Monthly Archives: November 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert on all things science

Another long-but-absolutely-worth-it video: Neil deGrasse Tyson talks with Stephen Colbert (out of character!) about all things science. If you’re a Tyson junkie like me, you’ve heard much of this before — the Titanic story, Apophis, how he fell in love with the universe, the NASA budget, the importance of letting kids feed their curiosity, the value of being at the frontier of discovery, the poetry of science — but it’s always wonderful to see him make his arguments with such passion and wit, and a joy to see him sparring with Colbert here. (And if you’ve never seen Tyson before, clear your schedule for an hour and a half and watch. You’re welcome.)

Here are a couple of exchanges that particularly interested me, as my family goes through the middle school application process for our daughter and we reexamine our ideas of what education should be for. At around 30 minutes in:

Colbert: If I have a lot of facts in my head, if I can absorb a lot of facts, am I a scientist?

Tyson: No. No, you’re a fact-memorizer. In fact our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff, and generally we call those people smart. But at the end of the day, who do you want: the person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rattle off a bunch of facts? At the end of the day, I want the person who can figure stuff out.

And at around 1:15:

Tyson: In the schools, I don’t have a problem with the fact-memorizing. But don’t equate that with what it is to be wise or what it is to be smart. Smart should be some combination — of that, yes, but also: what is your lens on the world? How do you figure things out? And you promote that by stimulating curiosity. And I don’t see enough stimulating curiosity in this world.

Indeed. Kids should be learning not just what to think, but how to think; and as much as possible they should be encouraged to do so for themselves. And they are not served well by an educational system that emphasizes rigid rules and tests — and stifles innovation and joy as a result.

I also love this (at around 26 minutes, in the middle of a discussion of the most beautiful truths in science):

Tyson: Some of the greatest poetry is revealing to the reader the beauty in something that was so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. And so the simplicity of the universe [as revealed by Einstein’s equation E=mc2] — I think if it doesn’t drive you to poetry, it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.

Yes.

Want more? You can watch a couple other Tyson talks here and here.

(via FlickFilosopher)

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Why atheists are angry

Greta Christina gets angry, and funny, and magnificent. It’s a long talk but well worth your time, whether you’re an atheist or not; and if you’re about to bring up the usual objections like “Nonbelievers do terrible things too” or “What about Stalinism?” or “That’s not what religion is really about,” keep watching, as she addresses all these points. And, just as importantly, she makes a compelling argument for why anger is an absolutely necessary part of any social movement that wants to bring about real change.

(via Unreasonable Faith)

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True patriotism, cont’d

From the chapter “We Are Quintessential Americans” in Touré’s book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?:

Many people told me they sense in Black Americans an urge to reject America before it rejects us. I understand that. It makes perfect sense as a reaction to the past. Blacks have had insurrection in our blood because we’ve felt America’s power and hypocrisies pressing down on our necks. But is that reject-America-before-it-rejects-us ethos the most pragmatic answer for our future? Is the pessimism inherent in that ethos valuable? […]

We are American. And we are so American that rejecting this country means rejecting part of ourselves. A person who hates their family must also hate themselves, for they will surely manifest family traits. That’s a migraine-inducing sort of double-consciousness. “I don’t have hatred for white people,” Paul Mooney said, “because then I would have to hate myself.” Being an American who cannot fully love America means you cannot fully love yourself. “I gotta love these white brothers and sisters,” Cornel West said. “Even though I’ve seen some real sick ones. Gotta learn how to embrace ’em. And inspire ’em to be better.”

It may feel dangerous to love America but we must have faith. America’s story is still unfolding, its character is still forming. It’s a young nation, it’s like a teenager among nations, and we must retain hope that it will continue to mature because giving up on it is giving up on part of ourselves.

Previous thoughts on patriotism here.

(Image via Civil Rights Movement Veterans)

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“The issue is not absolute optimism, but optimism through action.”

Wael Ghonim, whose activism helped fan the flame of the Egyptian revolution, makes the case for optimism:

I believe that anyone participating in effecting change cannot be a pessimist. This is why, when it comes to Egypt’s future, I am an optimist. Revolution is a process; its failure and success cannot be measured after only a few months, or even years. We must continue to believe. […]

I am optimistic because a courageous Egyptian faced an armored vehicle and forced it to stop. I am optimistic because a group of lawyers demanded the right of Egyptians living abroad to vote in national elections. I am optimistic because children as young as 10 have taken part in the demonstrations against the military, chanting, “the people want to bring down the regime.” I am optimistic because 18 million people turned out in March to vote in a referendum on constitutional changes.

The issue is not absolute optimism, but optimism through action.

And some words that might be food for thought for the Occupy protesters as well, as that movement considers its next steps:

Beyond a demonstration or a sit-in or a march, our revolution will succeed only if we transform anger and fear into real actions intended to solve real, specific problems.

(Photo by Amr Nabil, via The Globe and Mail)

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“Anonymous extraordinaries”: Fighting for their dreams, with hearts singing

Why make the case for optimism, you ask? After listening to young people like Natalie Warne, and Courtney Martin, and Sarah Kay, and Adora Svitak (especially Adora Svitak), not to mention witnessing the courage and conviction of the UC Davis students and of young protesters everywhere, how can I not be optimistic? We’ve left the world a mess, but a new generation is taking the reins, with hope and determination and irrepressible creativity and a passion for justice and fairness. They’ll find it rough going — the status quo never changes easily or willingly — and we all owe it to them to make space for their dreams and talents; but I’m absolutely confident they’re equal to the challenges ahead. May they make the world a better place.

“In order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first.” — Adora Svitak

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“The unity and fragility of the Earth”: videos for Thanksgiving

Two videos:

One eloquently argues the need to venture farther into space, the other celebrates a spaceman’s return home. But both are strikingly united in the perspective that space travel provides: the realization of just how breathtakingly beautiful and irreplaceable our world really is, and how urgently that vision needs to be shared. Astronaut Ron Garan, who produced the second film, explains:

It was very moving to see the beauty of the planet we’ve been given. But as I looked down at this indescribably beautiful fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us and has protected all life from the harshness of space, I couldn’t help thinking of the inequity that exists.

I couldn’t help but think of the people who don’t have clean water to drink, enough food to eat, of the social injustice, conflict, and poverty that exist.

The stark contrast between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life for many of its inhabitants reaffirmed the belief I share with so many. Each and every one of us on this planet has the responsibility to leave it a little better than we found it.

Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving this week, traveling thousands of miles to come home, wherever home is. Here’s something I’m thankful for: this world, this pale blue dot, bearing the scars of all our thoughtless deeds, nourishing all our hopes and desperate dreams; endlessly varied, endlessly astonishing; insignificant and terrifyingly fragile in the vast cosmic dark, and yet for that reason all the more precious. Home to all of us. Let’s take care of it, and of each other.

Happy Thanksgiving.

(h/t Bad Astronomy. Visit The Sagan Series and Fragile Oasis for more.)

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A symptom of a deeper rot

A must-read: Bob Ostertag of UC Davis delivers a scathing condemnation of the militarization of the police, and demolishes the justifications for it:

Throughout my life I have seen, and sometimes participated in, peaceful civil disobedience in which sitting and linking arms was understood by citizens as a posture that indicates, in the clearest possible way available, protestors’ intent to be non-violent. If example, if you look through training materials from groups like the Quakers, the various pacifist organization and centers, and Christian organizations, it is universally taught that sitting and linking arms is the best way to de-escalate any confrontation between police and people exercising their first amendment right to public speech. 

Likewise, for over 30 years I have seen police universally understand this gesture. Many many times I have seen police treat protestors who sat and linked arms when told they must disperse or face arrest as a very routine matter: the police then approach the protestors individually and ask them if, upon arrest, they are going to walk of their own accord or not the police will have to carry them. In fact, this has become so routine that I have often wondered if this form of protest had become so scripted as to have lost most of its meaning.

No more.

What we have seen in the last two weeks around the country, and now at Davis, is a radical departure from the way police have handled protest in this country for half a century. Two days ago an 84-year-old woman was sprayed with a chemical assault agent in Seattle in the same manner our students at Davis were maced. A Hispanic New York City Councilman was brutally thrown to the ground, arrested, and held cuffed in a police van for two hours for no reason at all, and was never even told why he was arrested. And I am sure you all know about former Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen, who suffered a fractured skull after police hit him with a tear gas canister, then rolled a flash bomb into the group of citizens trying to give him emergency medical care. […]

These issues go to the core of what democracy means. We have a major economic crisis in this country that was brought on by the greedy and irresponsible behavior of big banks. No banker has been arrested, and certainly none have been pepper sprayed. Arrests and chemical assault is for those trying to defend their homes, their jobs, and their schools.

These are not trivial matters. This is a moment to stand up and be counted.

I urge you to read the rest here. My personal reaction to the police brutality at UC Davis and elsewhere here.

It’s not just about police militarization, of course. The images are distressing, but they’re just symptoms of the much deeper rot: the social, economic, and political imbalance in America today, and the lengths to which the powerful will go to preserve the status quo. Robert Reich lays it out:

More from Reich here.

Time to stand up and be counted.

(h/t Boing Boing; photo by Stephen Lam)

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