Issues in Earth Science
“Eww, There’s Some Geology in my Fiction!”
Issue 14, Dec 2020
Suggestions for Activities and Discussions to accompany Readings of
The Music of the Spheres by D. G. Laderoute
This activity engages students in two partial investigations—the first follows the investigative thinking presented in the "The Music of the Spheres", and the second engages students in inferring evidence implied by a story of fossil human footprints reported in a science news article.
Although “The Music of the Spheres” mentions several ideas that touch on earth science—the reddish color to the sky, the importance of rock type in constructing stable and sealable underground structures, and of course the idea of Schumann Resonance at the heart of the story—the element of science in the story that most catches our attention is the examination of how a scientific investigation proceeds.
Scientific investigation often begins with a search for correlations—what might be causing a particular observation to occur. This is seen in the story in passages like the following:
No pathogens, no chemicals or other environmental contaminants, no evidence of radiation effects, genetic damage, nothing. These kids should be as wide-eyed and bright as any baby on Earth. Except, they’re not."
Marion leaned towards Garrett. "Then it's something else."
At this point, our protagonists are not even able to identify a correlation to the problem, let alone find a scientific explanation for the cause. They reflect on this lack of correlation—not having any notion of what might be causing the problem:
"Can they risk having what's happening here spreading to Earth?"
"No. Of course they can't."
Marion reached out and squeezed Garrett's hands. "So we have to find an answer, don't we?"
His eyes were still bleak when he nodded, but Marion thought she saw a spark of determination in them. It wasn't much, but it would have to do.
They'd filtered the air. Sampled the electromagnetic spectrum from end to end. ... Grown cultures of bacteria, isolated viruses, even matched stray bits of DNA against their database of everyone and everything alive in the colony. Collected samples of blood, tissue and every other secretion and emanation of bodies, human and otherwise.
Then they’d collated the results and found…nothing. Or, more correctly, nothing useful. Everything was exactly as it should be.
Someone eventually suggested that perhaps it had nothing to do with particles or germs or chemicals. Perhaps, they’d said, these babies had no souls. Souls, maybe, were the exclusive product of Earth, because Earth was where man belonged.
"Can you blame them?" Marion said, once Garrett's rant against what he called such ‘mystical nonsense’ had finished bouncing off her office walls.
"It's superstitious crap!"
"Are you sure?"
He glared at her, then snapped, "No," and stormed away.
In the story, how Marion found the correlation isn’t exactly specified.
What—putting aside the question of the soul—was so special about the human brain? …On impulse, Marion touched the terminal and started to reason out a database query. She wasn't exactly sure what she hoped to find, but was prepared to spend as long as it took looking for it.
As an exercise in thinking scientifically, and based on the rest of the story, you might encourage your students to think about what that database query might have been. What insight did Marion have, and how did she search it out?
Teacher thoughts and feedback on exercise 1 in amplifying student initial ideas: The obvious, and perhaps least insightful, scenario is that she suddenly realized “Oh, I bet it’s the Schumann Resonance! Tah dah!”
But why would she need a data base query for that? What did she need to find out?
Maybe she searched to find out the frequency of Earth’s Schumann Resonance? Does that frequency correlate with anything in human biology, particularly biology related to higher thought?
She of course finds that it does—the Earth’s frequency corresponds to the Theta and Alpha brain waves.
She might have also used the database query to find out about Mars’ Schumann Resonance, is it different from Earth, does it correspond to anything in human biology, like brain waves? She found it was different from Earth, and therefore different from the Theta and Alpha brain waves, although it matched the brain’s Beta waves.
So, what does Marion know at this point? Has she proven that the Schumann Resonance problem is the cause of babies being born on Mars without higher brain function?
Of course not. At this point, all she has is a simple correlation. Any causative relationship is purely speculative.
Teacher thoughts and feedback on exercise 2, identifying possible tests of a proposed hypothesis. In the story, the protagonists propose to test by:
"We go back to the animals. We study their development, see if there are measurable effects."
Would this be a definitive test do you think? Why or why not? Since they had detected no significant effect in animals other than humans, what effects, exactly, would they look for?
They also propose to test further:
"I suppose we could generate an electromagnetic field, a sort of artificial Schumann Resonance like Earth's, and see what effect it has, too."
What ‘effects’ do you suppose that they can look for? The only effect that they have observed so far, the only difference from Earth, is that babies are being born without higher brain functions. Are there other ‘effects’ that they might look at?
In the end, to be sure of the correlation, they have to test whether the artificial Schumann Resonance changes the outcome that they have been observing—whether babies are born without higher brain function.
He looked at Marion. "But, we're eventually going to have to try again, having a baby."
That, in the end, is the test that they did—that is, they tested how creating an artificial Schumann Resonance field on Mars affected how unborn babies develop—and that is how they gained confidence that (within the context of this story) the Schumann Resonance and its frequency was a critical element in the development of human brains. This is of course a fictional story—we have no reason to believe that there is such a relationship. However, if there were such a relationship, then isn't it possible that living on Mars might affect human thinking even after birth? The story leaves us with that question, carrying on the tradition that, in scientific investigation, there are always more questions to pursue!
Fourteen Hertz was twice the Schumann Resonance of Earth. The frequency of intense mental activity. What would that do to a developing brain?
As part of 2020's COVID19 impacts, my students were spending half their time doing at-home work and half the time in the classroom. In an effort to have unified activities at home and at school, and provide some stability to our learning experience, I (Mary) decided to structure my lessons around the idea of a seminar series. In this model, each 4-day lesson consisted of 2 days at home with students reading (Day 1) and summarizing (Day 2) an engaging science article in the news. Then students had 2 days in class discussing (Day 3) and considering the scientific investigation that must have gone into that article (Day 4). This format gave structure, purpose and accountability to the student’s at-home work because the face-to-face discussion at school relied on the reading comprehension work done at home. The structure also gave students a sense of stability as they knew what type of work they would be doing on each day of the 4-day lesson.
Because science in the news often presents the conclusions or 'story' of a research study, with only limited reporting of the actual evidence and reasoning, the activity often engaged students in figuring out how the investigation must have proceeded and what observations must have been made—not unlike how the reader infers the process of science in the story "The Music of the Spheres."
Like in the story, the question for my students was "How can a particular scientific hypothesis be tested?"
Our first article was from a reference in Nature Briefing, "Fossil Footprints: The fascinating story behind the longest known prehistoric journey" (The Conversation, Oct 9, 2020). In this article, the authors describe the story of a prehistoric journey told in a fossilized trackway located in White Sands National Park, New Mexico. In this story, a woman (or adolescent male) carried a toddler for about a mile in a relatively straight line across a playa. Periodically the child was set down to walk on their own, and then picked up again. The adult returned by the same route, with the return journey paralleling the outward journey. The adult was alone on the return journey, with no toddler along. In between outward and return journey, both a mammoth and a giant sloth had crossed their path.
How could the researchers infer such a detailed story of something that happened in prehistoric times? How do they know someone crossed the playa? How do they know a child was with them (an didn't just follow at a later time)? How do they know that the mammoth and sloth crossed in between their out-going and return journey (and not days or even weeks earlier or later—insignificant blinks in geological time)? At first glance, the story seems like an impossible fabrication.
Is it possible to infer—based on a news report that only gives the scientific conclusions, not the evidence—how the scientific investigation might have proceeded? Can students figure out how the news story could be tested, or guess what the unreported evidence was?
On our discussion day (Day III), we considered some of what the scientists could see in the field: photos of trackways and footprints, morphology of footprints, and arrangement of footprints. We then acted out the story as reported in the article to try to visualize what evidence might be left behind. I (Mary) had students consider and draw what the pattern of tracks would be like, given our acted-out journey. Students had to figure out that the shape of footprint tells you direction of motion and type of motion (walking versus hopping).
Teacher notes and feedback. The evidence is in the footprints left behind in the mud now become stone.
Teacher notes and feedback: The clue is in the orientation of footprints. Footprints indicate a direction of travel. Push your own foot into mud and see the shape left.
Teacher notes and feedback: Adult footprints might be deeper when a child is being carried, and then, when the footprints are shallower, there would be a second set of smaller footprints interwoven with the adult prints. On the return journey, the footprints might be both shallower and not accompanied by smaller footprints.
Teacher notes and feedback: The spacing of the footprints tells us whether she was walking or running. Try it. When you walk, how far apart are your steps? When you run, how far apart are they? In the story, the researchers inferred that the adult was moving at a fast clip, not a gentle stroll—inferred by the distance between steps and the depth of the footprints, revealing force of movement. In my (Mary's) class, I had students draw their expected prints, as shown in the student examples at the end of this lesson. Some of them drew pictures that implied the mother was hopping across the playa! This gave us a chance to think about the pattern of footprints seen in the rock and what they really tell us.
This information, about how the researchers knew the story, was not reported directly in the article. However, it was likely based on cross-cutting relationships. You can't get a meaningful radiometric age from this type of information, and even if you could it would not be sufficiently precise to figure out exactly when the sloth crossed the path on such a narrow time frame.
Cross-cutting relationships are a key clue in reading the stories of the Earth. Using cross-cutting relationships, geologists figured out that the Earth is truly ancient more than a hundred years before the discovery of radiometric dating.
The following puzzles are adapted from Earth Science Essentials, a course for earth science teachers developed by Russ Colson, at http://web.mnstate.edu/colson/ESE/ESE.html
Teacher notes and feedback: You can't break a rock until it is there first. Therefore, the layer of rock had to first form (the swamp), and then later get broken (the fault). There was also a tilting even in there somewhere after the swamp.
Given the cross-sectional view of rock layers shown, put G, A, F, and C in chronological order, as per the multiple choice options below.
Put the letters in correct chronological order, with first being oldest.
a. F A G C
b. A C F G
c. F G A C
d. C F G A
What is your evidence? Can you explain your reasoning based on what you see?
Teacher notes and feedback: Because both G and F have been baked by contact with the hot molten rock that became basalt, we know that both G and F had to be present at the time molten A was injected into the rock. This means that A must be younger than both G and F. This in turn means that A cannot be a lava flow, poured out on the surface, because the younger of F or G would not be baked in that case. Instead, the molten material must have been injected between the two rock layers where it froze. This type of feature is called an igneous sill. Since the rock could not have been eroded until it first existed, we can see that C must come after all three F, A, and G.
I (Mary) took the following pictures of footprints and bicycle tracks in the snow as part of my lesson on the paleo-trackway to help students visualize the evidence that researchers might have examined.
As you look at the pictures, consider whether:
A. The bike came before the people on foot
B. The bike came after the people on foot, or
C. People on foot came both before and after the bike
What is your evidence? Can you explain your reasoning based on what you see?
Snow Track #1
Snow Track #2
Teacher notes and feedback: We see in the upper picture that the bike print cross-cuts a footprint (we see that the bike pattern overprints the pattern of the footprint and the edges of the bike print cut across the edges of the footprint). In the lower picture, the footprint cross-cuts the bike print (we see that the bike pattern has been obliterated by the footprint and the edges of the footprint cut across the edges of the bike print). Therefore, we can conclude that people walked there both before and after the passage of the bicycle.
I encouraged my students to draw trackways of what the scientists must have seen to convince them to make such extraordinary conclusions. I gave them the general setup of their trackway drawing, and rephrased the question to ask what crosscutting relationships must be visible in the tracks of the human adult and toddler, the sloth and the mammoth? Draw it out. Explain your reasoning.
Teacher notes and feedback: In order to infer the sequence of events, researchers must have spotted at least a couple of cross-cutting relationships. For example, perhaps they spotted sloth prints cross-cutting the outbound footprints, but the return footprints were cross-cutting the sloth prints. Notice that if only one of these observations were made, then the sloth might have crossed the area either much later or much earlier than the humans.
Here is the general trackway drawing that I (Mary) provided for my students.
Below are examples of student work (8th grade students). Notice that student 1, on the left, has the humans “hopping” rather than walking, and does not really present a cross-cutting relationship between human and mammoth or sloth prints, but does show a reversal in direction to the footprints (although not putting it in the “return journey” column—the story had emphasized that the woman returned by the same route which probably explains this choice by the student) and shows the toddler present on the outbound but not return. Student 2 does not reverse the footprints for the return journey, but does get cross-cutting relationships included in the illustration and also includes some complexities of the adult stopping, stepping off trail, and letting the toddler run around on the outbound journey, again with no toddler on the return journey.
Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards.
Students can exercise skills in the practices of science including:
1) Arguing from Evidence—students infer the evidence that the researchers must have seen in the playa rock to support their claims about various aspects of the humans’ journey and the interactions with a mammoth and a sloth.
2) Modeling—students model when they
a. visualize the conclusions reported in the article.
b. develop a way to represent the evidence in support of the authors’ conclusions in the article.
Students use the crosscutting concepts of
1) Structure and function — when they
a. consider the connection between the morphology of the footprints and the interpretations of human activities, and
b. consider how the crosscutting structures (of tracks of the different species) reveal the interactions of the different organisms.
2) Cause and effect – when they
a. consider the difference between correlation and causation in The Music of the Spheres
b. consider the how the morphology of the tracks is a response to the behavior of the organisms.
The investigative activities above support the following NGSS disciplinary core ideas:
1) Life Science Core Idea 4A: Evidence of common ancestry and diversity.
2) Earth and Space Science 1C: The history of planet Earth.
The Teacher Resources for The Music of the Spheres are written by Russ and Mary Colson, authors of .
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