Saturday, August 26, 2006

What the US is not Importing.

The US is not importing the wisdom, intelligence and hopes of other countries.

This is because, in part, we US citizens have had it drilled into our skulls since we were kids that the US leads "in everything" and it is the job of people in other parts of the world to copy us and learn from us.

I watched the movie "The Right Stuff" the other night. It struck me how astonished US leaders and the US public were in the 1950s and early 1960s that the Soviet Union (or well, anyone but the US) was the first society to launch a rocket into space, launch an orbiting satellite into space and put the first human into Earth orbit (Yuri Gagarin). Why should this have been so surprising?

Since before Dmitri Mendeleev (who invented the Periodic Table of the Elements), Russian people have long been adamant and successful at pushing the boundaries of science and applied science. A bunch of Prussian and Germanic folk (Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel, Ernest Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg) and a Russkie (George Gamov), an Italian (Enrico Fermi) a Dane (Neils Bohr) and a Brit (Paul Dirac) developed the physics which made nuclear power and space travel possible. A Brit (Charles Darwin) developed the only viable explanation for biological evolution. Another Brit, Newton, developed a coherent theory of gravity and motion. A Scot, James Clerk Maxwell, developed the unified formulae for electricity, magnetism and light. A Frenchman, Becquerel, discovered radioactivity. A Polish woman, Marie Curie, isolated radium. A Belgian monk, Gregor Mendel, discovered inherited traits and genetics. The list goes on, with apologies for those individuals and nations not mentioned.

So why was the US in the late 1950s so astonished that another country would be first to conquer space? Isn't that like a Boston Red Sox fan being astonished that the New York Yankees know how to hit a home run, throw a curve ball or steal second base?

Any nation, or its leaders, can be enablers or disablers of its citizens' ability to become educated in science, mathematics, biology etc. Hitler's irrational hatred of Jews cost him World War II by driving out the country's best and smartest scientists, thus depriving him of nuclear weapons. Joseph Stalin horrendously retarded his country's intellectual growth by slaughtering anyone he thought an enemy. Mao Tse Tung: same thing. Pol Pot: same thing. Joseph McCarthy: same thing. Strom Thurmond: same thing. Augustus Pinochet: same thing. Fidel Castro: same thing. Mobute Sese Seko: same thing. P.W. Botha: same thing. Robert Mugabe: same thing. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi: same thing. Saddam Hussein: same thing. Nikolai Ceaucescu: same thing. Idi Amin: same thing. George W. Bush: same thing?

Ahh ... good ole GWB. Doubts evolution. Doubts the physical effect of greenhouse gasses. Can't explain why. Doesn't offer any competing scientific theories. Won't produce a presidential science advisor to do the same. Cannot express. Can only suppress. Don't know much about history. Don't know much biology. Don't know much about a science book. Don't know much about the French I took. Thanks Sam Cooke.

GWB is the first US President since when (Andrew Jackson? Andrew Dice Clay?) to not commit the US to a serious program of scientific advancement; and adopt a leadership role in that effort by declaring the importance of science and science education. Take that back. Ronald Reagan expressed almost no interest in science or funding for scientific advancement, except for Star Wars and other secretive military uses. Like GWB, Reagan displayed throughout his life a marked lack of personal interest or curiosity in any facet of science.

This is distressing if only because Washington, Jefferson and Franklin were active scientists and science enthusiasts. All three conducted and reported their own observational experiments, avidly read the scientific publications of their day and debated the theories therein, and said scientific education and advancement was a cornerstone of the American experiment.

So where to? Unlike the US presently, most other countries on Earth are committed to the principle of scientific education and scientific advancement as a cornerstone of their elevation to "developed" nation status. They take science seriously. Not just applied science, but basic science, which is the source of applied science.

Science is like sports. You are a Yankees fan. I'm a Red Sox fan. Yankees and Red Sox meet for 5 games in August. Yankees shellac the Red Sox five games straight. Same rules, same bat, same ball, same 9 people on the field. Yankees sweep. Nobody argues about the "meaning" of the game. Nobody argues about "how do you define winning anyways?" The Red Sox don't go to court to seek an injunction against the Yankees in the 7th inning of game four. The Red Sox don't "deny" they got their butts whupped. They take it.

Science is like sports. It contains a ruthless fairness. Whoever puts up the best game is the winner -- until someone else knocks them out. The rules are the Scientific Method. Anyone, even the guy at the pizza shop, is welcome to devise a way to falsify Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. If he can do it, show his data, and it is reproduced by other scientists, then that guy kicks Einstein's butt.

The world supremacy the US has enjoyed since after World War II is solely due to science. The US is now losing it, like a guy with a trust fund blowing it all on booze, cars, chicks, coke, Quaaludes, bad stock investments and shiny, ugly furniture.

Basic problem. Americans think science is for nerds who can't get dates. Americans think high school sports have meaning. What meaning? Nobody in their right mind would encourage a 10th grade boy to spend all his time in an activity that has a 1 in 10,000 chance of producing a viable career upon graduating (girls are excluded because all true sports fans know that girls sports anfter high school are beneath them. get married and have a baby). Plus all sports, even for the 1 in 10,000 who actually make it to the professional level, leave you physically crippled and unemployed by your late 30s if you're lucky. And searching for a "new" career. Usually at a car dealership. With a mullet.

I cannot here even fathom all the reasons, and roots for those reasons, why Americans find science and learning in general so distasteful and well ... un-American. Suffice to say it exists and is the dominant influencing force in our culture. A lazy way to explain it is that Americans are lazy. Learning physics and math feels like work. It's so ... serious. It's not ... fun.

I like to ask people at night at an unguarded moment to look up into the sky and name me a few stars, a few constellations. They can't. How about the Pole Star? The Big Dipper? Can't. I mention that people 3,000 years ago could do it lickety split. The response, if any except hostility, is that ... well ... we don't have to know that stuff now. People back then did. Or something.

Here's another one. Point to a tree. Name it. Not Bob. Maple, pine, oak, birch. What? No response.

Another one. Pick up a rock. Name it. Sedimentary, Igneous or Metamorphic. No response.

Something closer to home. What is a cathode ray tube? No response. It's a television screen.

Something closer to home. What is a microwave? No response. It's a stretched out light wave.

Something closer to home. How does a refrigerator make things cold? No response. When pressure is relaxed in a compressed gas it becomes colder.

Something closer to home. Where does your tap water come from? When it goes down the drain, where does it go? No response.

If you ask these basic questions to most Americans they will immediately become hostile because they do not know the answers. They become hostile because they know deep down they should. Americans don't like feeling dumb or being treated as dumb but they are too lazy to make themselves less dumb. So hostility and denial are the paths of least resistance.

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