Posted: Feb 19 2012 by David Mogk

Record of the national debt. From U.S. Treasury Dept.


"Here we must speak the truth. Yes, this level of debt is unsustainable. It is also immoral. Yes, this debt is a mortal threat to our country. It is also a moral threat. It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children's future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily. 'A good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children', Proverbs reminds us. For too long, Washington has been ignoring this time-honored principle. These are the remarks by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, Nashville, TN as delivered February 27, 2011. In preparing this speech, it is clear that Speaker Boehner is concerned about long-term impacts of our country's current spending practices, is worried about unsustainable budgetary policies, and advocates for a sense of responsibility to future generations. Implicit in these remarks is an understanding of the consequences of exponential growth, the ability to conceptualize really big numbers, and rationalization of competing rates of inputs (revenues) and outputs (expenditures) that lead to systemic instabilities that must ultimately be rectified. The alarm surrounding the burgeoning levels of the federal debt resonates with many. But one has to wonder: why does this econo-logic not translate into eco-logic?

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Turning Nature Into Categories

Posted: Feb 13 2012 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Metacognition, Perception/Observation, Interpretation/Inference

Two years ago in this space, I wrote about "Turning Nature into Numbers," humanity's accomplishment of developing instruments and methodologies that can turn the fleeting qualitative impressions that we have of our surroundings into quantitative values–numbers–which can be readily stored, shared, transmitted and compared.

Numbers are great, but it seems to me that for developing an opinion or making a decision, humans often want categories rather than numbers. More

In the Eye of the Beholder

Posted: Jan 30 2012 by David Mogk

Hubble's 20th anniversary image shows a mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks.

Credit: http://www.nasa.gov/, http://www.spacetelescope.org/, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team

I recently had the pleasure of attending a multi-media performance, "A Universe of Dreams", which showed spectacular astronomical images acquired by the Hubble space telescope, set to the lilting Celtic music of the Ensemble Galilei, and with thought-provoking narrative and poetry read by Neil Conan (of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" fame). This program delivered an awe-inspiring integration of Science and Art. The images were fantastic beyond description. But, as I drifted through the images of the far universe during the presentation, I realized that I really had no idea what I was looking at. Beyond the aesthetic appeal, I had to admit that I was woefully ignorant (or at least uninformed) about the scientific significance of the images. As I searched for meaning in the gallery of images, I found myself reflecting on how the images were acquired, and for what purpose. Somebody made the decision to take a given image. What was it that they saw that compelled them to take just THAT image? What insights could they gain about the nature of the universe from this perspective? What wavelengths were recorded—the visible spectrum, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray, or other? Are these true color images, or were these images enhanced by processing software? And most important (to me) what did the structures captured in these images reveal about cosmic history or processes? The multi-media presentation was lovely, but I wanted to know more. More

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Older but Wiser

Posted: Jan 2 2012 by Kim Kastens
Topics: History of Geosciences, Interpretation/Inference

photo of Marie TharpMarie Tharp's workspace with seafloor profiles aligned to facilitate comparing and contrasting multiple "cases." Source.
In a recent post, I wrote about "Case Based Reasoning," a powerful form of learning in which a person compares and contrasts multiple instances of something and extracts a common pattern or thread of insight. Without using that term, Ault (1998) described a very similar process for how geologists extract insight from nature, using the example of deep sea fans. Each fan is a little different from the others, and the essence of deep-sea-fan-ness lies in the aspects they have in common.

This reasoning process is found throughout geosciences. For example, Marie Tharp's discovery of the rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge came about as she slogged through thousands of kilometers of echo sounder profiles and extracted the common schema of a rift-shaped feature reminiscent of the East African Rift Valley. More

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Rocks as Models

Posted: Dec 17 2011 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Interpretation/Inference

I was leading an Earth Science teacher professional development workshop recently, and the subject turned to models: physical models, computer models, data models, mathematical models, graphical models, etc. Afterwards, one of the teachers said to me "Well, it seems like EVERYTHING we use in teaching Earth Science is a model."

And I said, "Well, it's not THAT extreme. Rocks aren't models....." More