Tag Archives: Cal Academy

Our subjective concept of time

The Big Bang, cosmos, and string theory – there are a surfeit of books that delve into wild ideas about the deepest mysteries of our universe. This caused astronomer Adam Frank to ask himself a question late one night in his fifth month of writing his book, About Time: “Who cares!? ” Save astronomers, physicists, and theologists, does cosmology matter on a day-to-day scale for the rest of us? His answer is yes … but not in the way one would expect.

Dr. Frank’s recently delivered a talk titled About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang as part of the Benjamin Dean astronomy lecture series at the California Academy of Science.  Cal Academy has no shortage of fascinating talks by prominent speakers, and this particular talk included immersive visuals to illustrate Frank’s points, planetarium style.

According to Dr. Frank, cosmology shapes the human experience through one important connection: time. Each cultural era has had its own concept of what time is, or “time logic”.  Time, therefore, is an invention that serves the current needs of humanity. To demonstrate this point, Dr. Frank asks, “What time is it?”  Everyone in the audience found the answer quickly, 7:48 pm, but the abstract concept of 48 minutes after the arbitrary hour of seven would have made no sense to someone living before minute hands were added to the invention of a clock.  For example, a thousand years ago people gauged the time of day by the placement of the sun and the length of the shadows (in Ancient Rome, noon occurred when the sun lined up between two prominent buildings), but there was no metering of time in increments as small as a minute.

Humans – Are We Just Another Primate?

Inspired by Chris Holdgraf’s recent post comparing humans and computers, I decided to discuss another aspect of humanness—our biological heritage—and why we are unique to our animal counterparts.

For this, I present to you Robert Sapolsky: Stanford professor, neuroscientist, and author. I adore Sapolsky’s witty style of writing, and when I found out he would be speaking at the California Academy of Sciences, I reserved my ticket immediately. It was no surprise to find that Sapolsky’s style of lecture was as richly conversational, intelligently humorous, and sparklingly scientific as his books.

In his lecture, “Humans: Are We Just Another Primate?”, Sapolsky discusses how alike humans and animals are, and tells story after story about animals (particularly primates) behaving in ways that we once reserved as uniquely human. Humans did not reinvent the brain, so in a world where we share mostly the same neurotransmitters, structure, and genetics with flies, what is it that gives us our humanness? In Sapolsky’s words, “When are we special, and when are we anything but?”

Funding science in a slow economy

Early last week, Senators Tom Coburn (R- Oklahoma) and John McCain (R- Arizona) released a report entitled “Summertime Blues: 100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues.” Among the projects highlighted in the report, there are a number of research studies funded by the National Science Foundation from their portion of last year’s stimulus funds (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Of the $862 billion total dispersed by Congress, the NSF received $2 billion specifically for “research and related activities.” NSF chose to use these funds for highly rated proposals that had already been submitted for review, but which would otherwise have gone unfunded due to budget constraints.

Let me be clear from the beginning: it is not the goal of this blog to take any political stance. Our main interest is science, and science is not an inherently political pursuit. The opinions of policy-makers are not directly relevant to our pursuit of truth about the natural world.

Cal Academy NightLife goes Extreme…Mammals

The California Academy of Sciences, located in the San Francisco Golden Gate Park, runs an evening program called NightLife every Thursday from 6-10 pm. Each NightLife has a unique scientific theme as well as a DJ, dance floor, and alcoholic beverages for purchase (you must be over 21 with valid ID to enter NightLife). Non-member tickets are $12 and can be purchased online or at the door.

I first visited the Cal Academy last year when NightLife was fresh on the table and the line to get in wrapped around the block, no matter how windy or cold the San Francisco evening. Even now, the event remains popular with hundreds of guests visiting every Thursday evening. The Academy’s current highlight is Extreme Mammals, which runs through September 12 this year, and it’s a must-see for adults and kids alike.