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Friday, February 15, 2013

Are Asteroids Calling On Us All To Be EARTHLINGS?

Ok, I've been REALLY bad keeping this blog running lately.  I'll blame it on a course, Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, a MOOC that I'm taking through Coursera. That, plus my teaching schedule and a bit of the winter blahs (cough, sniffle, ache...) has put me behind. I will try to be better - starting right now!

If your head's been buried in the sand today (or snow if you're like me), today has been a Double Danger Day for planet Earth. With all the hype about our expected asteroid visitor, 2012 DA14 - which, fortunately - and as expected - did NOT hit the planet, Mother Nature decided to blindside us with a unpleasant surprise - a meteor that DID strike the US - Chelyabinsk, Russia to be precise.  Because of its small size,  it was impossible to detect the object before it entered Earth's atmosphere. Scientists and politicians will debate what could have been done, what should have been done to prevent the estimated 1,200 injuries (mostly caused by glass shattered in the sonic boom as the meteor exploded into pieces) and the nearly $30 million in property damage. And everyone should be thinking about how to prevent this from happening again - deflector shields? asteroid nudging devices? Earth nets? Definitely enhanced detection!  What I haven't heard in all the buzz and internet chatter today, though, is how these two events for one day made us all think of ourselves as Earthlings, rather than Americans, Russians, British, Australians, Egyptians, Swedish, whatever we are.   Outer space doesn't acknowledge or respect our human-made artificial boundaries and categories. Doesn't care about our politics or economics, wars or religions, and it definitely doesn't care whether we're gay or straight! Doesn't care about whether the crater it's creating is in Europe or Asia or Africa or the Americas. Outer space - whether real threats like today's meteor, predicted misses like 2012  DA14, or maybe-one-of-these-days threats like solar flares or gamma ray bursts - treats us all equally. Which is to say,  it doesn't give a hoot! Its target is simply The Earth - and we are all simply Earthlings. Because the rest of the universe treats us as one planet and, by extension - one people -  isn't it about time that we did, too?

So, make this your thought for the day - what can we do to get it through our thick heads that we are EARTHLINGS? Not in the corny science fiction sense of fighting flying saucers and little green men, but in the very real sense that the universe is much bigger than our beloved "blue marble" and, like it or not, our parochial prejudices and self-interests don't mean much out there. Planet Earth and its inhabitants are in the throes of a new identity crisis, one we've never had to deal with before. Thousands of years of recorded human history and we have now come to the point where we need to put aside enough of our differences so we can join together in becoming the kind of united planet that can deal effectively with asteroid threats that seek to harm any of us, any where, any time.

Today's events are a good opportunity to start pondering this, brainstorming ideas, even making plans. Earthlings of our planet, where do we start?

Photo of Meteor, Chelyabinsk, Russia
AP Photo-nasha gazeta,

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Our New Logo

What words describe the world we have created on planet Earth?  What strengths and weaknesses do we bring to our first encounters with future non-terrestrials? Where do we want to start changing ourselves today in order to be ready for the future tomorrow? This is Earth B4 Contact's new logo.  Can we work together to change our weaknesses into strengths?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Jimmy Buffett a God? Create Your Own World!

Would you like to live in a world inhabited by people who looked like giant margarita glasses, aptly dubbed Margaritaville, who worshipped (you guessed it!) Jimmy Buffett as a god?  Or how about the Republic of South Paw where left-handers live on a diet of laundry lint and right-handers are shunned? Maybe Fruitopia sounds sweet, ruled over by King Jack O’Mellon, where criminals are recycled into fruit fertilizer? No?  Then how about Bootyville, inhabited by one-eyed pirate aliens? Each semester my Intro to Sociology students have to get in a group and create their own society – from scratch.  No preconceptions, no boundaries other than the limits of their own imaginations.  They have to create a society complete with people, a language, a history, a political hierarchy, socialization practices, cultural traditions, etc. They all think it’s a lot of fun, of course – arguably the best group activity of the whole semester.  But the novelty of the exercise masks its more somber message.

We all create our own societies – you and I – each day that we walk this planet.  In many ways, the world we live in is a fiction that we’ve created to suit our purposes, our own version of Middle Earth replete with heroes and villains, complicated languages and alliances, and tales of friendship, love and bloodshed.  Like the master storyteller Tolkien, the world we create may have some semblance of reality, but mostly it is a reflection of our fears and desires, more allegory than substance.  Like the fantastical creations of my students, the societies we create are inconsistent and sometimes even bizarre (after all, is a lint soufflĂ© any more absurd than a Congress that refuses to create laws?!)

The point of all this rambling (yes, there is most definitely a point!) is that we – all of us – each in our own little patch of the planet, play a part in creating the Before Contact society that we live in.  Even if we choose to do nothing, to abstain – we have still made a choice.  Societies are created; they don’t just passively or magically appear.  Tolkien and my students were lucky; they only had to create their worlds on paper.  Real worlds are constructed both with bricks of concrete and with bricks of bigotry or tolerance, greed or generosity, dishonesty or integrity.  You get the picture.  Our world doesn’t need to fit neatly together like Tolkien’s epic, nor does it need to be as hare-brained as many of my students’ creations. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the societies we create now lead us into a future, heavy with the possibility of Contact? Bravely and boldly would be great; but I’d be happy with slowly and meekly if done with an honest spirit. 

So, class, get into your groups and start brainstorming! What should our world look like in these (short? or many?) years Before Contact?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Holidays are over . . . time to get back to the hard work of pondering the mysteries of the Universe!

One of my favorite sci sites these days is the Facebook site, “I F***g Love Science.”  MIT’s Scope magazine recently (December 18, 2012) did an article about the site’s founder, Elise Andrew.  (Take a look at the whole scoop yourself  Ms. Andrew started the site, it seems, less than a year ago as a mental release from the pressures of finishing her dissertation.  (Sadly, I just ate lots of chocolate, but to be fair, there wasn’t any Facebook in the Stone Ages of the 1980s and 1990s).  Point is, she started a site that went viral. I’m sure part of that (OK, I admit it! A LOT of it!) is due to the shock value of the name.  Put “F**k” or “F***g” on anything and it immediately becomes more interesting.  Like forbidden fruit.  But the site itself is fascinating! She pulls together both mainstream and offbeat stories, has cool photos, cartoons and infographics and has over 2.3 million – yes, MILLION – “Likes.”  Because of her success, all of us who do science education and outreach need to do 3 things:

1) Thank our lucky stars (yeah, I meant the pun!) that she got burnt out working on her dissertation! If everything had been going hunky-dory, she might not have gotten bummed out enough to start the site!

2) Figure out what she is doing right – and like every good educator – copy it!  (It’s OK! We call it sharing “best practices!”) No, we all don’t want to start dropping the “F-bomb” in all our sites and blogs and presentations.  Even too much of a good thing is still too much!  Maybe it’s the eclectic mix of her stories (bugs, snakes, DNA, clouds, exoplanets . . . ), maybe it’s the sometimes irreverent tone (“Planet Infected by Humans” is a good example), maybe it’s the simple fact that she posts A LOT.  It keeps her site in front of our face – and it keeps me, at least, eager to open my Fb to see what’s new in the last hour or two!  Right now, she has the magic touch! May we all be so lucky!

3) Plot a course for what’s next for her 2.3 million “Likes.” Social media is very faddish (My Space, anyone?) and viral stories and sites can become stale and the butt of twitter jokes within months (sometimes weeks, days, or even hours!)  She’s been going strong for the better part of a year, but what happens later?  She’s grabbed people’s attention, but now what?  Can we get some of those people involved in citizen science projects? Send them over to Zooniverse?  Plug some of the free online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for those who want to “read more about it?”  Get people tapped into their local astronomy clubs or wildlife sanctuaries or ??.  Ideas, people, we need ideas!!

There’s an opportunity here to advance science outreach long-term . . . just need to f***g find it! 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Earth B4 Contact

B.C.  For a historian, the first letters we learn, the elementary letters that create a fixed point on our ever-present timelines.  Things happen before and things happen after those imposing, yet simple letters: people born and die; wars start and sometimes finish; movements rise up, fade away and are frequently resurrected by new generations.  But unlike those traditional fixed letters that really reveal more about us – our religious beliefs and cultural stories - than about the true nature and flow of time itself, the simple letters B.C. now denote a new impending threshold: the historical period that we are living in right now before the discovery, confirmation and official, public recognition of and interaction with non-terrestrial life-forms.  Earth, B.C.  Before.  Contact.

Who are we – this people of Earth – who as yet have no experience of the Others who may (probably? most likely? definitely? inevitably?) share this Universe with us? What will we bring to the encounter? Yes, our fears, shaded by many clashing hues of divine dogma as well as our all-too-human prejudices based on silly notions of superiority and childish games of one-upmanship.  These show us at our worst and betray the smallness of mind of a species still groping for adolescent identity.  But in the silence between all the clatter of politics, religion and profit, there is a sense of hope and of wonderment.  There is the truly awe-full experience of looking up at the stars and asking, “If only?” and, for the first time, believing it could really be true.  There is the very real experience of remembering men and women who danced on the moon, lived amongst the stars, skydived through the blistering atmosphere and created machines that echo our human voices light years away – and knowing that if we could do these wondrous things, so, too, could Others. 

We are on the threshold of a world that accepts the reality of hundreds (thousands? millions?) of habitable exoplanets as mundane fact, that seriously appreciates and even participates in organized, scientific searches for non-terrestrial communication, and that is tenuously redefining, or perhaps more accurately, refining definitions of what it means to be alive, to be aware, to be intelligent and to be human.  We are a people Before Contact: hopeful, cynical, compassionate, cruel, wise and ever so foolish, but in the midst of it all, frightfully and excitingly aware that the experience of Contact can come any day – and it will change us . . . forever. 

Nothing will be the same again.  Neither our values nor our prejudices.  Neither our politics nor our religions.  Neither our schools, nor our homes, nor our relationships with those we hold most dear.  Some of us will be frightened and cling to what is familiar, rallying around comforting beliefs and rituals. Others of us will become emboldened by new entrepreneurial opportunities yet unimaginable (non-Earth medicine, tourism, resource extraction, and so many more).  Still others will become cynical and disbelieve the eyes and ears of others, and perhaps even their own, and fall back on hardened prejudices.  But others of us – and I truly hope it is the majority of us, from all nooks and crannies of this “pale blue dot” we call home – will become amazed and awestruck.  Like little children playing in the vastness of a beach brimming with zillions grains of sand, we will have stepped out into the vastness of a Universe (or perhaps a Multiverse?) full of wonder and possibility.  Yes, there will be danger.  Yes, there will be fears.  We would be utter fools to not be afraid.  But we would be even bigger fools to hold back or run away.  Humans, no . . . Earthlings, are made of stronger stuff than that!  Contact will be terrifying and it may not be immediately successful, however success is defined.  And we must all realize that our first Contact will most likely be with a fungus, or a microorganism or a bacterium.  But once LIFE is discovered off-planet Earth, our life here on Earth will never be the same again. Everything . . . and I means EVERYTHING will change.  And are we even remotely ready for that, we the people, the species, the organisms living on planet Earth Before Contact? I don’t think so, do you?

B4 Contact muses about who we are now, in this slice of time – however thin or stretched – before our First Contact with non-terrestrial, non-Earthly life.  It will comment on politics, religion, economics, culture, ethics, education and more  – whatever stories are in the news, on people’s minds, or trending in the culture – to see what they say about us as a people on the brink.  We are living in a watershed era.  These are the eras that historians love to analyze, but this time, I won’t be doing it from the safe distance of a hundred, five hundred or one thousand years.  With the realization that we are made of stars, there are no safe distances from the Universe any longer.  With probes and missions dotting the solar system and inching beyond, we know what we all hope comes next.  We are a people preparing for the next fixed point in Earth history.  We are living on Earth B4 Contact.