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Intelligent Design in science classes? Not in Australia.

The whole issue of "Intelligent Design" (or re-labelled Creationism - same ideas, different name) has been going around for some time now. It seems to be a thorny issue with a lot of people, on both sides of the argument. Now, as far as I'm concerned, people can believe whatever they like, as long as they don't shove it down anyone else's throats or break laws because of their beliefs.

Before I go on, a quick disclaimer: I'm certainly not intending to shove my point of view down anybody's throat here, that is not my intention. After all, you

can always stop reading now and go somewhere else in your random walk around the internet.

Anyway, what annoys me with this issue is that there is a significant group of people loudly campaigning to have Intelligent Design taught in schools alongside evolution in science classes. Now, this makes me very uneasy. I have no problem with teaching children that there are many points of view (I suspect that a bit of comparative religion in school would be a good thing), but things like this have no place in the science classroom. Intelligent Design is not a theory. It has no scientific basis. It is not science. It should not be taught as science. It is a belief.

Here's what the Australian Science Teacher's Association has to say on the matter in a press release:

The study of Science is about what is measurable, testable and evidence-based.

Scientific theories are subject to testing and are modified on the basis of facts and experimental evidence. The theory of evolution is the best scientific explanation for explaining the changes in life on Earth. As with any scientific theory, the theory of Evolution will continue to be modified as new observations and discoveries are made.

Intelligent Design is a belief system that maintains that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by the intervention of an intelligent cause. As with any religion or system of belief, it may warrant a place in a religious or cultural studies curriculum. It does not have a place in a science curriculum, alongside scientific theories such as evolution.

As it is not possible to set up an experiment to test Intelligent Design, it cannot have any status as a scientific theory and hence has not been included in science curriculum in Australia. While Intelligent Design has no status as a scientific theory, teachers of science may wish to contrast it or other belief systems with scientific theories like Evolution as a means of assisting students to understand better the nature of science.

So you should not find Intelligent Design being taught in science classrooms here (that doesn't mean that you will not find it, just that you shouldn't).

Science has enough problems in schools as it is, without teachers having this sort of thing to worry about. Science is still seen as boring by a lot of children, which is a shame, because really it's very exciting. Teaching it as a collection of facts which need to be committed to memory is a bad thing, but far easier than teaching the scientific process. I found science boring at school, until the first time I did an experiment where I didn't know what the answer was supposed to be before I started - that's when I realised how fun it can be.

Incidentally, yesterday the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in the UK published their consultation summary report following the public consultation into "A vision for Science and Society" that's been ongoing for the last six months or so. When I've finished reading Darwin's The Origin of Species", I'll be flicking through it.

Posted by Megan on Friday 30th Jan 2009 (07:34 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Australia Day eclipse

Australia Day, 26th January 2009, Perth
Australia Day, 26th January 2009, Perth CREDIT: Megan
Yesterday was Australia Day: an excuse for a big party, and some more public outreach. Here in Perth there was a big fireworks display on the river at 9pm, just after dark. There also happened to be a partial solar eclipse!

I took my old Russian telescope down to the foreshore and spent the morning helping set things up in the new Family Zone. Run by the City of South Perth, the Family Zone is an attempt to encourage families back to the foreshore for Australia Day. It seems that the high levels of drunken behaviour in recent years has put a lot of people off.

The foreshore got really busy during the afternoon, but it was comparatively civilised in the Family Zone. It was a large fenced off area with rides for kids, a stage show, and absolutely no alcohol. I shared a spot with two outreach people from Scitech for the afternoon. It was quiet at first, but during the two hours of the eclipse we spoke to more than 700 people. They'd brought along a couple of boxes of pinhole cameras and gave away a lot. It was good fun, and well worth the effort.

Partial eclipse, 26th January 2009, Perth
Partial eclipse, 26th January 2009, Perth CREDIT: Megan
The image here is a photograph of the eclipse at about maximum coverage, roughtly 22%. As I've said before, never look at the Sun through a telescope! This was done by projection through my little telescope. Point it at the Sun and use a piece of card to view a projection of the Sun.

I took the telescope home after the eclipse finished at 7pm and walked past a large fight on the foreshore. There were huge numbers of scantily clad teenagers and twenty-somethings around, all pissed. Lots of police too. It's no wonder that families aren't going to the foreshore for the fireworks anymore. That's what the Family Zone is trying to achieve. Apparently, they've got funding to run an area twice as big next year!

The fireworks were good, too. Half an hour of explosives let off from barges in the middle of the river and some of the taller buildings in the city. After it finished it was about half nine and I'd been on my feet for more than 12 hours, so I walked home, had a shower and fell asleep. I couldn't keep my eyes open today!

So, three weeks into the International Year of Astronomy, and that's three events already! I knew this year was going to be busy.... I need a holiday!

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 27th Jan 2009 (12:12 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

IYA events - January

So, it's the International Year of Astronomy at last. I've got plenty of plans for the year, some are fairly well advanced while others are still in very early stages. It's been busy already though, and it's been fun.

Last weekend, Roy and I took some telescopes, both optical and radio, and went down to Pinjarra for a few days to a large camp for Venturers from all over Australia. Venturer Scouts are 15 to 18 year olds, and there were 800 of them in one place for a week. The campsite was a good distance from Perth, on the edge of the hills, so there wasn't much light pollution around but, unfortunately, the moon was almost full which was a bit of a shame. Still, we had fun with the telescopes. We took a 5-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain from the astro lab at uni and borrowed a 16-inch Dobsonian from Scitech. After a few hiccups, we managed to get power out to the field and get everything running. Once the 5-inch was set up properly, we had an easy go-to system for when people arrived. The in-built sky tours are quite good for finding a quick set of interesting objects to show a group, especially when the sky is as swamped by moonlight as it was. The 16-inch is unmotorised and relys on the operator star-hopping to find objects. Roy got quite good at this, with the help of Stellarium, by the end of the weekend. The view was pretty good through this telescope, even with the Moon, I can't wait to have a go with it under some proper dark skies!

At the end of last year, Scitech coordinated the creation of a special planisphere for IYA. It is designed for use in Australia and will be usable across most of the continent, but it has IYA events information on the back which is specific to Western Australia. Several organisations around Perth ordered some, including me. Thanks to the Chief Commissioner for Scouts in WA, I was able to order 2000 of them! Just in time for the camp, the planispheres arrived so I took a box down to Pinjarra. (They're amesome, thanks Sue!) We gave away quite a few, but the rest should last for a while. I've had lots of requests to visit Scout groups around Perth, and I've already done a few last year. One group even came to Curtin to use telescopes, but we were unlucky and it rained! Never mind, they had a good time anyway I think, and there will be plenty more chances to see the stars this year. I've got several other events planned for Scouts this year, including (hopefully) an astronomy-themed camp later in the year. I've got involved with the Environment team as well and will be doing astronomy activities at some of their events this year.

The next event is a partial eclipse of the Sun on January 26th. Here in Perth, we see 22% of the Sun covered by the Moon at maximum eclipse, which occurs at about 6pm. Unfortunately, trying to do some public outreach around this event proved somewhat difficult. January 26th happens to be Australia Day where everybody gets very patriotic and has a good party by the sounds of it. During the time of the eclipse, it seems that a lot of people will be down on the foreshore having a good time waiting for the fireworks show which starts after dark. So, not deterred by the skeptisism of various people around here, I've planned something anyway. It's not very large-scale, because there's not a lot of point really, but I wanted to do something. So, I talked to South Perth Council who are running a "Family Zone" on the foreshore during the afternoon, and got permission to take a telescope down there to show people the Sun and the eclipse safely. I should stress that you should never look at the Sun through a telescope! A few years ago now, Stuart and I used my old telescope to demonstrate what happens to your eye if you do. Scary stuff. Use a proper filter or, even better, find someone who knows what they're doing. The bast way is to use projection to see the image, and that's what I'll be doing on Australia Day.

So anyway, that's my next IYA event. Then there's a day doing stuff with kids at a local PCYC (Police Commuity Youth Club), the astronomy camp, environment days, talks at the CSIRO lab at Scitech during Easter, and the AstroFest in November which Curtin are hosting, organised together with Scitech and the local astronomy societies. It's shaping up to be a busy, but exciting, year. Isn't it great?!

Posted by Megan on Saturday 17th Jan 2009 (12:25 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Trying to find Southern meteors....

After the sucessful operation of the Jodrell Bank Observatory Meteor Detector (JBOMD) for over a year now, I'm trying to set one up here in Perth. Luckily, there was a scanning receiver in the lab identical to the one the JBOMD is using so all my control scripts work out of the box. Over the summer break (yes, it's hot down here at this time if year) I've set the thing up on the roof with a dipole and a little amplifier and set it scanning a bunch of frequencies in order to find a likely place to spot some meteors, logging to a laptop so that all I have to do is check the data when I go back to work.

Meteor test setup at CurtinMeteor test setup at Curtin
Meteor test setup at Curtin. Top: the setup in the starwell. Bottom: the antenna - not the dish in the background, that's a proper radio telescope, the antenna is the thing strung between the two chairs (yes, I know it looks a bit Heath Robinson) CREDIT: Megan

What you need is a transmitter in the TV band which is far enough away that you don't normally pick up the signal, but near enough that there is still enough power after the signal has bounced off the ionised trail of a meteor in the upper atmosphere and traveled back to your antenna. What I've found so far is lots of funky-looking interference, but no meteors. It's early days yet, and this experiment is just to investigate likely places to start looking in more detail. In the Southern hemisphere, January is a good time to be looking as the meteor rates are fairly high.

Stay tuned.

There was another cool view of the planets last week. One great thing about living on the river is the fantastic low horizon to the west. This shot was taken from the top of the bridge over the freeway at about quarter to ten in the evening on December 29th. Mercury is there, honest, you might have to play with the contrast on your monitor to see it though. High above them was Venus shining away brightly, but my old little camera isn't quite that good (it's now six years old and the battery cover is held on with gaffer tape...).

Jupter, Mercury and the Moon
Jupiter, Mercury and the Moon, December 29th 2008 CREDIT: Megan

Posted by Megan on Saturday 03rd Jan 2009 (12:28 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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