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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!