Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Science in the 5th Dirtiest Town in the Nation: I'm Proud of my Community and Its Support for Education

Source: http://www.forbes.com/pictures/mef45ilmk/5-modesto-calif/
Forbes has once again heaped insults on my home community, and it gets old after awhile. We take our place as the fifth dirtiest urban area in the country, due to 15.5% unemployment, and air pollution that is among the worst in the country (what does unemployment have to do with "dirtiness"? What is implied in such a statement?). It probably doesn't change things to point out that we don't produce much of our pollution. We simply collect the pollution sent our way by big cities to the west of us. The Central Valley is a huge enclosed basin, caught between the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Ranges.

I know that journalism has to work this way, so Forbes picked the picture above to show just how lousy our town is. To hell with them...I have a different image of Modesto, and it has to do with the spirit of our community...and science.

You may have seen my last post about science in our community, our recent Science Olympiad, and the incredible Science Community Center on our campus that OUR community decided to build, without state or federal support. They wouldn't have given it anyway, so we did it ourselves. And our community is responding to the wonderful opportunities it offers. Two more events crystallized my opinion towards Forbes this weekend. Take a look at the photos below:
You are looking at the Mother Lode Mineral Society's Gem and Mineral Show, conducted last weekend in Turlock, our fellow city to the south. Mineral shows can be held in some disdain by geoscientists, as they usually are composed of nothing but a bunch of booths offering merchandise for sale. It's all about sales and capitalism. But not ours. Widely recognized as one of the best mineral shows in California, it stands apart because of the emphasis on education. Yes, rock and mineral businesses are there offering their wares, but fully a third (I'm guessing) of the floor space is taken up by displays, and by booths offering information about earth science issues and concerns.
 Our campus geology club participated for the first time this year, and we had a great time giving away fossils to children (those are Cretaceous-aged oysters from Utah). It's amazing to watch a child's eyes light up when they realize they get to have a genuine fossil of their own. We also had dinosaur bones set out, and some fossil skull replicas of the interesting creatures that used to live in our own valley: a Sabertooth Cat , and a Short-faced Bear. The cat is certainly interesting, but the bear is awesome. It may have been the largest land mammal carnivore of all time, standing eleven feet tall. Kids left the show today knowing something very cool about the land they live on!
Other exhibits showed some of the other past denizens of our valley including the Carcharodon megalodon, the largest carnivorous shark of all time, and a plesiosaur. And there were dozens of display cases showing wondrous mineral and rock samples that weren't actually for sale. They were there to educate.

Of course, who would want to show up for an educational thing? In our town? Oh, about 7,000-10,000 people or so. This is one of the largest community events that happens in our town. The local mineral society can be proud of this incredible event!
 Really, who else would have a coelacanth is the main display item in the foyer?

Later in the day we headed over to Modesto's State Theatre for the other scientific event of the afternoon. I've been involved for the last two years with the Science on Screen program, which pairs popular theatrical films with speakers and displays amplifying and discussing the scientific issues raised by the film. In the past year and a half, we've shown Jurassic Park, The Day After Tomorrow, Another Earth, Spiderman, and this last weekend, Blue Butterfly.
Once again I was surprised by the crowd waiting outside. Around 150 people came out to see a relatively obscure film from ten years ago about a terminally ill boy who travels to the Central American rainforest, seeking an elusive Blue Morpho Butterfly.
The State is a wonderful 1930s-vintage Art Deco movie theater that survives and thrives on community support. It offers up shows and movies that don't get exposure in the multiplexes at the malls. The Science on Screen Initiative is supported in part by a grant from the Dorothy Sloan Foundation, but it happens because of a group of hard-working volunteers who plan and conduct the programs.
Visitors last Sunday were treated to marvelous displays of tropical butterflies and the equipment used in rainforest research. Prior to the film, one of our local experts, Dr. Derek Madden of Modesto Junior College, talked about his research with monkeys and their relative lack of arthritis when living in the wild.
So, yeah, Modesto is a "dirty" town in the eyes of Forbes. Others call us the worst place in the nation to live. But they could have chosen hundreds of different pictures to represent the spirit of a town. One of the areas where we shine is science education. We are working hard to make our community better, and education is one of the most important tools we have. And our community is clearly responding.

A final (added) thought about those "places rated" that continually put the cities of the San Joaquin Valley at the top of the lists of the worst places to live. The Great Valley of California produces something like 25% of all the food grown in the nation, and that food is kept cheap by exploiting the people who work the fields. We don't have an economic model in our nation that offers employment year-round for such people (we used to simply deport them back to Mexico), so our unemployment is continually high. The plowing of the fields keeps particulate matter in the air, thus our lousy pollution levels. To the Forbes people and others like them who enjoy poking fun at our lousy environment should realize that the cheap food that they eat and the wonderful California wines that they drink come at the expense of the living conditions of those who live in the valley.
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