From Earlham Cluster Department
Thoughts on Global Crises
- In your view what are the three most important challenges society in the near term (say 50 years)? Why are each of these so important? What does science have to offer for each? What does technology have to offer for each? Your entry should clearly address which are science based and which are technology based. You can describe both science and technology approaches for each of the problems you identify.
In the next 50 years, the human race will be facing challenges dealing with the health and welfare of our planet and peoples. Scientists claim that our window of opportunity to effectively counteract the effects of global warming is swiftly closing, there is a shortage of available, clean, fresh water in many parts of the world, and diseases like cancer, AIDS, and malaria continue to spread.
Science has already done a great deal of its part in dealing with issues surrounding global warming. Scientists have tracked and measure the rising amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, sought explanations for strange phenomena such as changing weather patterns and decreasing wildlife populations, and discovered the impact of human activities on the earth and its systems. We know we must cut back on the consumption of fossil fuels and emissions of carbon dioxide, and now we must turn to technology to provide efficient and effective means of doing so. Wind, solar, and nuclear energy might all be part of the solution, but still pose problems such as waste management, expense of production versus profit, and energy distribution.
While science has provided us with a number of ways to clean water and make it potable, the problem seems to be finding ways to do it cheaply and efficiently, in order to make the technology available to people in the parts of the world that most suffer from water deprivation. Water cleaning and distribution systems must be affordable to and usable by people whose material and knowledge resources may be limited.
Finally, the spread of disease is a problem that we continue to deal with, and will in the future. While science has taught us a great deal already about the causes of cancer and the nature of the spread of AIDS and malaria, it is technology that we must now employ to develop cures and preventative measures. While we do not know how to "cure" viruses, we do know how to create vaccines to prevent them. Technology has provided us with malaria vaccinations, why can't it provide us with an AIDS vaccine? The issue here is not that we do not have the technology, but that the people with the resources to do so have their attention drawn elsewhere, usually to more economically beneficial endeavors.
The designers of the Atmosphere at London's Science Museum exhibit chose to feature several topics dealing with climate change. A separate kiosk addressed each of these topics:
- The impacts that future climate change will have on the Earth, and the choices that will be faced by the humans inhabiting it
- The Carbon Cycle
- The processes of Earth's atmosphere
- The history of climate research
- The causes and effects of greenhouse gases
The kiosks were designed to be approached in any order, and all possessed at least one interactive game or activity to supplement the informational displays. These made for a far more entertaining learning experience than the standard pictures/diagrams/artifacts with informative plaques set-up. Rather than making me feel I was being tricked into learning something, the interactive displays made the intake of information feel like an exciting process of discovery. I was really impressed with the way technology was employed in the pedagogy of the exhibit.
For example, in the kiosk that explained the sources and effects of greenhouse gases, there was a display that involved participants by inviting them to turn the blank pages of a book. Illustrations and text would appear on the screen that corresponded with the page that the book was opened to. While this may seem a bit gimmicky, I liked it because watching the technology work kept me engaged with the material much longer than I would have been if the same information was simply posted on a sign. Another favorite of mine was the game in which the player had to warm Earth's atmosphere by aiming the sun's rays through the clouds, and then holding in heat energy by moving particle in the atmosphere. This simple game was a lot of fun because it reminded me of the computer games I played as a child as well as what I already knew and had semi-forgotten about how the Earth keeps its inhabitants warm.
I felt that most of the information in the exhibit was not new to me, but it was nice to have a good number of facts and ideas packaged into a nice review that placed them into context with one another. Perhaps the most interesting to me was the kiosk about the the future choices that human civilizations will face in the future as they deal with the consequences of climate change. Strangely, this seems to be one of the topics least-addressed in the process of education about global warming. Perhaps this is because the topic is usually covered in science classes, where humanitarian concerns are not generally the focus. However, where responsibility towards the Earth might not be an argument that some people appreciate, responsibility towards fellow human beings might be more compelling. The interconnectedness between humans and Earth systems is something that is not really addressed academically until college. It would be interesting to see this become a larger part of the public conversation about climate change.
Something else I noticed about the Atmosphere exhibit was that it presented the facts supporting theories about climate change as though they were undisputed. In the United States, climate change is taught in schools as though it is a somewhat controversial issue, and something believed in only by liberal democrats. In terms of sources, most statistics and data were attributed to "scientists," as though the whole scientific community was in perfect agreement about them. I wonder if this is true, and the controversy surrounding global warming in the States is only a scientific one a a guise for political motivations.
Greenland is pretty successful in its endeavor to address the problem of climate change from scientific, political, and everyday-human angles. What allows this success is the sort of collage of story lines and visual techniques that are employed within the play. Acting and technological effects were combined almost seamlessly. For example, in an opening scene, a young woman stages a protest at a grocery store, and the wall behind her displays information about the amount of packaging and transportation represented by various food items in the store. The swift transitions between scenes also contributed to the collage effect of the play.
I do not think I really learned anything new from Greenland in terms of "facts" or further scientific understanding of the phenomenon or consequences of global warming, but I certainly benefited from seeing the issues presented by the play put in context with one another. Greenland addressed the importance of the individual world citizen's response when faced with the facts of climate change, the political and economic challenges that stand in the way of making serious progress in the fight against global warming on an international and governmental level, and the various ways that different people interact with the natural world and think about their responsibility towards the planet. The combining of all these issues, along with some scientific facts and data, was a creative and refreshing framework from which to begin thinking about problems with climate change in a new way.
Reflections on Climate Change
The we've been talking about climate change issues in this class has made me realize how useful it is to think about the interconnectedness of and the interactions between science, technology, and society. One of our initial conversations dealt with the way that science and technology are both applied to solve problems for society. What is interesting about climate change is that it seems as though society itself is a large source of the problem. Science has told us the problems and their causes, and technology has provided us with a wide variety of ways to alleviate the problems. Scientists continue to produce more and more accurate climate models and engineers continue to improve the efficiency and practicality of alternative energy. It is society that continues to drag its feet. There are those who insist that scientist are misinterpreting the data, those who simply do not want to be faced with the responsibility of trying to fix the planet, those for whom the economic setbacks that implementing serious change would involve are too great. The earth will not be the same if the predicted effects of global warming take place,and while science and technology fight to preserve teh planetary environment to which humanity has adapted itself, society seems to refuse to take its proverbial medicine. While I had previously known a great deal of the facts about the causes and effects of climate change, during this course I've gained a better picture of the the way human beings interact with science and technology in response to these facts.
While the readings and the Atmosphere exhibit at the Science Museum both made important contributions to my knowledge about and thought process dealing with climate change, Greenland was the the outside-of-the-classroom activity that best complimented the issues we've been talking about in class. Seeing Greenland at the end of the unit brought me back to one of our initial class discussions about the interplay between science, technology, and society. It really helped bring forward the ideas I've discussed above. Both Greenland and the Atmosphere exhibit invited me to engage with issues surrounding climate change on a level that, while still intellectual, was also emotional. The readings really only invited me to engage with the material academically.
Something that really struck me about the scientific discussion surrounding climate change in the UK, as I've experienced it so far, is that it seems to take place in a much less politically driven space. In the United States, there are many circles where being highly skeptical of, or even denying, the phenomenon of human-caused global warming is perfectly acceptable or even the norm. These are almost invariably politically conservative communities. There seems to be far less politically-driven debate in the UK about the validity of scientific theory regard climate change. At Earlham, the idea that humans have contributed to dangerous rates of global warming is generally accepted, and anyone professing skepticism would surprise his or her fellow students. However, Earlham is also a place where many people assume that others share their liberal political views as well. And at Earlham nestled safely in the most land-locked part of a first-world country, there still seems to be little discussion of the drastic social impacts that global arming can have. The focus is more on finding every-day answers to the question of being a responsible citizen of the globe.
Science At Kew
Kew Gardens, funded in part by the public and in part by admission fees and concessions, is not just a nice park to spend the afternoon in. It is also an employer of copious amounts of scientists, a collaborator on one the world’s largest plant catalogues, and runs a seed bank to preserve a great number of the world’s endangered plants. When I visited the Gardens, I walked through greenhouses full of plants labeled with Latin names and arranged so that their genetic relationships with each other were evident. This gave me a view into the some of the sorts of knowledge that Kew’s scientists are accumulating, preserving, and sharing with others.
What seems most important to me about the work being done at Kew is that it is preserving and discovering an important part of the world that is disappearing. The loss of plant species means the loss of genetic sequences that describe traits that could be useful natural tools. As discussed in Science Matters, the world is composed of deeply interconnected and interactive systems. It’s hard to believe, considering this, that the loss of plant species is not something that could cause the human race to suffer.
Technology and Sustainability Talk
The best things about Charlie's talk were it's optimism and his enthusiasm of delivery. Charlie is a pretty dynamic speaker, especially for a scientist, and his interest in this topic really came through in his expression and explanations. He highlighted technological advancements and possibilities that I was only vaguely familiar with and discussed how useful they could be in addressing problems surrounding climate change. I like the way his talk was organized, as well, with technologies categorized by the way they address climate change -- reduce, adapt, etc. This arrangement was very easy for me to follow and was a good way for me to mentally clump the talking points when I was thinking about them later.
The embedded and easily accessible images were also nifty, but I would have liked to see more of them, or more images in general. Something that tends to be tricky with power-points is creating one that allows you to change slides at just the right rate. If you have too little information on each slide, it's hard for people to hold overarching themes in their minds. However, lack of variety can lead to lack of attention. The embedded images seem like a good solution to this problem. You can show an image, and then move back to the original slide. I think a few more images to go along with each of the slides might have been nice, I sometimes found myself thinking, "Wow, it's taking a long time to get through this one slide. I wonder how many there are." Changing what I was looking at more might have helped with this mental distraction. The presentation had a lot of good visualizations of concepts -- graphs, Charlie's arm-span comparison to Earth's timeline, etc -- but I also found myself wondering what some of the pieces of technology he was talking about looked like. More pictures like the diagram of the open-source electric car would have been nice.
Overall, though, I enjoyed the presentation because it was a neatly packaged, optimistic, and charismatically delivered set of information that got me thinking about the future of the planet without that icky dread feeling.
Reading Response Questions
Astronomy and the Cosmos
These are my questions about the reading:
1. I'm not sure I understand part about dark matter and how we know it's there. I don't really understand the bit about the spinning particles on the edge of the galaxy. I am also wondering, even if we can't see it, would we be able to feel it, taste it, smell it etc? Also, is this the "space" that is expanding like bread dough between galaxies? How could "space" expand if it is a vacuum?
2. It doesn't seem like the Big Bang Theory really explains the beginning of the Universe. There had to be matter already in existence -- in compressed form -- in order for it to expand. How do scientist explain how the original stuff got there? And WHY did it suddenly explode?
3. The book first says that all stars go through a cycle of birth and death, but then it says some stars manage to avoid collapse. Aren't these contradictory statements?
Cells and DNA
My questions about Chapters 15 and 16:
1. The book's discussion of meiosis is a little confusing -- does one cell become four cells? Which cells go through this process to produce eggs?
2. If we've started projects to map the human genome, have we also begun mapping virus DNA? Could genetic provide a cure for the common cold, so to speak?
3. I understand how proteins are made, and that their shape determines their function, but I'm confused about where exactly in my body I can find proteins. And where do lipids come from? Why do they not need DNA coding to be produced?
The Code and Evolution
These are my questions concerning chapters 16 and 18 from Science Matters:
1. The book says that human cells can survive on their own, apart from a body. If this is teh case, why do embryos need to be protected by a womb?
2. I know there is single-celled life and multi-celled life, but I am wondering if there are life-forms made of just a few cells, like two or three? How did cells "figure out" that working together would be beneficial?
3. If radiation causes mutations in cells, could the atomic bomb potentially give Japanese people "super-powers"? Or is genetic degradation the only real result of radiation exposure?
These are my questions regarding chapter 17 of Science Matters, "Biotechnology":
1. I understand how VNTRs and STRs are measured for comparison, but what is the difference between them? What do they look like in a DNA sequence?
2. How far along is the science and the technology dealing with growing/cloning human organs? This is a totally cool idea, and I'd like to hear more about it in class because it fits perfectly with the concepts we were talking about at the beginning of the semester about the interplay between the progress of science, the capabilities of technology, and the demands and politics of society.
3. Can you explain the using-viruses-to-make-stem-cells thing more clearly, possibly with one of your nifty white-board drawings? How far advanced is this technology and how accessible is it to scientists working on projects involving stem cells?
First STC Question
See piece of paper grumpily given to you in class. Thank you.
Second STC Question
This is my response to the third question for chapter 3, "As a would-be inventor or entrepreneur, how would you go about ascertaining whether a new technology would find a receptive market?"
It seems to me that there are a lot of problems in the world that could be solved by the application of technology or technological systems that aren't being addressed despite high demand. For example, the invention of a cure or even vaccine for AIDS, or even just a more efficient means of production for currently available medication so that it was affordable to those who demand it, would be highly beneficial to huge swaths of people. Volti may be right that capitalism has driven a certain kind of technological progress, but he makes the mistake of privileged technological progress over progress in areas like social justice or equality in standard of living.
While I recognize that as an inventor or entrepreneur I would need to respect and attempt to anticipate the demands of the market in order to make a successful living, I would say that a fair case can be made that there are many instances in which the market prevents social progress in its determinations of which types of technological progress are worthy of pursuit. If I were an inventor I might see that I could make much more money developing the next generation of botox-type treatments for wealthy westerners who feel self-conscious about their appearance because advertising tells them they should. Maybe that's what I would end up spending my time on. However, that would be a tragedy considering the number of problems whose solutions are not evidently rewarded by the free market but would be drastically more beneficial to the whole of humanity.
Third STC Question
Chapter 5, "The Diffusion of Technology," Question 2 response:
Volti notes that some of today's most struggling countries are not only poor but lack the resource of human skill. With this in mind, it becomes easier to see how programs in which more economically advanced countries provide aid in the form of technological advancement might be harmful to struggling countries. First, programs like this often mean that those coming in from the more privileged country to help are the ones deciding what the struggling country's needs are. Cultural and economic differences are bound to lead to miscalculations on that front. Secondly, the act of providing technological upgrades to a society is only truly beneficial to that society if it is accompanied by the act of preparing that society to be self-sufficient in the use of that technology. The Peace Corps is notorious for installing technologies that help a community, and then setting up a permanent post for volunteers to remain in the community to maintain that technology. Rather than allowing the community to make steps towards its own success, such a practice only renders it dependent on help. Volti's example about the Japanese' experimentation with metal forging and cannon production shows that it is perhaps better to introduce knowledge and information into a community and allow it to make the technology its own. The progress may seem slower from the outside, but the actual technology being utilized is not necessarily the only measure of technological progress. The other is the technological know-how of the people in the community that uses that technology.
Fourth STC Question
Volti Chapter 7, question 4: “Who should make the decision to terminate life support when a person is in a permanent vegetative state, and has no instructions concerning the indefinite prolongation of his or her life? Should government officials, elected or otherwise, have a role in making this decision?”
Since questions surrounding the end of life can have serious moral and religious implications, I would personally feel very uncomfortable about the notion of government officials being involved in making the decision to terminate life support. I think that the separation of church and state is a good thing and should be firmly upheld. On the other hand, legislation determining who has the right to make this choice for individuals who have not left instructions seems appropriate to me. Part of what made the Terri Schiavo case so complicated was the conflicting claims and demands of her husband and family members.
Volti’s discussion of the “de-personalization” of medicine and its consequences has me reflecting on the fact that, when it comes to dealing with human life, both pure objectivism and pure subjectivism seem to result is error, and even suffering. In the case of life-support termination, this translates into the question of whether a close friend, partner, or relative of the person in question is better equipped to make a decision, since they have a fuller understanding o f the person’s own feelings as well as the value of their life in terms of communal contributions and basic humanity. On the other hand, a person close the patient in question might also be moved to make an extremely irrational choice. They might choose to cling to the body of the patient, costing lots of money and their own prolonged suffering, when the better option could be to let the patient go. Some contribution of objectivity needs to be brought into the mix. One possible option is that trained counselors/doctors be made available to the close friend or relative that has been chosen to make the decision on behalf of the patient. This counselor would provide an objective perspective and perhaps articulate the possible philosophical standpoints from which one could make the choice. A second option is that a small panel, made up of those closest to the patient, but also of doctors or some other, more neutral party, would work to reach a decision together. (The Earlhamite in me would like to propose that a consensus decision would be the only one acceptable.)
Fifth STC Question
Volti, Chaper 8, Question #1:”What are the pros and cons of patenting genes? Is it legitimate to treat specific genes or portions of genes like other inventions eligible for a patent?”
When I consider the possibility of companies and organizations having exclusive rights to pieces of genetic code, my mind quickly travels to the sorts of lovely images painted by Ray Bradburry in Fahrenheit 451 and Phillip Dick in “The Minority Report.” It seems foolish to allow a small number of people to have control over such huge swaths of information. I see the value in using it as an encouragement to entice people into doing the research and making the discoveries, but it seems like some other reward might be more appropriate.
It also seems important to point out that genes are not inventions. They are discoveries. Just as saying that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World when there had, in fact, been people living there for centuries, making the claim to have invented – and therefore earned the rights of control over – something that occurs naturally in my body, in my parents’ bodies, and in all my ancestors’ bodies before that is ludicrous. If someone comes up with a genetic sequence that does not occur in nature but that codes for something useful, I concede that they would have the right to patent it. However, to patent strings of data that one does not produce oneself but instead occur naturally in the cosmos is just silly. Volti seems to be suggesting that the outcome of such patents is simply a huge drain on the economy as massive amounts of money are paid to patent owners in order to continue that research. They are, in effect, making their own field more expensive.
Like I’ve said before, when it comes to science and medicine, I think it is naïve to believe that the market will guide research in the most practical, useful, and societal beneficial directions. The oil market and the huge impediments it posses to alternative energy research, systems, and infrastructure development is a prime example. Genetics seems like a field where the possibilities for similar problems are also huge. Being able to have control over genes responsible for aging, hair loss, or physical appearance may prove too economically tempting and detract from research into hereditary depression and breast cancer genes. Additionally, the enticing scent of huge earnings may move organizations to use their patents selfishly and irresponsibly, to the detriment of society.
Sixth STC Question
Volti, Chapter 12, Question 3: "Some social critics are of the opinion that the spread of electronic media is destroying literacy. Standardized test scores of reading and writing ability have in fact gone down in recent years. Are the new media the main cause? If so, is the slow destruction of teh printed media by the electronic media necessarily a bad thing?"
I think one of the key things we need to realize about electronic media is that, like Volti notes that printed media did in its day, it is changing the way we think. Volti discusses how printed information was largely responsible for our shift towards linear and individualistic thinking. I have heard many people, including some of my professors, complain that the rise of the internet is corresponding with a reduction of attention span among learners. Perhaps the way we search for and interact with information on the internet and through other electronic sources is changing the way we think to a less linear structure. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Thinking in a different way means looking at the world differently, and possibly finding solutions to problems that previously stumped us.
On the other hand, the idea that literacy rates are suffering because of electronic media is a troubling one to me. I love to read, and I see great value in it. I firmly believe that the ability to read and write is not only useful, but empowering. In the sea of information that is the internet, the inability to respond or speak back seems both frightening and dangerous. I have often complained to friends about the amount of atrocious grammar that I see on sites like facebook and twitter, an even blogs. However, I've always comforted myself by thinking that this is actually an indication that more people are using their writing skills; not just highly educate (sic) people who write for newspapers or books, but also people whose educations have not focused as much on reading and writing skills because they are not as important for the career paths they plan on taking. It is hard for me to imagine that people reading and writing more would actually make them worse at it. If, somehow, electronic media really is leading to poorer literacy rates, then I would propose that it does not mean that electronic media is making people less educated. It is leading them to be educated and think in a different way. Society shifts in its means of transmitting information and expressing itself all the time. Optimistically, these shifts are an improvement, or at least not making things worse. (Although, if you've seen the film Idiocracy, you'll probably be thinking, like me, that the majority decision is not always the smartest one.)
Final Paper Process
Paper Topic Proposal: Depression Research and Treatment
I'm really interested in this topic from a personal perspective, and I think I'd like to know more from a scientific and technological angle as well. Depression diagnosis and treatment seem like areas where the technology is actually ahead of the science. My current understanding is that scientists aren't really sure how antidepressants work, or why some work for some people and not for others, or why mood stabilizers can actually increase suicidal thoughts in young people. My approach for this paper would be to learn about the development of antidepressants and their cultural and social reception, as well as finding out what is available of the science behind them. I expect this may also lead me into research about how the brain works, and the chemical causes of chronic depression. I'm interested in anxiety treatment as well, but this may make the topic too broad, and I think anxiety treatment is an even newer field.
I think this is a good topic with lots of interesting material in the areas of science, technology and society; make sure to cover all three. There is science in the how the brain works, the technology that is used to modify our behaviors and how much we actually understand about how it works, and (lots of) societal issues in terms of who can afford it, how it's done, etc. Carry on!
Final Paper First Draft Due Wednesday April 6, 2011
Final Paper Second Draft Due Monday April 18, 2011
Final Paper Final Draft Due Monday April 25, 2011
The most recent draft of my final paper on depression for Science, Technology, and Society with Charlie Peck can be found here.
... or maybe you'll find this more useful.