The View From Here

Not Necessarily Smarter Than the Dinosaurs

Written by: developer

Of the many extraordinary things that could be said about last month's meteor strike near Chelyabinsk, Russia, perhaps the most remarkable was the fact that so many people needed to have someone explain to them just what a meteor is.

I know that in many parts of the world, scientific literacy is appallingly low. As chief executive for an organization that works tirelessly to improve that situation, I'm also keenly aware that the U.S. has become one of the most technically enabled scientific illiteratocrocies in the world. But, seriously, we don't even know what meteors are any more?

There were a lot of cool things about this meteor and this event. The fact that its fiery, explosive demise took place over a populated area meant that there were many cameras recording the event. It was first detected over Alaska, about 4,000 miles away. Scientists estimate the meteor was about 50 feet in diameter and traveling about 40,000 miles per hour when it burst over Russia in a 470-kiloton explosion. Also very unusual was the property damage and number of injuries caused by the blast.

So with all there is to talk about, what does it say that the first question out of the mouths of the media is: "Just what, exactly, is a meteor?"

I wish I were making this up.

In any particular instance like this, it is tempting to point to the collapse of journalism in the digital age. As media companies have consolidated, or simply gone out of business, science specialist reporters in the mainstream media have largely gone the way of the dodo. Even fairly technical journals no longer have the depth and breadth of science reporters they once had. Your average television network or major market newspaper has fewer reporters, and, often, no one covering the science beat. Everyone is counting on everyone else to get it right. Ironically, we now have more news reporting (re-reporting, actually) than ever before, but less news origination. And forget science reporting - that's just too hard.

But everyone should know what a meteor is. How can you even graduate from high school without that knowledge?

All too easily.

Shocking Literacy Statistics

The National Math + Science Initiative recently published the following bleak data, chronicling the continuing decline of U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) literacy:

  • Only 45 percent of 2011 U.S. high school graduates were ready for college-level math.
  • Only 30 percent of 2011 U.S. high school students were ready for college-level science.
  • Only 27.6 percent of AP test-takers in the class of 2011 earned a qualifying score on a STEM exam.
  • Only 27 percent of 2011 test-takers took an AP science exam and only 26 percent took an AP math exam.
  • Although the 2010 U.S. high-school graduation rate was the highest in 35 years, the nation has slipped in international rankings from having the highest graduation rate to 22nd place.

This is not just a crisis in our schools. It is a crisis in our society. When only a quarter of your population is facile with science, bad things happen - for example, you get a member of Congress who believes the Earth is only 10,000 years old; who is promoted to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, to the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. Shouldn't we require some grasp of science and understanding of the scientific method of those who wish to govern over such things?

If faith in a mythical Flying Spaghetti Monster subjugates your rational acceptance of physics and other sciences, shouldn't you look for another committee to serve on? As my friend Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has famously said: "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

If the National Math + Science Initiative data is to be believed - and, it is data rather than a faith-based statement, ergo it is what it is  - then we are rapidly running out of people who are equipped to challenge bad journalism or bad government (at least where science is concerned). This doesn't just imperil the budgets of NASA or the National Science Foundation. It puts our entire society at risk.

In this matter I find myself siding, as I frequently do, with founding father Thomas Jefferson, who said in a letter to George Wythe dated August 13, 1786:

"I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness . . . Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people."

Let's Get Back Our Mojo

If we can regain our math and science mojo, and become once again the kind of educated citizenry that Jefferson opined, then we'll all know what meteors are, and we'll all understand what's going on here.

The data says, for example, that the Earth has been struck by meteors large enough to leave evidence of their impact more than 30,000 times over the past 2,300 years. Using mathematics, we can calculate that the Earth's oceans, which do not record a geologic imprint of a meteor strike, probably have absorbed another 90,000 such impacts. In the same period of time, human population has increased from less than 200 million to more than 7 billion.

Clearly, assuming a constant rate of bombardment from space and continued growth in population and population density on the planet, we can confidently extrapolate increasing risk to property and lives. Fundamental science and math are all you need to understand that Meteors = Danger.

Don't even get me started on asteroids.

We might want to start investing a bit more aggressively in planetary defense.

The View from Here is that everyone needs to be able to do the math and understand the science. Otherwise, we're not necessarily smarter than the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous-Paleogene era - whose walnut sized brains proved quite problematic when an asteroid-induced dark winter covered the Earth.

This article is part of Space Watch: March 2013 (Volume: 12, Issue: 3).