NASA’s Budget: Funding Big; Loss for Small Projects

Last year, President Bush established a goal for NASA that would put astronauts on Mars by 2020. This has naturally impacted (intended) NASA’s budget. Although the NASA budget will increase this year, many projects that are much smaller in scope than completing the International Space Station, creating a successor to the Orbitor, and working on the Mission to Mars are suffering. Unfortunately, many of these smaller projects advance scientific knowledge and understanding of the universe, and are being eliminated, or put on hold.

For example, NASA just announced that the project to visit two comets has been cancelled. Although the project costs nearly $400 million, in the scope of NASA, it is a smaller sized project. The Dawn spacecraft was supposed to lift off in June on a nine-year voyage to two of the solar system’s largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, which reside in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids are believed to be remnants from the solar system’s formation about 4.5 billion years ago, and studying them could provide clues into how the sun and planets formed.

Sending Astronauts to Mars, apparently is a more politically correct project these days.

Why ID Should Not Be Taught in a Science Course

Intelligent Design (ID) advocates are clever folks. They know that a religious belief (like the creation story) can not be taught in a science course because it is not science, although for years “creation science” proponents tried in just about every state to get school districts to demand equal time with evolution by natural selection. That idea didn’t work. So in the last ten years, a group of individuals who organized themselves around the concept of Intelligent Design and then attached themselves to the Discovery Institute have been attempting to “wedge” the concept into the science curriculum, claiming that Intelligent Design is indeed science. A judge in Pennsylvania ruled that indeed ID was not science, and ordered the Dover school district to stop messing with the science curriculum, and leave the design of science courses to science educators. About time!

I’ve been reading Forrest Church’s book, The Separation of Church and State, which is a collection of writings on a fundamental freedom by America’s founders, e.g. Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. As Jefferson said, the First Amendment to the Constituiion creates a “wall of separation” has been built between the church and state. The ID proponents know this. That’s why they had to abandon creation science, and invent a new concept (ID) claiming it to be science. And they have gone to great lengths to try and convince others (they even have the President on their side on this) that ID is science, and should be a part of the science curriculum. But the courts so far have interpreted the attempts to ‘wedge” ID into science as infringement of the First Amendment (the establishment clause), and have thrown it out. The Discovery Institute propaganda arm is always out there commenting on any court case, any state legislature’s or school board’s decision against ID (recently in Utah). As Church points out in his book, the founders conceived of the separation of church and state to protect freedom of conscience and belief. Any attempt at trying to impose a specific religous belief by the state will be challenged, and supported by ideas that emerged more than 200 years ago.

James Madion and Science Education

Today, my wife and I visited James Madison’s Montpelier, where his and Dolly Madison’s home is being restored back to the original design when the Madison’s lived there. Portions of the house (which was owned by others after it was sold by Dolly Madion, including the Duponts, are being removed to restore the home to re-create it as the true Madison home. Montpelier is located in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia’s Piedmont.

During the tour, which brings you into the thick of the restoration, we went to the second floor to Madison’s library, which when he lived there contained more than 4,000 books (most of which did not fit into his library). The tour guide pointed out that in this room Madison did much of his preparation for the Constitutional Convention, and actually wrote detailed notes in a small, pocket-sized book, which he brought with him to Philadelphia.

When Madison was a younger man, he made his first contribution to American constitutional law by his defense of the free exercise of religion as a right and not a privilege. Perhaps his library was where he wrote his paper; perhaps this was where he put his ideas together to argue against a state religion (in Virginia).

Later in the aftermath of the Constitutional Convention, Madison, Hamilton and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, some of which were used to write the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution. In particular, Madison was responsible for the First Amendment, which not only insured free speech, but also, two clauses in the First Amendment guaranteed freedom of religion. The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the “separation of church and state. The free exercise clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a persons practice of their religion.

Later in the day, I thought about how significant Madison’s ideas, and his thinking are in the current debate on the religious idea of Intelligent Design, and evolution as discussed in this blog over several months. Even the conservative Utah legislature voted against an anti-Darwin bill with many legislators insisting on the separation of church and state.

The Art and Creativity in Scientific Theories

Two of the books (by Edward O. Wilson and Simon Winchester) that I am currently reading are based on two of the most robust and important scientific theories that humans have discovered to explain two different sets of natural phenomena, namely the origin of the species, and origin and movement of crustal plates. Charles Darwin conceived the idea of evolution by natural selection (along with Alfred Russell Wallace), and the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 1970’s through the work of a number of geologists such as Harry Hess and J. Tuzo Wilson.

Each theory revolutionized the thinking and the research in the respective fields of biology and geology, and have continued to be supported by continuing research. Both ideas have a robust simplicity to explain a wide range of facts and observations. The creative process in the development of these ideas is not very much different than the creativity that we often associate with art. And finally we might add, that each new idea resulted in a paradigm shift in their respective fields of science.

I was reminded about a play that I read many years ago which was written by Jacob Bronowski entitled the Abacus and the Rose: A Dialogue on Two World Systems. The play explores the similarities between art (rose) and science (abacus) and suggests that there is a great deal of similarity between an artist’s painting (say of Rembrant), and a scientific theory (say of Rutherford), and links the two systems by claiming that the both the painting and theory reflect the creativity of the the artist and the scientist.

In a recent book From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Darwin edited by Edward O. Wilson, Wilson points out that great scientific discoveries such as evolution by natural selection (and I would add, the theory of plate tectonics), are like “sunrises” illuminating first the steeples of the unknown, and then its dark hollows. Darwin’s ideas, which first appeared in 1845 with his publication of the Voyage of the Beagle, followed by On the Origin of Species in 1859, and then completed in 1871 and 1872 by The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, respectively. You can read each of these books in Wilson’s edited compendium.

The idea of natural selection, according to Thomas Huxley, is such a simple idea, he thought himself stupid that he didn’t think of it himself. Wilson, in one of the essay’s introducing the book, writes that evolution by natural selection is perhaps the only one true law unique to biological systems. The simplicity of the idea suggests that if a population of organisms contains multiple variations in some trait (say tall versus short necks, or perhaps red versus blue eyes), and if one of these variants suceeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation than the other variants, the overall compostion of the population changes, and evolution has occurred. The power of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that it was a phenomenon of populations, not individuals. Creation of subpopulations and the emergence of new species that descended from existing populatiions was part of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The idea of plate tectonics, as envisioned by Harry Hess, J. Tuzo Wilson, and a few other theorists, resulted in the New Geology, which looked at the whole earth, rather than bits of rocks and minerals here and there. Alfred Wegener had suggested that the continents might have drifted to their present locations, but he did not have observations and facts to suggest how this might have happended. Like evolution by natural selection, plate tectonics emerged as a simple idea when one realized that the earth was one very gigantic system of ocean basins and continents that move, dive and collide due to radioactive decay within the earth that results in very large convection currents that push up new and drag down old parts of the crust. As in evolution by natural selection, the geological cycle of creation of new crust and the decay of old goes on endlessly.

For further reading:
From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, Edited by Edward O. Wilson, Norton, 2006

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Harper Collins, 2005

For further surfing:
Understanding and Teaching About Evolution by Natural Selection

The Story of Plate Tectonics

Driving along a Valley in the Middle of the North American Plate

Yesterday, my wife and I were driving north along Interstate 81, which runs along the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The valley runs in a SSE to NNE direction, and is located about mid-way along a line running east (from Iceland) to west (to California)—roughly in the middle of the North American plate. The drive is spectacular in that along the way, whether you look left (west) or right (east), mountainous ridges dominate the landscape, along with picturesque farms, and herds of cattle, and horses. It’s breathtaking. And you have about 300 miles of this beautiful landscape to enjoy.

But the ride is also interesting in that you are in the middle of series of mountains and valleys that were formed a long time ago—long before the Rockies or the Alps. And they were caused by the collision of two plates, just like the Himalaya Mountains, which were caused by the collison of India and Asia. If you look on a map of Virginia (see below), you will find a series valleys and ridges that run parallel to each other. It looks like rocks were squeezed together to form a series of parallel mountains and valleys. The mountains that run through Virginia have maximum peaks of 4,000 – 6,000 feet today, but a long time ago, before the Pangea split, they might have been 10,000 – 14,000 feet high! And interesting to note is that the plate is drifting to the west, very slowly, or about 2.5 cm per year—or about 10 yards since Jamestown was settled in 1607!

Plate tectonics theory suggests that Virginia was in the fast lane during the Paleozoic Era—The collisions created tall mountain ranges in Virginia that were followed by erosion that etched away those mountains and piled up layers of sediments. I should also add that the same mountains and valleys that I was driving in yesterday, extend to the Southeast all the way into Alabama, and I’ve spent alot of time in the valley and ridge province in Georgia, as well as the Blue Ridge Mountains, and yes, the mountains were just as tall in Georgia in the Paleozoic as they were in Virginia.