Grade 6 Science fail

I’ve been going into classrooms talking to elementary students about Mars One, space and engineering. Grade 6 classes in Alberta study Sky Science, so my talk fits well with their curriculum. I thought it would be a good idea to read up on the curriculum so I could better tailor my talk. When I printed off a study guide, I found it was riddled with errors.

Science!Why are we lacking STEM talent in Canada? Could be that the facts we teach our children aren’t correct. The document was written in 1996, but even then we knew about more than 1011 stars, and where we parked the Hubble. Click the picture for full resolution and read it for yourself. It’s embarrassing at best.

There is one very troubling sentence that appears in the official curriculum. I don’t know what to make of it.

Describe the location and movement of individual stars and groups of stars(constellations) as they move through the night sky

This seems to say that individual stars and the constellations move at different rates. Technically, that’s true, but for a 11 year old observer, all the stars in the sky keep the same orientation. The constellations are not grouped by nature, they are grouped by our imagination. That’s how we discovered the planets, they moved and the stars didn’t. It’s this sort of ambiguous teaching that will confuse students and turn them away from STEM.

Remember the taste map we learned in school? There are places on the tongue for sweet, sour, bitter and salt? That’s not true either. Turns out that hypothesis from 1901 was disproved in 1974 when someone checked the data. No one updated the teaching material; thanks for nothing.

How can we avoid teaching myths as facts?

We have a whole body of academics and professionals in this country. They oversee all sorts of regulatory issues across Canada. Why don’t we get the experts in their respected fields to proof read the material we are teaching children? It’s just so simple, it might work.

Mars One in the eyes of Islam

Obviously, I pay attention to news about Mars. It’s usually about missions, funding cuts and new discoveries. This past week I learned that the UAE Islamic watchdog has declared that Muslims must not take part in Mars One, as it is against Islam. According to their site, they issues 337,000 Fatwas last year, so it’s a very common practice. At more than 100 a day, it seems they are a very busy agency. According to Wikipedia, a Fatwa is a legal judgment or learned interpretation based on the the teachings of Islam. As I understand it, when something new in the world shows up, it is judged against Islamic Law and then decided upon if it is a sin or not. Traveling to Mars is apparently a sin in Islamic Law.

That doesn’t make me happy. I’m not a Muslim or a member of any organised religion. I do strongly believe that space exploration is very important, so a decry by anyone that it’s morally wrong doesn’t sit right with me. In this case, the voyage has been likened to suicide, and suicide is a Sin, therefore the voyage is against Islam.

I’m not going to argue against Islam, but exploration is not suicide. Suicide is intentionally killing oneself; there argument is that the trip is so dangerous that death is a certain outcome. Two things about that:

  1. Death is a certain outcome of life
  2. The trip does not mean certain death

Life and death are part of the package. Every living thing will die. The risks we take in life can increase the likelihood of dying sooner, but risks also let us live more richly. Everything we do has a risk. Life itself is a risk. So how do we die on Earth? A good portion of it is from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases. Suicide and accidents are higher in the USA, but cancer and heart are still fantastic killers. Motor vehicle accidents are up there as well, 1 in 84 chance in 2006, but driving isn’t a sin.

The NASA study on radiation says there is about a 5% increase in fatal cancers for every three years you are on Mars. On the flip-side there is no risk of a traffic accident or accidental firearm discharge on Mars. You will be on a strict diet so your chances of heart disease goes down. You can’t drown in the bathtub either on Mars. (1 in 818,015, about the same risk as electrocution.) People die all the time. It’s cliché but not everyone lives a full life. Exploring, pushing boundaries, growing and making new frontiers is how we live our lives to the fullest.

Lets get back to what was said:

Professor Dr. Farooq Hamada, who presides over the fatwa committee, shared the motivation for issuing the fatwa: “Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever merciful.”

Do not kill yourself or one another, that’s the verse. This year, the UAE is creating a law for mandatory military service. The UAE has a standing military force of 70,000 souls; over 5% of it’s GDP used for it’s upkeep. That’s the 5th highest in the world for 2011. If you have control over a standing army, you are preparing to take lives. FULL STOP. Any one of those 70,000 people can be called in to combat and is expected to fight another human to the death. That’s what war is, that’s what armies do.

Mars One is sending 4 people on a settlement mission. Permanent settlement requires people to be alive. No one on the mission is intentionally dying, therefor no one is committing suicide. The fact that you could die an accidental death during the trip is no more suicide than dying accidentally on Earth. Taking risks to live a better life is how we make tomorrow better.

A peaceful path to a brighter future is not a sin.

Space Studies Program

I’ve been accepted into the International Space University Space Studies Program! I am incredibly excited about it. It’s a 9 week crash course into everything space related. The program aims to solve the ever present problem of “you don’t know what you don’t know”

I get all smiles just thinking about it. The concentration of space geek is going to be amazing! I just have to come up with the funding… space school is not cheap.