Authentic Happiness

You may know that psychology searches for treatments and cures for mental illness, but did you know they also seek ways to buttress us against illness and enhance daily life? I recently heard Dr Jennifer Coleman of WNMU explain positive psychology. This is scientifically-rigorous study, not “self-help” or “pop” psychology. I found it interesting that riches and a pleasant life do not lead to happiness in the long term. We humans are wired to serve others in our family, workplace, and community. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and using our strengths to overcome a challenge leads to happiness. Our greatest accomplishments come when we combine our interests and abilities with perseverance: this has lately been called “grit” and no one has yet found a way to teach it. That hardly surprised me: A person can work tirelessly at something that stirs their passion. Check out http://www.authentichappiness.org to learn about your strengths and much more.

helping-man-md

Lunar Eclipse – a poem by Kate Rauner

Screenshot from Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902) Public Domain in US

Early science fiction rocket arrives at the Moon in 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon

In anticipation of tonight’s lunar eclipse, I’m posting the week’s poem early – Kate

The world presents unto our eyes
Shapes and shadows, shifting lines
Our human brains do excel
At finding patterns that may tell
So in the moon the things we’ve seen:
A man, a rabbit, hands, a queen.
Just as clouds above cause rain,
All things above cause joy or pain.
When the moon turns rusty red
The normal night was turned to dread.
Will heaven’s fight drop on us soon,
As demons, jaguars bite the moon?
Drum and howl, chant and sing;
The moon’s restored, we always win.
Is it less now that we know
The moon is deep in Earth’s shadow?
Tonight I’ll see with my own eyes
A hint of nature’s scope and size.

NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University PIA14021

The far side of the moon, which we Earth-bound observers never see

There will be viewing parties in many places. I’ll watch from my own deck, but if you’re in Los Angeles, consider http://www.griffithobs.org/exhibits/special/Lunar_Eclipse_April_2014.html where an astronomer (in official eclipse-dispersing wizard’s robe and hat) and the public gather on the observatory’s front lawn with telescopes—and with noisemakers. Their public program from 7 pm to 2 am sounds great – too bad I’m too far away to attend.

Learn more about moon myths; for example: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140413-total-lunar-eclipse-myths-space-culture-science/?google_editors_picks=true. There are quite a few to choose from at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Moon_myths

 

Communicating Science

The new Cosmos series now playing in the US is not the only effort to communicate science to the public. Livescience.com recently reposted an article from the Australian site The Conversation on this topic. “No matter how strong the scientific argument and consensus among scientists there will always be people who reject the evidence. It happens on so many scientific topics, from climate change and vaccination to nuclear power and renewable energy… These are, of course, vastly different issues. Many of those who agree with one of the positions noted above will be horrified to find themselves included in the same sentence with another group.”

Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_-_NAC_Nov_2005

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Scientists tend to think that the way to resolve a disagreement is to get more facts, but when well-established science confronts hot-button, public-policy issues, this approach fails. To borrow a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould, the misunderstandings are “conceptual locks, not factual lacks.”

The Australians chose man-made climate change as their topic and approached the problem of communicating to the public from (what else?) a scientific perspective. They take climate experts on a series of public meetings to talk to and – most importantly – listen to ‘regular’ people. They suggest scientists must share their emotions and their passions – something scientists are trained to avoid in their professional papers. There is a short documentary available embedded in the article if you’d like to hear from the Australians in their own words.

Stephen_Jay_Gould_by_Kathy_Chapman

Stephen Jay Gould

As others have noted, people usually base their opinions on their intuitive moral values and subsequently seek evidence to support those positions. People believe that some things are noble and pure, others are degrading and base; that some people have earned their loyalty while others are unknowns or opponents. These factors are more important than disembodied facts.

Science is not always intuitive, which is why it took civilization thousands of years to discover the scientific method. But our lives are better today because of science and it is well worth anyone’s effort to understand the science involved in public issues. The science does not dictate what policy should be followed; our morals and values play an important and proper role in decisions. But decisions based on falsehood will never work out right.

White Sand Dunes – a poem by Kate Rauner

IMG_2739 (640x480) walking dog on dunes

It starts as moonscape, black and white
Underneath the starlit night,
But what forms the craters here
Impacts from every footfall clear.
The eastern sky begins to glow,
Far mountains turn to pink and gold,
Then in a dozen breaths it’s gone,
And brilliant day replaces dawn.
The distance peaks are gray and dry,
A piercing blue now fills the sky,
The dunes so white it hurts to see,
Gypsum waves spread westerly.
Now everything is white and blue
Except the darkling beetle who,
Still black on white, defiant stands
A tiny rover on the sand.
Inspired by my recent trip to White Sands National Monument outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. The gate is closed from 8 pm to 8 am, so the only way to see the sunrise from the dunes is the camp overnight in one of only ten primitive, hike-in sites.

IMG_2720 (640x480) darkling beetle

Darkling Beetle struggling on a dune slope

 

Citizen Scientists Appreciated by the Professionals

I recently attended an interesting lecture by Dr Bill Norris of Western New Mexico University on the role of the citizen scientist in botany. You may think of citizen scientists as belonging to a bygone era, aristocrats and country parsons dressed in prim Victorian frock coats collecting barnacles and butterflies, but they are still needed today. The ranks of field botanists are thinning. There are fewer academic positions available each year and there is a trend for botanists to go into laboratory work; important work, but not traditional botany.

citizen scientist

Preparing a herbarium specimen

Bill shared the stories of several citizen botanists he works with; retired individuals with a passion for field work. They include some people who had STEM careers (for example, a medical doctor and an astronomer) but the most successful so far is a retired postal worker. They perform detailed field work: collecting plants, noting details such as when and where they grow and flower, and what other plants grow with them. They preserve their specimens for future research, and sometimes contact international experts to help identify a plant. One species new to science was discovered by a citizen in a well-used state park, so there are discoveries to be made practically in your back yard. Citizen scientists even publish papers in peer-reviewed journals and win awards. Their inventories of plants will help us understand changes in diversity and distribution, prepare popular field guides, and recognize key identifying features.

There are estimated to be over four thousand species of plants in New Mexico but only three professional academic field botanists and another four or five botanists working for federal agencies. That leaves a lot of room for the citizen botanist to make lasting contributions to science. You, too may have a second career or passionate avocation in science.

Crow and Pitcher – a poem by Kate Rauner

 

Crow_and_Pitcher_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19994

From Project Gutenberg, copyright expired in US

Fabled stories of Aesop tell
Wisdom ancient Greeks knew well.
Show humble acts teach great truths
With animals foolish or astute.
From half-full pitchers crows can drink.
They raise the level with rocks that sink
Now researchers at Aukland U,
Are crows that smart? They wonder, too.
Float snacks inside a narrow tube,
Give floating blocks and sinking cubes.
Crows figure out, to get their treat,
Drop sinkers in, just like the Greeks.
Necessity, mother of invention,
Gives 5-year olds some competition.

Check it out.

New Web Site to Check Out

Typhoon_saomai_060807

Here comes a natural disaster – image from NASA

Nate Silver’s fame spread from sports to politics during the last American presidential election when he accurately predicted the outcome despite a blizzard of conflicting public opinion polls. He edits a website at http://fivethirtyeight.com/ (owned by ESPN) that looks like a great magazine. The writers apply science and statistics, to popular topics. This gives an average reader a chance to evaluate the barrage of news, self-serving diatribe, and just plain nonsense from the media. From NCAA brackets to climate change, you’ll find interesting articles that can be of practical use.

Here’s one example: News about health seems to be full of “breakthroughs” that never arrive and contradictions that arrive frequently. What health news can you use? “Headlines are advertising. The goal is to get you to read the article, not necessarily to represent the research accurately.” But there are six criteria you can use to evaluate an article about medical studies. One is: Was the study performed on people? The more “yes” answers, the more likely the study is important to you.

Here’s another example: An article (by a writer with qualifications in the field) disputing recent claims that climate change is responsible for economic losses increasing due to natural disasters “generated a lot of comments and questions, and I thought it would be good to address some of them. Human-caused climate change is both real and important, so being careful about what claims science can support and which it can’t is imperative.” Hurray! Rational discussion of the facts and not just red team/blue team bumper stickers. FiveThirtyEight provided links to rebuttals and even plans to publish its own rebuttal to the original article.

I think reality is important, so this site looks like a great resource. Check it out.