Written for Mercury magazine.
You can use the 2000 presidential election morass to teach your students lessons in astronomy and science.
It was my fervent hope that astronomy could provide an outlet for escaping the media circus of Election 2000, but personal experience showed that it was not to be. Months ago, my publicist scheduled me to talk (about my new book) one week after Election Day in Washington, D.C. She reasoned that with the election over, the media would invite me to talk about bigger issues, like the mysteries of the universe. It was a good thought, and I ended up with a mostly free day in our nation’s capital.
But as I write in early December, the election is still not over, and political morass will make it harder to get science in the news for many months to come. So in the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” I’ve been thinking about astronomical lessons we can draw from the election.
Big Numbers Are Hard to Count
How many stars are in a galaxy? How many galaxies are in the (observable) universe? In astronomy, we make order of magnitude estimates of these numbers. But many students find it difficult to fathom the idea of uncertainty — let alone by a factor of 10 or more — in something they think of as “simple” counting. Thus, having students think about vote counting can help them understand the difficulty of counting astronomical quantities.
Ask students to list factors that make it difficult to count millions of votes. Then make a similar list for the difficulties of counting millions or even billions of stars or galaxies. Some of these difficulties will be similar. For example, just as there is ambiguity in deciding whether dimples are votes, there is ambiguity in what counts as a star. Should we count brown dwarfs, or the recently discovered “floating planets” that might be even lower in mass? Other items will be different. For example, there’s probably no voting analog to the difficulty of seeing through the galactic plane or detecting dim stars and dwarf galaxies.
Machines Are Faster than People
A related issue can teach your students about estimation and highlight the value of automation in studying the universe. Help students estimate the time needed to manually recount 14,000 machine-rejected ballots in Dade County, 6 million votes cast statewide in Florida, or 104 million votes cast nationwide. If you answer in person-days, you can then estimate the cost of recounts by assuming a certain daily salary. Compare the answers to the time and cost of running ballots through a machine.
Now apply these ideas astronomically. For example, consider the problem of determining the 3-dimensional distribution of galaxies in the universe, which requires measuring galactic distances by obtaining spectra and measuring redshifts. How long would it take to obtain distances for a million galaxies if the spectra were obtained and measured manually? Contrast this with the automated techniques being used by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which will measure a million galactic redshifts over the next five years.
Statistics Are Useful
The TV networks called Florida for Gore, then for no one, then for Bush, and then for no one, thereby reinforcing the common belief that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” (to quote Benjamin Disraeli). But further examination shows how useful statistics can be in situations involving large numbers. Pre-election polls correctly predicted that the contest would be extremely close. Statistical study of voting patterns (e.g., the number of votes for Buchanan) supported claims by Palm Beach County voter that a confusing ballot led them to vote differently than they had intended.
Use these examples to discuss how statistical studies work and to explain the meaning and importance of the margin of error. Then discuss roles of statistics in astronomy, from star counts to the statistics involved in interpreting observations or experiments.
For a scientific example of results that are too close to decide unambiguously, consider the recent decision to shut down the particle accelerator at CERN for upgrading. Some physicists wanted to delay the upgrade because of hints that they were detecting the Higgs particle, which modern physics predicts to be important in the origin of mass. But the CERN board decided that even if the detections were real, the current accelerator could not obtain sufficient statistical evidence to convince the skeptics.
Elections Are Not Physics
A few journalists have claimed the election uncertainty to be an example of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Use this opportunity to explain what the uncertainty principle is really about and why it does not affect macroscopic measurements such as presidential elections. Continue this theme by discussing why the theory of relativity does not imply that “everything is relative,” and more generally by discussing how important physical principles are often applied erroneously to social and political situations.
Indeed, the contrast between human dealings and physics may be the most important lesson we can draw from Election 2000. We may never know who “really” won the election, no matter how much time we spend arguing about it. In contrast, the universe has a physical reality and the more we study it, the better we are likely to understand it. That’s one reason why I’ll be voting for more spending on science and less on political campaigns.