From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul> Date: Thu, 06 May 2004 11:55:11 -0400 Fwd Date: Thu, 06 May 2004 11:55:11 -0400 Subject: Mars And The Teachable Moment Source: Space.Com http://www.space.com/searchforlife/seti_devore_face_040506.html 06-05-04 SETI: Search For Life Mars And The Teachable Moment By Edna DeVore Director of Education and Public Outreach We're back on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity roving the surface and engaging the public in the search for evidence of water. Overhead, orbiters image the surface in exquisite detail. People worldwide are attentive to Mars - it can even be easily seen in the evening sky with the naked eye. All of this makes Mars the logical focus for teaching science as a part of current events, and for dealing with pseudoscientific claims about Mars. It's a good time for critical thinking in classrooms. With the observations being made from Mars orbiters, students and teachers can critically consider the "face on Mars". In a reprise of an earlier column, I offered my thoughts on this "face". Today, as NASA considers Mars as the past and future home for life, the critical consideration of the "face" continues to be relevant. In late March of 2002, the SETI Institute education team was at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in San Diego, CA along with about 14,000 other science teachers. It's a good thing that these NSTA meetings coincide with spring break, or no science would be taught in US schools during that week every spring. I had a long conversation with a high school science teacher about teaching science in a world where his students are continually exposed to pseudo-science or even phony science - the stuff they learn from watching television and reading the tabloids. What do they believe is real? The face on Mars, alien autopsies, Area 51 in the Nevada desert as an alien storage area, the "non-landings" on the Moon, UFO's, alien kidnappings - these are all the grist of great story telling and speculation in the media. It is easy for uncritical kids (and adults) to "believe" the "evidence" of alien beings and encounters when it is all carefully gift-wrapped by the creative television producers who crank out dramatic programs depicting these events with well-trained actors and elaborate sets. Of course, these are the same folks who bring us fantastic science fiction films which we ALL know are entertainment, not science education - or at least I function under that illusion. The pseudo-science accounts are carefully filmed and professionally narrated for television as "documentaries" about mysteries, or unexplained events. All aim to convince the public that aliens have been here or nearby on the Moon or Mars, and that all of the "evidence" is being covered up by a grand conspiracy of seriously un-fun people in the government, universities, and research organizations. Folks like me. Denying, providing alternative explanations, or criticizing the "evidence" simply proves there is a cover-up. About 50% of the American public believes that UFO's are real, and what they mean by "real" is that UFO's are piloted by aliens from some distant world, not Earthlings from the local Air Force Base or actors in Hollywood costumes. Think about that, and then consider teaching space science and astronomy in this social context. Take the face on Mars. The first photograph of this bumpy mesa was snapped by the Viking Orbiter, and released by NASA to the public on July 31, 1976. [Picture:Cydonia area] What did NASA say about the photograph? "Caption of JPL Viking Press Release P-17384 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Viking New Center Viking 1-61 Pasadena, CAP-17384 (35A72) July 31, 1976 This picture is one of many taken in the northern latitudes of Mars by the Viking 1 Orbiter in search of a landing site for Viking 2. The picture shows eroded mesa-like landforms. The huge rock formation in the center, which resembles a human head, is formed by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth. The feature is 1.5 kilometers one mile across, with the sun angle at approximately 20 degrees. The speckled appearance of the image is due to bit errors, emphasized by enlargement of the photo. The picture was taken on July 25 from a range of 1873 kilometers (1162) miles). Viking 2 will arrive in Mars orbit next Saturday (August 7) with a landing scheduled for early September." It is an intriguing image, and certainly does look like a face. In fact, since then, this "face" on Mars has inspired a whole library of books and groups of true believers that now find "evidence" of a "Pyramid" and an "Inca City" as well - all, of course, photographed by Viking but covered up by NASA officials. Note that all of the publications help to put bread on the table and pay the rent for the creative folks churning out books, articles, and tabloid stories about "the face." Now, image being a science teacher with a classroom full of 15- year old students who believe the television accounts of the face on Mars, cities on the Moon, alien autopsies, etc. etc., and you are teaching your unit on space and astronomy. A careful excursion through the characteristics of the planets and their moons interests your students - the red spot on Jupiter would hold at least 3 Earths, a cool factoid - but it doesn't grab them. The face on Mars does. And this was what I discussed with the science teacher at NSTA. The face on Mars is a teachable moment. Turn your students into scientists. Present the evidence for the students to consider. There is the Viking photograph, taken in 1976 and the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) photographs taken about 25 years later. Ask the students what they see in the 1976 photograph - like everyone else, they will see a face. I see a face in that photograph too. Humans interact with the natural world by organizing perception into recognizable form. Who has not watched clouds on a summer day, and "seen" horses, dragons, beautiful men/women, ships, and such? In the early part of the century, astronomer, Lowell, was convinced he saw canals on Mars through his telescope in Arizona. Subsequently, other observers and photography of Mars proved that his mind was "connecting" broken features into lines, the canals, but that it was all in his mind not on Mars. We humans are pattern seekers, and seeing familiar forms in strange places helps us to organize our perceptions of the natural world. There was a rock formation near my childhood home in the Sierra Nevada mountains that looked like a bear, but I never assumed that it was carved by some unknown being to make me ponder bears or believe in unknown beings. I understood that it was jagged granite, and the fact that it looked like a bear was a coincidence. I also had to stand in the right place to see the bear; otherwise, it just looked like a mountain peak. Like the bear, to see the face on Mars, you have to "stand" in the right place, and at the right time of day. Move forward a couple of decades. We've returned to Mars. We have new, higher resolution photographs of the same mesa taken by MGS and posted to the web by Malin Space Science Systems, the designers and builders of the camera onboard MGS. These are detailed, new views, including views from different places at different times of the day. The raw data from MGS is image processed to bring out the details on the mesa, and a clear explanation for how scientists accomplish this work helps students to understand that there is not cover up. It's more like an uncovering to reduce raw data to images. There are movies that allow you to fly around the "face" and check out the terrain for yourself. Send your students there for the evidence. What does the mesa look like see more clearly, more closely? You decide: [Picture: C.U. Mars 'Face'] The shadows cast by the low Sun angle in 1976 created a lovely illusion - a giant face-like mesa on Mars. The new images, taken by MGS reveal the "face" as a rocky mesa, one of many in the Cydonia region of Mars. It looks a lot like mesas in the western region of the United States. In fact, it looks a lot like other mesas in that same region on Mars - similar in size, dimension, and height. It's an ordinary feature on Mars, not a gargantuan piece of artwork left to make us ponder whether alien artists who sculpted on a grand scale had visited Mars. But, don't ask students to "believe" in science, provide the evidence, and allow them to critically consider what we now know about the "face" on Mars. Give them the same opportunity granted the space scientists who took the images with Viking and with MGS. Finally, ask yourself and your students how much money people made and continue to make from selling pseudoscientific accounts and films to the gullible public. That discussion might reveal why the "face on Mars" is so persistent.
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