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Hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson — Science in today’s world

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Sioux Falls, SD

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at the Boe Forum at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. All science related of course, getting sidetracked on some amusing other issues at times, but a great speech. My biggest takeaway…the need to restore humanity’s sense of wonder about the universe (and our own world).

We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.”  They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center.  They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.

Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with.  Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk.  Some of the takeaways for me:

1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country.  Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth.  The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet.  Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point.  He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds!  Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet.  In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded.  We started cleaning up our air, our water.  We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!).  The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973.  This period STARTED the environmental movement.

Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period?  All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future.  At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR.  No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness.  With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.

Star Trek depiction of Earth

Prior to the famed “EarthRise” photo from 1968 and our landing on the moon a year later, humanity had little awareness of how to even portray our Earth. As Tyson noted, up until the late 1960s and the space race, this was a typical depiction of Earth (from the original Star Trek) series. Continents…check! Water…check!! Atmosphere, clouds, and weather…something’s missing! The space race had a profound impact on the way humanity viewed our own planet

Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in.  When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through.  His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment.  But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary.  As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political.  Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are.  In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge.  You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.

Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity.  He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness.  The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”.  The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

"Pale Blue Dot", Cassini

‘Version 2″ of the Pale Blue Dot photo, if you will. This is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, looking back at Earth (the small dot in the bottom right).

Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”.  At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe.  He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body).  The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe.  On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion.  But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking.  We’re not “special“.  We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion.  In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned.  Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.

If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time.  He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.

Apollo 8, William Anders' "Earthrise"

The iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968.

New website changes, including new “Favorites” section

Elegant Trogon - Trogon elegans

This isn’t one of my best photos from a technical or artistic standpoint, but it definitely is one of my favorites! It’s an Elegant Trogon, a find from a November 2015 trip south of Tucson. One of my most memorable experiences as a birder, so it’s high-time I update my “favorite photos” section to include photos a little newer than just those from 2000 to 2010!!

I’ve been working on my main website a lot lately (sdakotabirds.com), trying to fix some technical issues, as well as address content issues. On the technical side, note my site is now completely “secure”.  When you try to access the site, no matter what you type in (“sdakotabirds.com”, “http://sdakotabirds.com”, “www.sdakotabirds.com”, etc), you should be rerouted to the safe, SSL “secured” pages with the https:// prefix.  Given that Google search rankings are now said to be affected by whether a site uses https or not, I figured it was about time to make the switch.  It should also help people feel more comfortable on my blog should they want to register on my blog or comment on a post.

I’ve also been working on streamlining my website.  When I first started making my website 15 years ago, I had a “species photo” page that showed all the photos I had for that species. You’d then click on a little image chip that would take you to a separate web page for each individual photo.  My photo collection on my website is now around 5,000 individual photos.  That means I actually have (or had) 5,000 individual pages.  It DOES help me to provide more information about an individual photo, such as details about when and where it was taken, or other anecdotal information that I may want to convey with a photo.  It’s not very efficient though!  It’s made my website massive and unwieldy, and given so many similar pages (for example, ~40 different individual pages for each of the ~40 or so Ruby-throated Hummingbird photos I have), it’s also resulted in “penalties” for how Google ranks my website.  I’m greatly simplifying the structure of my website for displaying photos.  I’m working on having each species have only one web page for the display of photos.  All photos of that species are provided on the one page, as smaller image “chips”.  Clicking on the image chip brings up the photo itself, instead of directing you to another web page that contains the photo. In progress, but it should cut down the number of individual web pages on my website by ~75%, and will make it much easier to navigate around my photo collection.

I’m also working on updating material in other parts of my website. One focus right now is my “Favorite Photos” section. It’s been a long time since I’ve updated that page, so most of my “favorites” were photos from 2000 to around 2010.  I’m updating that page right, making it 1) more “selective” in what I deem to be a “favorite”, and 2) more current, with favorite photos from 2000 all the way through the present day.  Clicking on each “favorite” will bring you to a new webpage with a large version of the photo, and a story about what makes the photo special to me. Given how out-of-date my old favorite photo section was, I hope this provides a better impression of my photography, my favorites, and what makes me “tick” as a birder and a photographer!

More website updates are coming this spring as well, including 1) new Bird Quizzes to go with the ones I already have, and completion of the individual species pages for all ~980 or so species that have been seen in North America.  If there are any other things you’d like to see on my main website, let me know and I’ll see what I can do!

Macro Quiz #1 – What am I?

Macro Quiz #1 - What am I?

What am I? Think small!  Click on the image if you want a closer view.

I haven’t posted in a few days as I’ve been struggling with a dry eye thing (I have Sjogren’s Syndrome, of which dry eye is one “feature”).  Makes it awfully hard to go out and shoot photos, given how blurry my vision can be, especially as the day goes on.  No photography, and I lose my motivation to post much on the blog. I’m starting to feel better, and hopefully it keeps trending this way, given that symptoms seem to wax and wane.

I did get out and shoot some this weekend.  Again, I’m playing with the new macro lens (Canon 100mm 2.8L IS). Hey, what can I say!!  I’ve got photos now of practically every bird I’m likely to see in South Dakota, and I admit it’s hard to get excited to shoot photos of a species for the 161st and 162nd time!  The macro thing came along at a good moment, as I can still go out and go birding, still get out and walk and enjoy nature, yet have new and exciting subjects.  I’m still mostly shooting insects, but when you start thinking “small”, there are SO many other things you can shoot.  Seeing and shooting patterns in the macro world is almost as fun as shooting lil’ critters.

With my entry into the macro world, I thought I’d start a new blog category…macro quizzes!  Challenge number 1…what is this a photo of?  At first glance to me, it could be siding on a house, but….we’re talking macro!  Think small!

Walking around in a crooked world

Crooked Sandpiper - Rotated Photo

Crooked Upland Sandpiper photo, rotated clockwise like most of my original shots.

I’m broken.  I’m talking a serious medical condition. That’s the only logical explanation.  Somewhere in the last 47 years, my internal gyroscope has broken, and I’m walking around crooked.  Or perhaps it’s just my head that’s walking around crooked.

The evidence? My photography.  I hate tripods with a passion, so pretty much every shot you see by me is taken by hand-holding my camera.  My Canon 70D does have a little sensor that can tell whether the image your framing is level.  There’s a little icon that shows up on the bottom when you look through the viewscreen, that shows whether you’re level, and what direction the camera may be tilted.  The problem is that in bird photography, it’s usually pretty fast action, and I rarely have time to pay much attention to whether the camera is level or not.

When I download my photos and start to process them, it’s obvious that I’m crooked, because most of my photos have a slight clock-wise rotation to them.  You can tell from this photo, where you have a tilted horizon and fence post, when both should be straight.

It’s no big deal from a photography standpoint, as I can simply rotate my photos a smidge once I start processing them.  What I’m really worried about is whether my crookedness is hereditary.  What if my poor son inherits my crooked gene?  Will this automatically disqualify him from many careers?  It’s hard to be an architect if you’re always crooked.  I don’t think I’d want a crooked surgeon operating on me…god knows what he/she may accidentally do.  I can only pray he chooses a career such as photography, where your inherent crookedness can be digitally fixed.

New – Major update to Bird Photography Tips pages

I admit I had been letting some pages on my main website languish for far too long.  I always upload new photos when I get them, and I’ve slowly been completing species account pages for every species seen in North America (over 820 done, “only” ~130 to go!).  Some of my other content has been static for, well…too long. One of the sections that desperately needed an update was a page I had on Bird Photography.  The page was meant to provide tips for taking photos of birds.

How long had it been since I updated that page?  Well, one section of the Bird Photography tips page discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using film vs. using digital cameras!  Yeah, it was time to update that section of the website.  I’ve extensively modified the material that was on the old page, and have added a lot of new material as well. The new Bird Photography pages can be accessed here.  The content is now broken into three sections:

  • Equipment Advice – This section provides advice on the necessary equipment to shoot photos of birds, including camera bodies, lenses, flash, tripods, etc.
  • Shooting Birds – This section provides advice on how to get close enough to birds in order to take photos, and also tips on camera settings that ensure you’ll be prepared to get the shot.
  • Photo Stories – Experience is the best teacher. This section provides stories of how individual photos were achieved, including how I got close enough to the bird, and how I used my tools to get the shot.

I hope the vast improvement in this section is useful for those just starting out in bird photography!  When I first started I was feeling my own way around and it took a while to become proficient.  I hope this information shortens the learning cycle for new photographers!!!

 

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