Andrew Fraknoi – Your Body’s Cosmic History

September 12, 2008

Andrew Fraknoi is the Chair of the Astronomy Program at Foothill College near San Francisco. In 2007, he was selected as Professor of the Year for the state of California by the Carnegie Endowment for Higher Education. For 14 years, Fraknoi served as the Executive Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and was editor of its popular level magazine, Mercury, and its newsletter for teachers, The Universe in the Classroom. He has edited two collections of science articles and science fiction stories for Bantam Books, and is the lead author of Voyages through the Universe, one of the leading astronomy textbooks in the world, and also the children’s book Disney’s Wonderful World of Space. Fraknoi serves on the Board of Trustees of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, and is also a Fellow of the Committee for the Skeptical Inquiry, specializing in debunking astrology. He has received the Annenberg Foundation Prize of the American Astronomical Society (the highest honor in the field of astronomy education), as well as the Klumpke-Roberts Prize of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (given for a lifetime of contributions to popularizing astronomy) and the Gemant Prize of the American Institute of Physics.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Andrew Fraknoi explains the history of the atoms in our bodies, and how we are literally made of “star stuff.” He details how scientists know the history of these atoms, and explores the implications of this “simple but profound fact,” and how some people derive mystical meaning from it, while others find it humbling. He talks about the compatibility of religion with astronomy, and the proper role of skepticism in the science classroom. He describes current threats to science education. And he makes a case for popularizing science and astronomy, and how this benefits society.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 12th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe thee point of inquiries. The radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, here’s a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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I’m really happy to have Professor Andrew Frank Neu on point of inquiry. He’s one of the nation’s leading science educators really known for his skill in bringing science to the public and ordinary everyday language. He’s the chair of the astronomy program at Foothill College near San Francisco, where he teaches courses on astronomy and physics for poets. Attended by something like 900 students each year, last year he was selected as Professor of the Year for the state of California by the Carnegie Endowment for Higher Education. He serves on the board of Trustees for the City Institute. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute and is also a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. For many years, Professor Frank Noy served as the executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He was also editor of its magazine Mercury and its newsletter for Teachers The Universe in the Classroom. He founded and directed Project Astro, which is a program that brings astronomers into the fourth through ninth grade classrooms, which is now all over the US. Professor Frank Noah is a prolific author. He’s edited two collections of science articles and science fiction stories for Bantam Books. He’s the lead author of Voyages through Universe, which is now in its third edition. It’s one of the leading astronomy textbooks in the world. He’s also the editor of the two volume teaching guide called The Universe at Your Fingertips, one of the most widely used astronomy education resources. His children’s book on astronomy, Disney’s Wonderful World of Space, was published last year. Professor Fraknoi has received many honors, including the Annenberg Foundation Prize of the American Astronomical Society, that’s the highest honor in the field of astronomy education. Welcomed a point of inquiry. Andrew Frakt, Noye. 

Nice to be with you. 

Professor, like a lot of other non astronomers who love astronomy, one of my first introductions to the subject was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on PBS. There’s there’s one thing that Sagan emphasized over and over in that series and that’s that were literally made of star stuff. I thought we might talk about that today. So first question is, how do we know that we’re made up of the stuff of stars from literally billions of years ago? 

That’s a great question. And in fact, it’s taken us many decades of exploring the world of stars and what they’re made of. To understand this rather simple but profound fact, the gist is that we now have very good evidence that as we look further and further out into the universe and we look therefore back in time because it’s taking a while for the light to reach us. As we look further, further out, we see that the universe gets simpler and simpler. 

And this is a dramatic effect. You can see it all around us in every direction that the further back in time you go. The simpler the atom, the less complex the structure of matter gets to be. And so it’s our understanding now that when the universe began, it was actually made almost entirely of the two simplest elements, hydrogen and helium. And then the question is, where do our listeners come from? You can’t make a good skeptic out of just hydrogen and helium, carbon and nitrogen and oxygen and many other elements. And one of the great puzzles of modern science has been the origin of these elements. And we now know from both experiments on Earth and from observing the stars that indeed the minimum temperature required to make new elements is a blazing 10 million degrees. This is why the alchemists back in the Middle Ages never really got to change the elements, because if they’d gotten the temperature of their ovens up to 10 million degrees, it would have melted the neighborhood. So, in fact, the only place where this could happen is inside stars only inside stars. Is it naturally hot enough for the transformation of simpler elements into more complicated ones to occur? And it is, therefore, the stars that are the crucibles of the elements, which when they die, they spell they are the makers of the elements that make up all our bodies and everything on Earth. 

So we’re literally star stuff. We are indeed star stuff. 

For the most part, there’s an occasional hydrogen or helium atom that might be in your body that survived unprocessed from the Big Bang. But for the most part, all the processed heavier atoms come from deep inside stars. 

This truth about the atoms in our body being around for billions of years has a couple contradictory effects. I think on the one hand, it makes me feel kind of connected with everything in the cosmos. On the other hand, it’s kind of a bleak view. It’s a kind of existentially humbling, those vast expanses of time compared to the three score years and ten that people tend to be alive. And as far as science can tell, there’s no real evidence that will be alive any longer than that. So you get this contradictory kind of emotion or set of emotions from this truth that were made of star stuff. 

I think you’re absolutely right. In fact, I like to tell my students that they have their choice on how to take this away from my classes. Either they can think of themselves as a romantically made of star stuff, as you say, or they can think of themselves as the garbage of previous generations of stars. 

And I think your question was a bit more profound. 

But I think you’re absolutely right that we can see ourselves as descended from the universe, as being part of the processes of the universe, and that this cosmic evolutionary picture is an ennobling one. I certainly see it that way. But for some people, it’s frightening. It’s frightening to think of themselves as so small and so temporary. In fact, I tell my students that there really are lending library of atoms on loan from the universe. And someday they will. Turn those atoms to that vast library and perhaps other creatures, other people will then be able to use Jim Underdown. 

But there seems to be kind of some mystical implications to that notion. Some people take this idea that we’re made a star stuff and derive this mystical world view. I just mentioned the fact that were made of star stuff means literally that we’re all interconnected. But there’s also this kind of religious sense to it. You know, it’s like that joke of a Hindu that goes to the hot dog stand and says, make me one with everything. Do you think that there’s this kind of meaning in the astronomical fact that we’re star stuff? 

Well, of course, reporter astronomers are not the experts on meaning. We leave that to the philosophers and the and the gurus of the world. But but look, here’s what I would say to that question, which is that I think that if you are looking for some way of fitting into the world of an acceptance of the grandeur of nature is a very nice way to fit into the world. And the minute you see your own body, your own makeup, your planet as part of a larger scheme in the universe, I think of that is something, as I mentioned, quite ennobling or or exalting for humans. I don’t necessarily recommend that as a full religion. I think religion has to be all about human morality, and that’s not my department. But just seeing ourselves as part of this very long, long term and very, very large scale process, I think can be a very exciting thing. And I I enjoyed it very much. When students come back and tell me that that was one of the most important things they took away from an astronomy. 

Just on that last point. Yes. A lot of people derive morality from religion, but there are a lot of non-religious folks who are moral to I don’t want to leave that unsaid. On the previous idea of kind of the mystical implications, Sagan and others have said that human beings are the way that the universe is becoming aware of itself. That also sounds kind of mystical or new age to me. 

Well, it does, although I think it also makes a lot of scientific sense. We don’t know if we’re the only ones. In fact, I think no one was more hopeful than Carl Sagan when he was alive, that the universe regarded itself through the eyes of not only humans, but of creatures all around the universe, that there was intelligent life out there beyond our own. 

Given the lack of intelligence we someday see from Washington. Certainly hope that there’s more intelligent life out there. 

But but, yes, I think it’s scientifically correct to say that to the degree that the atoms in our body have become complex enough for our form of self-awareness, since we are part of a product of the universe, we don’t want a way in which the universe is becoming aware of itself. And again, I think that’s a lovely thought to take away from astronomy. 

Professor, let’s tie all this to science education. You’ve talked about, you know, your students coming up to you after learning these facts of astronomy and and deriving other kinds of meaning, not just scientific knowledge, but almost existential meaning from it. Do you think it’s the role of educators to bring up this amazing world view that the universe say is 13 billion years old, not 6000 years old, that our atoms have been around for a long time and hardly seem like a special creation or a supernatural creation? These notions that we learn from astronomy certainly are not compatible with some religious perspectives. 

Well, that’s a loaded question. If I ever heard what I think the short answer to that question is yes. But let let’s elaborate a little bit. 

There’s been an interesting set of polls that have been done recently about public understanding of both evolution and the Big Bang Theory. Our listeners may know that indeed some of the same forces that have attacked the teaching of evolution have also now started to take astronomy into their sites because of the age of the universe. And the Big Bang hypothesis being so much longer, as you pointed out, than some of them feel comfortable with. And so we astronomers have actually now begun to issue statements and put together educational materials, much like the biologists, the geologists have done. In fact, I was involved with the putting together of a book called The Ancient Universe, in which we set out for Schoolteacher’s exactly how we understand the age of the universe. So it’s fascinating to see what the. Public polls show and knowing that I was to be on your show, I kind of looked up the most recent statistics. And it’s quite interesting because if you ask people just in general or do they believe in the Big Bang Theory, that the universe began with a huge explosion, only 43 percent of Americans agree with that. And that’s a depressingly low number. In Europe, the numbers are much, much higher in Asia. The numbers are much, much higher. But interestingly enough, when they ask the question a different way. They’ve got a different answer. When respondents were asked, according to scientists, the universe was formed in a Big Bang explosion long ago. Then 62 percent agree. Hmm. So the idea that as long as they don’t have to personally accept it, they are perfectly willing to agree that scientists say that they just don’t want to be caught in front of their neighbors. They themselves thinking that, well, that’s a really interesting idea. It seems to me to open up a lot of possibilities for education. What we need to do is to show people to what degree their world view is not threatened by the scientific perspective. I have many students who again come through some of my classes. Well, we always talk about these issues evolution, the age of the universe, the age of the Earth, where I read to them some of the statements made by religious leaders from many denominations feeling perfectly comfortable with an old universe and with the notion of evolution as being something that in in their view, glorifies, exalts their view of God and the universe. It’s a very tiny fraction of religious believers who have this rather literal and fundamentalist interpretation of proper religious perspective and who cannot at all accept the findings of modern science. So I think our job is not to try to convince the true believers who grabbed the headlines, but to show the middle of the road population in the United States the people for whom this could be a perfectly acceptable way of seeing the world, how to make the scientific and the religious world views compatible, and to show them how they can enjoy the fruits of science. 

So you’re working maybe not exclusively, but one of your aims is to show students that the religious world views, if they have them, are compatible or can be compatible with the scientific world. View your teaching in class. Absolutely. 

And to show that, in fact, the scientific view in the religious view is not only compatible, but in fact goes well together. This notion that the world is only 6000 or 10000 years old goes back to something that was done in the sixteen hundreds. And at the time it was actually a great leap forward because the Archbishop Usher, who did this measurement actually for the first time, showed that the human mind had the capability of making rational research into the age of the universe. And now we’ve extended that for there and we have different numbers. But that process that Archbishop Usher began, that led to the oft quoted six thousand year figure, that process was a natural working out of human intelligence. Jim Underdown. 

Right. He was rationally trying to add up the age of the Earth by adding up the age of all the people listed in the genealogies of the Bible or something like that. 

That’s exactly right. He counted the begats in the book of Genesis, where one person begat another person and begat another person. 

And again, what was important about it was not the number that he got, but that he was able to push to show and have other religious authorities accept that the human mind could work this out. Before that, notions of the age of the universe were almost forbidden knowledge. Human beings were not meant to know. 

So if my last question about the role of the science educator in the classroom, even up against certain religious views, was a loaded question. This one will be a little less loaded, but broader. A more fundamental question outside of the classroom. Let’s talk about. The question is, why popularize science? It’s a given among science types listeners to this show. You know, people you run with when you go to a psych cup conference or something, that science education is vital, that it’s important that the public understanding of science is something we should all work toward. But if the question is what? Does it really get the nonscientist to learn all the science, astronomy, specifically some booster’s for astronomy, almost make it sound like that it’s just about edification, like when people should we read poetry or listen to classical music and you even teacher. Course, I love the idea of this astronomy and physics for poets like 900 students take that course each year. 

It’s true. And I think that’s certainly not something I want to minimize that just like we should teach our students about the great books, the great pieces of music, the great works of art so that they have more than just the everyday to think about. So we should also teach them about the great works of science. But look, I understand a science is something that is becoming increasingly vital to our survival. You need only to look around at the fact that for the first time in history, we human beings may have the ability to change global conditions on this planet. I think that’s a major step, either forward or backward, depending on your point of view in the history of the human race. There are so many of us and our activities are now so far reaching and energetic that we are able to change the environment of the entire planet we live on. So it’s very clear that we could change it for the better or we could change it for the worse. And only understanding something about science and scientific research can help us make that decision in a way that allows our children and their children to continue to survive. Look around at the whole issue of renewable energy. We are using up the fossil fuels which this planet had available for us. If we don’t figure out by our understanding of nature and technology how to replace those fossil fuels, if we don’t get a good understanding of science as part of what we accept as a necessity in life, we could ultimately not have the energy we need to sustain ourselves. So I think these have become questions now of great import and studying science is something that I think not only the nerds, but even even the politicians who before hadn’t thought about it are now starting to encourage Leighann Lord. 

So it’s not just about edification, although it is about edification. It’s also about survival. 

Well, and everything in between. I mean, you might say that it’s for raising the standard of living. It’s for making sure that children in other countries and even here in the United States are not wasted by disease and poverty and hunger. It’s for making the world a better place. And you can make the world a better place physically. You can make it a better place in terms of your own understanding and enjoyment. But I’m not saying only teach science, and I’m not saying that scientific understanding is the only problem in education, but it should be part of the solution. 

A lot of people whom I know to be really into astronomy are into it, just like they’re into any other hobby. It’s not you know, it’s not imbued with this sense of import. It’s not a thing about survival. It’s just a fun thing to do. We have a telescope at home and it’s just something, you know, you get some friends together on a Friday night and go up on the rooftop of our apartment building and do some star gazing. But how is that more important as a hobby than any of the other things people are into? What I’m really asking is why astronomy? You’ve made a case for science education, but why astronomy? 

Listen, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe that you and your friends could go up and look through the telescope and show someone the rings of Saturn for the first time. Have them really understand what’s going on up there and not feel a sense of awe and a sense of fulfillment in education when you do that. I think the most hardened amateur astronomer is also an evangelist for the beauty and the excitement of astronomy. But you’re right. If I had to say what branch of science is going to save the world in the next 20 or 50 years? I agree with you that astronomy may not be among the first Euliss. We have lots of problems here. What makes I think astronomy an important part of a scientific education is a cosmic perspective. It gives me understanding of how we fit into the larger picture. Again, you need only to look at some of our politicians and their egos to see that a cosmic perspective may be just the thing or taking a more skeptical look at the world. 

So it’s it’s not just the. Fun, the hobby aspect of it, and it’s not just the edification, but it’s the cosmic world view that astronomy more than some of the other sciences gives us. Chemistry is interesting. But astronomy, you’re you’re kind of walloped with this sense of our place in the universe. Like studying a, you know, bacteria flagellum might not give you idea. I don’t want to insult biologists there, but, yeah, here’s the way I would put it. 

I think Carl Sagan was very eloquent about this. When you have a bad day and the problems of everyday life seem overwhelming, a cosmic perspective can help. It’s the same impulse that led people some generations ago in wanting to know all the different possible places on Earth. It’s not that necessarily we would even live in all of them. Not have no one lives at the top of Mount Everest and no one seriously lives at the North Pole or the South Pole. But nevertheless, understanding how we fit into the larger picture, what our planet was like, what all the possibilities were, how we might change one place to be more like another. All of these were an important part of getting to know our planet. Now we know that our planet is a tiny part of a much larger system and getting to know that system is part of our general philosophical education. 

So you’ve had a bad day and putting things in a cosmic perspective makes you realize that were, you know, were a really small part of this massive universe. 

You may not be, but the boss who just yelled at you love it. 

I want to finish up by talking about another area of education that were asked a lot about it, CFI and that you’ve delved into, and that’s youth science education. I want you to talk to me about your book, The Wonderful World of Space. 

Well, this has been a fun project. My son and I. Who was 13 at the time, got a chance to write a picture book on astronomy for Disney. And our challenge was, how can we convey some of these modern science ideas, including the Big Bang and some of things we’ve talked about to kids who are in fourth or fifth grade and also show them some of the beauty of the new Hubble telescope images and so on. And so we worked very hard with a wonderful editor in New York to put together this book, which Disney called The Wonderful World of Space, but which is not just about space travel, but really about all of astronomy in the form of questions and answers. And our hope is that we were able, with some bad jokes, that actually Disney and Pixar characters in the book making bad jokes or time delighted with. We even got to write it with humor and with questions and answers and lots of pictures. We tried to convey some of this excitement that we’ve been talking about. So I’m delighted that Disney has brought it out. It looks very beautifully printed, as you might imagine, from any book produced by Disney, and we’re waiting to see how it does. 

And so it’s books like this that I’d like to let our listeners know can be purchased through our website point of inquiry dot org. I want to get that plug in. But Professor, it’s books like this that allow parents to introduce this cosmic world. You’re talking about and not just leave it to the teachers to, you know, put it in their children’s noggins. 

Well, that’s a nice thought. On the Amazon dot com site. There’s a comment left about the book that says not only is it good for kids, but it’s good for grandparents, too. So you never know who’s going to learn a little bit of astronomy any way they can. It makes me happy. 

Well, thank you very much for this discussion, Professor Andrew Frakt, Noye. 

My pleasure. Good to be with you. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.