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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – There is one member of the University of Alabama system in the National Academy of Sciences, and that man is Gary Zank from the University of Alabama, Huntsville.  Zank is on the Chair of the UAH Department of Space, a Space Physicist at UAH, and director of Space Plasma and Agronomic Research.  This week Dr. Zank stopped by WHNT News 19 to discuss what his job actually entails, how it can be applied to daily life, how far we’ve come in the space age and the  importance of science education.

Gary Zank describes his job as the study of space, the upper atmosphere and how it interacts with space. Zank explains “It’s less complicated than it sounds. It’s something that’s of great interest. We’ve known about it for years because when the first radio waves were propagated around the earth, the Ionosphere turned out to be an important element. In order to get the radio waves to propagate around the world, our first discovery of a medium that was an ionized gas and regular neutral atmospheric gas and so it was our entry almost in a sense into the space age.”

We’ve come a long way in the space age and what Physicists like you do. What many people may not know, is it does apply in a certain way to all the things that we would like to do as human beings in space, like taking a trip to Mars, and all the things it takes to do something like that. WHNT News 19 Steve Johnson asked what it’s like going to Mars, and as a guy who deals with the stuff every day, what are the technical problems that NASA has to handle,and are there things we still need to know before we take a trip like this? Zank explained, “Most likely it’s much of the knowledge about the basic particles and when they’re likely to turn up. How energetic and what sort of dosages people are going to be exposed to. You can put as much lead over or around a space craft as you like, and it will protect everybody, but it’s a considerable challenge getting all that up.You need to have more sophisticated devices and much more sophisticated predictive capabilities for dealing with an environment that’s pretty hostile. I’m sure we don’t want our astronauts coming back home with full blown cases of cancer. There’s a lot of fundamental things that need to be addressed and understanding how people will be exposed and respond to exposure to these enormously energetic particles.”

With an understanding of what goes into space exploration comes an appreciation of the people who help to make space exploration happen. We’ve heard Politicians say that we don’t need to be spending or wasting money on space. We need to be spending money down here. There are other people who say part of being human is the desire to explore and if we lose that, we lose part of what makes us human. “Yeah, and one can think of the analogy and in fact the most successful species on the earth is not the humans, but the insects. So if our aspiration is to be like the insects and so we over run everything and are very successful, then we shouldn’t worry about art. We shouldn’t worry about putting people on Mars, and we shouldn’t worry about writing great books. We shouldn’t worry about trying to understand the universe around us. I think the thing that sets us apart from the insects and enormously successful species is our desire to know a lot more about our environment in which we live. We build up a sense of culture, and identity as humans and as human kind. We should focus a lot more on simply surviving and perhaps beating diseases and over populating the planet. But I think we would lose, lose our identity as humans if we gave up on the cultural and the scientific side of the desire for knowledge, the desire to understand. I mean that’s why we’ve become so successful.
We’ve been able to control, manipulate and understand our environment. And it’s not because we set out to do that, it’s because we had a desire to understand, and we had a desire to communicate ideas. We had a desire to understand how other people interacted, and we built a culture around that, and so humanity is about more than simply survival. It’s about humanness.”

In addition to being a research scientist, Gary Zank is an educator. With many articles written and read about the U.S. not just falling behind, but becoming scientifically illiterate as people. He explains maybe we’ve lost excitement and the desire to learn new things. “I think there is a danger, and possibly it’s in part because the conversation I alluded to that perhaps we’ve lost the excitement and desire to know new things. The world and science is complicated and it’s not simple to understand without some basic technical and understanding and knowledge. I think there is a desire within the school system and within educators to impart that knowledge. My concern in a way, is that sometimes we try to make it too much fun and having seen my children kind of go through school. I understand that we should try to communicate that science is fun, doing physics is fun or that mathematics is fun, but at some point, there comes a point when you actually have to work hard at it to understand it, and to actually be able to use it and incorporate it into ones life.”

View our entire conversation with Gary Zank right here: