Message from beyond focuses on scientific discoveries

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Guest column by Joe Wolf

My laptop is channeling Carl Sagan. With auto-correct changing my sentences and random freeze-ups deleting my drafts, he is skillfully guiding my words from the great beyond.

Carl Sagan was an extraordinary American astrophysicist who died in 1996. During his career, he championed science as he took on everything pseudoscientific from UFOs to ghosts.He promoted a way of knowing the physical world that is based on evidence – the scientific method – and in doing so he inspired many to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, now often called STEM.

Now it’s as if his thoughts radiate from the glowing power button on my laptop like some benevolent HAL 9000. I know that I am tapping the right keys but I keep seeing “ke-t-le-bu-ng”on the screen. I’m curious what that means. What is Carl trying to communicate?

Since his death there has been a glut of pseudoscience and maybe he can’t rest. You don’t have to look far to see strange foot baths that cure every disease or celebrities claiming that vaccines cause autism. Some forms of pseudoscience are harmless, even fun as science fiction, but others are downright dangerous. Imagine what your family would look like today without vaccines.

No, I think Carl is trying to communicate something bigger. ke-t-le-bu-ng! Maybe his mysterious message is about curiosity itself? ke-t-le-bu-ng! ke-t-le-bu-ng!

One of our country’s greatest national treasures is the curiosity of its people. It was the force behind westward expansion, moon landing, launch of the Hubble space telescope and every exploration in between. We are a country that grew up along a frontier and we can’t help but wonder “what’s over there?”with each new border.

In the past, the U.S. scientific community showed the world that microchips, quarks, cancer genes and many other exciting discoveries were “over there.”

As proof of curiosity’s importance to our way of life, consider Thermus aquaticus. This humble single-celled bacterium evolved in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Here, far removed from Dr. Sagan’s Cosmos, a microscopic universe of life exists. Curiosity about what’s in those hot springs led to the discovery of a microbe whose heat-stable molecules are now used in diagnostic labs across the country.

OK, the message has something to do with curiosity. Maybe more clues can be found in his last book. In “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,”Carl Sagan compared science to a fragile light that can penetrate the darkness of our lack of understanding to reveal the workings of nature.

AHA! I understand it. The message Carl is sending us is “keep the candle burning!”

We’ve all seen the data. In the 2011 international science achievement tests, U.S. eighth graders placed 10th. One more example of how we’ve become complacent about science education at a time when we’ve never been more dependent on technology. This is very dangerous. ke-t-le-bu-ng! If the light goes out, our nation will be left in the dark.

We need to stoke the candlelight into a raging bonfire. In a very real sense our prosperity depends on the light of science and the curiosity that feeds it. One way that light will grow brighter is with the STEM education reform currently being adopted state by state.

The Next Generation Science Standards will measure the learning of science content and applications across grades K-12. This upgrade will help ensure graduates know core ideas and how to apply them, often in interdisciplinary ways.

This is an important refocusing, one that acknowledges that some of the careers our graduates will enter don’t exist today but all will involve science and technology and require strong preparation.

Postsecondary institutions, like Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, must continue to nurture curiosity by offering challenging STEM coursework, public lectures and community programs. In fact, all Americans have a role to play in heeding Carl’s call to action. We can all do something to fan the flames.

We still live on the edge of a frontier, the greatest frontier of all – the universe. Secrets, in both the heavens above and the earth right under our feet, still wait to be revealed.

We, as a nation, need to discover them first.

This is a frontier filled with wonder, not danger, and it is safe to take the kids along.In fact, it is imperative that we take the kids along.

OK, message received and relayed. My laptop has never worked better. Now, though, my cell phone is receiving hang up calls from 010-101-0101. Hello, Isaac Asimov, is that you?

Joe Wolf, Ph.D., is a microbiologist and an assistant professor of biology at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College. He can be reached at jwolf0015@kctcs.edu.