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King: Man is changing earth over time; is it for the better?
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Report after report tells us the U.S. is falling behind in math and science. How bad is it?

According to one international assessment, our 15-year-olds rank 25th in the world. China is No. 1. This doesn't look good, but since I'm raising a bright 15 year-old who goes to a good school but absolutely sucks in math, I'm not convinced that this alone spells disaster.

I'm not as concerned with test scores as I am with basic understanding. Numbers are important, but what one does with them depends on something deeper. If the financial world uses numbers to manipulate commercial activity but doesn't understand the consequences of misused capital, we all suffer.

Science expands our horizons. It has the potential to better our lives in many ways, but it can also destroy us. Science itself is amoral. What it does or does not do depends upon how we use it, and that depends on something more than test scores.

To understand our future as well as our past, we have to understand evolution. Evolution is simply change through time. Unfortunately, I don't think the average person truly understands time. And why would he when both recorded history and the human life span are so short. This is why technology's impact on climate and the planet's ecology is so hard to accept.

As far as geology is concerned the last 10,000 years, the Holocene, is very recent history. The Holocene has been a particularly stable time in earth's history. It was not always so. Paul Curtzen a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist believes that today the Earth is leaving the Holocene and becoming ... what?

Dr. Dr. Curtzen and his colleague, Eugene Stroermer, suggest this new age should be called the Anthropocene, a period when man himself shapes the planet. Even a highly educated population, one where every 15 year-older excels at science and math, and every child can recite the geologic time scale back to the beginning of life on earth, is not prepared for this.

There's a beautiful irony here. Mankind has always wanted to be at the center of things. Earth was the center of the universe, it was believed. The sun circled it and brought light and warmth by day and the stars and moon followed at night. To think otherwise was heresy.

But science did think otherwise. Finally we had to give up the idea that man was the center of anything other than himself. There were other suns and other earths and other solar systems, maybe even other races of intelligent beings. We are a mere speck in the universe, a small hiccup in time.

Ah, but now look. Mankind is a far bigger player in the game of life than we thought. The key is change through time: evolution! Evolution, however, is not fully understood even by the educated. A few reject it entirely. Their number is small, but their influence is not.

Mankind has actually sped up time. What used to take thousands of years now takes 10. We travel faster, we compute faster, we build and destroy faster. On the other hand things that use to take 10 years now takes thousands. Humans pollute. They always have, but in a nontechnical world whatever humans left behind was gone in a few years.

What humans leave behind today can threaten life on earth for generations to come. We simply aren't prepared for this.

There is another factor in the mix: the human psyche. This is a relative new field of study. The old myths and holy scriptures hint at what lies beneath the surface, but only recently have we applied our expanded resources to study the mind. Today we can look into the brain itself and watch as information is transmitted from one lob to another.

This sound cold, but it is one more way to understand human behavior. And understand we must if we are to survive.

Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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