Heartbeats of the Stars

Have you thought about their heartbeat?  Stars, I mean.  No, not someone from Hollywood.  Real stars.  The bright lights in the sky.  Especially our favorite star, good ole Sol.  Middle aged, just right for us.

Some weeks ago Neil deGrasse Tyson (NdGT) told us in Cosmos episode “Sisters of the Sun” that stars go through two big collapse events.  The first one is when they are born.  Lots of gas comes together, and when enough of it is in one place so that gravity pulls it too tightly together it lights up.  Whammo!  Hello star!

The second collapse event is when so much of the original fuel is used up so that the radiation pressure of the star can’t fight the gravitational pressure any more.  So it goes through its death throes.  Exactly what those details are depends on the size of the star.  But when a star dies it can be quite exciting!

But we’re here today to talk about a star’s heart.  A star has one, deep inside.  And it beats.  Our star’s heartbeat beats once every eleven years.  How’s that for a nice pulse?

How does this relate to behavior? you ask, Gentle Reader?  It relates because, even in something so fundamental to our survival, something so big, yet so common throughout the universe, there is a quality that we can liken to the beating of a heart.

If this is true, this is it also possible that our society, our company, our world all have their own kind of heartbeat?  Something that ticks away on a regular basis?  Is it possible?

Many times in the history of science, we don’t know if something exists until we actually start looking for it.  You can help.  If our society does have a heartbeat, what form would it take?  How would it make itself known?  How fast do we expect it to be?

Please let me know, because on this one I’m out of ideas.

In the meantime, I’m going to take my pulse.


Sisters of Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson delivered yet another excellent episode of “Cosmos” a few weeks back, entitled “Sisters of the Sun.”  Neil (or NdGT to those of us who consider him a rockstar) not only gave us a nice overview of the life-cycle of stars, but also used the subject as a way to illustrate how women have contributed to our knowledge.  The sad part of this story is that we need this story to find out who they were!

Beginning with Annie Jump Cannon, we see how one researcher (Pickering) helped change our social behavior by making a small decision.  He didn’t have to hire women for his research, but he did.  Granted, he probably saved money doing it, but he also received derision from his colleagues.  Yet he had the courage to do the right thing.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, worked with Annie, and built yet another foundation stone for the newly minted field of astrophysics.  Then came Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who almost buckled under pressure from her ‘betters’ for putting forth such radical ideas.  Today she is recognized for not only being right, but also having written one of the most influential PhD theses of all time.

The point here, for those of us who study behavior in particular, is that it is up to each of us as individuals to try and make decisions that help society in general.  It may be hard, and you may be laughed at.  However, I’m also willing to bet that your grand children will be proud of you.

And if you’re in a science-based discipline, think about who you add to your team, and who you reject.  Are you making those decisions for the right reason?  As a scientist, it’s almost certain that you haven’t had basic training in behavior, especially when it comes to running a laboratory or hiring personnel.  So take a moment and think about how you can make the world a better place, one employee at a time.

Who knows?  You might discover a sister in science.


Ancient Greek Atoms

Yet another fantastic episode of “Cosmos” starring NdGT, this one including Greek thinkers such as Thales and Democritus.  Neil also breathes a lot in this episode.  Sorry, I can’t explain it, you’ll have to watch.

If you missed this exciting episode, don’t worry, that’s what streaming is all about!  Here’s a quick two cent recap:  Thales argued that things we couldn’t explain (like thunder and lightning) weren’t capricious acts of gods, but natural and therefore understandable phenomena.  Democritus suggested that all things were made of fundamental building blocks called “atoms.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of such great concepts, for they are central to our current understanding of nature.  But as students of behavior, we should also remember that when it comes to remembering our glorious intellectual history, we have more in common with preparing a holiday feast than confessing an honest recollection.

Have you ever gotten ready for having company coming over for dinner?  Clean the floors, wash the walls, get out the fine china and hide all the dirt, if you can.  Holding up our glorious history as if everything was neat and clean is exactly the same.  Once company is gone, we can let our home go back to ‘normal.’  And our history is also ‘normal,’ in the sense that we know Thales and Democritus did not have an easy time of it.  Their voices were one of many putting a wide variety of concepts forward.  And if we look at all their words (what’s left, anyway) to see what they truly said, we find that their concepts are much muddier than what NdGT would like us to believe.

And that’s ok, because that’s reality.  They didn’t live during a time of purity and perfect predictions, and neither do we.  What we need to learn from the ‘dirt’ of the past is that, even today, there may be a modern Thales or Democritus who is trying to lay the foundation of a better understanding of nature.  What we do have, that they did not, is the discipline of Science to help us separate the crazy ideas from the good ones.

That is, if Science is working as it should be.  Sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ll talk about that next week.  For now, let’s just breathe.

Ahhh. Ancient atoms!



et tu, Neal?

Cosmos 2.0 has begun, and like the Olympiad, it heralds a new dawn of entertainment.  Whether it also ushers in understanding is another question.  On this day that we celebrate and respect religious worship, does it seem odd that Neal deGrasse Tyson should appear just before the altar?

Now that 34 years have passed, Dr. Tyson is taking up the mantle of Carl Sagan and teaching us about the wonders of the cosmos.  In so doing, he’s touching upon some significant events in our intellectual history.

A tragic character chosen in Episode One is a priest named Giordano Bruno.  Now poor Mr. Bruno didn’t do well as a priest, ostensibly because he had a great revelation about the infinite cosmos.  He tried to tell others, but the Catholic church took offense.  Somewhat unwisely he returned to Rome where the church gave him a warm welcome – and goodbye.  They burned him at the stake.

It’s not quite true, unfortunately.  The stake part is, but let’s say that the show took poetic license in telling the story.  You can read the details here.

The details aren’t quite important for today’s post, because my question is this; why do you think the Church felt threatened by Bruno’s crazy ideas?  That they were crazy is beyond doubt, because any idea that isn’t shared by more than “a lot” of people has to be crazy.  That’s the whole definition of crazy.  The fact that he would eventually be proven right, centuries later, isn’t important.

There’s a good chance that you, too, have a deeply held model of the universe.  It might have a god, or a GOD, or a whole pantheon of gods.  For all I know it may center around a black hole.  However, I ask you, why is it that (for most people!) it’s such a sensitive topic?  If someone comes along and says “Your view is wrong!” what does it matter?  Why do you care?

Why DO you care?



Under the Influence of the Stars

Neil deGrasse Tyson has reanimated “Cosmos” in the spirit of Carl Sagan.  One of the phrases that the late great Carl popularized was this; “We are made of star stuff.”

You, me, and all the heavy elements around us were born deep inside the belly of a star.  That star died, setting those elements free.  As free elements, they have been collected together by the process of life and formed into you, and me.

Wouldn’t you think that there would be a some kind of ancient, formal recognition of our relationship with these stars?  Perhaps a large organized “thank you” party?  As far as I know, there is no special day that we set aside for this special relationship, no equivalent to Valentine’s or Columbus day.  Certainly nothing that gives me a day off work.  Or is there?

In fact, there are several days we celebrate our relationship.  And today is one of them.  For today, our Earth spins in such a way that our Sun (the adopted Mother of our heavy elements) is in the sky for exactly half the time.  Equinox – equal night, and day.  Today, the 20th of March 2014, it happens at 1657 UTC.

We also celebrate the solstice, longest day, when the sun appears to hang in the sky the entire day.  Solstice – Sun stops.  We find evidence of these celebrations in art, in calendars, in writing, and in architecture.  Entire cities have been arranged so that their main axis aligns with these celestial orientations.  Cities, designed by people, behaving is such a way as to honor our elemental nature.

We are star stuff.  Not only physically, but in some fundamental behavioral ways.  Biologists have learned that the magnetic fields of our planet can be sensed by certain bacteria, birds, and perhaps other animals.  What about man? Electrical fields can also be sensed by many animals, sharks for one.  What about man?  These are all fundamental natural phenomena, and we are part of that great universe.

Celebrate the day.  After all, it’s all about where you came from!