Social media has become everyone’s favorite new punching bag. It takes the blame for fake news and conspiracy theories. It takes the blame for political zealousness and tribalism. It takes the blame for the rise of fascism and nationalism. It even takes the blame for changing the courses of elections while fueling political coups and revolutions.
Science-based media too is blaming social media for everything from anti-vaxxers to climate change deniers and flat-Earthers. But perhaps a better argument to be made is that Facebook has not corrupted the way by which people take in information. It has only revealed it.
Social media isn’t responsible for making people lazy or inattentive, it has only proven that we have always been that way. Science-based media shouldn’t be out there blaming social media for the uptick in anti-science rhetoric, it should be adapting to the ways social media has taught us how people actually absorb and utilize information.
Statistics and numbers don’t always speak with their intended weightiness. For example, forecasted climate change is usually discussed in terms of average global temperature increases of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. And for most people out there who only get the headlines in their daily news cycle, this just isn’t very alarming. Most people are only concerned with how something might affect them directly. So when you tell people in Miami, Florida or Kolkata, India about the projected 32 cm sea level rise by 2050 they might shrug that off as no more than the tides currently bring in. But when you tell those in Miami that their city is likely to be submerged under water by the end of the century they probably won't be thinking of buying that seafront house. Or if you tell the people of Kolkata about the flood of refugees who will be pouring into their city from Bangladesh due to rising sea levels maybe they will be more inclined to take more actions now. Scientific information needs to be made personal in order for people listen and take preventative action.
Scientific American posted a video graphic in their August article titled, “A Century of Global Warming, in Just 35 Seconds.” The video is short and easy to understand as average temperatures over time for each country dive deep into the red. Even though it is again only revealing temperature increases of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, it does so in a way that is unmistakably personal and alarming.
A recent New York Times interactive article titled, “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?” also managed to put a bit of necessary brashness into what might otherwise be considered boring statistics. By taking the reader's birthday and birthplace it reveals in graphic detail how much warmer things have gotten in their hometown since they were born and how much hotter it will be in their future. This is the kind of medium the science community needs to take better advantage of if they are to appeal to everyone.
People by nature are bombastic and tend to acknowledge audacity and grandstanding over the specifics of an issue. Sending the first person to the moon may not have been so much of a scientific experiment as a way to get the American people behind a greater cause. The moon landing was the headline needed to get the country on board for the other scientific breakthroughs that were arguably more important but may not have made good headlines.
Climate change science is now in desperate need of its own moon landing. It needs the frenzied media coverage and support that gave the Space Race the fuel it needed to push science forward. We need to grab the heartstrings of everyone, not just appeal to peoples' logic. Information is a weapon, and like any weapon it can be used for good. Scientists and media outlets both must sharpen their tools. We need everyone on board for this fight and we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. If we do, they’ll make sure we will all drown in the boiling pot alongside with them.
(Key the Blue Danube or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon)
Imagine the Chicxulub asteroid on its last circular path around the sun before being knocked off of its orbit, putting it on a collision course with a distant blue planet.
At ten kilometers across, the giant object was likely just a fragment from a much larger asteroid, one that had collided with something else cascading through the asteroid belt. There is no way of knowing how long it sped through empty space before it’s inevitable plunge into Earth’s atmosphere.
The trillion-ton Chicxulub meteor was traveling at 60 times the speed of sound, about 22 kilometers per second, fast enough to circle the entire globe in 3.5 minutes. As soon as it penetrated the outer edge of the atmosphere it built up such unimaginable pressure that everything down to the Earth’s surface as wide as 2,000 kilometers was instantaneously incinerated. No one, not even the giant creatures below, could have seen anything coming other than a brief instant of blinding bright light.
It only took two seconds for Chicxulub to cross from the edge of the atmosphere into what is now known as the Yucatan Peninsula. It impacted with a force 100 million times greater than that dropped over Hiroshima, the equivalent of 30,000 nuclear bombs.
The Chicxulub meteor tore down into the Earth’s crust for 20 kilometers before coming to rest. Molten rock, ash and gas were ejected from the crater with such force that some materials were shot out of the atmosphere back into space. A superheated cloud of particulates covered everything within 5,000 kilometers. Volcanoes and seismic faults around the world were shaken to life and a 100 meter-high tsunami traveling at the speed of at the speed of a commercial jet washed into land as far as modern-day Iowa.
In the first ten minutes the 180 kilometer-wide crater formed. The Earth was covered in darkness for at least 6 months before the clouds of ash and dust settled back to the ground. The massive amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere blanketed the globe and trapped in so much heat that in just ten years more than 75 percent of all plant and animal species went extinct.
Over 66 million years ago the meteor found its final resting place deep under the present-day Mexican town of Chicxulub from which it earned its Mayan name.
A pinhole is all it took to weave the fabric of space and time. Existence was ripped out of nothingness and light was born. In that very first instant, the beauty and horror of the cosmic circus commenced.
Matter and antimatter annihilated each other spewing energy into the newly colonized space. The fabric of space itself stretched at speeds even faster than light. Protons and neutrons began their courtship and the basic building blocks that made everything that ever was and ever will be came together.
Just about ten minutes after the show got underway the fusion furnace kicked into gear and our first elemental nuclei came off the production line. Hydrogen showed itself in all its glory. But with 99.9999999999996% of the atom’s total size being vacant space, there was little to flaunt. Future atoms would prove to be only slightly more endowed.
A billion or so years later, the cosmic temper tantrum cooled off. Matter found itself uncontrollably attracted to other matter. Clouds of gasses pulled in closer and closer until the heat and friction of these galactic orgies ignited the first stars into brilliant radiance. Most of the elements that compose my morning coffee, in addition to the brain that craves the substance, came from massive explosions from far away stars.
Some of these stars ejected just enough dust and gas at just the right speeds and just the right angles to form what would eventually become the sun and the little ball of rock we now claim as our home. Fortunately for us, the little ball of rock survived an onslaught of collisions with other balls of rock and ice that left behind massive oceans. This provided the perfect broth for the very soup that sparked life on our blue planet.
Nearly one billion years after Earth first formed, single-celled life forms came out of the shadows. They were the only residents for more than two billion years before life took a great leap into complex life forms. It is possible that it all happened when two single-celled organisms bumped into each other in just the right way that one absorbed the other into its own body. While the absorbee became a kind of fuel cell, the absorber got to spend more of its time focused on eating up more energy. The more energy it could consume the more it could reproduce. With this new drive for energy consumption and reproduction the evolution of life on Earth reached new heights.
For over a billion years the colorful almanac of life continually unfolded upon the world. Humans too were part of this process. And even though we don’t really like to admit it, we are no more evolved than any other species of life that currently resides here. Everything still living is equally evolved for different traits. The only way we could ever claim to be the most evolved species is when we have finally killed off all other life on this planet. But that’s setting the bar pretty low for an evolved species.
This is not to deny the fact that we have evolved in some ways that others have not. Our conscious intelligence has unquestionably evolved beyond most other known species. It is the driving force powering our curiosity. It is why we love, why we lie, why we question existence and why stepping in dog shit gets us so upset.
Culturally we have evolved even faster than our biology ever could because we continually pass on the experiences and innovations of those who came before us. From man-made fire and the wheel to belief systems, art and all scientific discovery, knowledge from the past are bricks in the foundation for future generations to build upon.
This is exactly why scientific discovery is the cornerstone of our civilization. The more that we learn about the universe and ourselves as a species, the closer we get to attaining a deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos, our place in time and our place in society. We have the ability to improve ourselves within our own lifetimes and as a species in general.
Altruism, social justice and kindness are the inevitable byproducts of our learned intelligence and our quest to improve ourselves as a species. Morality is an evolved human trait. It is the outcome of biological and cultural evolution. Belief systems have been very valuable to our cultural development; but it is our humanness, not our beliefs, that make us moral creatures.
We are composites of molecules, some created at the very beginning and some created when stars exploded into supernovae. Though mostly vacant space, our bodies' atoms are bonded together in a way that gives us structure, gives us mass and provides vessels for our thoughts to form and dissipate. Our happiness, anger, hunger and satisfaction are fluxes of energy among atomic bonds. We have the ability to observe these emotions, shape them, and continually improve upon them.
We come from a string of life forms that have evolved to colonize every possible nook of this planet. We have the ability to learn not only from our own mistakes but also from those who came before us. We are laying the foundation for future generations to build upon and we should all commit ourselves to continued scientific discovery and support others who do so for the benefit of all.