WHAT EVERY YOUNG CHILD SHOULD KNOW

 

By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette

 

“The universe has a certain vitality of its own, as a child does. It has the ability to respond to words of endearment and encouragement. You discipline a child, but try to preserve and enrich the individual character of the child and its own passion for life. A parent must allow the child to grow into adulthood, to come to make its own choices, to go on its own way in life. Words that give life are richer than mere commands or information. In such wise ways does God deal with the universe—the infinite, ever-expanding universe. That is why, it seems to me, that the Intelligent Design Movement, a largely American phenomenon, diminishes God and makes Him a designer rather than a lover.”

  —Bishop Howard Hubbard, in “God and universe are grand concepts we try to grasp,” The Evangelist, 1/5/2006.


              As an opinion generator myself, I keep a close watch on those of others as expressed in the letters to the editor of local newspapers. On January 5, one appeared in the Times Union that I found so egregious that I just had to take keyboard in hands to assuage my exasperation. The writer in question suggests that the best way to stifle those who want to introduce the religious concept of Intelligent Design into high school biology classes is not to teach science at all until college! But because only 50% of Americans, at best, attend even one year of college, much less stay to take science courses and graduate, the idea would leave most Americans scientifically brain-dead from watching reruns of the Flintstones.

The result could only swell the ranks of those engaged in the folly described by national columnist Tom Teepen in late December: “A huge Creation Museum is rising near Cincinnati [that] teaches that Earth is just 6,000 years old, that T. Rex and his kind gamboled in Eden, and that after the Flood children still played with baby dinosaurs who had ridden Noah's ark to safety from the antediluvian world. Against such drama, mere science is an unwelcome bother.”

Even high-school is far too late to start teaching basic scientific facts to children. The fifth-grade level, when most pupils are about eleven, is the latest that such education should begin. Parents who detect that their children are not being taught and drilled on certain minimal facts about their earth and universe should do it themselves. Here is what to tell them:

 

(1)   Our universe began as a tiny clump of energy about 13.5 billion years ago. A billion years is a million millennia, that is, a thousand years followed by 999,999 more thousand-year intervals.

(2)   The universe has been expanding since it began, and the rate at which it is expanding is increasing slightly with time. We and objects in our world are not expanding (except when we eat too much), but the space between galaxies, which are huge collections of stars, keeps increasing.

(3)   Our sun, born about five billion years ago, is an average sized star, one of about 300 billion stars in our galaxy called the Milky Way, and most stars have planets. Some of those are likely to be very much like ours, but most are not. And the Milky Way is just one of an estimated 125 trillion galaxies that we can “see.”

(4)   Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. It revolves around our sun once per year and rotates around a line called its axis once per day. Due to friction caused by tides, the Earth’s rotation slows by about two-thirds of a second every year. That is why a leap-second has been added to our year 23 times in the last 33 years to keep things in sync with what the sun is doing.

(5)   Our continents move ever so slightly, some approaching one another, some receding, at the rate our fingernails grow. Millions of years ago, Africa was attached to South America, and millions of years from now, the Earth’s land masses will have an entirely different shape.

(6)   All material things in our visible universe including ourselves are made of small things called molecules; these molecules are made of still smaller things called atoms; these atoms are made of a mixture of smaller particles yet; and those are made of the smallest particles we know anything about. There may be no smallest particle.

(7)   Atoms are something like small planetary systems with particles called electrons that circle a much heavier central nucleus. All of chemistry, which is a branch of physics, depends on what happens to the outermost ring of electrons when atoms of different kinds, called elements, are combined.

(8)   The simplest atom, hydrogen, consists of just one electron rotating around a nucleus that consists of a single heavier particle called a proton. The simplest molecules consist of combinations of two atoms of the same or differing kinds. But some molecules are combinations of an enormous number of atoms or smaller molecules.

(9)   All living things consist of one or more cells. The nucleus of a cell contains chromosomes, structures that consist of proteins and spiral molecular chains of a nucleic acid called DNA.  DNA chains contain regions called genes. Genes are those elements of DNA that encode a hereditary characteristic. All complex living things, plant or animal, are descended from other, usually but not necessarily simpler, living things over billions of years through a process called evolution. The process began with a very small number of single-celled creatures, most likely one.

(10)           The class of animals that are called dinosaurs arose at least 230 million years ago and every last one had died by 160 million years later, 65 million years before the appearance of the first creatures that were recognizably human.



 

Young people should learn these things so that they can gain an early appreciation of the immensity of the universe in space and the extraordinary length of time that was needed to prepare for the very recent arrival of themselves or anyone like them.

            In his article from which I quoted as prologue, Bishop Hubbard in turn quotes from an article by Rev. George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. Father Coyne uses the same rubric that I first heard in 1950 from a geology professor in my freshman year at RPI. Imagine that the entire 13.5-billion-year development of the universe had been compressed into a single Earth year. Here then, with more detail than was known at that time, would be some of the more significant events of that year:

 

  1 January–the universe begins with a Big Bang
14 February-our Milky Way galaxy forms

14  August–Birth of our sun

27 August–Earth forms

  1 October–first living cell

25 December–first dinosaurs

30 December–extinction of the dinosaurs

31 December, 7 p.m.–first human-like ancestors

31 December, 11:58 p.m.–first humans

31 December, 11:59:47 p.m.–pyramids built

31 December, 11:59:58 p.m.–birth of Christ

31 December, half a millisecond to midnight: all eight intelligently-designed School Board members in Dover, PA are defeated

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., a retired natural philosopher, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.