Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Of Universes, Demons, and the State of Education with Thanks to Carl Sagan

Note: the video above is based on the following essay. The video is not finished, but the audio is, though the quality is not too good and I may have to redo it.

Also, check out this blog to see the first 5 minutes of Sagan's Cosmos series and many other clips: http://www.myspace.com/carl_sagans_cosmos
Make sure to also check out Celebrating Sagan, a Blog-A-Thon aimed at getting as many people as possible to share their memories about him on the 10-year-anniversary of his death.

Originally written in March of 2005 in Peyton, Colorado.

If you've ever seen the COSMOS series or read the book by Carl Sagan, I highly recommend his more recent (1996) book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

I'm reading it right now and see it as a true beacon of light for clear, rational, critical thought.

It's tempting to want to believe that UFOs are really alien spacecraft with little visitors, because it's interesting and mysterious.

It's tempting to think that by sitting around and praying or by performing group meditation that we can affect physical, measurable change in the external world, but what do true, peer-reviewed, independent, double-blind, studies say about such activities?

It's tempting to believe that demons, fairies, pixies, goblins, ghouls, cyclopses, gods, goddesses, supermen, and of course leprechauns really exist, but where is the incontrovertible evidence, the same type of which you would demand be presented by the car salesman claiming your SUV vehicle will get 30MPG?

In this book, Carl Sagan lucidly and elegantly lays to rest many of these ideas, while showing parallels between the modern obsession with aliens and the time-honored traditions of angels, demons, and flying creatures. He points out that the US government in 1994 admitted that the "Roswell Incident" really was a crash of a balloon that had sensitive surveillance equipment that was supposed to help detect Soviet nuclear detonations, not an alien crash. Despite this, a TV show called "Roswell" was launched later than this date based on the alien premise. I happened to enjoy the show because the girls were good looking.

He also calls out the alarming drop in the quality of US student abilities in math and sciences compared to other nations. After presenting the following excerpt, I will explain why such a trend is a terrible indicator for the future of this nation and why I believe we must do everything we can to subvert this trend.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter "No Such Thing as  Dumb Question"

Every now and then, I'm lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists -- although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism. They're curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I'm asked follow-up questions. They've never heard of the notion of a "dumb question."

But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize "facts." By and large, though, the joy of discover, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They've lost much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism. They're worried about asking "dumb" questions; they're willing to accept inadequate answers; they don't pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers. They come to class with their questions written out on pieces of paper, which they surreptitiously examine, waiting their turn and oblivious of whatever discussion their peers are at this moment engaged in.

Something has happened between first and twelfth grade, and it's not just puberty. I'd guess that it's peer pressure not to excel (except in sports); partly that the society teaches short-term gratification; partly the impression that science or mathematics won't buy you a sports car; partly that so little is expected of students; and partly that there are few rewards or role models for intelligent discussions of science and technology -- or even for learning for its own sake. Those few who remain interested are vilified as "nerds", or "geeks", or "grinds."

But there is something else: I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world's birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation and ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: "What did you expect the moon to be, square?" Children soon recognize that this type of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experience like it, and another child has been lost to science. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I can't for the life of me understand. What's wrong with admitting we don't know something? Is our self-esteem so fragile?

What's more, many of these questions go to deep issues in science, a few of which are not yet fully resolved. Why the Moon is round has to do with do with the fact that gravity is a central force pulling toward the middle of any world, and with how strong rocks are. Grass is green because of the pigment chlorophyll, of course --we've all had that drummed into us by high school -- but why do plants have chlorophyll? It seems foolish, since the Sun puts out its peak energy in the yellow and green part of the spectrum. Why should plants all over the world reject sunlight in its most abundant wavelength? Maybe it's a frozen accident from the ancient history of life on Earth. But there's something we still don't understand about why grass is green.
"It's Official," reads one newspaper headline: "We Stink in Science." In tests of average 17-year-olds in many world regions, the U.S. ranked dead last in algebra. On identical tests, the U.S. kids averaged 43% and their Japanese counterparts 78%. In my book, 78% is pretty good -- it corresponds to a C+, or maybe even a B-; 43% is an F. In a chemistry test, students in only two of 13 nations did worse than the U.S. ...

He goes on to cite that many Asian students do much better in math, but say they are NOT GOOD at math, but the Americans students say they are pretty good.

Why this Trend is Horrible for Your Future, American, Whoever You Are

At this point I want to outline why such a trend should trouble each and every American, especially the younger you are, since presumably you have that much longer to live in this country.

First, the Knowledge you Refuse Will be Lorded Over You Eventually

This is a simple principle that we can illustrate with a simple thought experiment.

Scenario Background

I'm really 27 as of this writing, but imagine I am a 16-year-old student about the enter the 11th grade in the year 2005. I was born in the year 1989 and from my youth, I remember thinking about the year 2039, because in that year I knew I would be 50 years old.

"Wow, 50 years old," I thought, "I will have my own house, multiple cars, my own boat, and my own home-theatre by that time. I will also have a big phat-azz bank account, fo'shizzle."

In my 11th and 12th grades, I decide to play around, and not take any accelerated courses, because I don't want to be burdened with the trials and tribulations of studying hard and sacrificing television time. Despite this unwillingness to study hard and sacrifice, I continue to envision that 50th birthday as nothing short of a party on my boat with all my rich friends.

But, years go by and I start to notice that the Asian people around me are getting high-paying jobs. I ask them what they studied and find they learned things like "computer science, electrical engineering, finance, quantum physics, etc." They start leaving the US and going back to their countries, and I watch the nightly news and learn that some of these Asian countries are building sophisticated communications networks, nuclear weapons, or that just about every single electronic device I own, including the TV I watch for 5 hours every night, the Laptop computer I play video games on, and even the shoes I wear were manufactured in these countries.

I think to myself, "So, what? The companies are still American, we are just having the labor performed in the other countries because its cheaper and more cost-effective for the American company." But, over time, say by 2019, only 20 years until I crack 50 and smash the champagne against my boat, there become more and more well-known universities with basic research programs located in China, Korea, India, and elsewhere. And, commensurate with this, more and more companies are not just manufacturing goods there, they are actually run and owned by residents of those countries. In fact, some of the CEOs and other top executives were the very same Asian kids I saw in my schools in America many years before, when they were the ones taking all the advanced classes.

in 2019, I decide to survey once again the intellectual landscape of America, and see that it has continued to decline, while other nations once again have continued to ascend. At this time, it becomes plain to me and all others with two eyes, that the great work-ethic that once was the American trademark has faded into oblivion.

At the age of 30, I look back and see that the past 150 years have been both a success and a failure. The success came from the many years of American ingenuity and hunger for intellectual challenges, leading to many advances in basic research including the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, business, psychology, neuroscience, manufacturing, etc. But, with this success came an excess. The excess was the culture of convenience and instant-gratification. From my hindsight-is-20-20 vantage point in 2019, I can clearly discern that what at the time seemed like surely the definition of ultimate freedom is not what it really seemed:
  • No need to care about how my Walkman works; Sony already did it for me.
  • No need to understand what bits and bytes are in my computer; Intel already did it for me.
  • No need to learn what cell-phone technologies are; Verizon already did it.
  • No need to care about the how something woks, SO LONG as I have it in my possession, I don't care.
This culture of convenience actually turns out to become the ultimate curse. Because, in my leisure and my consumption of all the wonderful devices and gadgets manufactured in other countries, I neglected to see that all the knowledge was slowly being transferred right out from under my fingertips to large clumps of minds gathered in other nations. where all those hard-working "nerdy" Asian students were busily learning computer science and quantum physics, while I enjoyed my Walkman, my TV, and my laptop, but also elected not to learn about how to make them better, but instead was concerned only about my personal enjoyment.

This is the fortune and the misfortune of having been the best. As Americans, we enjoy so many comforts and luxuries that have come as a result of our own intellectual successes, but the expense is that we take it for granted that these comforts will always be available. We do not struggle to learn more. We do not strive to think deeply, to tune our attention span to more than 15 minutes.

But, there are people who are striving to learn new things, and striving to become more knowledgeable about things that already exist. Many of them have come from other nations to study in this country. Some of them go back home. Some of them stay here. But, American students are going to have to start paying attention and making the grade.

Scenario Implications

And, what happens if American students continue to simply refuse to challenge themselves to learn mathematics, science and engineering? Well, in addition to what is briefly narrated above, consider this list of just 10 devices that all require mathematics, science, and engineering:
  1. Automobile engines
  2. Aircraft engines
  3. Boat engines
  4. Computer assisted weaponry
  5. Televisions
  6. Cellular Phones
  7. Computer Hardware
  8. Computer Software
  9. Computer Network Infrastructure Components (HUBS, ROUTERS, FIBEROPTIC CABLES)
  10. Medical Equipment (Drugs, Imaging Equipment)
Each of these objects requires several levels of planning, design, and construction, including:
  1. Functional Requirements analysis -- What must it do?
  2. Compositional Requirements analysis -- What is it made of? Physics, Chemistry, Biology
  3. Manufacturing Requirements -- How will it be made? Where will we get the parts?

    And finally, the most important that ties all of them together:
  4. Workforce Requirements -- Where are the human beings who know the Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Logistics, Informatics, Computer Science, Finance, etc to accomplish what we want to achieve?

The Componentization of the Production Line

Of course, many products are assembled with automated, mechanical systems that have been designed to take the place of manual laborers. So, sometimes the last step is not to look for human beings to do the physical work, but to find the human beings capable of designing or putting together the automated systems to do the physical work.

Automated Production Lines

This is especially important, since the human beings must be capable of higher and higher levels of abstracted thinking as more and more of the physical labor has been componentized and black-boxed into pluggable parts. It takes well-educated, expansive-thinking human beings to survey the landscape of available technologies and methodologies and pick and choose how to combine all those options together to accomplish the physical work.

Automated Information Services

In the realm of information sciences, it is very similar, except the "product" is really an information service, the output of which is the proper presentation of information in varying formats that is readable to both human beings and other automated systems.

If American Students Continue to Refuse to Challenge Themselves

If American students continue to refuse to acquire the skills in mathematics, science, and engineering, then these higher level functions will be filled by people who do know -- people who are not American.

What will Americans then Do?

This is not to say that Americans will all lose jobs. Let's think about it for a second. Right now, we still enjoy having a high degree of intellectual capital in these areas. We still have some of the best universities and best companies, so we have a lot of high level knowledge. This means we have the intellect to be able to both create new ideas for products and services and manufacture or implement them. A very general flow from idea conception to product production or service implementation is something like this:
  1. Ideas are hatched through university research or corporate research
  2. Ideas are further experimented on by research and development teams
  3. Ideas are concretized into possible products or services by businesses
  4. Businesses begin to manufacture products or provide services based upon specifications
  5. Consumers make purchases
Now, consider it is the year 2039, I've just turned 50, and the decline in American student abilities and drive has continued. Where does this leave a country of more than 300 million people in this chain?

How about step 1? Idea Conception

Well, the students stopped caring about math and science, so it is impossible for them to conceive of innovative ideas for research.

How about step 2? Idea Refinement

See the failure in step 1.

How about step 3? Marketable Business Idea Creation

See the failures in step 1 and step 2.

How about step 4? Rote Following of Orders and Specifications to Implement Passed Down Ideas

This might work. Assuming the motivated students in other countries have gone to the trouble to do 1, 2, and 3, we may still be able to follow orders from specifications. We may be able to operate the machines that the people in other nations designed for us to operate in order to produce the goods and services that they dreamed up and designed. Referring back to Sagan's commentary about the studies:

But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize "facts." By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They've lost much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism.

This fits well with an envisioned future wherein the American workforce becomes the implementers of the specifications that are handed down from other nations. We'll take the specifications, the machinery, the "facts" that are given to us, and implement as needed, but all the intellectual capital will remain in the other nations.

This is a sobering, sad, vision, but it's reality. If American students do not embrace the challenges of learning these difficult fields, then other nations will, and what will happen is that people in other nations will become the business owners, and they will "farm out" work to the unskilled labor in the United States.

Do I think it has to happen this way? I surely hope not.

My Own Experience

As for me, the above narrative is somewhat my story, but somewhat not. I studied hard, though not as hard as I know I could have. I did not do as well as I could have in high school. I only excelled when I got to college. In college, I challenged myself to take the most advanced courses within my degree program. My program was a combination of business and technology, and I focused on system analysis and design of automated computer information systems. This included taking three C++ programming courses, in which I saw very few American students. There were a large number of Asian students, both male and female.

Moral of the Blog

The moral of the blog is that we all are responsible for our own futures, and collectively, as Americans, we have to embrace learning, before someone else embraces it and we have no intellectual capital left to bargain with.

We have to take responsibility. We have to become smart again.

Addendum: 5/15/2006

COSMOS by Carl Sagan Cosmos Video Clips:

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