It’s Sammy Science back in the house, answering your science questions as best I can. From what I gather from some of your letters and e-mails, I can see why America needs a huge upgrade in our general science awareness. President Obama is right when he says that science and technology education in America needs to be a priority. Throughout history, the civilizations that were the most scientifically and technologically advanced were the ones who flourished, while those who ignored the advances in these vital areas fell by the wayside. The dominance of Western industrialized nations these past several centuries was no accident, but a conscious effort to discover and exploit the secrets of the natural world in order to benefit both individuals and society as a whole.
Today the world is carved up roughly according to technological prowess, with the haves being on the cutting edge or progress, and the have-not nations beset with starvation, disease and poverty due to their lack of technological and scientific progress. This is not a judgement on the worth of any particular cultures or groups of people, merely hard facts, the stuff that science is made of. Truth does not care who does or does not believe it, it merely exists. We can recognize truth and act to make it work for our benefit, or dismiss it out of hand as being contrary to long-held beliefs. Denying the truth never made a bit of difference to the facts. They are what they are and that’s that. Let’s get to your letters:
Dear Sammy Science: My mother tells me that girls can’t be good scientists and that I should study something else. My marks in all my science classes are the best in my school and I want to be a scientist when I grow up. She says the best I can do is to marry a scientist! What should I tell my mother? – Samantha from Little Rock
Dear Samantha: Your Mom ever hear of Marie Curie, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different branches of science? She also married a scientist, but other than the Curie family and the scientific community, not many people remember Pierre Curie, while the name Madame Curie is synonymous with great scientist. She and the 15 other females who won Nobel Prizes in the sciences didn’t get them for baking cookies, making needlepoint or listening to the popular wisdom of the day. Popular wisdom is what scientists constantly revise. Tell mom about these women and follow your dream, Samantha.
Dear Sammy Science: I am Samantha’s mother. How dare you advise her to follow her dream? I am her mother and I know best! She is to be a wife and a mother. Period! – Samantha’s Mom
Dear Samantha’s Mom: Damn, but doesn’t this internet work swiftly! Well, Ma’am, it sounds like you’ve attained your dream. Unfortunately for your daughter, however, your dream is crushing the dreams of others. Too bad for the rest of us too. Perhaps Samantha would have be the one to finally cure cancer or diabetes. Looks like we’ll never know if you get your way.
Dear Sammy Science: Can man really change the atmosphere and temperature of Mars and inhabit the Red Planet? How long would the process take? I’m ready now! – Hugo Ghurl
Dear Hugo Ghurl: Yes, yes we can. The process would take many centuries, first to free the frozen water, then seed the ground with simple lichens and mosses, leading eventually to more and more complex plants that will over time infuse the planet’s atmosphere with the proper combination of oxygen and carbon dioxide so that we can breathe outdoors without artificial means. As far as the temperature, the thicker atmosphere will warm up the surface temperature to about that of Minnesota. It will be close to 1,000 years of living in sealed underground quarters and special suits before we can live unaided on Mars. Perhaps Hugo Ghurl the 50th will be able to live on Mars like we do on Earth, by which time mankind will probably have dozens of colonies on different planets and moons of nearby star systems.
Dear Sammy Science: It’s me again. Will all this other-planet stuff change humans? – Hugo Ghurl
Dear Mr. Ghurl: This internet speed is getting spooky fast! Anyway, Hugo, humans will undoubtedly begin to exhibit different physiological changes on planets where there is a greater or lesser gravitational pull, where the length of days vary widely from our 24-hour cycle and a single trip around the sun could take hundreds of our own years. Think of the differences between the 4 known kinds of elephants on earth, the African, Indian, Sumatran and the Forest Elephant, with differences in the amount of toes, their physical size and the enhanced or diminished functions of various organs. Man is also a large complex mammal that will over time adapt physically to their surroundings but will basically still be recognizably human.
Dear Sammy Science: How about people developing a third eye? – Hugo
Dear Hugo: Enough, already! Gives someone else a chance.
Dear Sammy Science: When our space program really gets going, will we have big fleets of war ships and other really cool stuff like they do in Star Trek? – Roger Overnowt
Dear Roger Overnowt: Unfortunately, too many if us think weapons are “really cool,” so undoubtedly mankind will venture to the stars armed to the teeth. What we won’t see, however, is fiery and noisy explosions in the sterile wastes of frozen space. That only happens with an oxygen-rich atmosphere to support all those orange fireballs and carry the sounds of destruction. Out in space, the destruction will from be a range of thousands if not millions of kilometers, and will be silent and nearly invisible. As for all those tractor beams, laser swords and beaming people aboard, that makes for good entertainment but unrealistic science.
Space exploration and colonization will unfold like the evolutionary steps of any large species, over thousands and thousands of years, imperceptible to individual generations of humans. That doesn’t make the concept of going to the stars any less exciting, but it won’t be Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker and Hollywood leading the way. It will be scientists, technicians and brave adventurers, like it’s always been. Don’t forget that 300 years ago New York City was a smallish town on the edge of an uncharted wilderness. Little by little it became the citiest of cities, and we’re still building the place. As for our space program so far, our generation is witnessing the equivalent of building the first crude log cabin in Manhattan. The skyscrapers come later. We are the very first generation of human beings who are not earth-bound, and whose liberated minds and imaginations are expanding accordingly. That’s exciting.