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Misconceptions about science fuel pandemic debates and controversies, says Neil deGrasse Tyson – CBC.ca

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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says some of the bitter arguments about medicine and science during the COVID-19 pandemic can be blamed on a fundamental misunderstanding of science.

“People were unwittingly witnessing science at its very best.… [They said,] ‘You told me not to wear a mask a month ago and now you tell me [to] wear it.… You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Yes, we do,” the American astrophysicist and author told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.

“Science is a means of querying nature. And when we have enough experiments and enough observations, only then can we say: This is how nature behaves, whether you like it or not. And that is when science contributes to what is to what is objectively true in the world.”

Tyson, who is also the director at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, is doing his part to try to make his corner of the scientific world more accessible with his new book A Brief Welcome to the Universe, co-authored with Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott.

He hopes readers can take those lessons to other scientific topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen several controversies flourish about the nature of the virus and the measures developed to fight it.

Misconceptions about how science works stems in part, he said, from the fact that it’s often improperly taught at the earliest levels of education.

“People think science is the answer. ‘Oh, give me the answer. You’re a scientist. What’s the answer?’ And then I say things like: ‘We actually don’t have an answer to that.’ And people get upset. They even get angry. ‘You’re a scientist. You should know,'” he explained.

“What’s not taught in school is that science is a way of learning what is and is not true. The scientific method is a way of ensuring that your own bias does not leave you thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.”

Big universe, simple language

A Brief Welcome to the Universe is billed as an approachable “pocket-sized tour” of the cosmos, answering such questions as “How do stars live and die?” and “How did the universe begin?”

It’s a condensed version of the 2016 edition of the book, Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour.

Welcome to the Universe: A Pocket-Sized Tour is co-authored by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott. (Princeton University Press)

Tyson and his co-authors argue in the book that astrophysics uses simpler language than other scientific disciplines, which makes it a good starting point to learn about science.

“I don’t simplify the origin of the universe and then call it ‘The Big Bang’ to you. We call it that to each other,” said Tyson. The same goes for well-known phenomena like black holes, sunspots and the planet Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, he added.

Start with those, and then you can move onto other topics, some with more complex names — such as the Coriolis force, which, among other things, explains how the Earth’s rotation subtly affects the way a football travels in the air during a field kick.

“There are simple things in science. And if you’re interested, you can then go out and learn the complex things. But I’m not going to lead with the complex things. What good is that? That never solved anything,” he said.

Many people likely know Tyson from his appearances on American talk shows, often critiquing or debunking questionable science seen in movies and other pop culture. He’s commented on everything from the feasibility of resurrecting dinosaurs, like in Jurassic Park, to the improper night-sky backdrop in the final scenes of Titanic.

Tyson, left, and Seth MacFarlane, executive producer of Cosmos, participate in the Television Critics Association’s winter presentations in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 13, 2014. (Kevork Djansezian/Reuters)

He also talks about science on his podcast StarTalk, as well as on a National Geographic TV show of the same name and another show called Cosmos.

Tyson was temporarily removed from both programs in late 2018, after accusations of sexual misconduct from two women, which he denied. Following an investigation, in early 2019, National Geographic and Fox reinstated Tyson on their shows. They did not address the allegations in their statement announcing the decision.

About Pluto

Perhaps none of the topics Tyson is known for speaking about has sparked more discussion than Pluto, the former ninth planet.

“Oh, don’t get me started,” Tyson responded immediately upon mention of the icy celestial body, which was demoted from planet to dwarf planet status in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union.

The term “dwarf planet” is relatively new. It grouped Pluto, which was originally discovered in 1930, with a number of other icy bodies larger than an asteroid but smaller in size and mass to rocky planets closer to the Sun, including the Earth.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution, enhanced-colour view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Once considered the solar system’s ninth planet, it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

“The word planet really should be discarded,” he said. “Because if I say I discovered a planet orbiting a star, you have to ask me 20 more questions to get any understanding of what the hell the thing is.”

The word “planet” comes from the Greek planetes, meaning “wanderer.” In ancient times, that included Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, but also the moon and the sun. Earth wasn’t considered a planet, because it was believed to be the unmoving centre of the known universe.

Over time, the scientific method progressed beyond that: the Earth is a planet that orbits the sun, which is a star. We now know our moon is one of at least 200 moons in the solar system.

To Tyson, Pluto’s reclassification represents the next step in our evolving understanding of the cosmos, which has necessarily become more complex.

It also illustrates a broadening of our scientific horizons that ancient civilizations might have never contemplated.

That’s why when Tyson was asked how to best answer a child’s question about things we do not know, such as “how big is the universe,” he said the best thing we can say is that we do not know.

“That is one of the greatest answers you can ever give someone — because it leaves them wanting for more. And they might one day be the person who discovers what the answer will be.”


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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SpaceX Tapped For 3 More Possible Commercial Crew Flights To Space – Forbes

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is just going to get busier shuttling astronauts in the coming years.

NASA announced it intends to issue a sole-source modification to SpaceX’s long-term contract to send astronauts to the International Space Station. This follows an agency call for proposals back in October for more flight options to send people to space.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is the other major system, is not quite yet ready for humans following a difficult uncrewed test flight in 2019 that never saw the spacecraft reach the ISS. Starliner has spent some time fixing computer glitches and other issues (including a valve problem that delayed an expected 2021 launch) and is now expecting a second uncrewed test flight by 2022.

The October solicitation, NASA noted, confirms SpaceX is the only viable choice for the time being, given the agency’s safety requirements and the need to keep the space station staffed continuously in the coming years.

“It’s critical we begin to secure additional flights to the space station now so we are ready as these missions are needed to maintain a U.S. presence on station,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s space 0perations mission directorate, said in a blog post. “Our U.S. human launch capability is essential to our continued safe operations in orbit and to building our low-Earth orbit economy.”

NASA stated it would use these new flights “as early as 2023”, and that the contract (in securing flights and allowing the agency to task personnel elsewhere) will help them get Boeing’s Starliner system ready to fly astronauts once it’s been certified.

“NASA and Boeing will provide additional updates on the status of Starliner’s next mission as we work through the investigation and verification efforts to determine root cause and effective vehicle remediation,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, in the same statement.

The latest issue holding up the flight was an oxidizer isolation valve that was found in August, and NASA and Boeing together elected to pull the spacecraft back to the hanger to figure out how to fix the issue before sending the spacecraft aloft.

Another pressing issue for NASA’s future will be extending the planned retirement of the ISS from 2024 to at least 2028, which the agency has said for years it wants to do. It is in negotiations with Congress and with its international partners to do this, and in the meantime, last week the agency also announced it has secured three early-stage contracts for future private space stations to fly late in the 2020s.

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See what food challenges astronauts face in space – CGTN America

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For the first time ever, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency hosted the Deep Space Food Challenge. 

The competition brought universities and companies together to propose solutions on how to feed astronauts on a long mission. Last month, NASA announced that the winners and one of the international winners of the Phase 1 competition came from a group of students in a university in South America. 

CGTN’s Michelle Begue reports Colombia.

[embedded content]

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Deaf researchers are advancing the field of science — but barriers still hold many back – CBC.ca

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In a scrubby patch of forest near Halifax, Saint Mary’s University professor Linda Campbell and her master’s student, Michael Smith, squelch through mud, looking for lichens. The lichens they’re after can be used as natural biological monitors of pollutants from former gold-mining sites, like this one. 

Smith lifts one piece from a branch. It’s usnea, or beard lichen, which the researchers can use to assess levels of arsenic and mercury in the air. That’s because it absorbs nutrients — and pollutants, if they’re present — from the atmosphere rather than through roots.

Campbell notes that there were once industrial devices used to crush gold-bearing ore at the site where this lichen is now growing. The lichen is absorbing mercury initially released from the ore many years ago, that is still percolating out into the environment. “What took place 100 years ago is still being reflected in the lichen,” she said.

Campbell is a freshwater ecologist — one of a handful of experts in Canada who’s studied how contaminants move through ecosystems, and how to deal with them.

But she’s also part of another minority. Campbell is Deaf, and uses American Sign Language, or ASL, making her part of a group that continues to be underrepresented in science.

WATCH | ASL interpretation of Quirks & Quarks’ Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing documentary:

Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing [ASL]

5 days ago

American Sign Language interpretation of Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing , a radio documentary from Quirks & Quarks about the underrepresentation of deaf researchers in science, and how they’re bringing their unique perspective to the lab and the field. 20:39

Transcript of Quirks & Quarks’ Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing documentary

A report from earlier this year by the Royal Society in the U.K., for instance, noted that while about one per cent of the population is deaf, the percentage of STEM undergraduates in that country who are deaf has stagnated at just 0.3 per cent for the past decade. And, a 2017 U.S. study by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes found that, overall, Deaf people obtain lower levels of education than their hearing peers.

In Canada, there is little formal data, but, anecdotally, Campbell knows of only five other deaf STEM university faculty members.

Campbell attributes the underrepresentation to barriers erected by attitudes among hearing people. 

“When science looks at that as an added cost, and added labour, to include people with disabilities, they’re not recognizing the differences and the successes that can be brought — that diverse thinking can be successful.” 

Barriers rooted in education

Alex Lu recently graduated with a PhD in computer science from the University of Toronto, where he studied Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Lu is Deaf, and uses sign language and lip reading, as well as his own voice.

Growing up, Lu says he always felt comfortable as a Deaf person, but found that hard to reconcile with the attitudes he encountered in his university education. He found people were used to teaching and learning science a certain way — which didn’t always involve working with Deaf people or ASL interpreters.

“I think I’m the first Deaf person in my program. So there was a whole bunch of confusion about how you get ASL interpreters and how they work in classes. There were a lot of professors that had never interacted with an ASL interpreter, or a student that uses an ASL interpreter,” he said.

AI researcher Alex Lu, who is deaf, said that he faced obstacles in his PhD studies at the University of Toronto due to the complications of getting ASL interpreters and instructors who were inexperienced in interacting with deaf students. (Submitted by Alex Lu)

“And then when you start looking into that, you start realizing, well, here are all of the barriers in the way that we’ve been educating deaf people.”

Some of those barriers can be traced back to the fact that, from the late 19th century to the early 1960s, sign language was often forbidden in education, as people believed it prevented Deaf children from learning speech. 

ASL often not built for science

Today, there are few Deaf researchers working in academia, which has led to a problem: much of the technical and specialized language used in STEM hasn’t made its way into signed languages such as ASL.

When there are no signs, interpreters may use fingerspelling — spelling out each letter of a word — or the sign for the word in general English, which can be inaccurate.

Colin Lualdi, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studies photonic quantum information. He said the lack of useful signs can be frustrating and tedious for deaf students, and can produce misunderstandings.

One example was the term “degeneracy,” which he encountered as an undergrad. His ASL interpreter signed using the English word meaning to get worse over time. In fact, in physics this actually refers to two systems with the same amount of energy.

WATCH | Physicist Colin Lualdi defines the physics concept of ‘spin’ in ASL:

[embedded content]

“And by that time, I realized we needed a new sign for it, in order to support the concepts that were being communicated,” he said.

Since then, Lualdi has joined a collaboration between Harvard University and the Learning Center for the Deaf to create signs for terms in quantum science. One of the signs the team has worked on is for electron; the current sign has an index finger circling a closed fist, representing a nucleus.

“It implies that you have an electron always circling a nucleus, right? But that’s not always true,” he said.

Instead, Lualdi and other project members have proposed a sign with just the index finger moving in a circle. 

WATCH | Physicist David Spiecker demonstrates the proposed new ASL sign for the electron:

[embedded content]

They’re now in the process of disseminating this sign and others, as well as syntax the project has been working on to improve communication of physics concepts, to see if they’ll be adopted by the broader community.

Either way, Lualdi says they’ve already made his own work as a scientist easier.

“Everyone wins when we have an improved framework of language and, and the process becomes much more efficient.” 

Bringing a unique perspective to fieldwork

Outside of physics labs, being Deaf in science can present its own challenges and opportunities, as it did for Barbara Spiecker. She came to love fieldwork while pursuing her masters degree in marine biology.

Spiecker, who is now doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said her experience as a Deaf scientist, and a user of ASL, have honed her powers of observation, and provided her with a different lens to view the natural world. 

During her PhD fieldwork, marine biologist Barbara Spiecker said her advisor was concerned that because she was deaf, it would be unsafe for to work in wet and slippery intertidal beaches. (Submitted by Barbara Spiecker)

“It’s very 3D based, a lot of what I do, and ASL is a 3D language. So often hearing people, when they research, have a different frame of how they see and interpret the world, and what they research. So, that’s what I bring to the table,” Spiecker said.

But Spiecker says being Deaf hasn’t always been seen as a strength. For the first two years of her PhD program, she was not provided an interpreter, which meant she missed out on learning opportunities. Spiecker says she had to fight hard to not have the cost of the interpreter pushed on her lab, which would have cut into their research budget and discouraged them from hiring Deaf students.

“That was quite the battle — if that was allowed, then I wouldn’t have got my PhD.”

In fieldwork, too, she encountered attitudes that could present obstacles. At one point, her work involved extended time on the seaweed carpet of the potentially treacherous intertidal zone. Advisors and potential employers expressed doubt she could be safe in the water.

“I [was] like, ‘there’s really no difference, you probably aren’t relying on your hearing at that point, either.’ My eyes are very vigilant in these situations,” she said.”It just took a little education and explanation, to help them realize there’s really no difference.”

The value of different perspectives

But Alex Lu says there is a difference in once important way — in that Deaf scientists, by virtue of their life experiences, contribute different perspectives.

“The value of having disabled people in science, and marginalized people in science isn’t that you just want to get people who are uniformly going to be superheroes or anything like that,” he says. Instead, he says what’s important is that “we contribute perspectives that are different from mainstream science.”

Back at the former gold mining site, Linda Campbell says science is strengthened by having more people contributing diverse perspectives, such as the issues she works on, challenging legacy contaminants affecting ecosystems.

Beard lichen has no roots and absorbs nutrients from the atmosphere. Since it also will absorb airborne pollutants, ecologist Linda Campbell studies it to determine whether old industrial sites are continuing to emit toxins into the atmosphere. (Moira Donovan/CBC News)

“We’re building many lines of evidence for the research and the potential risks of the tailings and how to manage those risks,” she said. When barriers prevent Deaf scientists from contributing to these kinds of challenges, she said, “you’re losing that whole group of people who have such intense, powerful skills that can advance the field of science.”

And the fact that some Deaf scientists have managed to work and advocate their way into positions working on environmental issues and other aspects of STEM doesn’t mean that the barriers have been removed — instead, she said it should be seen as inspiration for work that is still to come.

“There are many, many more people that could be successful and could contribute to science and make the planet a more healthy place. But they just can’t, because of those very barriers imposed on them,” she said.

“‘If they can do it, you can do it’ — that’s not it. It’s more that ‘they could do it, so we can find a way for you to do it, too.'”

Written and produced by Moira Donovan

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