I note there is a small push to get the movie “Interstellar” into UK schools, the basis for this being that the special effects were science-driven and as it turns out, apparently represent some of the best visualisations of what it might be like near a black hole.
The basis of the movie is simple enough – a few years into the future, we are running out of resources and nature is fighting back (a popular theme, the idea that nature is right and we are wrong – something I find a little silly being as the best nature could manage for most of time was a bunch of rocks and until we started understand nature we rarely lived past 50).
In the movie, mankind is doomed, our only hope being to colonise other worlds and the only way to do that being to use a black hole as a stepping stone to get to these very far away places. The movie focuses on various aspects of relativity, so that compared to those on the ship approaching the black hole with it’s massive gravitational pull, those back home are ageing much more rapidly. They also attempt to show visually what might happen if you approach the event horizon of a black hole (though I was always led to believe that the first thing would be you were ripped to bits). The imagery is staggering but more importantly this is as near to accurate as we know how to make it, simplifying an otherwise complicated subject sufficiently for keep it both educational and VERY entertaining.
While this is to be applauded, frankly for those of us brought up in a science-friendly environment, the leap to understanding all of this is relatively straightforward and quite exciting. Indeed part of the fun is picking flaws in the movie.
However to someone who does not have that educational background (self-taught in my case – my parents and teachers did a good job of making me want to know more), it is likely that the movie represents a lot of flashing lights, decent acting and not a lot more.
One of the big problems of science versus religion is that the latter takes almost no effort whereas the former can take a lot of effort. Simple answers are “comforting” and science at the extremes rarely provides simple answers. Attempts to explain modern science to school-kids will ultimately fail unless the teachers involved actually understand the science AND are able to relay this to the layman enthusiastically – skills which don’t always go together. Once someone becomes a teenager, if their early up-bringing and schooling didn’t give them analytical skills, attempts then to teach modern concepts in science are almost guaranteed to be doomed to failure.
I was brought up in a world if Richard Attenborough, Tomorrow’s World and Science fiction which often turned to science fact, constantly learning something new. People on my watch list include Brian Cox, Elon Musk, Craig Venter… I’m interested in world-changing projects like Oneweb and the world at Cern.
What of those who spent their youth reciting a book, over and over almost to the exclusion of everything else? How will their thoughts contribute?
Is I get older and hopefully wiser it is becoming increasingly obvious that organised religion today is bad, VERY bad. Children are like sponges – if you tell them that fighting for the fatherland is good – they’ll suck it up. If you tell them it will be ok if they blow themselves to bits, they’ll suck it up. In countless historical examples we see how easy it is to set children off on the wrong path. There is an unparalleled responsibility put on adults to ensure that children are presented (in as balanced a way as possible) with interesting facts and our best guesses as to how everything works and ensure they understand the difference between fact, theory and fiction – yet what actually happens? In most of the world, parents and society fall over backwards to imprint their brand of religion on their children and this is just PLAIN WRONG.
Here’s a heretical thought for the future: Scrap religious education as such and take another approach. Let’s called it “Origin studies” for the sake of argument. We all want to know where we came from and where we are going (yes even those who don’t believe in fairies). Was there a beginning? Will there be and end and where do we fit in the middle? How do we define “purpose”?
Such a scheme starts with government determination (which likely won’t happen) and suitable qualified teachers (which likely won’t happen)… begin with the simple stuff… explain that in early times, people with almost no knowledge of the world and absolutely no knowledge of the universe, in order to give meaning to lives and to try to explain the unexplainable, came up with the idea of god. Explain WHY we have a tendency to form competing groups at every opportunity and how useful that was for early survival and how absolutely destructive it is today. Are those views and lifestyles still relevant? Explain that hundreds if not thousands of gods which people used to believe in have fallen by the wayside – and that there are a few left which millions of people still believe in – mostly incompatible – explain also that by and large those world regions with the highest belief levels have the poorest education – study the relationships between physical and psychological well-being, belief and education.
Then go on firstly with very simply explanations and a heavy dose of imagery, how science is filling in the gaps, giving us the opportunity to look again at those belief systems with fresh eyes and actual knowledge. Explain that it is important to split science into two areas – information which started as theory and became fact, ideas that are still theory and simple observations. For example, evolution is not just a theory, it is a well proven fact. Black holes not so long ago were theory, today they have been observed but our PRACTICAL experience of them remains low. Explain that the idea of the multiverse is just one unproven theory among many and explain WHY we have these competing theories. Explain also that leaving new discoveries to others is no good – we are all capable of contributing ideas and should not be frightened to do so.
The universe is expanding and APPEARS, extrapolating backwards to have come from a point. Is that a fact or are there alternatives? If it is a fact, what of before the big bang – or indeed is that the wrong question?
When the child becomes an adult, the sky will be the limit for them – they can then choose what to believe in, create their own beliefs and likely contribute to our collective understanding. For myself I have a mental model of how most things work but thanks to my up-bringing that model can change with time – I’m quite happy to look at new information with a view to getting a fresh perspective. Those blighted by religion from youth often cannot and will not see beyond what they were originally taught and indeed many do not even have the ability to question or have been taught that there are things you should not question, to which my response is “Bollocks” yet those beliefs are so strong that in some parts of the world they will still kill to enforce those beliefs on others. See examples where atheists (or those with competing religions) are attacked or even killed for daring not to share the same invisible friends as others. The analytical skills of some people have been utterly crippled and perhaps they wish to inflict this on others.
If we owe anything to the future it is to provide the upcoming generations with the skills to evolve and expand and not to cripple them with our own inadequate visions of how everything works or even the widely held, pathetic belief that we should not or cannot understand because “we are not worthy”. Time is running out for us to understand the world well enough to preserve it – and “praying” just won’t save us.
Science has answers for many things – yet many of those answers are full of gaps merely due to lack of time and effort. Collectively we can reduce those gaps. When all the gaps in our knowledge are gone, if such a thing is possible, perhaps then we will become the gods some people believe exist. Or… we can go the way of the dinosaur.