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World-changing ideas

Scientific breakthroughs are theoretical and concrete, Synod Schoolers learn

August 5, 2011

Headshot of Chris Fischer

Chris Fischer —Photo by Mike Feguson

STORM LAKE, Iowa

Want to lose a little weight? Move to the equator.

Chris Fischer, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Kansas University, has calculated you’ll drop one-tenth of 1 percent of your body mass living there — and you’ll put on an equal amount of weight if you make your home at either of Earth’s poles.

The planet pushes against you slightly less at the equator, and slightly more at the poles.

That’s just one of the scientific nuggets Fischer had for students at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School, held July 24-29 at Buena Vista University.

Actually, Fischer’s week-long course, “Five Big Ideas that Changed Everything,” traced about six centuries of big-time scientific breakthroughs, from the ascendancy of empiricism and mathematics to our current understanding of the expanding universe.

While lay people may have the view of the mad scientist working alone in a laboratory, scientists and mathematicians have at least one requirement in common: unless their surname is Galileo, they have to follow accepted protocols.

“As long as you play by the rules, you’re fine,” he said. “But you have to accept (the data) that you get. There’s no crying in science.”

One of the few women astrophysicists the class studied, Margaret Burbidge, was part of a group that discovered, in 1957, that all the elements except the very lightest are produced by nuclear processes inside stars. In that way, we’re all celestial beings.

“All the atoms in our bodies came from stars,” Fischer said. “You can have a nice theological moment with that.”

Scientists tell us that only 4 percent of the universe is made up of atoms. The rest is stuff we know very little about — dark matter and dark energy.

And while Fischer occasionally disparaged his field as largely theoretical, we can thank physicists for two items that have made our lives easier — global positioning systems and cell phones.

Fischer has three theories for what the next important scientific breakthrough might be: that “we’ll find life outside our solar system,” discover an economical way to produce energy through nuclear fusion, or find a new model for understanding matter and energy.

Fischer said the first two could occur within the lifetimes of people pushing 40.

Fischer’s Synod School students shouldn’t worry if they couldn’t grasp concepts and make sense out of events that range back from the Big Bang and forward into infinity. Albert Einstein himself realized that human understanding is limited, and Fischer closed his final class with this pithy Einstein saying: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Mike Ferguson is a member of United Presbyterian Church in Lone Tree, Iowa, and a reporter for The Muscatine Journal, the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start. He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

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