Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Further Ruminations on the Demise of CXC Astronomy

When we left off in the earlier blog, I had exposed for readers one of the worst ever astronomy questions conceived by an examination board. I suggested then that this sort of specious question paved the way for the downfall of secondary school astronomy in the Caribbean.

I now go into this issue in further depth, because I believe the questions from the 1978, -79 exams were largely spawned from two syndromes that permeate education in the Caribbean. I am also convinced that the moronic 1979 CXC question on Velikovsky was either inspired by Reay’s article, or perhaps even co-authored by her, while she was imbued with one or both syndromes.

Now, what about these two syndromes? The first, seen time and again, is peculiar to the parochially grounded educator who dares not venture too far out of his or her cubbyhole of solar crop driers, agriculture, or chemistry test tubes. One sees conference presentations and publications of such inundated with their sort of thinking- such as The Proceedings of the Science Education for Progress – A Caribbean Perspective, published in 1979. In paper after paper we’re warned not to venture too far from what the students know and can sensibly access. Thus, astronomy is on the margins for these educators, and moreover, they won’t be overly invested in preserving it as a bona fide subject.

The other side of this same syndrome’s coin is the epithet of “star gazer” used throughout Caribbean Society at anyone who might pursue astronomy. The phrase is usually dispensed in a patronizing manner by some low level or other bureaucrat (or maybe an engineer) who fancies himself superior because he’s grounded in the “real world”. By contrast, the star gazer has his or her head in the clouds, and can barely function enough to tie shoe laces, far less perform one single practical task.

My point is that people afflicted with this syndrome will have little problem dismissing a subject they don’t take seriously to begin with – far less the subject’s earnest purveyors and practitioners.
On that note, I conjecture that one reason for astronomy’s downfall as a secondary school subject was because perhaps half of those entrusted to teach it were of the parochial, anti-“star gazer” mindset. If this was even at a superficial level in their minds, they might not even be fully aware of participating in the passive sabotage of their astronomy teaching. Nor might any examiners be directly aware of their similar role in setting examination questions.

The second syndrome is what might be called “superstition mindedness” and best evidenced in the hyper-religiosity that permeates many Caribbean nations and the attendant world models that are predicated on it, which hold belief in much higher esteem than empirical inquiry. As I documented in Chapter Five of my most recent book, this emerged time after time in questions asked after the astronomy workshop sessions, in both Guyana and St. Lucia. What stood out was the one teacher who asked if astronomy might undermine belief in God! If this is the primitive, associative level at which a teacher’s mind works, the chance of her teaching stellar magnitudes or Kepler’s laws (say the second or areal law- see diagram) with any coherence is somewhat remote!

Then there was my own experience with the schizoid character named "Nelson" encountered in the St. Lucia CXC Teachers workshop. A brash physics teacher who attempted to pick apart the scientific basis of astronomy in the very first session, yet declared his Bible up as the source of all truth – including a man able to remain 3 days in a whale’s belly, or another guy stopping the Sun by blowing a trumpet. (If this character had actually applied some of his physics, he'd have learned that if such an even occurred, all the Earth's rotational energy would've been converted to heat melting the Earth's crust!)

And finally, there is the UWI educator Judith Reay, who somehow thinks Immanuel Velikovksy was on to something because he (like the creationists and latter day Intelligent design crowd) embraces the assumption that the Bible is a foundation and guide for valid testing and scientific truth, whereas the actuality is much more complex.

What can we say constitutes a good hypothesis, say in the scientific sense? How would a rigorous procedure work to vindicate a proper hypothesis for a claim? You have data, and accessory information which leads to some initial result which tests a particular hypothesis, call it 'x'.

Let’s take the example here that : x = “the Sun is a variable star”, i.e. it varies in its luminosity or energy output over time. You then acquire better data (perhaps because of refined instruments, techniques ) and are led to a modified (improved) result such that:

x (n+1) = x + P(x)

This might read, based on our example:

“The Sun is a variable star which changes energy output coincident with the numbers of its sunspots”

Here the additional term “P(x)” embodies the sunspot component for energy. A good example of this emerged during a specific period (1645-1715) over which there were very few or no sunspots. The interval, called “the Maunder Minimum” featured much colder than average temperatures which also adversely affected crop outputs. Cooler temperatures have also been found over the last 5 or 6 years which coincide with a sunspot dearth that has lasted from the end of one cycle (23) to the beginning of a new one (24).

Thus, the term “x(n +1)” denotes an improvement via iteration, with P(x) the process (acting on x) that allows it. In this case, sunspots modulate the energy production, at least over some short or periodic times. To fix ideas, the maximal magnitude of inherent solar -induced climate variability was probably first highlighted by Sabatino Sofia et al in their paper: Solar Constant: Constraints on Possible Variations Derived from Solar Diameter Measurements, in Science, Vol. 204, 1306, 1979. Their estimate was a solar change in irradiance of roughly 0.1 % averaged over each solar cycle. (Irradiance is a measure of the energy per square meter received from the Sun).

Thus – if the solar irradiance effect at Earth (solar constant) is normally about 1360 watts/m^2, this would imply an increase of roughly 1.36 W/m^2. More recent space-based observations appear to show a variation in solar irradiance of at least 0.15% over the standard 11-year solar cycle. (E.g. Parker, E.N., Nature, Vol. 399, p. 416).

Going on from our original hypothesis and its subsequent refinement, we may determine:

x(n + 2) = x(n + 1) + P'(x + 1)

Described perhaps as:

“The Sun is a variable star which changes energy output coincident with the numbers of its sunspots – but not always.”

Such a modified hypothesis may well allow for the existence of secondary energy modulating effects, perhaps owing to more esoteric processes deeper in the Sun. The part of the term seen as the factor (x + 1) applied to P’ means there is some datum or data forcing a change in the hypothesis to a less falsifiable statement.

In terms of solar data, we have found up to an 8% difference in the computed mean irradiance from differing perspectives. One explanation put forward is that the meriodonal flow just below the solar surface is slowing, or perhaps almost ceased. This would delay formation of sunspots at the proper solar latitudes even when high sunspot counts ought to be expected (from standard Babcock-Leighton solar dynamo theory)

How might we get to the next iteration of our hypothesis? Say:

x(n + 3) = x(n + 1) + P'(x + 1) + P”(x + 2)

For that, it appears we may require maps of subsurface solar flows, not merely the generic “dopplergrams”. The latter are not as useful as they might be for data to force the refinement of the hypothesis onward, because they exhibit brightness variations in different (spectral) bands which may not always arise from motions. Thus, differential brightness changes observed in dopplergrams may yield motions that are erroneous.

Here, we see that a given datum based on some specific instrument, can lead to a false result or interpretation. This necessitates more refined devices or instruments to press the case forward. The essential process throughout is the approach to an objective truth via successive approximations!

By contrast, religions and bibles impose their truth ab initio by fiat or decree. There is no attempt whatever to incorporate any approximation. Nor is there even a minuscule effort to acknowledge that 'truth' can't be accessed all at once. Rather, one must set rational truth aside and succumb to ‘faith”. Faith, to be sure, is a much more facile commodity than rigorous reason and diligent empirical testing or even the sort of quantitative testing using gravitational potential and kinetic energy functions (viz. V = - GM m/ R, K = GM m/2R). Either or both of these Reay could have chosen to use to show Velikovsky’s speculations are bollocks. But, of course, this would have presumed she herself knew what exactly it was she was doing!

The error of the creative CXC examiners, therefore, wasn’t so much in their creativity per se, but their willingness to accommodate utter scientific nonsense because their own lack of knowledge underscored and supported a minimal default position in what they were testing! It wasn’t “creativity” then that manifested in the exams, but the examiners’ own lack of astronomical ballast, knowledge. This commenced with the very first exam (1978) including a question on the shape of the Earth which actually validated a ‘flat Earth’ point of view by one of the subjects (the Philosopher) when no sane (or professional) philosopher in the world would advocate such. Indeed, the person who set the question wasn’t even remotely aware that Earth’s shape is not an area of inquiry for Philosophy! It is rather under the purview of Geodesy, but they probably never heard of it!

Two things to take away as an object lesson for any future, would-be serious astronomy educators, especially in the Caribbean:

1) Don’t be negligent or dismiss the rampant, persistent parochialism! Further, for god’s sakes, don’t make a joke when called a “star gazer with head in the clouds”! Let the miscreant (especially if a local media nabob), know you take such a framing as deprecatory. Then produce the nearest celestial mechanics text and ask the offender to compute the position of Mars on July 5, 2080, or calculate a satellite orbit from the vis viva equation.

2)Be tolerant of but not overly obsequious to religious beliefs, or methodologies claimed to be “superior” to science by virtue of being “biblically-based”. There is no such thing as “biblically-based science”. It’s an oxymoron! In addition, do not tolerate superstitious or unscientific gibberish! That includes everything from the belief Moonlight coming through a crack can give a cold, to the belief that the stars hold some kind of future portent for humans, based in some antiquated book.

Beyond these two aspects, I just don’t believe that it’s feasible to have a rigorous secondary school astronomy course in the Caribbean, say on the level of the old London G.C.E. exam. Beyond their parochial and religious limitations, the fact is their priorities will never ever allow for the likes of astronomy to trump the very real need to feed themselves and to sustain lifestyles by suitable resource appropriation and energy security.

In this sense, astronomy is like an elite avocation that’s able to be nurtured and sustained only when all basic survival tasks are thoroughly mastered and attained. Since the Caribbean has not yet achieved the latter, it simply cannot prioritize the former.

Regrettably, the downfall of a rigorous astronomy course was inevitable, and nothing – no amount of paring – would’ve made a difference to the outcome. How much astronomy can the region tolerate at the secondary level? Probably exactly the content found in the six pages appearing in the text:CXC Integrated Science (by Mitchelmore, Phillips and Steward) published by Cambridge University Press (2002).

Am I sad? No, not really! I gave it my best shot as did many others, including Clarene Jackson, CXC-CROASE coordinator who inspired me to contribute. We had a grand vision and its execution fell a bit short for any number of reasons. Never mind, my just completed book on the history of the effort ensures for the record that the effort will be remembered!

Readers who want to find out more concerning the experience, including any educators, can find it in my latest book: A History of Caribbean Secondary School
Astronomy Education

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