Tag Archives: Science

Why Are Humans Such Slow Learners?

Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern  parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.

The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?  And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world. 

Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.

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The U.S. vs. Mother Nature

As yet another hurricane brings torrents of rain and flooding to another part of the

flood Hawaii

Flood in Hawaii 2018

United States—this time the Carolinas—I can’t help but think how the attitudes of many Americans toward nature have changed over the years. Many of our leaders now seem to see nature as a foe to be defeated and conquered instead of as a priceless resource to be studied and understood.

During the early post-Revolutionary years, most of the leaders who shaped the country were awestruck by the riches of their new land. I have been reading a book about one of these Americans, David Hosack. He is hardly a familiar name, although his achievements during the early post Revolutionary period are still important. The book is called American Eden: David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the Gardens of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson.

David Hosack was a doctor, who is perhaps most often remembered for the role he played in attending Alexander Hamilton after the fatal duel between Aaron Burr and Hamilton. He was unable to save Hamilton’s life after that duel, but he was responsible for saving many other lives both through his own treatments and through the medical American Eden01students he trained and the cures he discovered. Unlike many of our current leaders, Hosack had great respect for the value of science and of studying how medical treatment could be improved through learning more about the characteristics of plants.

One of Hosack’s most important legacies was the establishment of a famous botanical garden, called Elgin Garden located on the current site of Rockefeller Center. At the time the garden was established, it was far uptown from the small city of New York in lower Manhattan. For years Hosack taught at Columbia College and took his students through the gardens to learn about the medicinal qualities of plants. He established ties with fellow scientists in Europe, especially England and Scotland, and exchanged both information and plants with them. American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, honored Hosack’s work and sometimes exchanged plants with him. Like most leaders of his generation, Hosack understood the value of working internationally to improve the lives of Americans and others.

Generation after generation as the United States grew and expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts of North America, much of its growth and prosperity was fueled by scientific advances. Land grant universities trained young people to understand science and improve agriculture. As the country grew more populated, farsighted leaders like Theodore Roosevelt understood the necessity of preserving the natural landscapes and resources of the continent and established National Parks.

Until recently government, scientists and community leaders worked together to preserve the natural riches and to enable people to lead better lives. Now suddenly, even as more and more scientists and ordinary citizens recognize the threat of climate change climate change smokestackbrought on by human activities, many of our leaders have lost their way. Instead of working to mitigate the dangers of greenhouse gases, we are encouraging corporations to spew more noxious fumes in the air and make the world less safe for children as well as the rest of us. Instead of working with other countries to improve the world, our leaders want to tear up treaties in the hope of immediate profits for a few wealthy corporations. Instead of encouraging scientists to study our changing world, many leaders are cutting funding for education and restricting scientific research. What has happened?

Do we really want our shorelines to erode? Do we want to increase the number of children and adults who suffer from asthma? Is it more important for a corporate executive to buy another jet plane than to preserve the fish, birds, and other disappearing wildlife? That is something that everyone who votes in November should consider. And everyone who could vote but doesn’t should feel a personal responsibility for failing to protect the country so many of us celebrate.

 

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Father-Daughter Teams

White_House_North_side_-_july_2012

White House–north side

Every White House watcher has noticed by now the close relationship between President Trump and his older daughter, Ivanka. Now that Ivanka Trump has an official position in the administration and an office in the West Wing, she is expected to become even more visible to the public. What will her role be? How will she and her father work together?

History buffs scurried around to find examples of other presidential daughters who played important roles in their father’s lives. The only daughter who took over the First Lady role was Martha Jefferson, who acted as hostess for her widower father. Ivanka Trump’s role in her father’s administration is going to be far different from that of the First Lady, Melania Trump. It looks as though this administration will be setting quite a few “firsts” for presidential families.

The story that got me started on this train of thought is the story of Galileo and his older daughter as told in Dava Sobel’s book Galileo’s Daughter. It gives an eye-opening glimpse into family life in the 17th century. Despite spending most of her life in a cloistered

Suor_maria_celeste

Sister Maria Celeste

convent, Maria Celeste kept up with her father’s scientific discoveries and with his life in the turbulent political currents of the day. Her letters deal primarily with the mundane details of clothing and food. Maria Celeste mended collars for her father, asked him to send her fabric to make a wedding present for her brother’s wife, and prepared potions to ease his chronic aches and pains. But she also consoled him when he was persistently questioned by the Inquisition and even managed his household, from behind her convent walls, when he was imprisoned for publishing his heretical ideas.

Galileo, for his part, patiently hunted down the fabrics and other household items Maria Celeste requested and generously supported her and her convent for many years. I had never known that the families of nuns were expected to give so generously to pay for the necessities of life in the convent—food, medical care,

Galileo

Galileo

and even building repairs. Without a husband and without any means of earning a living, women were dependent on the generosity of their fathers, brothers and other male relatives. This must have led to anger and bitterness in some families, but in the case of the Galileo family, father and daughter forged a relationship that was filled with love and that must have consoled each of them for the trials and difficulties of their lives during the upheavals of their time.

Galileo’s Daughter is a book well worth reading, especiallyGalileo's Daughter book if you are a parent. You’ll learn a lot about science and perhaps even more about political and family relationships. Now that our society has moved far beyond the financial dependency of women, the dynamics of father-daughter relationships have changed, but these relationships are often stressful and difficult to maneuver. As the roles of both men and women continue to evolve, it is worth looking back sometimes on the ways families handled these challenges in the past.

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