Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Science Page 2 of 10

The Persistence of Memory

The Jane Mutiny celebrates The Beatles at WXXI. Photo by Sandy Embury Gianniny.

 
Connie Deming was playing at the Little Café Saturday night when a stranger came up to me. “I loved your stuff,” he said, and handed me a glass of wine. That’s been happening a lot since I got laid off by the local newspaper on Sept. 16. It seems like half the city is trying to get me drunk.

But I’m pleased they remember.

I’ve been writing a lot. Reading. Cooking. Doing laundry. Getting my web site updated. And going out. At Connie’s show that night, My Friend Bob told me about how he was walking through his living room while his granddaughter was watching television. Supergirl was on. Supergirl, Bob noted, has pierced ears: “How do you pierce Supergirl’s ears?” And yes, Bob’s right. If you’re aware of the Super family genes, bullets bounce off of these people. So how do you poke a hole in Supergirl’s ear lobe?

How could the writers of the show not remember that? Bob did. And he’s not even a fan.

WXXI was putting on a Beatles celebration later that night, showing the documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, followed by a half-hour live broadcast of the Rochester band The Jane Mutiny playing Beatles songs. “Across the Universe,” “Hey Jude” and a nice version of “Blackbird” that was hard to categorize; a little pop, a little R&B, a little soul. Everyone at the studio was remembering The Beatles, who haven’t been a band since 1970. My Friend Ken was talking about how he’d been going through some things at his mother’s house and found his old Beatles bubble-gum cards. He seemed a little more excited about it than a middle-aged man should be.

Mom’s been visiting this past week. I picked her up in Cleveland and, on the drive to Rochester, slipped a CD into the player. It was a new release, Triptych, a singer doing old songs with a big band. Mom loved it. She wanted to buy the record. All week she’s been talking about it, except she can’t ever remember the singer’s name. “Who’s my new favorite guy?” she keeps asking.

“Bob Dylan, Mom.”

She’s 88 years old, and doing pretty well. But we have some odd moments. When she visits, Fox News is off limits. I’m dismayed at how those people have distorted the worldview of this otherwise nice old lady, although she does seem to have finally accepted the news that Barack Obama was not born in Kenya. When Mom’s brain is not cluttered up with weird conspiracy theories, she does display an unexpected ability to recall ancient facts.

“Remember that little girl who disappeared in Cleveland?”

“No. Recently?”

“A while ago. Beverly Potts.”

I fired up the Google. And there she was, dozens of posts about Beverly Potts. Wikipedia, even:

Beverly Rose Potts (born April 15, 1941) was an American girl from Cleveland, Ohio, who in 1951 became the subject of a famous missing persons case when she disappeared only a few blocks from her home, after attending a show in a nearby park. She has never been found and her disappearance remains unsolved.

Mom can’t keep Bob Dylan’s name straight, but she remembers the name of a little girl who disappeared 66 years ago.

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Living a fantasy life can be a killer

Richard Martinez had an easy excuse if he had fallen into an absolute, sobbing despondency;  his 20-year-old son had been murdered in a shooting and stabbing spree last weekend in California. Instead, Martinez was a mix of appropriate emotion and room-silencing coherence as he spoke to a gathering of reporters. I have never heard the case for gun control stated so fiercely and eloquently:

“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’ right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”

And when the cable news cameras move on to the next ratings-handy tragedy, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre will emerge from his dark world and continue to proclaim: “The best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

It’s an empty catch phrase. As are the words of lunatic Republican icon Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who wrote in an open letter to the families of the shooting victims, “your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

So I guess we’ll all just have to bite the bullet. To underline the national paralysis brought on by our inaction, we only have to turn to this headline from the satirical web site The Onion:

“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

This most-recent giant tragedy (remembering that every day there are hundreds of small tragedies) reminds us that Americans live in in the midst of arrogant, self-absorbed fantasies. Not just the socially inept, woman-hating rich kid who went on the Santa Barbara killing spree. But all across this country, where technology and education allows us access to the truth, too many of groups choose to embrace dangerous nonsense.

Climate-change deniers. There’s a figure tossed around that 97 percent of scientists agree that humans are altering our planet in ways that endanger not just polar bears, but civilization. Now it seems that 97 percent estimate is incorrect. With the release last week of the more studies on what’s happening to the polar ice caps, glaciers and whatever indicator you care to measure, it’s now virtually impossible to find a reputable scientist who isn’t alarmed by the data. So where are the climate deniers getting their supporting facts from?

Critics of Cosmos. After each week of the acclaimed TV science series, The Flat-Brain Society issues a statement decrying some comment by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Rushing to the defense of their literal interpretation of the Bible that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Or refuting the contention that evolution is not just a theory, but an actual scientific process, like breathing. To combat science, common sense, and what lies plainly before anyone’s eyes, they quote the Bible. That’s all they have, a book of stories passed down from generations of unknown men wandering the desert for a few centuries.

The Supreme Court. In upholding the right of Michigan institutions to ban laws implementing affirmative action earlier this year, the Supreme Court majority flat-out said that racism no longer exists in the United States. And then the gods, who entertain themselves by watching our amusing displays of hypocrisy, promptly sent us the news-ready racists Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. Bundy, an Arizona rancher, quickly became a spokesman for anti-government goons, who seem to think a man can pay no heed to the law if he has enough guns. What a world that would be! The side with the most guns wins! It’s a Wild West fantasy. And we have to wonder what fantasy the other NBA team owners were living in as they ignored the previous, well-documented racist acts by Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers.

Birthers and other conspiracies. There is a birth certificate. There is a notice in the 1961 Honolulu Advertiser and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin announcing the birth of baby Barack Hussein Obama. Why won’t the birthers go away? And who are these people who insist the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre never happened? Or 9/11 was an inside job? Or continue to chase Benghazi? Or still insist that the IRS supposedly targeted conservative groups for investigation, when the evidence clearly shows otherwise. The ill-informed cadre of fantasy players breast feeding these bogus babies does not care how hurtful those insane conspiracies are to the families of the victims, Or how much time and money is wasted by public officials when they could be addressing real issues.

How about giving us a scandal that’s not a fantasy? Ben Carson, regarded as a rising star in the Republican Party, actually welcomed news of the Veteran’s Administration scandal, a true scandal, where administrators were found to have falsified records that showed wounded soldiers were forced to endure excessively long waits before treatment. “I think what’s happening with the veterans is a gift from God,” Carson said, explaining that the VA revelations cast light on the dangers of socialized medicine. Anyone else want to live in a universe where God tortures wounded soldiers to make a political point?

The news media. Why don’t we fact check anymore? When someone says that raising the minimum wage will hurt the economy, why isn’t that statement immediately rebuked with studies by the majority of reputable economists who dispute that myth? Why is someone allowed to make the claim that American values are pro-gun, pro-life and anti-gay marriage, when polls show that most Americans think otherwise?

She’s not a doctor, but she could play one on TV. How is it that actors such as Alicia Silverstone and Jenny McCarthy can campaign against getting your child vaccinated, because they think those medicines will expose him or her to autism? They’re not doctors. And doctors don’t believe you should skip your kid’s vaccinations.

Maybe it’s the Internet that feeds these fantasies. I’m not so sure we’re too far past the days since the Cath0lic church would put a man to death for believing that the Earth revolved around the sun.

You may think it doesn’t matter that all of these folks are peddling fantasies. But Congressman John Boehner said something interesting yesterday: “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

He’s not qualified. Yet he has control of how we’re dealing with the problem.

Climate change, gun violence, racism, the economy and health all need to be addressed in a serious manner. Because living in a fantasy world is actually a very dangerous place to be.

Evolution vs. creationism: A Ham on Nye sandwich

A handful of science Grumpycats warned Bill Nye to not do it. Don’t get onstage and debate that creationist guy. It’ll lend credibility to the anti-science crowd.

Nye went ahead with it anyway. Tuesday night he crawled into the den of ignorance, defending evolution against Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, right there on Ham’s home turf. A so-called learning center in Petersburg, Ky., that suggests dinosaurs and humans once lived side by side. For me, this was must-see Internet.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is one of my heroes.  He speaks truth to lunacy.

For more than two hours, in what was generally a civil debate, Nye and Ham went at the question of whether Ham’s claim that creationism is a realistic explanation for the existence of mankind. The combatants each got a five-minute opening statement, followed by a half-hour slot to plead their case. I’ve included the entire video here, including the 13 minutes of pre-show New Age music to calm you down.

Ham started, and presenting a slide show of murky logic, the most obvious point being his contention that there are two kinds of science: Observational science and historical science.If I understood Ham correctly, observational science is what scientists can see today. Historical science is stuff that happened in the past. Since we’re not there, he argued, we don’t really know, do we?

The yawning hole in Ham’s logic here is enough to sail an arc through: If “not being there” refutes scientific data – such as counting tree rings to see how old the tree is – doesn’t that also refute using The Bible as a historical record? It isn’t an extemporaneous document. It’s authors didn’t know Adam and Eve.

Nye countered with fossils, geology, the stars. Science facts that add up to the Earth being 4.6 billion years old, not the 4,000 to 6,000 that Ham believes it is, as a literal interpretation of The Bible suggests. Nye went after the physical impossibility of a worldwide flood, and the logistical improbability of a Noah’s Ark. He pointed out that the sharp teeth of lions shows they weren’t vegetarians during Noah’s time, as Ham claims. The further Ham got from his opening half hour, the more ragged his argument grew.

The final portion of the debate was questions from the audience. They were a tough audience. They wanted to know, how do life forms develop a conscious state? Nye admitted he didn’t know some of these answers. He didn’t know what was there before the Big Bang, and the creation  of the universe. No one does, he said.

“There’s a book that has the answer,” was Ham’s reply to those big questions.

Bill Nye the Education Hero said several times during the debate that we can’t allow a generation or two of American kids to go though school with an improper science foundation. We’ll fall behind, he said. We must invest in research. America must continue to innovate. Faith and religion can be a wonderful thing, but they doesn’t create life-saving medical procedures. They don’t create the Internet, they don’t create the advances in farming that allow the Earth to feed seven billion people. The Bible may be inspirational literature, but it doesn’t have all of the answers. Moses wasn’t splitting atoms.

The scientists who pissed and moaned about Nye going onstage with a creationist don’t understand that he’s standing up to forces that want to spend our increasingly limited resources on religious dogma. And it has to be their religious dogma, not that of any of the thousands of gods who have walked the planet for centuries.

Nye is standing up to the people who would cut NASA funding in favor of vouchers for charter schools whose curriculum are irradiated with dubious academics. The anti-science Neanderthals are dangerous. Today, one out of every three Americans do not believe in evolution.

What was perhaps Nye’s most-brilliant comment of the night seemed to pass unnoticed, after he admitted we don’t have answers to many of the world’s mysteries. Some day, he insisted, perhaps we will, if we keep working at it. Nye came off as a man delighted by the wonder and mysteries of the universe. Ham, as he pointed out, is simply satisfied with the answers that he reads in The Bible.

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