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Predicting the Future

In the lessons we offer to our students we can often find lessons for ourselves. I am thinking in particular of my recent discussion in class of the "Technological Ladder" and the factor "L" from the Drake Equation. The latter is the average expected lifetime of a technological civilization; the former is a metaphor for a civilization's advancement in technology during the course of its lifetime.

We considered our current level of technology compared to that of an average alien civilization. Regardless of any modest value of L chosen—500 years, 5000 years, or longer—their level of technology is vastly advanced compared to ours. Thus, most science fiction gets it right by having advanced alien technology, but gets it wrong by not making them sufficiently advanced.

Our presence in the new millennium, whether celebrated a year early or not, is sufficient cause for some reflection on our current situation. Let's consider two examples. What would alien civilizations at a distance of 100 or 1000 lightyears know of us (hypothetically)? We would be seen, respectively, as we were in 1900 or 1000. Our present state of affairs would not reach them for another 100 or 1000 years. How well could these aliens anticipate our current technology? Indeed, how well could we make the same extrapolation? It is the same problem we face when trying to determine our state of technology a century from now or, worse yet, a millennium from now.

A thousand years ago, humans continued to look upon the sky with the same awe and wonderment they had for thousands of millennia before. It would be more than five centuries before Galileo would use his telescope to discover a universe of greater extent and detail than ever imagined. A century ago photography and spectroscopy were hinting at a universe that was far more diverse and far larger than could be accepted by the finest astronomers. It would take three decades to realize the extent of these initial discoveries and their interpretations. The awe and wonder now spans ten billion years, several thousand megaparsecs, and billions of galaxies. We credit our advances in technology for opening these windows of understanding to us.

What can we anticipate for the next 100 or 1000 years with respect to our understanding of the Universe? Can we look back to these previous times for hints that lead us directly to today? My students found that a difficult task for just the 100-year period. What foundation had been prepared that would predict global positioning, gigabyte memories, and instantaneous world-wide communication among millions of ordinary people? None were evident in a civilization mostly without indoor plumbing.

So we are in the same predicament with regard to forecasting the next century, let alone the next millennium. Arthur C. Clarke's statement, "A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," remains a gentle reminder of the futility of such an attempt.

But leaving technology aside, are we not like the late 19th century astronomers, seeing hints of a vast universe on our horizon? My lecture last October on the discovery of extrasolar planets was out of date by the final exam in December. In our Galaxy of a few hundred billion stars it is quite possible for there to be five to ten times as many planets. Having previously viewed our Solar System as being dynamically stable, we now see the suggestion of massive planets sweeping inexorably through their systems, dislocating planetesimals and planets alike. A milder form of rearrangement may even have occurred in our own system. And the question of life environments on extrasolar planets and of alien life itself moves the issue of diversity to a level of unimaginable complexity and personal importance.

 In one hundred years the history will be obvious. But today we have the very same awe and wonder when looking at images from the Hubble Space Telescope as humans had at the dawn of our existence. Let our students take this with them from our classrooms as they lay out the future.

Research-Based Teaching

The Use of Astronomy in Research Based Science Education (RBSE), an NSF-funded Teacher-Enhancement program, invites applications from middle- and high-school teachers interested in developing a research component for their science classes within the multi-disciplinary context of astronomy. Offered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), RBSE offers a research experience to sixteen teachers during a 180-hour summer workshop and extends the experience to the classroom during the academic year with materials, support, datasets, and mentors.

Program highlights include training in image processing and use of the World Wide Web; observing runs using the telescopes of Kitt Peak National Observatory and the National Solar Observatory; springboard activities to customize and use during the academic year with updated datasets; opportunities to job shadow members of the NOAO technical staff and build a solar telescope; and mentoring from professional astronomers and educators who have successfully implemented research-based science classes in a variety of situations.

The 2000 program takes place in Tucson, Arizona, from 9 July through 5 August. Participants will receive travel costs, room & board, and a stipend. Application deadline is 5 March 2000. For more information and application materials, visit the website at www.noao.edu or contact Suzanne Jacoby, NOAO Education Officer, by email at outreach@noao.edu or by telephone at 520.318.8230.

Got the Time?

Do you teach at a school where every clock in every room reads a different time? Here is a solution. The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory announce a new website that puts atomic time on your computer, accurate to 0.3 second. The website allows you to select your time zone; displayed is the digital time and a world map showing daytime on Earth. The site also provides links to other websites devoted to clocks and time-keeping. To find out what time it is, go to www.time.gov.

LEO P. CONNOLLY can be found surfin' the Net using his G3 at the Department of Physics, California State University, San Bernardino. He responds to messages sent to lconnoll@csusb.edu. Comments and contributions are welcome.Education