When my son Matt was growing up he just loved Disney’s Bill Nye the Science Guy shows. We had nearly every episode taped on VHS (remember those?) and he would watch them over and over again frequently quoting the Science Guy in everyday conversations. So in the words of the venerable Bill Nye –
“Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back.”
Science seems to be taking a bit of a hit in the recent political climate. Words like climate, science and data can invoke interesting reactions depending on what side of the political spectrum you fall. For me, I tend to side with the Science Guy:
“Science rules!” Bill Nye
When in Tucson I had the opportunity to visit some great science related locations: Mount Lemmon Observatory, Biosphere 2 and the little known about but very cool University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.
Starting with the least known of the three, the U of A Tree-Ring Research Lab. Established in 1937 by the founding father of tree-ring (dendrochronology) Andrew Douglass who at the time was an astronomer for UA. At the time Douglass was developing a new scientific method to study the annual growth of tree-rings in connection with sunspot cycles and rainfall amounts.
Approached by archaeologists in the area he began to apply his methods to the wooden beams and logs excavated from pueblo sites across the southwest. Long story short this led to the science that can now date archeological sites across the globe.
In todays lab scientists and students use information recorded in sequences of annual tree-rings for a wide range of study. From reconstructions of changing climate over time, to providing dates for archeological sites or environmental events like droughts and forest fires, dendrochronological (from the Greek words for “tre” and “time”) research gives us a unique way to study the past. The lab here at UA is recognized worldwide and contains over 2.5 million tree-ring specimens in its collections.
I was very lucky to stumble upon this treasure during the universities’ celebration of earth week and got to hear some of the graduate students present their work in the field as well as attend a special tour that wasn’t only led by a very knowledgeable docent but was supplemented by the students themselves explaining what they were working on in several of the laboratories.
It was no surprise that the lobby of their new building was graced by a cross section of a fallen Giant Sequoia.
From dendrochronology to astronomy, before heading to the Escapee’s Rally Susan and I went on a tour of the Mount Lemmon Observatory. Just the drive up the mountain was an adventure. Leaving Tucson the temperature outside was 94 degrees but started dropping rapidly as we climbed up the mountain toward the top of Mount Lemmon at 8,000’.
Time for another cool science lesson! Orographic Precipitation (OROS=mountain + GRAPHE=write) – or loosely translated: the mountains write their own weather. As fronts move through southern Arizona they pass over mountain ranges. This uplift cools the air and often results in rain or snow even when the deserts below are dry and hot. As we reached the top of the mountain where we would meet our van for the observatory tour the temperature dropped to 59 degrees and there was snow along the road.
“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.” Plato
The Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter is an exceptional science learning facility located at Steward Observatory’s “sky island” observing site just north of Tucson. The SkyCenter builds upon the uniqueness of the beautiful clear dark night skies of Arizona, the 9,157 feet summit of Mt. Lemmon and on the extensive knowledge base located at the University of Arizona to deliver important scientific data and cool educational opportunities for the public. We had signed up for the evening astronomy program which was five hours including a no-frills dinner, lecture, an awesome sunset and viewing the skies through two of their telescopes.
I have said before how much I love the desert sunsets and from atop Mount Lemmon they are spectacular. Our guide did a tremendous job of teaching us about the universe and what is out there in space. Just the vastness of it is very hard to grasp and we all walked out of the room awed by how much there is out there and how little we really know.
“The thing I like about astronomy is being outside at night and seeing the stars in a dark sky. It makes you feel small.” Jimmy Walker
Viewing planets, stars and star clusters through the telescopes was interesting but for me the highlight of the tour was the infectious enthusiasm of our two guides (I believe astronomy students). They (and folks like them) are the future of our planet through their excited studies and future finds. It was great to spend time with them and learn about their passion and love for science and the skies.
“Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.” Stephen Hawkin
Biosphere, defined (from Greek bios = life, sphaira, sphere) is the layer of the planet Earth where life exists. The parts of the land, sea, and atmosphere in which organisms are able to live. The biosphere is an irregularly shaped, relatively thin zone in which life is concentrated on or near the Earth’s surface and throughout its waters. All the Earth’s ecosystems considered as a single, self-sustaining unit.
“Biosphere 2”- located in Oracle, just north of Tucson, derives it’s name from the idea that it is modeled on Earth, the first biosphere.
Billed as one of the world’s most unique facilities dedicated to the research and understanding of global scientific issues, Biosphere 2 was originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space, defining a mission as eight humans for two years. Biosphere 2 was only used twice for its original intended purposes as a closed-system experiment: once from 1991 to 1993, and the second time from March to September 1994. Both attempts, though heavily publicized, ran into problems including low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animals and plants included in the experiment, squabbling among the resident scientists and management issues. In June 1994, during the middle of the second experiment, the parent company dissolved, and the structure was left in limbo. It was purchased in 1995 by Columbia University, who used it to run experiments until 2005. It then looked in danger of being demolished to make way for housing and retail stores, but was taken over for research by the University of Arizona in 2007. And thank goodness they had the foresight to revive this incredible facility.
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” Charles Darwin
The current Biosphere 2 facility serves as a laboratory for controlled scientific studies, an arena for scientific discovery and discussion, and a importantly a provider of public education. Its mission: “To serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe; to catalyze interdisciplinary thinking and understanding about Earth and its future; to be an adaptive tool for Earth education and outreach to industry, government, and the public; and to distill issues related to Earth systems planning and management for use by policymakers, students and the public.”
Biosphere 2 houses a rainforest, savanna, ocean, mangrove forest, and coastal fog desert as well as the former human habitat and intensive agricultural areas. Beneath the structure itself are miles of pipes, tubes, wiring, and other facilities make up a “technosphere”. The dome-shaped “lungs” beyond Biosphere 2 are connected to the main structure by tunnels. They allow for air expansion due to changes in pressure inside the structure. The whole building is sealed off from the desert soil by a welded 500 ton, 1/8” thick stainless steel liner. The tour takes visitors through each of the areas and into the technosphere to learn the inner workings for the facility.
UofA is in the continual process of adapting parts of the facility for new and creative scientific uses. One that I found interesting was the conversion they are doing in the ocean area from a Mediterranean habitat to a habitat matching the Sea of Cortez in Baja. There was a great interpretive display that we were let loose in at the conclusion of the tour “Return to the Sea of Cortez” that highlighted a 2004 voyage where a team of three scientists, a journalist, a photographer and a cook set out on an expedition to the Sea of Cortes to revisit the sites that John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts had sampled during their celebrated trip to the Sea of Cortes in 1940. Considering my recent visit to Baja and my love of Steinbeck’s journey this was an unexpected pleasure.
Both trips combined science, philosophy and adventure in a search of a holistic view of the world. The 2004 teams findings were interesting although not unexpected.
“We expected that the Gulf’s ecosystems would have changed in the 64 years since Steinbeck visited in 1940. Ecosystems are always naturally changing to some degree and animal populations fluctuate. But on top of this natural variation, global climate change and increased human activity have definitely had an impact. Although we found many of the same species in 2004, some groups were less abundant and less diverse, while others were more abundant.”
I spent quite a bit of time reading each of the interpretive panels in the display and soon found myself alone in the exhibit as the other members of my tour headed off for the exit. I found the entire facility and the tour to be very educational and one I would highly recommend visitors to the Tucson area explore.
So that brings us back to Bill Nye the Science Guy and the importance of scientific study for our future generations.
“There’s nothing I believe in more strongly than getting young people interested in science and engineering, for a better tomorrow, for all humankind.” Bill Nye
Some believe that the current administration is waging a war on science, from erasing WhiteHouse.gov references to climate change on the day of the new presidency, to proposing massive cuts to scientific research to fund a new U.S.-Mexico border wall.
As these attacks on science happen, we find scientists worldwide are fighting back. Political action on such a large scale is notable for scientists, who by and large refrain from engaging with politics (kind of like Park Rangers). Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future.
“People have woken up.”—Jane Goodall
On April 22, a global March for Science will see 400 events in 37 countries, with a massive march in Washington, D.C. Bill Nye himself has joined the fight as an honorary co-chair of the March.
From the webpage: “We are people who value science and recognize how science serves. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.”
I encourage you to check it out – the very best thing about the current administration is that it is waking people up and igniting passion. Our government is supposed to be “by the people, for the people”, maybe this is just what we needed to remind us that this doesn’t happen by accident but by people fighting for what they believe is right.