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Cosmic Controversies

BU class explores conflicts that progress in science brings

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Boston University BU, cosmic controversies, College of Arts and Sciences CAS, professor Michael Mendillo, astronomy, pluto planet, albert einsten relatively, nature of the universe, scientific certainty and spaceOnce considered a planet, Pluto, shown here with its satellite Charon, was downgraded to dwarf planet amid scientific and public controversy.

Once considered a planet, Pluto (center), shown here with its satellite Charon, was downgraded in 2006 to dwarf planet amid scientific and public controversy. Photo by Bill Lile.

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Pluto is a planet. No, it’s a dwarf planet. No, it’s a floor wax.

OK, we made up that last one. But virulent conflict between the first two views was very real in 2006, when astronomers stripped Pluto of its planetary privilege. Even some state legislatures drafted lighthearted resolutions condemning the demotion. Yet Michael Mendillo will tell you that science is filled with propositions we take for granted today—Albert Einstein’s theories, for example—that originally were fighting words among scientists, and sometimes the general public.

Mendillo (GRS’68,’71), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of astronomy, catalogs the revolutionary ideas and dustups that have split the stargazing set over the centuries in his class Cosmic Controversies. By showing how science advances along a sometimes-bumpy road, he hopes students take away “how to gather evidence, how to evaluate it, and how to realistically see what the implications are.” While open to all students, the course especially targets nonscience majors.

This astronomer relishes a class where most students likely won’t enter the field. “We’ve got enough astronomers…and with budget cuts, we can’t even support the ones we have,” Mendillo says. “We don’t need, as a nation, more astronomers. We need citizens who know how to interpret evidence.” He says his discipline is particularly useful for honing those interpretive skills, given that students typically don’t study it in high school. “Astronomy is the least offensive of the sciences, because they haven’t had to suffer through it.”

Mendillo strives to limit the suffering, lacing lectures (“one of the happiest hours of your life,” he told students during a recent one) with humor and clear demonstrations of complex ideas. A recent talk on Einstein noted how “Big Al,” as Mendillo dubs him, upended two centuries of scientific confidence that Newtonian physics had explained all there was to know about the universe. Einstein’s claims that space is curved, that it bends light, and that gravity affects time—clocks run more slowly near massive objects than clocks farther away—were “extraordinary departures from intuition, and normally, when somebody gives you extraordinary departures from intuition, you say they’re nuts,” the professor said.

Michael Mendillo, professor of astronomy, Boston University BU College of Arts and Sciences CAS

Astronomy prof Michael Mendillo introduces non-science students to the history of “cosmic controversies.” Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

To demonstrate how massive objects curve space, he had several students hold up a black rubber sheet representing the cosmos, onto which he dropped progressively larger balls (one of which rolled off as a student shifted her foot to avoid it). Necks craned around the room as students watched, occasionally giggling.

English and journalism major Olivia DeFrances (CAS’16, COM’16) took the class to fulfill a science requirement. Both the “Cosmic” and the “Controversies” parts lured her: astronomy “seemed to be the most fascinating science I could take,” she says, and controversies meant studying science “in terms of what it means to us in real-life situations—philosophically, spiritually, or just in the everyday.” She got what she bargained for.

“Professor Mendillo makes us laugh and keeps us engaged,” she says. “I knew the universe was huge, but not how huge—that there are billions of stars in each galaxy, and that there are billions more galaxies, and that the universe extends much farther back than the 14-billion-year span that we can observe. Those facts totally blew me away.”

Matthew Kennedy (CAS’16) says the class has taught him things he didn’t know “about what the early universe was like right after the Big Bang and how the solar system, planets, and even the matter that make them up came to be.”

Other topics range from the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe to dark energy (the force, posited in 1998, believed to be expanding the universe ever faster) to intelligent design, a proposition Mendillo is personally dubious about. “Why do you think I’m wearing these?” he asks rhetorically during an interview, doffing his glasses. “If this function [eyesight] was done by a senior in our College of Engineering as a senior design project, the engineer would get an F.”

Then there’s that whole Pluto brawl.

albert einstein, theory of relativity, NASA

With his theories, including relativity, Albert Einstein shook up centuries of scientific certainty about the nature of the universe. Image courtesy of NASA

Mendillo attended the 2006 Prague conference that downgraded Pluto and supported the decision. He admits to being circumspect about that in class, but acknowledges that it might be easy to surmise his position from discussion. Students he’s surveyed in his classes are split over the call, although he impishly questions the motives of those who side with him: “Why should I insult the professor in front of the class? What possible good could come from that?”

How much students recollect of discussion, of course, is another matter, as Mendillo noted in his Einstein lecture, which fell on a Monday. This prompted him to check with the class, “When we ended on Friday, what century were we in? Who can remember that far back?”

Call it Mendillo’s Law, and it’s hardly controversial: Mondays warp student memory in proportion to their weekend level of fun.

The Cosmic Controversies class will next be offered in spring 2014.

2 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Cosmic Controversies

  • Howard on 04.13.2013 at 12:12 am

    This guy is my adviser, extremely learned and certainly a character….

  • David on 06.13.2013 at 8:48 am

    So according to Mendillo of there were a great designer everyone would have perfect eyesight (whatever that is) and never age. Interesting design features he proposes.

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