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17 August 2010

TAM, Day One: Pamela Gay

This is the tenth in a series of posts discussing The Amaz!ng Meeting 8, which took place at South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, 8–11 July 2010. You can find the previous post here. You can find the next post here.

Pamela Gay

When Pamela is asked what she does at a party, people are invariable taken aback. No one expects to meet a scientist. In 2007 in the United States, for every 10,000 people there were 2.6 scientists, 3.0 clergyfolk, and 41.3 lawyers.

Pamela Gay believes that involving citizens in science—an effort called, appropriately enough, "citizen science"—is not only important, but is also a realistic goal. Crowdsourcing works. The most prominent example of citizen science in her field is Galaxy Zoo, where countless members of the public have helped sort through millions of astronomical objects to classify them.

Galaxy Zoo led directly to the discovery of Hanny's Voorwerp, an unknown astronomical object, in 2007. The pun "Give peas a chance!" was responsible for the discovery of small green galaxies 100 times smaller than our own, but each with greater stellar mass than the Milky Way. Pamela encourages anyone interested to participate in the science of astronomy by helping to classify stellar objects, survey craters on the moon, or watch for solar storms. Here are some links!

Moon Zoo
Galaxy Zoo
Solar Stormwatch

I now do Galaxy Zoo classifications during my lunch break at work. I find that it's a good, fun way to relax, and although it seems to me that artificial neural networks ought to be able to do a fair job of classifying such things, they probably wouldn't enjoy it as much as I would.

Pamela goes on to talk about making a difference at small state schools, telling the audience, "There is a desperate need for scientific missionaries." In 2009 she was teaching a science class, cramming all of the science an elementary school teacher needs to know into 16 weeks. She was asked why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe, and she began, "After the Big Bang—" but got no further before the Ph.D. chemist teaching the class next to her interrupted. "The Big Bang?" he cried. "Aren't you a Christian?"

"The battle isn't just to keep creationism out of the classroom—it's to keep science in."

I like Pamela Gay quite a lot. She is legitimately concerned about the state of science education. Although I disagree with her assertion that skepticism has nothing to say about religious faith (I think that Matt Dillahunty does a fair job of representing her position, as well as those of other theistic skeptics, here), she not feel the need to overlay her religious beliefs onto the science that she teaches. Not only that, she actively opposes such intrusions. And that, I think, makes her a praiseworthy ally.

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