Category Archives: Science

Cuckoo Bees

Last week I was in the living room when a loud, buzzing insect flew past me. I’d left a door open so I wasn’t too surprised. From the flash of blue I thought it might be a big blow-fly. I followed it into the kitchen and was able to get a close view as it buzzed against the window. It was clearly no fly but looked more like a big, dark native bee and had distinctive blue spots on its abdomen. I took a few photos, to help with identification, and then opened the kitchen window to let him go on his way.

The photos are not very good – he was keen to escape and not at all interested in posing nicely for me. But they are good enough for identification.

Domino Cuckoo BeeIt turns out he was a Cuckoo Bee.






Domino cuckoo Bee




Gravity, Physics, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Black Holes

Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)

Credit: Leoni

Galileo was born in the same year as Shakespeare and on the day of Michelangelo’s death. Appointed to the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa when he was 25 his studies of motion there and later at Padua provided the foundation of the study of dynamics. His contributions to the the development of gravitational theory and motion were to terminally undermine the tenets of Aristotelian motion and physics.

In 1604 a bright new star appeared in the constellation Serpentarius. Galileo’s observations detected no parallax, suggesting it was a star and not some atmospheric phenomenon. This result confirmed Brahe’s findings from the nova of 1572 that stars could change and again challenged the Aristotelian orthodoxy.

When Galileo heard about a new optical device, the telescope, in 1609 he quickly built his own version. He then used it and more refined telescopes to systematically observe the night sky. Details on Galileo’s use of the telescope can be found in the HSC Astrophysics section. His findings, published in 1610 in Sidereus nuncius (The starry messenger) had important implications.

  1. The Moon:
    According to Aristotelian principles the Moon was above the sub-lunary sphere and in the heavens, hence should be perfect. Galileo found the “surface of the moon to be not smooth, even and perfectly spherical,…,but on the contrary, to be uneven, rough, and crowded with depressions and bulges. And it is like the face of the earth itself, which is marked here and there with chains of mountains and depths of valleys.” He calculated the heights of the mountains by measuring the lengths of their shadows and applying geometry. He also detected earthshine on the lunar surface, that is the Moon was lit up by reflected light from the Earth just like we receive reflected light from the Moon.
  2. Stars in the Milky Way:
    Galileo's drawing of the Pleiades
    Galileo’s drawing of the Pleiades shows many more stars than visible to the unaided eye.

    Even through a telescope the stars still appeared as points of light. Galileo suggested that this was due to their immense distance from Earth. This then eased the problem posed by the failure of astronomers to detect stellar parallax that was a consequence of Copernicus’ model. On turning his telescope to the band of the Milky Way Galileo saw it resolved into thousands of hitherto unseen stars. This posed the question as to why there were invisible objects in the night sky?

  3. The Moons of Jupiter:
    The moons of Jupiter as drawn by Galileo over successive nights Jupiter moons
    The moons of Jupiter as drawn by Galileo over successive nights.

    Observations of the planet Jupiter over successive night revealed four star-like objects in a line with it. The objects moved from night to night, sometimes disappearing behind or in front of the planet. Galileo correctly inferred that these objects were moons of Jupiter and orbited it just as our Moon orbits Earth. Today these four moons are known as the Galilean satellites; Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
    For the first time, objects had been observed orbiting another planet, thus weakening the hold of the Ptolemaic model. The Earth was clearly seen to not be at the centre of all motions.

Two subsequent observations also undermined the Arisotelian-Ptolemaic Universe. Galileo found that Venus exhibits phases, just like the Moon. This of course could be accounted for in a Copernican system but not in a Ptolemaic one. He published a letter in 1613 announcing his discovery of sunspots in which he also proclaimed his belief in the Copernican model. Monitoring sunspots showed that the Sun rotated once every 27 days and that the spots themselves changed. The concept of a perfect, unchanging Sun thus also became untenable.

In presenting his views in his Dialogue concerning the two chief systems of the world, the Ptolemaic and the Copernican in 1632 Galileo reignited his earlier conflict with the authorities of the Catholic Church. Eventually forced into publicly recanting his belief in the Copernican system and being placed under comfortable house arrest his Dialogue, along with the works of Copernicus and Kepler was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.

Galileo spent the last years of his life working once again on trying to understand motion. The resultant final book Dialogues concerning two new sciences had to be smuggled out of Italy before being published in Holland in 1638. It primarily dealt with describing motion, kinematics, but also revealed that acceleration resulted from the application of a force and that he was aware of the concept of inertia. He rejected Aristotle’s ideas of forced and natural motions after studying falling or rolling objects and projectiles and realised that gravity was some type of force acting in terrestrial situations though he does not seem to have extended this to heavenly motions.

Whilst Galileo did not propose his own model of the Universe, his observational, experimental and theoretical work provided the conclusive evidence need to overthrow the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system. His work on forces was to help Newton develop his dynamics. Galileo died in 1642, the year that Newton was born.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton is the pivotal figure in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. He discovered the composition of white light, and laid the foundations of modern optics. In mathematics he invented infinitesimal calculus and the binomial theorem. His work on the laws of motion and of universal gravitation became the basis of modern physics. Whilst today remembered for his immense contributions to science the bulk of his writings were actually in the fields of theology and alchemy though as his views on both of these was contrary to the establishment he kept many of them secret.

During 1665-6 Newton returned to his home at Woolsthorpe from Cambridge when the University closed due to the Great Plague. This period allowed him time to develop his ideas on optics and light, planetary motions and the concept of gravitation. By 1670 he was Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, had developed his corpuscular theory of light and built the first successful reflecting telescope, thus avoiding the chromatic aberration problems inherent in the lenses of refracting telescopes. For this he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He withheld publication of chief work on light, Optiks, until 1704, the year after his adversary Robert Hooke died.

Newton’s scientific legacy rests on his other work, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), generally known as Principia published due to Edmond Halley’s urging and funding, in 1687. His detailed exposition of the concepts of force and inertia is summarised eloquently in his three axioms or Laws of Motion (from the translation in On the Shoulders of Giants, ed. by Stephen Hawking, Running Press, 2002).

Newton’s Laws of Motion:

    1. Law I: Every body preserves in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon.
      This is more commonly stated as: An object remains at rest or in a state of uniform motion unless acted on by an unbalanced force.
    2. Law II: The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the motive force impressed; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impressed.
      This is now commonly referred to as F = ma and emphasises the vector nature of force.
    3. Law III: To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.

The true genius of his work is that he then went on and applied them not just to motion on Earth but realised that they applied equally to the motions of other bodies such as planets in space. He applied his mathematical techniques to investigate the nature of the force between the Earth and the Moon, and the Earth and the Sun. His solution revealed the force to obey an inverse-square relationship and result in elliptical orbits as calculated by Kepler.

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

(The formulae used in this section are not required for the NSW Stage 6 Preliminary Course. They are explicitly required for unit 9.2 Space in the HSC course)

As he showed in Book 3, System of the World of his Principia, Newton could apply his law of universal gravitation to accurately predict the motions of planets, the orbits of comets and even account for tides on Earth. His law can be mathematically expressed as follows:

Fm1m2 / r2

where F is the force between any two objects of masses m1 and m2 respectively and separated by a distance r.
As there are no other variables involved the equation becomes:

F = Gm1m2 / r2 (1.2)

where G is a constant known as the Universal Gravitational Constant.
(G = 6.673 × 10-11 Nm2kg-2)

This can also be expressed in words as:
The force of attraction between any two bodies in the Universe is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance apart.
Having shown that gravitationally all the mass of an object can be assumed to be at its centre of mass, the gravitational force therefore acts along a line joining the two bodies. It is always an attractive force. The gravitational mass of an object was shown to be identical to its inertial mass (that which hinders its change in motion).

For a two-body system such as the Sun-Earth an equilibrium exists such that the gravitational force = centripetal force. Using this relationship Newton was able to derive Kepler’s Third Law.

Since FG = FC
then: F = GmSmE / r2 = mE2 (1.3)

where mS and mE are the masses of the Sun and Earth and ω is the angular velocity of the Earth around the Sun.
Simplifying (1.3) gives

GmS / ω2 = r3 (1.4)

Now the time taken for one complete revolution of the Earth around the Sun,is its orbital period, T such that:

T = 2π / ω (1.5)
so ω2 = 4π2 / T2 (1.6)

substituting this into (1.4) gives:

GmST2 / 4π2 = r3
which can be rewritten as:

T2 = 4π2r3 / GmS
Note this is of the form:

T2 = kr3
which is Kepler’s Third Law, and the value of k is:

k = GmS / 4π2 (1.7)

This value of k is a constant for all bodies orbiting the Sun as it only depends upon the mass of the Sun and the constant, G.

Newton’s contributions profoundly influenced subsequent generations. His view of the Universe was a mechanistic one that ran like clockwork and had a designer. The success of his law of gravitation was confirmed in 1758 when a bright comet returned as predicted earlier by Edmond Halley. He realised that it would be the same comet that had previously been seen in 1531, 1608 and 1682. This comet was subsequently named in his honour and we now know it was the same comet shown on the Bayeaux Tapestry commerating the Norman invasion of England in 1066.


String Theory and Newton’s Law of Gravity

String theory is based upon our understanding of matter and the other forces of nature, in terms of quantum mechanics, including Newton’s law of gravity.

Sir Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity in the late 1600s. This amazing theory involved bringing together an understanding of astronomy and the principles of motion (known as mechanics or kinematics) into one comprehensive framework that also required the invention of a new form of mathematics: calculus. In Newton’s gravitational theory, objects are drawn together by a physical force that spans vast distances of space.

The key is that gravity binds all objects together (much like the Force in Star Wars). The apple falling from a tree and the moon’s motion around Earth are two manifestations of the exact same fundamental force.

The relationship that Sir Isaac Newton discovered was a mathematical relationship (he did, after all, have to invent calculus to get it all to work out), just like relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory.

In Newton’s gravitational theory, the force between two objects is based on the product of their masses, divided by the square of the distance between them. In other words, the heavier the two objects are, the more force there is between them, assuming the distance between them stays the same.

The fact that the force is divided by distance squared means that if the same two objects are closer to each other, the power of gravity increases. If the distance gets wider, the force drops. The inverse square relationship means that if the distance doubles, the force drops to one-fourth of its original intensity. If the distance is halved, the force increases by four times.

If the objects are very far away, the effect of gravity becomes very small. The reason gravity has any impact on the universe is because there’s a lot of it. Gravity itself is very weak, as forces go.

The opposite is true, as well, and if two objects get extremely close to each other — and I’m talking extremely close here — then gravity can become incredibly powerful, even among objects that don’t have much mass, like the fundamental particles of physics.

This isn’t the only reason gravity is observed so much. Gravity’s strength in the universe also comes from the fact that it’s always attracting objects together. The electromagnetic force sometimes attracts objects and sometimes repulses them, so on the scale of the universe at large, it tends to counteract itself.

Finally, gravity interacts at very large distances, as opposed to some other forces (the nuclear forces) that only work at distances smaller than an atom.

Despite the success of Newton’s theory, he had a few nagging problems in the back of his mind. First and foremost among those was the fact that though he had a model for gravity, he didn’t know why gravity worked.

The gravity that he described was an almost mystical force (like the Force!), acting across great distances with no real physical connection required. It would take two centuries and Albert Einstein to resolve this problem.

Boning Up (Er, Down) on Gravity

Gravity is a force of nature that you experience every day. It’s produced by all matter in the universe and attracts all pieces of matter, regardless of type. The Earth produces gravity and so do the sun, other planets, your car, your house, and your body.

Gravity basics

Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity in 1687 when he failed to pay attention while sitting under a tree and got bonked on the noggin by an apple. Before that, gravity didn’t exist, and everyone just floated around. Okay, Isaac Newton didn’t invent gravity. But the famous mathematician was the first to study gravity seriously, and he came up with the theory of how gravity works.

Newton’s law of universal gravitation states that every object in the universe attracts every other object in the universe. The amount (force) of the attraction depends on the mass of the object. If you’re sitting in front of your television, you may be surprised to know that the television set is attracting you. However, because the mass of the TV is so small compared to the mass of the Earth, you don’t notice the physical “pull” toward the television set.

On Earth, gravity pulls objects downward toward the center of the Earth. The force of gravity acting on an object is equal to the weight of the object. Of course, other planets have lesser or greater masses than the Earth, so the weight of objects on those planets, and thus the amount of gravitational pull, will be different.

Newton’s law also says that the greater the distance between two objects, the less the objects will attract each other. In other words, the farther away an object is from the Earth (or any large body), the less it will weigh. If you stand at the top of a high mountain, you will weigh less than you do at sea level. (Don’t get too excited about this weight-loss technique; gravitational pull isn’t the next big diet craze. The difference is incredibly small. Sorry!)

For an object to really lose weight, it must be far away from the Earth (or any other large body). When an object is far enough away from these bodies that it experiences practically no gravitational pull from them, it is said to experience weightlessness — just like the astronauts you see on TV.

False gravity of a spinning object: Centrifugal force

An object traveling in a circle appears to experience a gravitational force. This isn’t really gravity, but instead it’s a concept known as centrifugal force. The amount of force depends on the mass of the object, the speed of rotation, and the distance from the center of the rotation:

  • The more massive the object, the greater the force.
  • The greater the speed of the object, the greater the force.
  • The greater the distance from the center of rotation, the greater the force.

Centrifugal force doesn’t really exist, so many scientists refer to it as a false force. It’s not a force at all, but rather a product of Newton’s (remember him?) laws of motion. This characterization seems wrong because when your car goes off the road and crashes or when your bicycle skids out from under you when cornering a slippery curve, you feel like this force had something to do with it. Because it feels real, it’s often useful to treat it as if it’s a real force.

If you’re riding a merry-go-round on the playground, you have to exert a constant force to keep from flying off. This force isn’t due to something actually pushing you in that direction, but by your body’s inertia trying to keep you moving in a straight line. Because one of Newton’s laws states that accelerating objects tend to want to travel in one direction, as the merry-go-round turns, your accelerating body wants to keep traveling in one direction, so you feel you’re being “pushed” outward.


It used to be thought that the world was flat. That beyond the horizon lurked a bottomless void, measureless to humans. As our ships got better and our navigators more confident, vessels that disappeared over one horizon began returning triumphant from the other. The Earth was curved, a sphere with no edges. We didn’t fall off because a mysterious force called gravity kept everyone and everything stuck to the planet’s surface.

Then Albert Einstein came along and told us that space itself was curved. Now we realise that if we sail off into the sea of curved space we call the Universe, there are indeed bottomless voids that the unwary traveler can fall into – and they are measureless to humans. They lurk on the other side of their own dark horizons, and we call them Black Holes.


A black hole is an astronomical contradiction – a dark star, an invisible nothing, a prison of light. Its boundary is marked by the so-called Event Horizon, a sphere of darkness that shrouds the inside and defines the point of no return. There is no solid surface beyond, just a bottomless gravitational whirlpool so strong that it sucks everything – even light – relentlessly inward. Oblivion waits at the centre in the form of the Singularity, Gravity’s fatal attractor.

Hidden eternally from view, the Singularity marks the spot where an immense gravitational force has been concentrated. All the mass, light and energy that has ever fallen into the black hole is compressed by its own overwhelming gravity into a point that is infinitely small and infinitely dense. The more a black hole swallows, the heavier it gets, yet the singularity never changes. Space has been squelched out of existence and Time has been squeezed to a stop. Step over the event horizon and for all intents and purposes you’ve fallen off the edge of the universe.


The concept of Gravity, this unseen force that dominates our lives and pulls us eternally towards the ground, has long challenged the greatest human minds. Even in Galileo’s day, the tower at Pisa had a good lean to it – perfect for dropping things off. Galileo wondered why no matter how heavy or light objects were, they all took the same amount of time to fall to Earth. He puzzled too about why the planets moved they way they did. His conviction that they orbited around the sun led to house arrest for heresy. He was still trying to put the gravity puzzle together when he died in Florence in 1642.

On Christmas Day that same year, the gravity baton was handed to Isaac Newton, born weak and premature in a Lincolnshire farmhouse. Twenty three years later, Newton returned to Woolsthorpe Manor to sit out the plague sweeping southern England. With 18 months quiet thought in the countryside he discovered calculus, unravelled the nature of light, and began formulating laws for the motion of the planets: discoveries that still underpin most of modern physics. One day when he was having a short break with a cup of tea, a falling apple interrupted his thoughts and led him to ponder gravity itself.

The reason the apple fell straight down was that it was trying to fall to the centre of the earth where gravitational attraction was focused. And the Earth wasn’t the only object that had gravity, so did the moon, the sun and the planets. In fact, Newton reasoned, every object in the universe – including ourselves – has gravity. The bigger and heavier, the greater it’s gravitational force. We are glued to the surface of the Earth – and not the other way round – only because it is has so much more mass. The Earth orbits around the sun for the same reason. Finally, Newton had found a reason for the heavens to move the way they do.


In 1784, John Michell, Rector of Thornhill Church in Yorkshire and great forgotten 18th Century scientist, became intrigued with the idea of escape velocity – the minimum speed with which you need to travel upwards from a star or planet to escape its gravitational clutches. He knew that gravity depended upon mass and he knew the speed of light was fast but finite. How heavy, he wondered, would the sun have to become before its gravity would become so great that even light (which travels at 299,792 km/second) would be held back at its surface? The answer, Michell reasoned, was that if the sun was the same size but weighed 500 times more, the light from the Sun would not escape the Suns own gravity. The Sun would simply disappear from view. A few years later the great French mathematician Laplace came to the same conclusion independently. The concept of the Dark Star was born.


Black holes remained an ignored theoretical curio until a young clerk in a Swiss patent office published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. Albert Einstein realised that the universe was a fundamentally different place to the clockwork universe of Newton and commonsense. The three dimensions of space could not be separated from the fourth dimension of time. Together they form the ‘Spacetime’ continuum, a kind of invisible scaffolding that defines existence. Spacetime, though, is not an absolute, fixed thing. It can be warped, bent and curved.

Spacetime is ‘straight’ only when it doesn’t have anything in it. Wherever there is mass, there is gravity. Wherever there is gravity, space is curved. The curvature of space dictates how an object will move through it. The object will dictate how space bends around it. Gravity, according to Einstein, is the curvature of space.

Einstein’s thought experiment was to imagine space and time being squashed flat like a 2D rubber sheet. Put a massive object like the sun on the sheet and it will bend. The more dense an object is, the deeper the depression it makes in Spacetime and the stronger the gravity. Eventually a point is reached when the walls of the depression are stretched so steeply that nothing can climb out of it. It is, quite literally, a hole in the universe.


To understand the very large in the universe, you need to start with the very small. With the unlocking of the secrets of nuclear energy, scientists finally got a clue to how black holes might form in nature. Stars are born when enormous clouds of cosmic dust and hydrogen begin to clump and condense under their own gravitational weight. Gravity grows stronger by the hour as the increasing density of the protostar curves space more strongly. Faster and faster, the hydrogen gas falls in upon itself in the condensing core. The more it collides the hotter it grows. When the core reaches 10 million degrees, the hydrogen protons begin to fuse into helium. Some of the mass disappears, having being turned into energy and light. Like a giant cosmic light bulb, the star has switched itself on.

Every star we see in the heavens has a giant nuclear reaction raging at its core. It’s what makes a star like our sun shine so hot and bright. Gravity is still trying to pull the star’s gas tighter and tighter but is matched now by the energy pouring outwards from the nuclear reaction in the core. The star settles into a precarious balance that gravity will always win in the end.


The ultimate fate of a star depends upon its mass. Our sun is middle-aged. It switched on 5 billion years ago and has enough fuel to burn for 5 billion more. But when, in that far distant future, the spent heart of the sun sheds its outer layers and shuts down, gravity will squeeze the core so tight it cannot be squeezed any more. It will become a ‘white dwarf’, a feeble ember the size of the earth but a hundred thousand times more dense.

The more massive the star is, the faster it burns its fuel and the shorter its life expectancy. A star 10 times as massive as the sun may survive only millions, not billions, of years. As it starts to collapse, the crush of in-falling matter slamming into the iron core sends the temperature rocketing to 50 billion degrees. The core has only seconds to respond – and it does so Supernova-style.

A supernova is a massive explosion. Huge quantities of material are blown into space, but only from the outer regions of the star. Most of the star has actually imploded, with the core being given a gravity bear hug so extreme that the protons and electrons have been squeezed into a ball of superdense subatomic particles called neutrons. The resulting ‘neutron star’ would weigh about one and a half times as much as the sun but would measure only about 20 kilometres across – about the size of Brisbane.

Astronomers can prove that neutron stars exist, because they give off a unique distress signal. Like a lighthouse warning of a dangerous shore, a neutron star sweeps space with a blinding beam of radiation, generated by a magnetic field more than a trillion times greater than the Earth’s. Such a neutron star is called a pulsar. To astronomers, the pulsing beam sweeping the darkness of space is an unmistakable warning that extreme gravity lurks nearby.


A neutron star resist the ongoing crush of gravity, only with its neutrons packed in like sardines in a tin. But if the remnants of the star after supernova weigh more than three times the mass of the sun, even neutrons cannot hold back the inexorable force of gravity. The neutrons are squashed into oblivion. The star’s core becomes so dense that gravity overwhelms space itself, distorting it so horribly that it, and time with it, is wrenched off from the outside universe. A darkness forms at the star’s heart and moves relentlessly outwards as the stars brilliance is sucked inwards. This is the hungry, growing maw of a black hole: gravity’s final triumph. There is no escape, no turning back, until the entire mass of the star has been swallowed and its brilliance completely extinguished.


Visible only by its invisibility, the margin of the black hole is marked by the event horizon, so-called because all events beyond are hidden from view. For a black hole like this the event horizon may be only a few kilometres in diameter but the void beyond impossibly deep to measure. The entire mass of the star has been reduced to a singularity – a point of infinite smallness and infinite density at the very centre of this black malevolence.

The singularity is where science ends and speculation begins. Space and time have ceased to exist, replaced by a seething chaotic mass we call quantum foam. This bizarre conjecture is where Einstein’s laws fail. This is where the laws of quantum mechanics fail. This is the realm of something called Quantum Gravity – one of the hottest areas of advanced mathematical research.

It is from a singularity that the Universe is believed to have begun. In many ways the collapse of a star to form a black hole singularity is the reverse of the Big Bang. Is this the way the Universe is going to end? Wilder speculation is that our entire universe might lurk inside someone else’s singularity. or even that universes can bud off from each other like this, like some sort of heavenly breeding organism.

It wasn’t until 1967 that John Archibald Wheeler slipped the term “Black Hole” into his paper at a scientific conference, and into the lexicon of the late 20th Century. They may have become a household name – but are they real?


Einstein himself couldn’t believe that such an invisible impossibility as a black hole could exist in the real universe beyond his theories. Today, his successors have no such problems. Astronomers not only think they have identified nearly 30 black hole candidates in our own Milky Way galaxy, they are now getting the proof that the holes behave in the relativistic way that Einstein’s theories predict.

A black hole is an elusive quarry with perfect camouflage: total blackness in the blackness of space. Searching for a black hole no bigger than Sydney’s CBD across hundreds or thousands of light years of space demands a sneaky approach. First you have to find a visible star that a black hole has trapped in orbit. Then you have to study how the star wobbles. John Wheeler described it as like looking for a pair of dancers on a dark dance floor. The heavy man dressed in black is invisible, but the bright white dress of a light women is an easy target as she is whirled around. Astronomers look for the bright stars that ‘orbit’ dark partners in the same way.

One of the best candidates is the star called V404 Cygni. Calculations shows V404’s dark partner is twelve times more massive than our Sun, yet totally invisible. But for every black hole orbiting another star, there must be many more solitary ones yet unseen. One of these could lurk quietly much closer to home.


Although black holes have the power to hoover up anything and everything that strays too close, they can’t hunt. Contrary to popular belief, if you replaced our Sun with a black hole of the same mass the Earth wouldn’t get sucked in, there just wouldn’t be any sunlight. You could even orbit a black hole in a spacecraft just so long as you kept a safe distance.

Get too close though and strange things start happening. Space gets stretched longer and skinnier. You would find your feet being pulled miles away in front of you while your body is squeezed sideways. You will have become a piece of space spaghetti long before you reach the event horizon. Then you’d be ruptured into your own fundamental particles and disappear behind the veil of darkness.

It’d be a spectacular way to go but no-one would see it because time is being stretched as well. The photons carrying the image would struggle harder to leave your body the closer you fell. Even with a few million years to spare, an outside observer will see you slow to a halt above the event horizon, before slowly fading from view.


Most astronomers now concede that a black hole heavyweight lurks in the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy. Latest estimates are that it weighs in at a whopping 2 million times the mass of the sun – a dwarf in comparison to some of the truly supermassive black holes that may lurk in the cosmos.

By the 1950s, astronomers began turning optical telescopes towards some of the strongest signals that the new radio telescopes were picking up. Source number 3C 273 was found to be a bright star-like object with a ‘jet’ of intense radiation sticking out of it. It was the first of a number of similar objects given the name of ‘quasar’ or ‘quasi-stellar radio source’, but their real identity remained hidden for decades.

Quasars have now been revealed to be the energetic hearts of very active galaxies: brilliant discs of superheated gas and ruptured stars swirling at nearly the speed of light. Great jets of charged particles are blasted thousands of light years into space from above & below – like an axle through a wheel. The central engine that is driving all this activity, though, is hidden deep inside. It has to be small and it must be extraordinarily dense. The mathematics demand that the only beast that can drive such a display of raw power is a supermassive black hole. The heavier the hole, the faster the gases whirl in orbit. Astronomers have observed speeds which tally with black holes weighing up to five thousand million suns.

The theory goes like this: a galaxy evolves from a vast rotating cloud of gas that begins to clump and condense under its own weight into billions of stars arranged like an enormous Catherine wheel, a Mexican hat or a bee swarm. In the centre, where the gas is concentrated, enough matter to make millions or even billions stars has undergone titanic gravitational collapse to make a supermassive black hole. While the hole is still actively feeding on the inner part of the new galaxy it manifests itself as a quasar. Later, when all nearby food has been consumed, the black hole becomes quiescent, leaving a relatively quiet galactic core like the one in the Milky Way. If this theory is correct, then supermassive black holes are present in all but the smallest galaxies.


For all their ferocity, these supermassive black holes are surprisingly gentle giants up close. You can fall into one without turning to spaghetti.

Suppose you or I were an astronaut about to step into such an abyss at the edge of the universe. As I approach the event horizon, blackness spreads upwards around me. The Universe shrinks to a bright point directly overhead. As I meet and cross the horizon the universe above disappears in a blinding flash of photons trapped in orbit around the hole.

I am now inside the black hole and falling towards the Singularity. It’s not dark like I expected. I see a ring of dancing light where the singularity should be. It must be spinning so fast that the centrifugal force has balanced out gravity. Now it’s a naked glowing hula-hoop of indeterminate size. Around it I see glimpses of heavens unimaginable to humans, universes within universes, time within time…

But hey! No matter what I might see or experience inside the black hole, I could never send a message out. The secrets I discover will die with me as I achieve oneness with the Universe, at the central Singularity.

“A black hole is an astronomical contradiction – a dark star, an invisible nothing, a prison of light.”
Hear Stephen Hawking describe the formation of a Black Hole (You will need the Real Audio 3 plug-in to hear the sound)
“Step over the event horizon and for all intents and purposes you’ve fallen off the edge of the universe.” 


Hear CalTech professor Kip Thorne explain the Event Horizon.
“Black holes remained an ignored theoretical curio until a young clerk in a Swiss patent office published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. Albert Einstein realised that the universe was a fundamentally different place to the clockwork universe of Newton and commonsense.”
Hear Sir Martin Rees, Britains Astronomer Royal, describe what would happen to you if you fell into a Black Hole.
“To understand the very large in the universe, you need to start with the very small. With the unlocking of the secrets of nuclear energy, scientists finally got a clue to how black holes might form in nature. “
Are Black Holes a way of jumping from one Universe to another? Hear what CalTech Professor Kip Thorne has to say.
“Visible only by its invisibility, the margin of the black hole is marked by the event horizon, so-called because all events beyond are hidden from view.”
Hear Professor Stephen Hawkings thoughts on using Black Holes as a way to time travel.
“Einstein himself couldn’t believe that such an invisible impossibility as a black hole could exist in the real universe beyond his theories. Today, his successors have no such problems.”
Does every Galaxy have a Black Hole at its centre? Hear what the British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees thinks.
“Although black holes have the power to hoover up anything and everything that strays too close, they can’t hunt. Contrary to popular belief, if you replaced our Sun with a black hole of the same mass the Earth wouldn’t get sucked in, there just wouldn’t be any sunlight.”
Hear what the British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees describe what it might be like to approach a Black Hole.
“Quasars have now been revealed to be the energetic hearts of very active galaxies: brilliant discs of superheated gas and ruptured stars swirling at nearly the speed of light.”

Climate Change, the weather and the madness of denial

Image of the day: It’s global warming stupid

The debate just shifted profoundly:

A storm of stupidity? Sandy, evidence and climate chang

“It’s global warming, stupid” – Bloomberg’s Businessweek cover last week left little doubt about their opinion concerning “Frankenstorm” Sandy. The accompanying tweet anticipated that the cover might “generate controversy, but only among the stupid.” These frank words about the Frankenstorm are perhaps…


  1. Stephan Lewandowsky

    Australian Professorial Fellow, Cognitive Science Laboratories at University of Western Australia

    “It’s global warming, stupid” – Bloomberg’s Businessweek cover last week left little doubt about their opinion concerning “Frankenstorm” Sandy. The accompanying tweet anticipated that the cover might “generate controversy, but only among the stupid.”

These frank words about the Frankenstorm are perhaps long overdue in light of the general failure of American politicians to show leadership on this issue.

But is it really a matter of mere “stupidity” to deny the link between climate change and Sandy’s fury — a link that has been drawn carefully but quite explicitly by scientists around the world, including in Australia?

No, it is not a matter of stupidity.

On the contrary, it takes considerable, if ethically disembodied, intelligence to mislead the public about the link between climate change and Sandy as thoroughly as our national “news”paper has done for the umpteenth time.

It is not a matter of stupidity. It is a matter of ideology.

People who subscribe to a fundamentalist conception of the free market will deny climate change irrespective of the overwhelming strength of the scientific evidence. They will deny any link between climate change and events such as the unprecedented Frankenstorm Sandy, or the unprecedented Texas drought, or the unprecedented series of Derechos, or the unprecedented flooding in Tennessee, or the unprecedented Arctic melt, or the unprecedented retreat of Alpine glaciers, or the unprecedented tripling of extreme weather events during the last 30 years.

There is no longer any reasonable doubt that climate change is happening all around us. There is also no doubt that ideology is the principal driver of climate denial.

So what effect will Sandy have on public opinion?

On the one hand, the deniers will likely double down and their claims will become ever more discordant with the reality on this planet. Their denial will continue even if palm trees grow in Alaska and if storms such as Sandy — or far worse — have become commonplace.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people who are not in the clutches of a self-destructive ideology will likely wake up and smell the science. Even before Sandy, a recent Pew poll (PDF) revealed that acceptance of climate change among the American public rebounded by 10 percentage points in the last few years. There is every reason to expect that Sandy will accelerate this trend towards acceptance of the dramatic changes our planet is undergoing.

Much research has shown that people’s attitude towards climate change depends on specific events and anecdotal evidence. For example, people are more likely to endorse the science on a hot day than on a cool day, all other things being equal. Even a seemingly trivial stimulus such as a dead plant in an office can enhance people’s acceptance of the science (three dead plants are even better). This human tendency to focus on scientifically irrelevant anecdotes rather than on data can be unfortunate, especially because it lends itself to exploitation by propagandists who haul out every cool day in Wagga Wagga as “evidence” that climate change is a hoax.

However, people’s propensity to learn from specific events rather than scientific data and graphs can also be beneficial. For example, a national survey in the UK revealed that people who personally experienced flooding expressed more concern over climate change and, importantly, felt more confident that their actions will have an effect on climate change. Similar data have been reported in Australia. Respondents who attributed salient events to climate change were found to be better adapted to climate change, they reported greater self-efficacy, and they were more concerned with climate change.

There is little doubt that Americans, too, will connect the dots between Frankenstorm Sandy and the reality of climate change. They will also likely recognise how drastically wrong the deniers were when they shrugged off sea level rise and how it might contribute to a flooding of New York City.

The moment the public recognises the link between climate change and Sandy, they will clamor for action. Just like New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, when he endorsed President Obama for re-election because he was more likely to address climate change.

Salient events carry a message.

People understand that message.

After all, it’s global warming, stupid.

(from ‘Watching the Deniers’ February 07 2012)

Embracing idiocy: creationism, climate change denial and birthers

Beyond help?

Not doubt the idea that a conservative world view often equates with lower “intelligence” is going to court controversy.

Calling climate change deniers, creationists and birthers ”idiots” is not going to advance the debate.


Coming via George Monbiot’s blog we have a recent study that shows a correlation between “lower” intelligence and conservatism.

“…drawing on a sample size of several thousand, correcting for both education and socioeconomic status, the new study looks embarrassingly robust. Importantly, it shows that prejudice tends not to arise directly from low intelligence, but from the conservative ideologies to which people of low intelligence are drawn. Conservative ideology is the “critical pathway” from low intelligence to racism. Those with low cognitive abilities are attracted to “right-wing ideologies that promote coherence and order” and “emphasize the maintenance of the status quo”(5). Even for someone not yet renowned for liberal reticence, this feels hard to write.

This is not to suggest that all conservatives are stupid. There are some very clever people in government, advising politicians, running think-tank’s, writing for newspapers, who have acquired power and influence by promoting rightwing ideologies.”

The end result is the creation of a counter-factual reality where the world is 5000 years old, evolution is a lie and climate change a conspiracy:

“….Don ‘t take my word for it. Listen to what two former Republican ideologues, David Frum and Mike Lofgren, have been saying. Frum warns that “conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”(6) The result is a “shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology” which has “ominous real-world consequences for American society.”

Lofgren complains that “the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today”(7). The Republican party, with its “prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science” is appealing to what he calls the “low-information voter” or the “misinformation voter.” While most office holders probably don’t believe the “reactionary and paranoid claptrap” they peddle, “they cynically feed the worst instincts of their fearful and angry low-information political base”.

I do believe there is truth to the last assertion. Most of the material produced by the think tanks and deniers is propaganda cynically designed to deceive and to appeal to the prejudices of a conservative audience.

The original paper can be found here, titled “Bright minds and dark attitudes“.

It does note that there are many factors producing a conservative worldview:

“…Of course, prejudice cannot be explained solely by intelligence, ideology, or intergroup contact. Prejudice has complex origins, including personal factors, such as ignorance and a lack of empathy (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008), and social factors, such as resource competition and intergroup hierarchies (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Simply perusing the reader’s comments on Andrew Bolt’s blog tends to support the view that prejudice and a lack of empathy are characteristics Bolt and his readers…

The authors conclude:

“….our investigation establishes that cognitive ability is a reliable predictor of prejudice. Understanding the causes of intergroup bias is the first step toward ultimately addressing social inequalities and negativity toward outgroups. Exposing right-wing conservative ideology and intergroup contact as mechanisms through which personal intelligence may influence prejudice represents a fundamental advance in developing such an understanding.”

However, Monbiot is perhaps more scathing of “liberals” for being, well… too nice:

“…But when I survey this wreckage I wonder who the real idiots are. Confronted with mass discontent, the once-progressive major parties, as Thomas Frank laments in his latest book Pity the Billionaire, triangulate and accommodate, hesitate and prevaricate, muzzled by what he calls “terminal niceness”(9). They fail to produce a coherent analysis of what has gone wrong and why, or to make an uncluttered case for social justice, redistribution and regulation. The conceptual stupidities of conservatism are matched by the strategic stupidities of liberalism.”

Intelligence by no means equates with political effectiveness, or with being “right”.

Sure, I’m comfortable calling out the idea that climate change is a socialist conspiracy as a ridiculous, far-fetched fantasy.

However I think idiocy is a universal trait that transcends politics.

Just the facts ain’t enough, ma’am

Wednesday, 18 July 2012
Three monkeys

Simply presenting people with evidence does not alter beliefs, especially those that are deeply held. But that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate quackery.

Credit: iStockphoto

~ Wilson da Silva

FACTS DON’T WIN. Ideas are more powerful than facts, especially ideas that conform to your world view.

Deep down, I guess I’ve always suspected this. You cannot engage in debate with climate change contrarians, creationists or anti-vaccination proponents without encountering a dogged intransigence to logical arguments backed by overwhelming data.

No amount of devastating ripostes, or unlimited armory of crushing evidence, seems to have any effect. As each fallacy, misconception, inconsistency and even brazen falsehood – as each of them is decapitated by evidence and lucid reasoning, another specious argument arises. It’s like battling the Hydra, the mythical serpent with 100 heads which, when any was severed, another would grow in its place.

My fear was confirmed at Science Writing in an Age of Denial , a gathering of science journalists and social researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where over two days in April 2012, the issue was dissected in great detail. I’d been invited to speak on two panels, but I spent most of the time listening to the excellent talent the organisers had brought to bear, and delighted in the insights they offered.

Sean B. Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the university, listed the six steps used by all denialists in discussion:

1. Doubt the science.
2. Question scientists’ motives and interests.
3. Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities.
4. Exaggerate the potential harm of believing the science (and scare people).
5. Appeal to personal liberty and freedom (no government official should tell me what vaccinations I need).
6. Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a cherished common philosophy or worldview held by most people.

Carroll actually gained this insight from reading a scholarly paper on the history of chiropractors and their long antipathy to vaccination. The paper found that this stems from the founding philosophy of chiropractic, which eschews the germ theory of infectious disease and considers almost all ailments to be the result of spinal nerve dysfunction caused by misplaced vertebrae.

Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who studies how people make decisions, said educating people about divisive issues never works. And it’s not because people are stupid or don’t have enough information. “The problem isn’t the audience, the problem is us [the communicators]. We have unrealistic expectations.” Simply presenting facts does not alter beliefs.

My fellow panelist Christie Aschwanden, a distinguished science writer, noted that people don’t assimilate facts in a vacuum, they filter them through their pre-existing belief system. Psychologists call this ‘motivated reasoning’: the tendency to seek out evidence that conforms to our views. “We seek facts that confirm what we already believe, and reject the ones that contradict our worldview.”

Lupia argued that to make a dent against such odds, you need credibility to help carry the day, and this is only is bestowed by the audience: it’s about how the audience perceives you. He defined credibility as being “perceived common interests” multiplied by “perceived expertise”.

When you convey facts to an audience that doesn’t want to hear them, you reach an impasse. The stronger the pre-existing belief, the stronger the motivation to dismiss the contrary evidence and the people conveying it. As one journalist noted, “People will run away from you cognitively if you pull the rug out from under their feet.”

Is the answer to be respectful of people’s deep beliefs when challenging them? As I told the audience in one panel discussion, I’m not convinced this is a solution: it can easily sounds like dishonest pandering, and quickly drift into the mollycoddling of defective reasoning.

Yes, you must always be respectful of your audience, and engage them in an exchange of ideas. But you must defend evidence forcefully, and take a firm stand against quackery.

This doesn’t mean you bludgeon people with evidence and statistics, but you use cogent argument and – well, good old fashioned debating skills like reason, evidence, clarity, confidence, tone, pace, gestures and eye contact. Also helpful is engagement, conviction and likeability, as well as body language, use of pronouns, rhetorical questions, emotion, dramatic flourishes and analogy.

Essential, I think, is humour; just because a topic is serious doesn’t mean you can’t make a funny aside, especially one that gently ridicules your opponent, or smites a central thesis of the opposing argument. As the audience laughs, you have subtly pulled them closer to your camp.

It also helps to make analogies, and break arguments out of the regimented boxes that often bind them. For example: we demand solid evidence from a physician, an accountant or a mechanic before making decisions – why accept any less when considering climate change, genetically modified food, stem cells, biodiversity, nanotechnology or evolution?

It’s not that these issues are necessarily complex: it’s just that they can’t be reduced to a sound bite. Complex ideas require timely consideration, an exposition of the evidence and, yes, an effort to understand.

But I think people will genuinely try to understand if you connect with them and present evidence in a lively manner, than pander to their prejudices.

You can read blog reports of the Science Writing in an Age of Denial conference, or watch selected highlights on video. For more information, visit the Science Writing in an Age of Denial website.


Faith in schools: The dismantling of Australia’s secular public education system

Chrys Stevenson ABC Religion and Ethics 22 Oct 2012

The separation of church and state schools is an issue which transcends religious beliefs and political allegiances. It should concern Christians, members of minority faiths and those of no faith.

The separation of church and state schools is an issue which transcends religious beliefs and political allegiances. It should concern Christians, members of minority faiths and those of no faith.


The Separation of Church and State Schools was the theme of a conference hosted in Brisbane by the Humanist Society of Queensland on the weekend of 13-14 October 2012.

With conference speakers including academics and representatives of teacher and parent groups, the conference focused on four key areas of concern:

  1. Religious instruction classes conducted during school hours
  2. Chaplains in state schools
  3. State funding for religious schools
  4. The teaching of creationism and/or intelligent design as “science” in the science classroom

As Hugh Wilson from the Australian Secular Lobby noted, “Queensland’s 1875 Education Act brought us “free, compulsory and secular” public education, of which only the compulsory element survives.” The dismantling of Australia’s secular public education system is a nationwide phenomenon. Although, as Catherine Byrne from Macquarie University said:

“Queensland has ended up with the least secular system in the country. It discriminates against those who do not want state schools to be centres of protestant conversion. It is undemocratic in that it supports particular denominations and blocks others; it is unsound in that it instils in children the idea of religious autocracy; and it is unwise because the division that it once aimed to alleviate it is now ensuring.”

Religious instruction

Religious instruction (RI) was a particular concern for both conference speakers and attendees. An important distinction was made between children being educated about religion by trained professionals, and indoctrinated into religious beliefs by evangelical volunteers.

Many parents feel pressured to give permission for their children to attend RI. Schools complain they have insufficient staff to provide adequate supervision and, despite Education Department policies, children who opt-out often find themselves in the “naughty seat” outside the principal’s office, put out into hallways or onto verandas, or else included in the RI class against their parents’ wishes.

“My daughter was made to sit out on the steps, in the sun,” said one indignant member of the Queensland Humanists. Adding insult to injury, the child was warned to stay away from other kids’ bags because, “things have been stolen lately” – the implication, drawn by the child, was that those who did not attend religious classes were particularly suspect.

“The schools will tell you RI is ‘opt in’,” said one parent, “but it’s a lie.” During a break he explained that his child was put into an RI class without his permission. In response to his frequent complaints, she was variously sat at the back of the class, then just outside the door, in the library and then ended up back in the class again. “And it’s not just us,” he said. “I’ve been told similar stories by parents from half a dozen schools!”

These parents’ concerns were all too familiar for Peter Harrison, a speaker representing the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH). NZARH launched a Keep Religion Out Of School campaign after receiving several letters from angry and frustrated parents who felt their concerns were not being heard.

“Many of the stories,” said Harrison, “involved confused young children upset about why they were being excluded, bullied, given rubbish duty by teachers, or at best left alone in libraries. Many parents reported not being told about religious instruction, only to have children coming home asking questions about God and saying dinosaurs didn’t really exist.”

Greg Purches, Deputy General-Secretary of the Queensland Teachers Union (QTU), confirmed that teachers are concerned that an increased focus on religion and religious instruction in schools is paralleled by campaigns to introduce creationism into schools. But the conference was to hear other troubling stories about the content of RI classes.

One parent said that, having opted her son out of RI, his seat, directly outside the open door of the classroom, put him in the ideal position to overhear a conversation between one of his class mates and the RI teacher.

“My parents are divorced. Does that mean they’ll go to hell?” asked the child.

“Well … yes,” the volunteer teacher replied matter-of-factly. “The Bible says that God hates divorce.”

Seeing the child’s distress, the teacher sought to justify the parents’ fate. “People take these vows before God, and then they just don’t stick to them.”

For Catherine Byrne, whose post-doctoral research focuses on religion in education, such horror stories are not uncommon. She spoke of RI students in state schools being shown “graphic crucifixion material” and children being told they would “burn in hell” if they failed to adhere to particular tenets of fundamentalist Christianity. One parent told Byrne that, after being shown the movie The Prince of Egypt (an animated adaptation of the Book of Exodus), their seven year old child was told, “The Jews had it coming.”

It is not only the children of non-believers who suffer from this ill-advised and discriminatory program. As one parent wrote to Byrne:

“My school has children from families that speak 42 different languages. There are Muslim, Hindu, Orthodox and secular perspectives – but we have only Christian RI.”

Representing the parents of two million state school students, Peter Garrigan, president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO), shared this parent’s concern. Religious families, particularly those from minority religions, he said, “should have confidence that their children will not be indoctrinated in the classroom with alternative beliefs … For those of us whose families left countries where people kill each other in the name of religion, secularism in education and government is highly prized.”

Greg Purches, from QTU, provided a teacher’s perspective on religious instruction in state schools. Chief among his union’s concerns is that RI is conducted by largely unqualified, inexpert volunteers, with few skills in engaging children or controlling classroom behaviour. As a result, said Purches, children often return to their classrooms angry and disruptive. For teachers (as well as for parents and students), he confided, having RI in schools “can be an absolute pain.”

The conference revealed that RI in schools is poorly administered, dominated by a fringe group of fundamentalist Christians and disruptive for both teachers and students. Catherine Byrne, who has undertaken extensive research in this area, ventured that the only reason more parents aren’t up in arms about religious “education” classes is that they are generally not aware of what is going on.

School chaplaincy

As bad as they are, the problems associated with RI pale in comparison to successive Federal governments committing nearly half a billion dollars towards the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP).

“The problem for teachers,” said Greg Purches, “is that chaplains are being asked to take on roles for which they are untrained. Unskilled people doing highly specialized jobs are the problem – even if they are well-meaning. Properly trained guidance counsellors and psychologists are the people who should be providing support for kids. Simply, we don’t need chaplains to do that.”

“We are told chaplains aren’t counsellors,” Purches conceded, “but [we know] they spend a lot of time counselling. It’s well-meaning, but covert; talking quietly with students away from supervision.”

Indeed, it is the kind of behaviour the Australian Psychology Society identified as “dangerous” in their 2010 submission on school chaplaincy. “The problem is cost – and governments at both the state and federal levels thinking they can do it on the cheap,” said Purches, whose 44,000 members have to deal with the consequences. This, he explained, is a bigger issue for teachers than the religious aspect of the debate.

Peter Garrigan reminded the audience that, while the LNP stripped $5 million from the Queensland Education budget in 2012, they found an extra $1 million to top up Federal funding for school chaplaincy. Garrigan said his organisation is “appalled” by the National School Chaplaincy program.

“With the rising incidence of youth suicide and the increasing diagnosis of mental health issues, our young people require professionals who are equipped with the required psychological training to work with them around such sensitive issues. Yet governments continue with the cheaper, softer option that appears to be vote attracting and appease the religious lobby.”

Garrigan said “one of the biggest issues” for his organisation is that, despite DEEWR’s guidelines, religious proselytising by chaplains within the school gates “abounds.”

Speaking from the audience, a former Pentecostal lay pastor said that, when the local school chaplain addressed his church’s pastoral team, the chaplain spoke for an hour about “sharing the love of Jesus” and seeking out opportunities for “witnessing and converting,” but never once mentioned dealing with children’s issues.

It is anecdotal, of course, but his testimony suggests that what is said candidly about chaplaincy to an audience of believers is rather different to the public relations spin. As Evonne Paddison, CEO of Access Ministries, Victoria’s largest chaplaincy funding recipient, told a conference of evangelical Anglicans in 2008, “We must go and make disciples … What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools.”

School chaplaincy is often defended with the claim that students’ participation in the program is voluntary. In practice, the conference heard, chaplains are ubiquitous within the school community. As one very cranky parent interjected:

“It’s not voluntary if the chaplain is the groundsman, the teacher’s aide and says prayers on assembly! It’s a logistical nightmare to withdraw my child from assembly, speech nights and all the activities in which the chaplain’s involved!”

In practice, Hugh Wilson explained, chaplains have open access to all students with no permission required, except for ‘one on one’ formal meetings. And the introduction of “secular” welfare workers to the program is cold comfort, said Wilson:

“The jobs are identical. Most of the employers appear to be Christian organisations. The job advertisements we see for ‘student welfare workers’ make no mention of any ‘secular’ requirement. In fact, you have to be a Christian and supply a pastor’s signature to get the gig.”

Peter Garrigan noted that the Australian Council of State School Organisations’ dim view of school chaplaincy was not shared by one of their member groups, the Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens’ Associations (QCPCA). Hugh Wilson pointed out that, while there is clearly a conflict between secular education and school chaplaincy, the QCPCA claims to support both. Garrigan would not comment on the reason for the Queensland association’s conflicting views.

I mentioned that some parents have complained to the Australian Secular Lobby that their P&C groups have been infiltrated by fundamentalist Christians. Garrigan said he could not comment on this. The practice was familiar, though, to the former lay pastor in the audience. He confirmed that, in his Pentecostal church, at least, stacking P&Cs in order to gain a “godly influence” over the local state school was “highly encouraged.” Another parent confirmed she had observed religious “branch stacking” in the P&C at her children’s school. When “religious” issues are on the agenda she noted, the P&C is inundated with “one-off” voters who never seem to take the same interest in more secular concerns.

Chaplaincy, said Peter Garrigan, “is probably one of the most blatant cases of government funding furthering the aims of religious organisations under the guise of a ‘support’ for students.”

State funding for religious schools

The issue of state funding for religious schools was discussed only briefly during the conference. But, there was certainly some nostalgia expressed for the pre-Whitlam era when religious schools were substantially self-funded.

Creationism in the science classroom

In 1983, Queensland Education Minister Lin Powell expressed the view that both evolution and creationism should be given equal time in high school science classes. In response to this threat to science education, Martin Bridgstock completed a careful analysis of a number of “creation science” tracts, only to reveal that 90% of their scientific references were “gravely inaccurate.” The ambitions of Queensland’s evangelical creationists were quietly put to bed.

Since then, a landmark case in the United States, Kitzmiller v the Dover Board of Education (2005), established that neither creationism nor intelligent design are “science” and as such, are not suitable subjects to be taught in a high school science class.

This should have settled the matter. But conference attendees were left speechless when Ron Williams introduced an “unscheduled speaker” – a high school teacher from a large, urban state school in south-east Queensland – who told us that at their school (and almost certainly in others), creationism is being taught “as science” to Year 11 and 12 biology students. Using only documents freely available in the public domain, the teacher talked us through the ingenious subterfuge which has turned teachers into preachers, ostensibly with the “blessing” of the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA).

The teacher explained that all secondary schools are required to submit a Biology Work Program to the QSA, setting out how their school intends to teach the required biology syllabus. A one-word reference to creationism in this school’s work program either escaped the QSA’s notice or was considered inconsequential. Regardless, the program was approved.

The imprimatur of the QSA emboldened an evangelical head of department to develop a six week senior biology course pitting creationism against evolution, on equal terms. In an apparent attempt to escape full scrutiny, however, the assessment tasks are ordered so that the fifth and final assignment – the only one not routinely monitored by the QSA – explicitly requires the students to write a paper giving equal weight to the science of evolutionary theory and the pseudo-science of creationism.

Unsurprisingly, the course-work supplied to students for this ill-advised course derives, in part, from Answers in Genesis, a group which has been criticised by America’s National Center for Science Education for its promotion of “non-science.”

Of particular concern is that, while creationist publications adopt the appearance of scientific documents, they are also laden with proselytising. To demonstrate the invidious position in which this material places science teachers, our “unscheduled speaker” read from one of the prescribed texts, Casebook: the Case Against Evolution, The Case For Creation, published in 1984:

“The controversy over creation and evolution then is really a battle between two religions. You must choose the chance, randomness, no-God evolutionary philosophy which provides the basis for the religion of humanism in which ‘anything goes’: homosexuality, nudity, abortion, incest etc. cannot be evil, for evil does not exist. Or you must choose the absolutes of the Creator God who made everything and therefore has the authority to dictate what is right or wrong for His creation. The choice, therefore, is between the religion of Christianity with the basis of its Gospel in a literal creation, or the religion of humanism with its basis of evolution.”

As the clearly incensed teacher pointed out, this is what the school’s biology teachers are required to teach to a highly diverse, multicultural class of students whose parents (of many faiths and none) have no idea that evangelical, fundamentalist Christian tracts are being taught ‘as science’ in their children’s classroom.

Asked why teaching staff did not refuse to teach the subject, the teacher replied, “Teachers who won’t teach it don’t teach biology the next year.” Pressed on why the matter had not been taken to the QSA for investigation, the teacher alluded to a “culture of fear” in which teachers feel their concerns would be, at best, ignored and, at worst, penalised with a forced transfer.

Without a formal investigation, no one will know the extent to which creationism is being taught as science in Queensland biology classes.

A great leap backwards

The separation of church and state schools is an issue which transcends religious beliefs and political allegiances. It is an issue which should concern mainstream Christians, members of minority faiths and those who follow no religious doctrine.

No particular political party is being singled out on this issue – both Liberal and Labor governments are equally complicit in dismantling Australia’s secular public education system. Nor is this just about religion. Australia’s economic future depends on our kids being able to work with people of all faiths and none. “They are going to have to go into place like China and Indonesia and work in harmony with people with fundamentally different world views,” said Peter Garrigan. A secular education system promotes equity, harmony and tolerance. Hugh Wilson agreed:

“We cannot have it both ways: being a twenty-first st century state in a middle-power nation-state, vying with our Asian neighbours for economic survival and claiming to be a multi-cultural country, whilst also gifting one religion a virtual monopoly on the hearts and souls of our children … Our schools, or at least our public schools, must better reflect our changing community.”

While they pay “lip service” to secularism, governments seem blind to its crucial role in uniting Australia’s highly diverse, multicultural, multi-faith population. Yet, its value was keenly understood in the 1870s – even when the vast majority of Australians were Christians. Indeed, Australia’s public education system was principally devised to overcome the rivalries between Catholic and Protestant faiths with the aim of forging a united nation. As secularism unravels in Australia, deep religious, cultural and social rifts are also developing.

Peter Garrigan said his organisation was extremely concerned by “the ‘non-secular push’ that is reshaping the nature of education in Australia and, by default, reshaping Australian society. One only needs to watch the 6 o’clock news of an evening to witness the underlying change occurring in Australian society.”

In fact, the faith-based task of dismantling Australia’s secular public education system is now so advanced that Professor Marion Maddox called for a “Great Leap Backwards” to the “golden age of secularism.” Maddox, an authority on the intersection of politics and religion in Australia, questioned the judgment of politicians who pander to an “imaginary Christian constituency.” She dismissed claims that Pentecostal mega-churches have the power to sway the vote in their electorates, noting that this “dubious” research is based on some “very strange assumptions.”

Hugh Wilson, Peter Harrison and Peter Garrigan, in particular, called for concerned parents to look more closely into what is happening in their local schools, engage with and interrogate their P&Cs and local chaplaincy committees, join or form action groups and lobby their state and federal members. It is only the voices of parents that will turn the tide. Currently, the voices of parents and teachers are being ignored.

If the welfare of our children doesn’t concern our governments, perhaps they should consider that parents and teachers can deliver far more votes than a fringe group of fundamentalist Christians.

Chrys Stevenson is a writer, historian and blogger.


Teaching of evolution and climate science in US schools

The National Center for Science Education tries to ensure evolution is taught in schools rather than creationism. Teachers are being pressured not to teach evolution and climate science and need help to deal with the pressure. Climate science is being caught up with domestic politics in the US, with very few Republicans accepting climate science.

Robyn Williams: This is The Science Show on RN, your Steve unfolding.

[Music: ‘The Steve Song’]

‘Steve’ is a name to conjure with for Eugenie Scott, as you’ll hear. She also likes ‘Stephanie’. She was at the AAAS in Vancouver, representing the National Centre for Science Education.

Eugenie Scott: The National Centre for Science Education for about 25 years now has tried to help teachers and scientists and parents and other people keep evolution in the public schools and see that it gets taught and not various kinds of creationism, or that evolution not be qualified or denigrated in some way, that it could just be taught as straight up science.

Robyn Williams: And the standards are scientific evidence?

Eugenie Scott: We go along with the consensus of the scientific community. And what kindergarten through 12th grade teachers should be teaching is what scientists agree with. K-12 teachers are not in the business of doing science themselves, they have to depend on what university and professional scientists conclude from the evidence from their research is the best explanation for the time. And right now the best explanation in biology is that living things have common ancestors. The best explanation from the physical sciences is that the planet is getting warmer and people have a lot to do with it.

Robyn Williams: Why have you now taken on climate science?

Eugenie Scott: We’ve been hearing more and more from teachers and people who work with teachers that just like they get pressure against the teaching of evolution, so also are they beginning to experience push-back on the teaching of global warming. So we’ve had a lot of experience helping teachers with this ‘controversial issue’ of evolution, controversial in the public if not in science. And we thought we could maybe use some of that expertise to help them with this other ‘controversial issue’.

Robyn Williams: You made this decision quite recently. How has it been going?

Eugenie Scott: We just announced it, as you say, less than a month ago. We’ve added a new member of our Board of Directors, a climate scientist named Peter Gleick who is a water resource specialist, and we’ve added a new staff member to NCSE, Mark McCaffrey who is a climate science educator with over a decade of experience. So we are gearing up. Mostly what we’re going to try to do is get the word out that if you are a teacher having problems teaching climate change, global warming, let us know, we can hopefully help you resolve these problems and get back to teaching good science.

Robyn Williams: Where is the pressure coming from on the schools and teachers?

Eugenie Scott: We began noticing about four or five years ago that state legislatures would be introducing legislation where the teaching of evolution was supposed to be qualified in some way, teaching all the evidence, which means teach creationism, right? And they were bundling evolution with global warming. So teachers were supposed to teach all evidence or treat evolution and global warming as controversial issues. And that got us interested in trying to keep our eyes and ears open for reports of teachers getting pushed back for the teaching of global warming.

The reports are coming in. We’ve already had three calls from school districts or individual teachers, one from a parent, one from a teacher, one from a school board, actually all three levels, where some advice on handling climate change was requested from us. So our staff are working with those people now.

Robyn Williams: How do you handle the fact that there is indeed a vast amount of information and, maybe on certain aspects of climate change, varied opinion?

Eugenie Scott: What you find if you look at the science literature and if you look at the survey research of the attitudes of scientists, you find that there is very, very high agreement among scientists, over 90% agreeing that, yes, the planet is getting warmer. There is comparably high agreement that, yes, human beings have had a lot to do with it, the increase of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution, et cetera. When you survey climate scientists, the ones who are actually doing research in these areas, you find that the percentages are in the high 90s, 96%, 97%. So I think that’s pretty good evidence that there is a scientific consensus out there.

All the details? Of course not. Science is all about refining your explanations. But those kinds of details about climate science are generally not what a high school or middle school teacher is going to be teaching. They’re going to be teaching the basics. But the basics—that the planet is getting warmer, CO2 is important, human generated CO2 is a biggie—those are the kinds of things that teachers are getting push-back on. And they need help in knowing how to deal with that kind of pressure, and we think we may be able to help them.

Robyn Williams: If I was at a school in the United States and put up my hand and I said, ‘Teacher, teacher, why is there no candidate on the Republican side who takes climate change seriously as an issue?’ What would your answer be?

Eugenie Scott: Well, there was one, there was Jon Huntsman who actually accepted evolution and accepted climate change. In all seriousness, we are trying very hard to help people understand that this is a matter of good science education, it is not a Democratic versus Republican thing. There is actually an organisation of Republicans for climate science. I mean, just as there are green Christians as well as Christians who oppose evolution, there are green Republicans as well as Republicans that oppose climate change.

The issue seems to be more conservative political ideology and conservative economic ideology as you find among the American libertarians, where the belief is that climate change can’t be happening because if it is happening then the consequences of that will require more centralised government control or economic control, there is a variety of beliefs out there.

So the tendency for people who are very much against centralised government or government control of the economy in various ways is to deny climate change. They will often frame the issue that ‘nobody is going to tell me what kind of car to drive’, so it gets all tied up with American individualism and all sorts of stuff.

Robyn Williams: I’m going to replay something that was put together by David Fisher, who is the producer of The Science Show, and his choral mates, and it is ‘The Steve Song’. I see you’ve still got a Steve t-shirt. Finally, would you explain what the Steve t-shirt is all about?

Eugenie Scott: I’m so pleased that you are going to reprise that fine performance. Project Steve, which is what generated that wonderful quartet, is an elbow in the ribs, so to speak, that we did a number of years ago when we got so annoyed at the creationists for coming up with lists of scientists doubting Darwin. And the intelligent design guys came up with 100 scientists doubting Darwin, and we thought that was really dumb. So we got 200 scientists to attest to a statement about evolution. And all of our scientists were named Steve. So Project Steve went on from there.

And I tell you, Robyn, this is the gift that keeps on giving. I mean, we had a lot of fun poking fun at the creationists…because we had twice as many scientists just with one name…I mean, everybody got the joke. But then word spread and Steves and Stephanies kept coming in over the transom. And pretty soon we had 400 Steves and we had to do a new t-shirt. Then we had 800 Steves and we had to do a new t-shirt. Now I’m very proud to say that a year or two ago we acquired the Kilo Steve. We now have over 1,000 Steves supporting evolution, and I must tell you that the 1,000th Steve is the distinguished botanist from the Tulane University Botanical Garden, Steve Darwin.

Robyn Williams: How appropriate. And you have no thoughts on the lists of other so-called scientists who think that climate change is crap?

Eugenie Scott: There is a list that keeps getting bandied about, it’s 30,000 scientists, collected by a group up in Oregon which basically is a guy and his son, it’s not exactly a real science institute, but the OSI, the Oregon Science Institute list of 30,000 scientists, when you examine that list, it becomes considerably less than promised. A ‘scientist’ is anybody who has a bachelor’s degree or higher in something related to science. So there is actually a rather tiny percentage of this 30,000 people who are actual real climate scientists. So it’s not a very impressive list.

Lists of scientists attesting to one or another scientific theory is kind of a dumb idea because that’s not how we do science anyway, that I’ve noticed. You know, you go out, you do the research, you test your explanation, the explanation works or it doesn’t, you reject it, you corroborate it, you build up your explanation. And that’s how we decide whether a scientific explanation works or not. We don’t do it by just attesting and who has the longer list of scientists supporting or not supporting an idea. These lists are silly.

Robyn Williams: Eugenie Scott, thank you very much.

Eugenie Scott: Thank you so much, it’s so good to see you again.

[Music: ‘The Steve Song’]

Robyn Williams: ‘The Steve Song’, with David Fisher and Geoff Sirmai. And I was talking to Eugenie Scott at the National Centre for Science Education in the USA. And did you notice the name she mentioned, Peter Gleick, now helping them at the Centre, is probably the same fellow who was involved with those papers from the Heartland Institute in the news last week. Eugenie will be here in Melbourne in a few weeks time.