The Real Lesson of Singapore Math!

By now you’ve probably heard that Singapore and Shanghai are the two places on earth with the smartest kids in the entire world. We can see their PISA scores (go to page 5) are right at the top.

Case closed, right? Whatever they are doing in education, we in the US need to emulate that in order to catch up! Common Core! StudentsFirst! Teach for America! Race to the Top! PARCC! Bust those teacher unions! No more recess! All test prep all the time! Charter Schools! Turn the schools over to the billionaires (Gates, Bloomberg, Koch family, Walton family, and their hirelings and shills)!

But wait a second.

Have you noticed that an ENORMOUS fraction of the low-skilled, low-paid people living in Singapore are temporary foreign workers from various parts of Asia and Africa and are not allowed to bring their kids with them? Those kids are raised back in the workers’ homelands by various relatives, far away, and only get to see their parents at long intervals (somebody has to fly somewhere); back home, jobs are even scarcer and worse-paid, so the parents go elsewhere to try support their families.

Now, everywhere in the world, family income is very, very closely linked to children’s test scores in school. It’s one of the tightest correlations there are in the social sciences, as you can see in the simple scatter-plots I have repeatedly shown in this blog over the past 4 or 5 years. (Try using terms like “poverty” “income” and “scores” together in the search box on this page and be prepared to look through a lot of posts with such graphs, from all over!)

If one-quarter to one-third of the population of a country was legally not permitted to have children in the schools, and it was the low-paying 1/4 to 1/3 of the population, then the scores of the remainder of the kids would, quite naturally, be pretty darned good, since the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of the distribution just got cut off.

If we systematically excluded the poorest quarter or third of our American student population from taking PISA, we know that our scores would be pretty darned high as well.*

Hmm, maybe the leaning tower of PISA hype is falling.

 

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*Let’s remember that this WAS official policy in many states of the USA up until 1865: a large fraction of the population (guess which one!) was forbidden to send their kids to schools at all and it was explicitly forbidden even to teach them to read privately. When Jim Crow was established from the 1870s to the early 1960s, school facilities for Blacks and Hispanics, BY DESIGN of the racist authorities, so inferior to those for whites that they were a national disgrace. Which is why the calls for going back to the good old days should be so infuriating. There WERE NO GOOD OLD DAYS.

And here’s something from the far left (Progressive Labor Party) which I also quote mostly with approval:

Capitalist Schools Fail Working-Class Youth

Schools should be wondrous centers of discovery and learning. They should be places where students develop life-long interests and abilities, where they gain confidence and knowledge, where they find cherished friends and mentors, and where they feel protected and cared for.
But public schools under capitalism fail on every count. First, they sort students into racist tiers to determine who will obtain the better-paying jobs at the top, and who will be left with the least desirable, lowest-paying jobs at the bottom. Put simply, schools define who will occupy the corporate executive suites and who will clean them! They also decide who will be the unemployed pittied against other workers; who will be the soldiers to kill workers around the world.

Of course, there are still plenty of people in the middle, including teachers. But the number of good-paying jobs in the U.S. is dwindling, while low-paying jobs (many with few or no benefits) are on the rise. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 30 occupations with the most projected job growth between 2012 and 2022, only five require a four-year college degree.

Jobs requiring master’s degrees are not exempt from these cuts. More than 75 percent of college teachers are on non-tenure (non-permanent) tracks. Many adjunct professors earn poverty-level wages with no healthcare benefits.

Starving the Schools

For the capitalists, it makes no sense to fund a school system generating lots of college-ready graduates when fewer and fewer jobs call for a college education. In fact, the bosses are understandably nervous at the prospect of millions of college graduates who are frustrated and angry about their limited future.

Since it costs more than $600 billion a year to operate K-12 public schools, and money is needed for war preparations with its imperialist rivals, the U.S. ruling class can kill two birds with one stone. By cutting spending on public schools, it will turn out more workers for the low-paying jobs that U.S. capitalism is creating. To deflect the anger of young workers, they need to sell the racist myth that people have disappointing careers because they weren’t capable of “higher-level” thinking — or because they didn’t work hard enough in school.

Across the country, public schools employ about 250,000 fewer people than before the recession, according to figures from the Labor Department. Enrollment in public schools, meanwhile, has increased by more than 800,000 students. To maintain pre-recession staffing ratios, public school employment should have actually grown by about 132,000 jobs in the past four years, in addition to replacing those that were lost, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

The New York Times (12/22/13) goes on to describe what the loss of school positions has meant for students: larger class sizes, reduced services, fewer guidance counselors and reading and math specialists.

The decay in public school conditions — on top of the higher fail rate in the Common Core exams — means that most students will be labeled unprepared for college. In New York City, for example, only 22.2 percent of 2013 graduates were considered “college-ready” by Department of Education standards. But it gets worse: In the bottom half of New York’s high schools — that’s 170 schools — only 4.5 percent of the graduates were college-ready.

Most students in these low-performing schools are black and Latino. The public school sorting machine is racist at its core. This continues the growing stream of black, Latino, and immigrant workers who suffer the racist super-exploitation that nets U.S. capitalists hundreds of billions of dollars in super-profits. Meanwhile, this deterioration of the entire school system drags down the conditions for white working-class students as well.

The Game is Rigged

U.S. bosses like to pretend that schools offer “equal opportunity” for all. In reality, affluent families gain a huge advantage by sending their children to expensive private schools or public schools in wealthy suburbs. Because most of public school funding comes from local property taxes, the result is stunning inequality. In New York State, the wealthiest 10 percent of school districts spent an average of $35,690 per student in 2012-2013, nearly double the average spending ($19,823) for the poorest 10 percent of districts.

Tests such as the SAT and ACT and standardized exams play a central role in sorting students for the top colleges and the best jobs. When students do poorly, they are told it’s because they are dumb or lazy and therefore deserve a future of low-wage and precarious labor.

The politicians, at the bidding of their corporate masters, recently added a new wrinkle. They have convinced large sections of the public that teachers — and not the big capitalists — are responsible for their children’s lack of success on the exams. Therefore, the bosses’ argument goes, teachers are undeserving of tenure, seniority rights, decent pensions or wage increases.

Teaching Obedience and Patriotism

The second crucial aspect of schools under capitalism is ideological indoctrination. Schools say they teach critical thinking; if students were really taught “critical thinking,” they would rebel against a social order in which 400 U.S. households have as much wealth as the bottom half of the population. They’d refuse to accept a “global war on terror” based on lies, a war that masks inter-imperialist rivalry to control valuable resources, markets and investment opportunities. They’d organize against a political system where Big Money calls the shots, and where the richest companies get what they want and the rest of us endure wage freezes, lower benefits and high permanent unemployment.

Instead of critical thinking, students are taught passivity from an early age. They are taught to follow orders and be patriotic and support the U.S. military, no matter how many countries it invades or how many workers it displaces or kills. Students are told they are responsible for their own success or failure, which is the rulers’ strategy to build individualism and hide the system’s failure to provide meaningful, rewarding jobs for all. Finally, students are taught the anti-communist myth that only capitalism works and any attempt to build an egalitarian society must fail.

This last bit of instruction is particularly important as more and more people are beginning to question capitalism. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of young adults (ages 18 – 29) have a positive view of “socialism,” while only 43 percent had a negative opinion. In this age group, more people support anti-capitalist ideas. This is an indication that youth are open to communism. Let’s take this oppurtunity to build a movement for communism and explain to our friends the differences between socialism (state capitalism) and communism (see Our Fight on page 2).
Teachers in Progressive Labor Party tell students the truth: that they are bright and capable of tremendous learning. In fact, they can learn how to run society, not for the profit of a few but for the benefit of the entire working class. A critical part of that understanding lies in anti-racism and multi-racial unity. When students and workers grasp the fundamental truth that our class can transform society into one that runs by the communist principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs,” we will have aced the most important test of all.

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Comment: those are interesting stats, so I wish they would give the source so one could look them up to check them for acccuracy and context. It certainly does seem like those in charge of education in the US today simply ignore the enormous number of jobs that we see being done all around us that require not even a fifth-grade education, and are being done very well be many folks who probably didn’t really graduate from the fifth grade, because their schools were in El Salvador or Guatemala or Mexico. Or else they have an actual BA or MA or a PhD (from here OR abroad) and are waiting tables, bartending, driving cabs, parking cars, or picking fruit or cutting lawns and painting houses. 

We should remember that a lot of the youth revolting in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East were highly educated, but with no jobs. One big difference: overseas, the degree was gratis to the student. Here, a student can end up with a debt as high as $100K when finished, depending where. And many people rack up tens of thousands in debt and at the end, have no certificate at all, especially at the online “universities”. Debt that they can never discharge, even by going into the Army or even by declaring bankruptcy. A business can write off huge amounts of its debt by going through bankruptcy, cut its workers’ wages, slash their health care or pension benefits, and weasel out of all sorts of other contractual debt and emer5ge at the  end with NO hit whatsoever to the bank accounts of its officers. But not a person. Corporations are not only people today, they have way more rights than you or me.

I never thought I would reprint, approvingly, something from the Cato Institute. But here one is.

MARCH 5, 2014 4:43PM

Common Core End Game

For far too long a big part of the Common Core debate has been about establishing simple fact: the federal government provided serious coercion to get states to adopt the Core, and the Core’s creators asked for such arm twisting. Indeed, just yesterday, Andy Smarick at the Core-supporting Thomas B. Fordham Institute lamented that the write-up for President Obama’s education budget proposal gives the administration credit for widespread Core adoption. Wrote Smarick: “The anti-Common Core forces will likely use this language as evidence that Common Core was federally driven.” Of course it was federally driven, by Race to the Top (RTTT) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers! But the budget proposal tells us far more than that.

The big story in the proposal is – or, at least, should be – that the president almost certainly wants to make the Core permanent by attaching annual federal funding to its use, and to performance on related tests. Just as the administration called for in its 2010 NCLBreauthorization proposal, POTUS wants to employ more than a one-time program, or temporary waivers, to impose “college and career-ready standards,” which–thanks to RTTT and waivers–is essentially synonymous with Common Core. In fact, President Obama proposes changing Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – of which NCLB is just the most recent reauthorization – to a program called “College- and Career-Ready Students,” with an annual appropriation of over $14 billion.

This was utterly predictable. Core opponents, who are so often smeared as conspiracy mongers, know full well both what the President has proposed in the past, and how government accumulates power over time. RTTT was the foot in the door, and once most states were using the same standards and tests, there was little question what Washington would eventually say: “Since everyone’s using the same tests and standards anyway, might as well make federal policy based on that.” Perhaps given the scorching heat the Common Core has been taking lately, most people didn’t expect the administration to make the move so soon, but rational people knew it would eventually come. Indeed, the “tripod” of standards, tests, and accountability that many Core-ites believe is needed to make “standards-based reform” function, logically demands federal control. After all, a major lesson of NCLB is that states will not hold themselves accountable for setting and clearing high academic bars.

While it’s a crucial fact, the full story on the Common Core isn’t that the feds coerced adoption. It is that the end game is almost certainly complete federal control by connecting national standards and tests to annual federal funding. And that, it is now quite clear, is no conspiracy theory.

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My comments: I can imagine some circumstances in which a US national curriculum might be a good idea. This rollout, however, definitely is NOT.

Unfortunately, one terrible thing about using the law to fight against wrongs is that in order to win your case, you often have to use various technicalities to trip up the opposition and embarrass them into giving up or justify a judge or jury to rule in our favor. You seldom win on the real merits of the case. In this case, the model of education they are foisting on to our students and onto the teachers and other staff who try to educate them, is a creepy nightmare and is going well backwards on integration and equality.

Mercedes Schneider Takes Down Sol Stern, A Defender of Common Core

I don’t know how Deutch29 (Mercedes Schneider) does it.

She regularly writes well-written, well-researched, trenchant commentaries on topics dear to me, much better than I have ever been able to do.

This time, she figuratively eviscerates one Sol Stern, who defends the Common Core curriculum. It’s a long post, but like her other ones, it’s worth it.

Charter School Segregation in New Jersey – information courtesy of Jersey Jazzman

Here’s the link: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2014/04/uncommon-comes-to-camden-let.html

The attrition rates for students in the ‘highly-rated’ Camden charter schools look just like what I found here in Washington, DC.

Parental Involvement in Schools, and a discursion on DC ‘racial’ history

A reader commented:

“I really worry about this in DCPS from a consumer and community perspective.

“People who have a chance to have their kids go to DCPS often don’t look past test scores to see that the teaching in classrooms can be really good, i.e., something that would benefit their children.

“Our child is at a school with much poorer children and we’re blessed not to be, but the teachers and administration and program are just great.

“I really wish families would be able get past test scores of other children to evaluate what good programs are (and what good teaching should look like) and have some confidence that their child can go to the neighborhood or another DCPS school.

“Because they are building blocks of community having other children struggle there, though unfortunate, should not cause families to disengage, look elsewhere, or even leave the community.

 

Here was my reply, FWIW:

 

There’s been a herd mentality for a long time. When I was a youngster growing up in around DC in the 1950s and 1960s, there were lots of white folks who decided to flee to the suburbs and sell their houses for less than they were really worth, because they couldn’t bear the idea of living with any black families in their midst. Instead of burning the black families out, they left, so many parts of Washington DC that we think of as all-black neighborhoods used to be all-white.

(Heck, my wife’s grandfather (white) grew up on a farm in Anacostia and delivered milk there… one of my barbers (white) tells me he grew up in Anacostia during the time that the neighborhood was changing from all white to all black; there were fights galore after school pretty much every day between the white kids and the black kids…)

Economists have even written papers measuring exactly what percentage of black families need to live in a neighborhood for whites to depart, and vice versa… I’m sure that these ratios are not fixed in time, but evolve, just like bacteria and hominids and other social memes… white urban gentrifiers and pioneers and black intellectuals and professionals, and working-class members of both ‘races’ have different mathematical threshholds — if one wants to pursue the sociology in this; it’s more complicated than appears to the initial glance or to NPR or Fox “news”…

It definitely helps any school when there are involved parents. I’m not the only person who has found that there is a very, very close correlation between family income and involvement in school. Of course, part of that is because the parents in wealthier families probably did fairly well in school and have good memories, whereas poorer kids are more likely to have done badly in school themselves and don’t have good memories of their teachers and classes…

Just sayin’...

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Failing Schools” really means “Poor Families”

Excellent analysis:

http://educarenow.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/the-racist-narrative-of-failing-schools/

Published in: on March 30, 2014 at 11:46 am  Comments (4)  

How Money Talks in Westchester County, New York

If you think it’s only in your school district that wealthy kids do better in school, think again. It’s all over the nation — and it starts when children are quite young and poor ones are often not spoken to or read to nearly as much by their parents, so that kids from poor families actually start preschool with a vocabulary disadvantage.

A recent article by Dave Greene, a teacher, author and activist in Westchester County, NY, puts that into focus by examining a local magazine centerfold that gives average family household income and a bunch of other data about schools so that home-buyers can figure out how “good” the schools are.

The old real-estate saying is that the three most important things about a house are its location, its location, and its location. That’s not quite true: it really should be, the average income of the other folks in the neighborhood (or AIOFN), AIOFN, and AIOFN.

It’s also true with the schools, as the data make clear — and it’s even clearer still if you put the data into a graph, which the original author did not do.

So I did.

Here are two such graphs:

sat and family income westchester co ny

I hadn’t realized that there were poor as well as rich areas in Westchester County, but apparently there are. The line of best fit that Excel calculated shows a very, very strong correlation: r-squared is 0.8819, which means that R itself is about 93.9% — about the strongest correlation you’ll ever see in the social sciences. The two variables here are average household income and average SAT score (these go from 600 to 2400).

The next graph shows average family income versus a composite score of college readiness as measured by the New York State Regents.

family income and college readiness westchester co ny

Once again, an extremely tight correlation between average family income and college readiness score.

Read the original article for the original data and its source. Here is my spreadsheet:

westchester raw data

Do DC Charter Schools Have the Secret for Preventing High School Dropouts?

The conventional wisdom is that urban charter schools do a much better job than public schools at getting their students to graduate from high school and go to college.

But audited figures from the District of Columbia’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education over the past ten years show that despite all the advantages and extra corporate funding of charter schools, the attrition rates from both types of schools is essentially the same, and is very high.

The graphs and tables below show that both public and charter schools in DC have a serious attrition problem, in that large proportions of the students enrolled and counted in October of their 9th grade have somehow vanished by the time that the cohort of 12th graders is officially counted in October.

This attrition rate is serious in both cases: over the past decade, about 44 percent of the high school freshmen (9th graders), in BOTH the DC public schools and the DC charter schools, have gone missing when it is time for them to be counted as seniors (12th graders). The differences in attrition rates are trivial: 43% for the charter schools and 45% for the public schools.

Our data does NOT tell us where these students have gone. Some probably moved or transferred to another state, or went to a private or parochial school, or have been incarcerated, but a significant fraction of them of them probably flat-out dropped out of school. It would be wonderful if there was a source of data that tracked where these students actually went, but let’s not hold our breath waiting for that data to be gathered and released.

Think of the advantages of the charter schools in recruiting their students: a parent has to somehow navigate the application system, fill out the lottery form, appear for interviews, and agree to the behavior and attendance and work requirements — all of which will eliminate a large fraction of the hardest-to-reach students who have parents who are simply non-functional. However, for all of their boasts of 100% graduation rates, the DC charter schools either expel or push out large fractions of their incoming high school students, or those students withdraw on their own (for whatever reasons we can only guess at).

dcps hs attrition

 

 

dc charter high school attrition


Other than the colors and the total count of students, you will not notice much of a difference between the two graphs shown above. The first one shows how the students in the regular DC public high schools have been disappearing from the rolls (or not) over the past 9 years, and the second one shows how the students in the DC charter high schools have been disappearing over the past 8 years.

My conclusion?

High school dropouts are a very serious problem in Washington DC, and that attrition rate is virtually the same in both the regular public schools and in the charter schools. The charter schools do NOT have a magic wand that has solved the problem.

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I also attach charts showing the entire enrollment, by grade level and year, for all of DC public schools and all of the DC charter schools, for the past decade. These tables were painstakingly gathered by Erich Martel, a retired DC social studies teacher (last at Phelps and Wilson), who has been raking through files showing administrative malfeasance for a very long time in the administration of DC public schools. His source has been the official audited enrollment figures published by OSSE (Office of the State Superintendent of Education).

dc public school audited enrollment 2002-2013

 

dc charter school audited enrollment 2003 through 2013
The colors are important here, because they allow you to follow a cohort, or age-group, diagonally down and to the right, as they proceed through their years in school. For example, the charter school “Class of 2012″ in our last graph is the magenta diagonal that reaches the 12th grade in 2011-12. This group started in the fourth grade, in SY 2003-4, with 843 students. The next year, in 5th grade, in SY 2004-5, it had 919 students. Obviously some students entered this cohort at some point between October 2003 and 2004 (and most likely some kids departed as well; the data does not tell us how much churn took place, only the net loss or gain). This magenta-colored cohort reached its maximum size in the 7th grade, with two thousand, one hundred nineteen students. By the beginning of 9th grade, that cohort had 1,971 students, and by October of 2011, at the beginning of their senior year, the overall charter school cohort that I am calling the “Class of 2012″ had shrunk to 987 students,  which is almost exactly half the size that it was when it began the 9th grade in 2008 with 1971 students. So I say that the attrition rate for that class was 50%, since 50% of the incoming high school freshman class has somehow vanished by the time that the rest of the cohort reached 12th grade.

I am not aware of any single DC charter school or public school that goes all the way from pre-school through 12th grade. However, as far as I have seen, every public or charter school that offers 9th grade now goes all the way to 12th grade, so it seems quite fair to examine the attrition rate for charter and regular public schools as a whole.

In the regular public schools, that same class went from 5,375 students in October 2002, when they began third grade, to 2,972 students when they began 8th grade in 2007, to 4,571 students when they began the 9th grade in 2008, and shrunk to 2,114 students when they began the 12th grade in 2011, for a high-school attrition rate of 54% for that particular age-group.

I notice something very weird about the regular DC public school enrollment figures: there is an enormous jump in enrollment from 8th grade to 9th grade, and then a large drop from 9th grade to 10th grade. My colleagues who teach high school tell me that this is because large numbers of students are made to repeat 9th grade; some of them are eventually skipped past the 10th grade, in part because administrators don’t want them to have to take the 10th grade DC-CAS test, because their scores would be low.

Notice that over the past decade, the 9th grade DC public school enrollment has totaled over fifty thousand students, larger than any other grade, which is awfully fishy, since the 8th grade total enrollment over that time was only about thirty-six thousand students and 10th grade total enrollment was a bit under thirty-eight thousand students.

Since the 9th grade DCPS enrollment figures seem artificially inflated (by a LOT), one might conclude that the attrition rates calculated in this post for DC public schools are higher than they ought to be.

Perhaps.

But however you measure it, attrition is a very serious problem in DC, and nobody has solved it.

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If you want to see the attrition rates at individual DC charter schools, look here.

Published in: on March 27, 2014 at 9:16 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Suggestions for Improving the Remake of Cosmos – A Different View of Giordano Bruno

If you haven’t looked at any news about the intersection of science and popular culture recently, you may have missed the fact that astronomer and popularizer of science Neal Degrasse Tyson  is starring as the replacement for the late astronomer and popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, in an updated remake of the series COSMOS, about, uh, the cosmos we live in.

(I got to see a preview of the film a week or so ago at the National Geographic HQ in DC; email notices were sent to probably every single amateur astronomy group in the US.)

I thought it was pretty good, and particularly liked the way that Tyson explained what the scientific method really is — using not a single word in the various definitions of “scientific method” that students are often expected to memorize in their middle-school science courses.

Unfortunately, even though I have a full set of the original Cosmos VHS tapes, I’ve only watched bits and pieces of the original. So I’m not one to compare them. Again, I liked it, and am looking forward to the rest of them.

But I do have some criticisms or comments about this remake:

1. Looking back, I think there were probably too many special effects, but I’m probably in the minority on this one.

2. I think that Rupert Murdoch and Fox “News” are despicable, and that they actively promote anti-scientific hogwash of all sorts. I was really surprised that the Fox network co-sponsored these shows. (I realize that fox ‘news’ and network are 2 different groups, but they have mostly common ownership, right?

3. I was surprised that they spent so much time on Giordano Bruno. I thought I remembered he was a minor, dissident priest burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for believing that there were other solar systems with people in them, among (most likely) other heresies. In the first episode, Tyson points out that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and that his theories about other solar systems, while recently proved to be correct,  was merely a lucky guess.

So if Bruno wasn’t an astronomer or a scientist, then why spend so much time on him?

A Jesuit friend gave me additional background on Bruno; apparently he was very fond of making enemies. If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’ll probably find out that he had a famously prodigious memory, and that he made money teaching important and wealthy people how to memorize things.

My attention has also been drawn to another article, making suggestions about how they could have improved the episode, by putting in the person from whom Bruno may have originally learned about infinite space:  Thomas Digges.

Here’s why Digges’ ideas were important: if the earth is the center of the solar system, as it is in the Ptolemaic system, and everything rotates around the earth exactly once a day, then the stars simply can’t be spread out into infinite space, because their rotation would be faster and faster the farther away from the earth that they happened to be located, which didn’t make sense. So Ptolemy and Aristotle and the Roman Catholic Church believed the stars were all located on more or less of a sphere — one that was larger than the rest of the solar system, but not too far away, on a cosmic scale. So there couldn’t also be solar systems around those stars.

digges_universe-259x300

(zame source)

However, when Copernicus worked out the details of a sun-centered solar system, then it was just the earth that was spinning on its own axis once a day, and revolving aroudn the sun once a year, just as the other planets did in their turn. And with this new system, there was no need for the stars to be located along an invisible black sphere – they could certainly be other suns, and the universe could well be infinite, just like the mind of God .

The second article makes it clear that Digges, about whom I knew nothing at all, could have profitably been the cartoon hero of the first Cosmos episode.

The relationship between science religion gets interesting. While the Catholic church continues to condemn basic things like birth control or divorce, it has abandoned the idea that you can calculate the exact beginning of the universe by adding up all the phrases like this:”And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — a method that is a lot less reliable than going out, taking cross-sections from old and young trees, comparing them and lining them up by comparing relative sizes to known climate events, and cross-referencing that with sediments in ponds and lakes, and to layers of ice in Greenland and other places. You know, doing it scientifically. Unfortunately for us, there still are some people who claim that the ONLY evidence they believe comes from certain sections of the Bible (but in fact they discount the rest).  Some of these people hold their hands over the ears of their children when they visit the Grand Canyon if an actual geologist is giving a talk explaining how the various layers of rock were laid down over the past few billion years. Fortunately, the Catholic Church has actual scientists and astronomers on staff. Even Galileo thought he was a good Roman Catholic Christian until his dying day…

universe-and-man-larger-300x253(apparently this drawing was made in the 19th century, hundreds of years after Diggs, Bruno, Galileo or Copernicus)

In any case, I’m skeptical of all accounts of the beginning of time — we just don’t have a tremendous amount of evidence. Yet. A case can certainly be made that there was a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and it seems to me quite clear that the Earth was formed over 4 billion years ago (we even have zircons and other rocks and minerals that seem to prove it), but what on earth caused that Big Bang? Are there other universes, as was illustrated in the movie? We can make a case for dark matter, but there might be other explanations for the effects that lead astronomers to believe that there is some sort of unknown, invisible substance in and around our galaxy that causes things to rotate in ways that they shouldn’t, otherwise.

(If you didn’t know, celebrated astronomer Vera Rubin, who lives in the DC area, was one of those who discovered those strange rotational speed anomalies back when I was a kid by taking very careful measurements of redshifts and blueshifts of stars orbiting in spiral galaxies. Last time I asked her, a couple of years ago, she said she thought it was entirely up in the air whether the best explanation for this phenomenon was dark matter or that we simply don’t understand the laws of gravitation fully in the first place.)

When certain cosmologists tell us precisely what happened “Between 10–43 second and 10–36 second after the Big Bang”,  we should keep in mind that we weren’t there to witness it. Sure, those accounts are in accord with a very complex physical model that right now is the most=accepted standard model. I won’t do a John Dobson and accuse those cosmologists of dishonesty; this is the best model we have right now, according to people who have studied his stuff very hard and very carefully. Is there actually ‘dark energy’? I am more skeptical about that. Perhaps; but the evidence is built on such a long string of extrapolations from very difficult observations and calculations that we should keep in mind that it very well may be that future observations with better instruments of some sort will change that model. In fact, every single time scientists have devised and used new instruments to look at and examine the universe (under our fingernails or up in the sky or in the center of the earth), all of humanityy learns new things that we never imagined could possibly be.

Who could have dreamed of paramecia, amoebas, viruses, or the genetic code of DNA before the microscope — at first very crude ones, but now of the electron or x-ray diffraction or scanning tunneling varieties? Each improved microscope showed us much more than the previous ones and are responsible for the fact that we no longer have a third of our newborn children dying of diseases before they reach their fifth birthday.

Galileo’s first, crude telescope showed us the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus,  the rings of Saturn, craters on the Moon, and clouds of stars in the Milky Way — all complete and utter surprises. The 60-inch and 100-inch and 200-inch telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Palomar first showed us that many of those mysterious ‘nebulae’ in the night sky were actually other galaxies, millions or billions of light-years away.

I’m sure all of this will be illustrated quite well in this series. I need to figure out how to record it — just changed to a cable service bundle after getting rid of separate DSL, telephone, and satellite dish services…

Read the articles and let me know what you think.

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