variability -- while at the same time assisting in the ambitious Tinkertoy construction being undertaken by the two small individuals on the floor.  Despite my Officialness, I felt that I might be at something of a disadvantage; the woman who was grilling me was in a university computer room, along with a dozen other teachers, all primed to pick my brain, and all presumably wearing shoes and clean clothes.

My actual web-chat theme was how Alaskans can adapt to climate change.  By this I mean climate change caused by humans, including annoyed-naysayer-humans who don’t believe it’s happening, or refuse to think it can possibly be the fault of our spectacularly innocent species, or are convinced it’s all part of some mysterious plot staged by an evil international cabal of atmospheric scientists, computer modelers, and sleep-deprived grad students. Not that I can claim the moral high ground; climate change is caused by Official-Scientist-humans, too, even if they try to duck their guilt by heating the house with little bits of compressed sawdust that look like gerbil food, and biking to work in ice storms. 

But studying climate change isn’t all about feeling guilty and depressed.  It’s fascinating – really, it is. Even Ms Naysayer’s initial line of questioning was an interesting one: How can we claim that humans are changing the climate when it’s been fluctuating for millions of years? I knew that a few minutes of frantic off-the-cuff text was not going to change her mind about the larger issues, but I couldn’t stop myself from trying.  It was a reasonable question.  It was a scientific question, and I was the Official Scientist!  So, I quickly attempted to explain the difference between current rapid human-induced change and various causes of long-term change -- such as minor fluctuations in the angle of the earth on its axis. 

She didn’t buy it.  I kind of expected that.  But she wasn’t questioning the fluctuations.  She was questioning the tilt.  Here was a teacher – a woman certified to pass on her knowledge and expertise to impressionable children -- and she obviously had no idea what causes the seasons, not to mention solstices, equinoxes, and the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.

It shouldn’t have surprised me.  When the National Science Board polled US adults about their knowledge of science, results showed that many of us have been gleaning our information from news sources such as late-night talk-radio and reality TV.  For example, only fifty-three percent of Americans correctly responded that electrons are smaller than atoms.  This percentage might not seem too bad -- until you take into account that the question was phrased as a true-false choice, meaning that the scores squeaked in a mere three percentage points above blind chance.  Another true-false statement, “Lasers work by focusing sound waves” managed to accrue a majority-wrong quorum.  Oh, and sixty percent of Americans believe in psychic powers. 

But hey, there’s good news!  The New York Times reports that when asked how long it takes the Earth to go around the Sun, the majority of respondents got the answer right, even though the question wasn’t multiple choice!  Unfortunately, by “majority” I mean a skin-of-the-teeth fifty-one percent. Even worse, when I dug into the details, I discovered that this question was only asked of those folks who knew that the earth goes around the sun in the first place.  It seems that one in five American adults haven’t quite caught up with Copernicus and Galileo, and think the sun goes around the earth – and a few wouldn’t even venture a guess as to what goes around what. 

In comparison, the teacher who merely didn’t quite grasp that we’re roughly twenty-three and a half degrees askew on our axis seemed pretty well-informed.  I blundered along with my explanations, mostly punting the basic earth science in order to drag the topic back to the general vicinity of Alaska and the twenty-first century.  I burbled about growing season length (go plant apples!), thermokarst (and then the castle sank into the swamp…) and species shifts (we always knew Canada would invade one day).  I was pretty sure I wasn’t conveying the awesome logical precision and artistry of a well-constructed scientific argument.  I was probably conveying something closer to the artistry of a tangled wad of used dental floss.

Eventually, our time was up.  The session organizer thanked me politely, as did the participants – even Ms Naysayer.  But I couldn’t get over my malaise.  My inner critic was registering another failure.  My dream of sharing my love of science was obviously as hopeless as trying to build a supercollider from cereal boxes and duct tape.  I should just give up.

Down on the floor, the Tinkerytoy brigade saw me set aside my laptop, and immediately perked up.  “Are you all done, Mommy?  Can you play now?”

I sighed.  “Sure.  What would you like to play?”

Lizzy had a gleam in her eye.  “I need a container… and some water… and some dirt…”

I was suspicious.  This was starting to sound messy.  “Yeah?  What do you need it for?”

“Well, Mommy, I need to do a ‘speriment!”

Molly quickly added her support for the proposed endeavor.  “We just need to test something.”

I looked at two grinning faces, full of equal measures of mischief and curiosity.  I thought of the potential research questions.  Efficacy of semi-liquid mud as an adhesive.  Viability of tomato seeds found at the back of a drawer.  Canine hydration preferences: ideal humus concentrations.  Bath-avoidance: a case study.

As I went to find some plastic buckets, I decided that maybe I’m not ready to give up my dream, after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment