SCIENCE AND LIFE

The good thing about science is that it is always changing. The more experts observe the world around us and try to understand it, the more they discover and share with the rest of us. From the tiniest elements of creation—the particles from which atoms are made—to the vastness that contains galaxies beyond number, the universe is filled with marvels. New living beings are frequently found in the depths of the oceans, the hearts of the rain forests, and even in our own backyards. Health and disease, gladness and depression, the quality of our environment—they all matter to us, and they all are subject to study, observation, experiment, and the other tools of science. These tools help improve our lives and our care of the world around us.

The bad thing about science is that it is always changing. Coffee and dark chocolate and red wine are bad for us, except when they are good for us. The innards of the atom and the inhabitants of this planet require further study. What seemed true yesterday might be disproved today; what seems true today might be shown to have been mistaken by tomorrow. Science itself is a useful tool for our lives, but it is only a tool. Science lacks the authority and stability to be a foundation for our lives.

When I was young, my parents invested in several series of books. They bought Funk &Wagnall’s encyclopedia set, one volume at a time. They also bought reference books on their hobbies, photography and sewing, that came out once a month for a year or two. To top it all, my parents bought the LIFE set of books about science—those colorful volumes that could be found in many living rooms and studies a number of years ago. I did a fair amount of research in those LIFE books, both for school assignments and for casual learning. As an adult, I was able to obtain a set of the same books for my family library. They look nice on the shelf, but they are heavy to move, and the science in them is old. They are useful to learn the history of science, but they cannot compete with the Internet for up-to-date descriptions of scientific theory and investigation. This reality was reinforced this month when I picked up one of those LIFE books and started reading it from page one.

This book from the LIFE Nature Library, is called “The Poles.” At describes the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the Earth, detailing climate, flora and fauna, human exploration and inhabitation, and research endeavors in the far north and the far south. I was fascinated to learn that the South Pole is colder than the North Pole because of the continent Antarctica; the ocean under the polar ice in the north moderates the temperature of the northern region. Also, because the polar ice sheet moves and shatters and reforms, it is difficult to establish the location of the North Pole at any given time—a flag planted there this summer might be several miles away from the Pole in the future. This book, which was published in 1962, has much interesting information about the polar regions, but science has learned far more information in the past sixty years. For that matter, accounts of human exploration of the north have been reviewed and found inaccurate; Robert Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1908, even though the LIFE editors were still willing to hand him the prize as recently as 1962.

Even sixty years ago, scientists studying Greenland and Antarctica had uncovered evidence that these bodies of land once supported “warm forests and plains.” This led the editors of “The Poles” to write these words in the third paragraph of their introduction to their book: “Today we are entering an era of unlimited power, when science may be able to alter the temperature balance and convert the cold regions to hospitable, productive ones. To do this would require the greatest political courage, for the rewards certainly would not be equally divided over all political borders. But if it were done, the problem of containing and feeding future generations could be solved. Unfortunately we as a nation are not yet confronted with the problem and we give it only token attention; but the world storms generated by hunger are brewing.”

Need I say more? J.

Debate analysis

The setting for last night’s presidential debate was wrong. Donald Trump and Joe Biden should not have been standing at lecterns in a sterile auditorium. They should have been seated on stools at a bar. The moderator should have been serving them each a mug of beer every thirty minutes. The conversation, rhetoric, and debate would have sounded much the same, but the setting would have been more natural—two elderly white men discussing politics, sharing their opinions and perceptions, interrupting each other—a classic American scene.

President Trump was able to use the debate to make a few statements that have been ignored and unheard over the last several weeks. He was finally permitted to explain to the American people the distinction between solicited absentee ballots cast by mail and unsolicited ballots mailed out by the thousands. He had the chance to point out that worldwide figures for COVID cases and deaths are probably not reported equally—that many more cases may exist in China, Russia, and India than have been reported. He also indicated that the harm caused by the economic shut-down—as measured in drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, suicide, and depression—offsets the lives that may have been saved through the shut-down.

At the same time, Candidate Biden was able to appeal directly to the American people, repeatedly begging them to participate in the election. This reflects the concern of Biden and his supporters that Trump is more effective in motivating people to vote, while many of those who prefer Biden to Trump might not have the zeal to cast their ballots in this election. For that reason, Biden several times looked straight into the camera and addressed the voters at home, calling upon them to be sure to vote.

Some questions went unanswered. Did Donald Trump enter office following the slowest economic recovery since 1929 and turn the country around so that (before the COVID shutdown) it had its strongest economy ever? Or did the Obama administration begin an economic upturn that continued into the Trump years but was ultimately bungled by the Trump administration?

I found the segment on climate change particularly interesting. President Trump blamed the fires in California on poor forest management and refused to address the matter of climate change causing or worsening fires. Candidate Biden insisted that building new factories with lower carbon emissions would result in fewer storms and floods, ultimately saving money. In these examples, I believe that Trump’s statements were more scientifically valid than Biden’s statements.

If the format of the debates will continue to include two uninterrupted minutes from each candidate, followed by conversation, then the moderator ought to have a cut-off switch for both microphones to enforce that two-minute rule. Donald Trump and Joe Biden will continue to pepper each other with “that’s not true” and other exclamations; neither of them is going to change style at this point in the campaign. Enforcing the two-minute rule with muted microphones, applied equally to both candidates, might benefit the production.

On the other hand, serving beer and putting the candidates on barstools would also help define the nature of these presidential debates. J.