Welcome to the Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum
Jennifer Skillen, Executive Editor
Natural History Museum Lecture Series
The task of understanding science and appreciating its contributions to humanity can span from simple to daunting as well as from fun to frightening. Regardless, it is necessary that humans embrace science as an important tool to make our lives better, to better understand the world in which we live, and to build a more sustainable society. But do most folks understand science?
Science is a methodology through which we answer questions about the physical universe and the biological world in which we live. Our questions lead us to hypotheses which drive experimental designs and enable us to accumulate reliable and repeatable results from such experiments. With these results we derive theories (widely accepted generalizations) that help us understand our universe and world, as well as lead us into additional experimentation and eventually a broader understanding of how things work.
Thanks to science we know how plants use light energy to convert raw materials like carbon dioxide and water into complex carbohydrates—sugars, starches and even cellulose, the stuff of their own leaves, stems, roots, flowers and such. Science also helps us understand how we (and other organisms) convert these plant sugars and starches to even more complex compounds like proteins, lipids and nucleic acids. Science has enabled us to discover how ecosystems function, how organisms transform and convert energy to survive and reproduce. Science has reinforced our understanding of organic evolution—through hundreds of thousands of experiments followed by rigorous analysis and endless review.
Without science, we would still be “shooting in the dark” with superstitions, myths and stories that attempt to explain things or describe how things happened. The problem is, none of these stories are verifiable or repeatable—and they don’t let us plan adequately for the future (so that we can avoid situations that are bad for us, our families, or our planet). Science itself has certainly not revealed all the answers (we’re still a long way from that point) but our understanding of our universe, our world and our lives has been enormously enhanced by the efforts of thousands of scientists throughout the world.
Liberal Education and the Sciences
Education, especially liberal education, enables us to explore beyond bias and prejudice. The American Association for the Advancement of Science describes a liberal education in this way: "Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds." (Project on Liberal Education and the Sciences . The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.)
Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than defer to authority. (Nussbaum, Martha C. [Summer 2009]. "Education for Profit, Education for Freedom." Liberal Education (Association of American Colleges and Universities) 95 : 6–13).
When students take their first science classes, they are most often reading and studying only the abstracts, summaries and conclusions of the work of tens of thousands of scientists. “Doing science” requires a complete understanding of the scientific method, conducting experiments, reviewing and analyzing the results, and writing up the conclusions. In college, many of the courses students take (especially in upper division work) will include rigorous experimentation—teaching them not only the methods of science but the methods of critical analysis and review. If the student goes on to graduate school, they will most likely engage in pure research themselves—using what they learned in their undergraduate training to explore the world using scientific methodology and all that it requires to be considered valid—including publishing peer-reviewed and highly scrutinized articles.
Why Do We Do Science?
So, why do we do science? Humans are naturally curious about their world—from the tiniest bugs in their backyards to the twinkling stars and celestial objects of the universe. More and more, thanks to enormous increases in access to medical research and information, people are curious about human medicine and their own health. We are interested in wild species, wild places, weather, volcanoes, earthquakes, fossils, deep sea vents and meteors. We are interested in people, their cultures, their differences and their similarities—where and how they live. Add to this, the human population explosion—we are now at over 7 billion—we are intensely curious about the ramifications of this extraordinarily high number. Among many other issues, we question whether or not our own species is partly or largely responsible for the recent changes in our climate—and if so, do we have the ability to modify what we think may be the manifestations of severe climate change on Earth?
Interpreting the enormous amount of data that results from scientific experimentation and exploration is something that most have little time for. We resort to other mechanisms to digest the data, weigh the results, scrutinize the statistics and present the findings. Often, the results are filled with information we do not wish to hear. Regardless of the overwhelming evidence that extensive tobacco use causes cancer, millions still smoke. Some of us still choose to go without fastening our seatbelts in our cars and without using helmets on our motorcycles. Cell phone use and texting while driving injures or kills thousands each year and, in spite of what these data tell us, some chose to ignore the evidence and continue their dangerous behaviors. However, when we are ready for the information, it is available—thanks to science.
In the meantime, the world’s human population grows by 1.15% annually, the economies of the world’s richest countries demand the continued use of toxic energy sources (fossil fuels, nuclear, etc.) instead of renewable (wind, solar, tides, etc.), and there is a constant interest and demand for increasing the level of human affluence. Combined, this may spell disaster for humans and Earth’s creatures unless we use the scientific evidence that we now have to slow or stop the potential destruction of all that we know and love.
This is where a public understanding of science is critical. The public wants and relies upon the trustworthy interpretation of science. Today, there are various vehicles with which to gather such information. When I was a young boy, I couldn’t wait until John Craig and “I Search for Adventure” came on our tiny black-and-white TV screen. Only a few others, like Lowell Thomas, would describe the incredible world we live in by taking their cameras on daring adventures throughout the world. Mountains were being climbed, Arctic and Antarctic poles were being attained and fabulous herds of wild animals were being observed and photographed. Where National Geographic and National Wildlife were a few of the only publications available for the curious, today there are literally scores of publications and programs to satisfy virtually every specific interest in the natural world. Printed matter (journals, magazines, newspapers and such) and electronic media like radio, television and the internet (and smart phones) now supply us with virtually unlimited access to our wonderful world and how it works.
Museums like ours at Sierra College are dedicated to bridging the gap between academic science and the public’s understanding of what is often complex and puzzling. Museum exhibits, field trips, open houses, lectures and special events make this bridge possible and convenient. Instead of reading an entire book or taking a full-semester course on a topic, people can visit the museum or attend its lectures or workshops for scaled-down but well-interpreted and focused exhibits and presentations. This often leads to more interest, more reading and more experiences as the attendees become more knowledgeable about the topic or topics and seek to expand what they now know.
Whether for the fun of expanded knowledge or for the essential need for making good decisions, the museum experience is invaluable. Museum lectures have enabled attendees to travel vicariously or to prepare themselves for an upcoming travel adventure. Our lectures and lecturers have highlighted every continent on the globe including Antarctica—from icy “wastelands” that are actually filled with life and complex ecosystems to lush rainforests and other tropical ecosystems that exemplify the rich biodiversity of Earth. Magical far-away places like Galapagos, Madagascar, Australian deserts and the African Serengeti have been highlighted as well as nearby, but equally phenomenal places like Mono Lake and our local vernal pools.
Species and the ecosystems in which they live are regular lecture topics. Deserts, grasslands, shrub lands, woodlands, forests, subalpine and alpine areas lead the list of terrestrial biomes that are discussed. Aquatic biomes from freshwater to brackish and saltwater continue to enthrall lecture attendees discussions cover bacteria, algae, protozoa, arthropods and countless invertebrates—along with fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Museum lectures have focused on fishes—from freshwater fishes in the Sierra to the brackish California Delta and the dazzling anadromous salmon and steelhead of the Pacific. Even giant fishes of the world have been featured. In a world of thousands of species of birds, Museum lectures have focused on specialized birds (woodpeckers, jays and others), the spectacle of migration and “weed” birds (like European starlings) that have invaded other ecosystems. Since birds are often considered barometers of environmental health, their abundance or absence is closely observed and reported. Raptors and migratory birds are always a favorite. Other zoological topics have included species from rare and endangered bats, bighorn sheep, monarchs and bees.
Our Museum Is A Treasure Chest
As the museum is a treasure chest of fossils, its public lectures have often focused on Mesozoic reptiles and dinosaurs and many Ice Age mammals. These ancient animals, from tens of thousands to millions of years old enable us to study Earth’s past and to learn more about how evolution and natural selection work. Long before these large animals existed, much smaller and even microscopic creatures filled the seas. Museum lectures have discussed microfossils and the exciting field of micropaleontology—exploring the very distant past by examining microscopic fossils that existed millions and even billions of years before us.
Museum lectures and workshops have also highlighted the physical world. Of interest to modern humans are the fields of climatology and meteorology; past and present climate and weather, how we predict it and how we prepare for it. Many recent lectures have focused upon the results of countless studies on climate change, including a major lecture by a Nobel Prize winning member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Since water is of profound importance to human civilization, Museum lectures have reviewed historical floods through paleohydrology. Annual Museum seminars have brought scores of meteorologists to the campus discussing and reviewing the prediction of and protection from major flooding events in the Sierra Nevada. Weather historians have provided illuminating discussions on major snowfall events as well as droughts that have lasted more than 200 years.
Museum lectures also include a more microscopic look at biology and its relationship to human health. Topics have included DNA and genes, Lyme disease and other regional health problems, genetically modified organisms and food, human nutrition and a host of other relevant topics.
The World's Population
World population now stands at 7.1 billion (attained in October, 2011) and will reach 8 billion in 2025, in only 12 more years. At the current growth rate (1.15%) we add 75 million more humans each year. Some say there is plenty of room for many more of us on Earth. Others suggest that we have already overpopulated our planet, based upon our desires for food, water, shelter and goods.
Numerous lectures have been presented (and will be presented in the future) regarding our population and the human condition on Earth. Only recently popularized, the age-old practice of sustainability has once again become relevant. In order to maintain stable ecosystems and stable climates, humans may have to carefully consider their numbers, their levels of affluence and the technologies that they utilize to achieve their interests.
Our one-and-only planet Earth is now experiencing a human population with a seemingly insatiable appetite for the first time in its 4.6 billion year history. How we humans understand science and how we choose to utilize its benefits (or to ignore them) depends upon continued scientific study and the dissemination of unbiased and critical information to the public.
Science is not only fun, it is necessary—but only if we wish to continue living harmoniously with the millions of other species that share our planet, produce our oxygen, and provide us food, shelter, clothing, medicine and certainly not last or least, limitless enjoyment.
Joe Medeiros, Professor of Biological Sciences, Emeritus; Editor-in-Chief, The Sierra College Press