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Songs ‘Bout Science: Space Edition

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Songs about science are kinda my specialty. That and mushrooms. In this series, I’ll share some of my favorites with you, one subject at a time. 

1. Jonathan Coulton- I’m Your Moon

(Video is ASL translation by CaptainValor)

Let’s start with a love song to Pluto from Charon, its moon before losing planet status. As Coulton likes to explain at concerts, the two revolve around a fixed point between them while also being tidally locked, meaning they spin together like a pair of ice skaters. Yeah, it’s okay if you tear up.

2. David Bowie- Space Oddity

The classic lonely astronaut song. Also the first song I ever learned on guitar. Thanks, Papa Feltman!

3. Peter Schilling- Major Tom (Coming Home)

I’ve always preferred the original German version of this riff on Bowie’s character, but the English was more popular in the US. There’s also a great cover by Shiny Toy Guns, and a really terrible one by William Shatner that I can’t condone listening to.

4. They Might Be Giants- Why Does The Sun Shine?

Okay, so it’s not strictly the most correct explanation, but we all love the original more than their correction.

5. Symphony of Science- A Glorious Dawn 

I love all the Symphony of Science series, but this is probably my favorite. Featuring the words of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

6.  Peter Mulvey- Vlad the Astrophysicist 

Almost forgot the best one. This song sums up everything I love about the grandiosity of the universe we live in. Enjoy.

Thesis Time #5- A Foray into Science Education

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I somehow overcame my inherent fear of high schools, and protected by only a suit of business casual armor I stood in front of twenty-odd sophomores to teach them about science communication. The fact that this had been my high school, if only for a year, made me all the more nervous. This was the kind of miserably urban place where a student had to swim against the tide to succeed. I was only nineteen that morning, but I dressed to be mistaken for thirty. The thought of being mistaken for a student and treated accordingly terrified me. When I was fourteen, a security guard knocked me face-first into a wall as he rushed to break up a fight. 


When I saw the students, my anxiety evaporated. Here were the boys trying to keep their grades up so they could go to Florida for spring training, the girls popping bubble gum, the angry daughters of alcoholics and the struggling sons of migrant workers. They reminded me of the friends I’d left behind when I’d run from Vineland High. I wanted to leave them with something valuable. I needed to give them something I hadn’t gotten, something I’d run away looking for. 


My Powerpoint was bare-bones at best, but I managed to talk to them for the full forty minutes of their class about how important it was for them to understand scientific information. Scientific literacy, I pressed, wasn’t about memorizing the periodic table. Scientific literacy meant being able to understand information that was presented to you. It was about being able to process information for yourself. We don’t all need to know how a jet engine works, but we should know enough about the laws of physics to understand that magicians can’t actually make things disappear. Being scientifically literate means that you’re that much harder to fool. 


You all write lab reports, I said, so who can tell me what they’re for? Silence.


There are several acceptable answers, and “because our teacher makes us” is not one of them. Science, I explained, is a field in which results must be reproducible. If something happens once and never again, it might as well not have happened at all. The lab report is designed to allow someone who wasn’t looking over your shoulder as you performed your experiment to reproduce it on their own. Its purpose is to explain the purpose, method, procedure, and outcome of what you’ve done in the lab. 


Lab reports, I told the students, evolve into research papers. Those dense, scary–looking articles (not that any of these students had ever seen one) are really just high school lab reports on steroids. The purpose is still the same. A researcher needs to make others understand their research, or it doesn’t count. Did they really think that scientific discoveries just happened, and were never questioned? Yes. They did. 


In every class, there were at least three students who seemed fascinated, asking question after question, polite if not enraptured. There were also at least three in every group who put their heads down and fell asleep. The rest filled the entirety of the spectrum between two extremes of public education, dividing their time between my voice and their chipping nail polish, pencils digging dirt clods out of a prized pair of Nike sneakers. 


I told them stories about “science” articles that had been published by idiots or liars, leading thousands of readers to false conclusions. Did they understand, for example, the implications of a newspaper article claiming that vaccines could cause autism? Here was an instance where fear-mongering had sold a lot of papers and caused the deaths of innocent children. The misunderstandings could layer upon each other to the point of disaster: A reporter misreads a scientific paper, passing along a hysterical article to his editor. The editor reads what he wants to, either missing the lack of evidence or ignoring it in his rush to publish. The reader takes this information for granted, as do hundreds of other writers who cite the article as a source. Some readers take the information to heart, and decide not to vaccinate their children against diseases that they feel aren’t a threat. A parent assumes that polio no longer exists, since they’ve never known anyone with it, not understanding that this is the result of an extremely effective vaccination program. Their child contracts polio, facing life permanently disabled. Their infant cousin, under the age when the vaccine is recommended, catches the virus from them and it spreads through their nursery school, causing a dozen deaths.


A dramatic example of the misuse of science by the media, but not a fictional one. 


I pointed out how little politicians even talked about scientific issues to the press during elections. I asked them to think of popular culture that presented science, or even scientists, in a positive light. No one could name anything more recent than Bill Nye, but they were just old enough to get nostalgic over him. Until that moment, most seemed to have forgotten how much they’d once loved watching a guy in a bow-tie talk about science on TV every afternoon. 


I’m not proud: I looked for a good angle to use to get to them. I told jokes, I talked about science as if it was a great way to fight “the man” (which, hey, it is), and I flaunted my young-adult knowledge of their favorite shows and pop-icons. While throwing out the names of some prominent science communicators, I introduced Stephen Hawking as someone they’d probably seen on The Simpsons a few times. Sure enough, they knew who he was in that context. Did they know he was a physicist, or that he’d survived to age seventy with a disease that should have killed him by thirty? No, but they were fascinated to learn. 


A boy asked me if writing about aliens counted as “science writing.” However facetiously it was asked, it was an excellent question. Sure, I said, as long as some research went into the speculation. Did he know that Stephen Hawking loved talking about aliens, and time travel too? I was practically drooling at the prospect of getting him interested in something specific, but he thought I was joking. Scientists, he’d always been taught, were serious, boring people who crunched numbers and poured chemicals into test tubes all day. They didn’t use their scientific knowledge to dream about the unknown. I promised him that Stephen Hawking did more than stare at the sky and see balls of gas: He stared at the sky and saw infinite possibilities. I directed the student to the proper literature. 


I don’t think I changed any lives, but over the course of the day I got to teach over one hundred students something new. If half of them were listening, that’s fifty sophomores who learned something. A small and yet staggering feat in the world of science communication. 


That’s all I was hoping to do. At the end of every class, I played a Symphony of Science video on YouTube. The videos take clips from interviews and lectures of famous science communicators, then use auto-tune software to create music from them. In one clip, Neil DeGrasse Tyson spoke about the fact that we all contain molecules that were present at the birth of the Universe: “I know that the molecules in my body are traceable to phenomena in the cosmos. That makes me want to grab people on the street and say: ‘Have you HEARD THIS?” In the video, he shakes an imaginary person violently, shouting in excitement. I know that feeling all too well. You don’t have to know these things, but you should. I wanted to grab each and every one of those students and tell them, one on one, exactly how much the world could open up to them if they made it their business to understand science.


I wanted to tell them how beautiful the world looks to me now that I understand even the smallest fraction of how it works.  


Thesis Time #4- Journey to the Center

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 Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 

I did this profile as part of my application process for a fellowship to attend the 2012 AAAS meeting in Vancouver. Once I made it to the great white north, I got to write a piece that you can read on the NASW website

In a tiny liberal-arts school tucked into the mountains of Western Massachusetts, Michael Bergman is studying something he can never see, touch, or take a sample of. Unlike some researchers, he isn’t trying to change the world. In fact, he’s trying to figure out what the world’s been doing for the past 4.54 billion years or so.

Bergman, a professor of Physics at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, studies the behavior of the earth’s core. An undertaking of such magnitude would usually only take place at a larger school, one with hoards of graduate students to hire and well-funded labs to work in. At a typical research university, professors in charge of experiments won’t even teach classes. Bergman chose a different path, and has spent nearly two decades as both a teacher and researcher at a school with fewer than four hundred students, none of them above the undergraduate level. When asked about this choice, Bergman is quick to point out that he’s not at such a disadvantage.

“For one thing, I enjoy teaching,” he said in a recent interview, “and it’s important to realize that teaching classes doesn’t preclude research.” While the pace of his research is necessarily slower than those who can run six or seven projects at a time, it seems that the balance between teaching and research is one that he finds easier to maneuver than most. Bergman regularly teaches two to three classes a semester in addition to lab sections. In recent years he has taught Physics I and II, Quantum Physics, Intro to Robotics, and several advanced classes focusing on higher physics and statistics. He has also led lab sections for a seminar course on climate change, a class often taken by students without previous background in the sciences. Despite having a course load no lighter than the average Simon’s Rock teacher, he also finds the time to continue his personal research.

Bergman currently focuses on the solidification and deformation of the earth’s inner core. Seismic waves have shown us that beneath the rocky crust and thick mantle, our planet’s outer core is liquid iron. The inner core is solid, despite temperatures that may be close to the sun’s 5505 degrees Celsius, because of its incredibly high pressure (over 3.3 million atm). The inner core has the property of seismic anisotropy, or variation of seismic wavespeed with direction. When passing through the earth, seismic waves move faster from north to south than they do from east to west. Bergman studies the cause and effects of this property, which stems from the alignment of crystals in the core. The solidification of the inner core from the outer core may be the primary energy source for the fluid motion that ultimately creates the earth’s magnetic field, which we know surprisingly little about. While Bergman can’t point to any immediate or obvious applications of his research at this point, he knows the project is important in its own right.

“I found it fascinating that we didn’t know anything about how the magnetic field of the earth is generated,” Bergman said of his first experiences with geology as an undergraduate student at Columbia University. “I thought it was something worth knowing.” After earning a Ph.D. at MIT in 1992 and serving as the NATO fellow at the University of Glasgow, Bergman began his current study of fluid dynamics and magnetohydrodynamics (the study of fluids that conduct electricity, like electrolytes or plasmas) at Harvard University for a year before taking a job at Simon’s Rock. He attributes his continued support, which includes laboratory resources from Yale and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well as fourteen years of continuous three-year grants from the National Science Foundation, to good grant writing and determination. He’s been published over a dozen times during his employment at Simon’s Rock, including twice in Nature, once in 1997 and once in 2010.

“Luckily, this is a field where working at a slower pace is okay,” he said, shrugging off the idea that he faces a disadvantage. In addition to one postdoctoral assistant, Bergman hires several members of the Simon’s Rock student body to help him with his research each summer. Most of them are only qualified to do the simpler tasks in the lab, like measuring out samples and running repetitive tests on the mass spectrometer. These students require his constant guidance at first, but Bergman doesn’t seem to mind. “Some students are able to work with me for three or four of their years here, and with time their investment in the project grows, and they can work independently. It’s great when that happens.” When it doesn’t, Bergman just continues to do what he does best. His work might be easier at a massive research university, but Bergman wouldn’t have things change.

“Besides,” he says with a grin, “It’s just so much fun.”