Berkeley Connect Physics students explore science and policy

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On April 17th, I joined Berkeley Connect Physics mentor Jesse Livezey and his students as they discussed and debated policy suggestions for climate change and space travel.

The discussion began with the very pressing issue of climate change.  Why have companies & countries been so slow to react to scientific evidence for climate change?  More importantly, the class weighed in on what scientists like themselves could do or suggest to remedy the problem.  Jesse pointed out that finding solutions is no easy task. For example, many people are against fracking and its environmental impact, but others have argued that it is the lesser of two evils, since coal mines are the cause of many deaths each year. But even though there is no hard and fast solution to climate change, everyone agreed that discussing the problem is critical to our future.Students broke out into small groups to focus on climate change through a scientific lens.

“Scientists are suggesting things,” one student argued as the group convened. “But people don’t care or don’t listen or have interests that get in the way.” Another suggested that the scientist’s role lies in “clarifying what’s real and what is not.” Many also brought up China as an example of a country that has been taking a more proactive stance about climate change than the United States.

Next, BC Physics students tackled the issue of space travel with a scientists’ debate on whether the government should continue to fund space travel expeditions and research. Students arguing for space travel pointed out that space travel is a tangible outlet and goal for innovation, as well as exciting. “We want people to go into science,” one said, adding that anything that excites kids and motivates them to pursue STEM fields is beneficial for science. Others suggested that space travel allows us to look at the past to look into the future. “We can explore our origins when we find life on other planets,” she said. Yet another brought up aliens. Another student jokingly suggested a galactic empire to mine for resources. “Isn’t one of Neptune’s moon made of diamonds?”

Students against space travel believed that money would be better spent if it were to help solve problems on our own planet today. “How efficient is spending money on space travel when we can be spending it on terrestrial science or solving social problems?” one said. He also pointed out that terrestrial science is far cheaper to fund. Another believed that space travel is less feasible today than it will be in years to come. She argued that because technology is changing so quickly, it will become both cheaper and more efficient in the future. “If we send a probe into space and it takes 50 years to reach somewhere and in that time, we build a probe that can do it in half the time, aren’t we wasting money and resources?”  Her mentor challenged her, however, as he posed an important question – “Can we build the second one if we never built the first?” Students also suggested that finding aliens or building a galactic empire – galactic dictatorship, as one said! – might not be beneficial to humans.

By the close of the discussion, students agreed on one thing. There is no easy answer to any of these questions, even as we – and our society – continue to explore them. But they are still important to discuss!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant