Cosmic mysteries: the speed of light and young people

I am not sure why I took a little vacation from this blog, but it’s been almost three weeks since I last posted. It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention to things local, but I’ve found it hard to focus. For at least the first week or so of this malaise or funk, I’m going to blame the new version of Cosmos, the television series hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson about the universe. The show is, to put it in scientific terms, blowing my mind.

I don’t have much physics or mathematical background, but I’m okay with concepts like antigravity. A few weeks ago astronomers released evidence supporting the “inflation” theory of the first moments after the Big Bang, when the universe expanded from a tiny speck to the size of a grapefruit (or a basketball – news reports were unclear about that), and I took it in stride, as in “sure, why not?”

But what got me was something that Tyson spoke about in one of the Cosmos programs, something he said almost in passing, namely that the speed of light was constant. I knew that light always traveled at 186,000 miles per second, but I never focused on a fact Tyson emphasized that always means always as in no time for acceleration. You turn on the light and the photons are immediately traveling at 186,000 miles per second.

Zero to 186,000 in zero seconds.

That threw me. I must have spent a week confused and I’m still perplexed. I mean, gravity — action at a distance – is crazy, but one has to accept it. It’s the law, right? But this no need for light to get up to speed seems like something that should defy the laws of . . . physics?

Maybe we are just stimulated neurons, like in The Matrix.

By the time I could focus once again on Santa Monica, the biggest story here was the controversy over science teacher and wrestling coach Mark Black and his takedown of a student in his classroom. That happened almost two weeks ago. At various times I was going to write about the incident and what it might mean, but then I’d think: since everyone is criticizing everyone else, particularly Superintendent Sandra Lyon, for commenting on what happened before knowing what happened, maybe this was a good time for me to do what everyone was saying to do and wait until I knew something.

Which is what I was going to do until I happened to read an editorial in the New York Times about “superpredators.” Remember them? About 20 years ago some criminologists and political scientists predicted that a tsunami of violent youths was about to wash over America. It goes without saying that these young monsters were assumed to be black and urban, thus tying into the three great traditional American loci for fear – young people, black people, and cities. (In one book promoting the theory, the authors wrote that the core problem was “that most inner-city children grow up surrounded by teenagers and adults who are themselves deviant, delinquent or criminal.” You have to forgive them, though: this was before “Breaking Bad.”)

It turned out that, beginning almost simultaneously with the promotion of the superpredator theory, the number of crimes committed by teenagers drastically declined and has continued to decline. The superpredator scare was one in an ongoing series of scares. You don’t have to sing “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or watch The Blackboard Jungle to know that when people say that kids today are rotten and schools are too lenient, they’re carrying on a tradition.

If anything, some of the problems we have today in schools are because schools are better. It used to be that troublesome kids were thrown out of school or dropped out after its being made clear to them that they were not welcome. Now we try to get them all to graduation, because there aren’t jobs for them in factories any more. It’s hard work, and yes, we should treat teachers and school administrators as heroes instead of blaming them for social problems that exist outside of school.

What was in the NYT editorial, however, that truly got my attention was a quote from a Supreme Court case about sentencing standards for juveniles. One result of the superpredator scare was that states passed laws that made it easier to try and punish juveniles as adults. Since 2005, however, the Supreme Court has been ruling that young people are “constitutionally different” from adults.

I never thought I’d look to nine black-robed lawyers for wisdom when it comes to understanding kids, but in a 2012 case (Miller vs. Alabama), the Court described the “hallmark features” of being young to include “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” The Court has ruled that young people should not be sentenced the same as adults because – get this – young people can actually grow up. Sounds right to me.

Many Santa Monicans have rightfully rallied to the defense of Mr. Black, both because of his personal reputation and because they want to defend beleaguered teachers, and many of these Santa Monicans, and others, have rightfully rallied to the defense of Superintendent Lyon, also because of her personal reputation and because school administrators are beleaguered, too. But there’s been a lot of understanding for the students involved, too.

I like what School Board member Oscar de la Torre said at the rally for Mr. Black on Sunday, as reported in The Lookout. Speaking of Blair Moore, the Samohi senior now facing misdemeanor charges arising from the confrontation, De la Torre said, “[w]e’re a community that believes in redemption and young people make mistakes. While this young man might not be allowed to return to Samohi, he does deserve a second chance to be a part of our community in good standing.”

Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Cosmic mysteries: the speed of light and young people

  1. Do you ever wonder where your readers come from? I will be your outlier from Upstate NY. And as an elementary teacher, I appreciate the comment about being a hero.
    On the error of the superpredator prediction. You may be interested in research done on atmospheric lead and the correlation to crime. The most accessible article, unless you prefer to read the original research, is from Mother Jones in this article – http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline. There are more articles as lead has been known to be a toxic substance for millennia. Now the research is focused on the effect of lead in the developing brain which is indicating a deleterious effect on intelligence, decision making, and impulsivity.
    My most recent read on education is “Improbably Scholars” by Kirp on successful school districts which rely on a long term, continuous improvement strategy in districts which seem to be most likely to fail – poor, English as a Second Language, political strife. Something akin to the reform in Finland but without the funding or support of state or federal governments.

  2. Welcome back, Frank!

    Modern Western folk often look down as backwards and superstitious at religious doctrine that posits irreduciably mysterious entities and forces. But our best scientific doctrine is full of inconcievable goings on, as you say. Stuff that just makes no sense, if you think about it.

    I personally remain blown away by action-at-distance. I consider it to be a constant admonition to the human race to maintain intellectual humility. 🙂

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