Monday, April 26, 2010

The Universe vs 3 Minutes

Last Friday night I went to see BLAST! (Balloon-Borne, Large-Aperture, Submillimeter Telescope), a documentary about the launch of a balloon carrying a telescope into space in order to collect data about the origins of the universe. I originally learned about the film after hearing Paul Devlin, the film's creator, and his brother Mark Devlin, a Ph.D cosmologist, interviewed about it on Science Friday. Although having missed the first screenings of it here in New York City, I was able to put myself on an email list for future dates, and Friday, one finally came my way.

My email said that the film was going to be shown at Revolution Books, in Manhattan. I went to their website to see where they were located, and did a quick "scroll around," never having heard of them before. With $10 and their address in hand, I eagerly set out to finally see BLAST! the Movie. Who knew it was being shown in a Communist bookstore? Not me, although in hindsight, perhaps I should have suspected.

Revolution Books is a very small, lovely bookstore on West 26th Street. The movie was starting at 7, and I was a few minutes early giving me time to browse around, and of course buy a book, (When Abortion Was a Crime; Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973, by Leslie J. Reagan.) The light was slowly dawning as I read the posters, tee shirts, pins and bumper stickers throughout the store, some of which I very much agreed with, that this was not some quaint little bookshop. Who isn't for equal rights for all? Who isn't against the suppression of women, or doesn't want our environment saved? These were all concepts that I am not only familiar with, but that I support. However, there was also a bit of literature with the word "atheist" on it, which I thought was a bit unusual.....but I was still not getting it. It wasn't until the sales woman put my book in a red bag, that I was pretty sure about the political leanings of this particular establishment.

The sales woman was much more talkative then I'm used too.... a bit overeager.....asking what I did for a living, commenting on my choice of the book I was buying and asking if I wanted to be on their email list. I almost felt as if I were being recruited.....which made me decidedly uncomfortable. However, I was there to be entertained, with the added bonus of being able to hear Paul Devlin speak about the movie and take questions afterward. Therefore, I wasn't taking seriously any attempt to convert me to Communism or enlist my help in starting a revolution.

Having heard the Sci Fri interview, I was familiar with the movie and after finally seeing it, loved it. It's a wonderful portrayal of science and how absolutely cool it is, as well as the scientists who are involved in it. Not only were you seeing how this telescope was developed and put together (and yes, there was duct tape!), but you were also afforded a personal view of the sacrifices that were made by family members of some of those scientists, who if not in Antarctica launching telescopes, might be circling the earth in the Space Station, or perhaps trying to create black holes to suck all of humankind into at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN (I'm kidding about the black holes. I think they only want to see a small one.)

For the first time I can honestly say that I understand what a light year is, and I also finally get how looking out into the distant universe, can help us to understand how it came to be. There were a few, very brief discussions about the religious views of Barth Netterfield, BLAST Canadian Investigator, who is a Christian and one of the films principal scientists, and more specifically his belief that what they discovered, reinforced his belief in God. Mark Devlin on the other hand, was not a believer, and I would venture to guess that the majority of science people out there in the world today are not believers in a God.

This was not a science movie that debated religion....the debate was in the room afterward. I was annoyed that the atheists in the room were completely intolerant of Netterfield's views. Devlin admitted that when he found out that Netterfield, was a Christian, his first thought was "ah...controversy...good for my movie!" Yet in many ways, maybe not so good.

According to Devlin, there is a total of 3 minutes of "religion" in this entire movie, and that 3 minutes has caused great controversy here in the states and also in Revolution Books. After having watched the movie in a communist bookstore, it was interesting to see first hand the opposite of religious fundamentalism....which I guess could be called atheistic fundamentalism.

Those who respect science here in the US, are very annoyed by "the creationists" or the Christian Right.....and therefore go all the way in the other direction when running into a scientist who believe in god. Of course George Bush made the whole issue worse during his eight-year-too-long reign as king and basher of all things scientific. Just the fact that we teach children in some states "Intelligent Design" along side EVOLUTION astounds me. Let's just ignore all the SCIENTIFIC PROOF about how the earth evolved and teach something that has no basis in fact whatsoever!

I was not stuck on the 3 minutes of religion like some of the others....I just enjoyed the story and thought that it was a great example of cool science and even cooler scientists. We need people in this country to become more science literate....there is an alarming segment of the population who really do believe that the universe is only 6 thousand years old. Carl Sagan believed in a higher power, yet he was a scientist who believed in evolution. I just don't think that any of us has the right to impose our views on others, no matter what those views are.

(Yes, I was very anti-Sara Palin and was proclaiming that quite loudly from my soapbox at the time, but I was not trying to recruit people to my anti-Palin cause. I was just expressing my opinion about what a poor choice she was on McCain's part.)

Because I'm a social worker of sorts, I have difficulty with people who are intolerant of the views of others, no matter the direction, Christian, Muslim, or, there were two stories going on last night...........the BLAST! story......and the story about the intolerance in the room of those who were watching it. It also filters over into intolerance in the science community too though. Because of those 3 minutes, there are many educational and scientific arenas where this great, great film will never be shown.......yet, when you consider the bashing that science has taken in this country in recent years, I can honestly not blame them for being overly sensitive to those 3 short minutes.

Religion not withstanding........if you have the least little interest in cosmology, find a way to check this film out. I promise it will be well worth your time.

Pictured: Paul Devlin, speaking at Revolution Books in NYC

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Shark Lady

I realized last Monday night while sitting in the audience at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), that I probably would not have made a very good marine biologist......and to think that for years, it was what I told everyone I wanted to be.

The presentation was by Sylvia Earl, aka "The Shark Lady," and she's been around a long while.
The NYAS has been running a series of lectures given by women scientists, to encourage young women scientists, and those of us chicks who just have a general interest in science. Of course there are men at these lectures too, but the focus is on women who have become scientist and how their interest was nurtured to allow them to become successful in their chosen career.

Sylvia Earl is the
Jacque Cousteau of women a friend recently informed me. I had no idea. My interest in marine biology was so long ago, that I can't say I've kept up with the times at all. Although I was there having bought the series of tickets, there were women in the audience who were obviously thrilled to be there, and upon approaching the microphone at the end of the lecture to ask questions, positively gushed, while telling Sylvia what a huge influence she was in their lives. (Many of these women were very knowledgeable about sharks too.)

Perhaps if it had been
Jacque Cousteau I would have been hugely impressed, and I feel awful and disloyal saying that I knew so little about one of my own gender who is so obviously well known and respected in the field of marine biology. Heck, the woman has done all kinds of stuff for National Geographic and the American Museum of Natural History, and holds the record for the deepest dive by a women (I believe).............I should be more impressed!

However, whether or not I was impressed
isn't the point, what is, was my realization that my long ago dream would probably not have ended up being a career path I would have wanted to stay on. Sylvia was quite excited to describe in detail what it was like to, oh..... dissect a shark to see if it gave birth to live young, or released eggs. It was at that moment it dawned on me that I would not have liked doing that. I hated dissecting frogs in middle school and fetal pigs in college! Sylvia talked about peering into the murky water at a NYC aquarium while growing up, and wanting to be in that dark green water for real. Probably not something I would have enjoyed either. In retrospect, I think I might have made a kick-ass marine ecologist or environmentalist. But, we'll never know. I'm a's what I do and will probably always be what I do. Perhaps in my next life some new career path will could happen.......