If it’s easy to search the internet for answers, why is higher education important?
It’s a question Assistant Professor of Physics Barak Shoshany addressed in a Convocation speech focused on the harmful effects of misinformation.
“Finding information is easy, but figuring out whether the information you found is correct and trustworthy is much harder,” he said Friday, June 16 as part of Brock University’s 113th Convocation ceremonies.
Shoshany cited recent examples of misinformation, such as climate change denial and COVID-19 misinformation, and spoke about the importance of graduates using the critical-thinking skills they learned as part of their Brock degree to discern fact from fiction.
“You have been immersed in an environment that nurtures curiosity and skepticism,” he said. “You learned how to find reliable sources of information and how to perform scientific research, for example, by conducting experiments, analyzing data or re-evaluating long-held theories and beliefs against new evidence.”
Shoshany’s interest in teaching others the importance of the scientific method and critical-thinking skills is one of the reasons he was selected as this year’s Faculty of Mathematics and Science (FMS) Excellence in Teaching Award recipient.
His passion is especially evident in his popular introductory astronomy courses, which are taken by thousands of students from all majors and years. Shoshany recently created a new second-year course to expand the University’s astronomy offerings and re-wrote the first-year courses to include the most up-to-date information and to focus on the scientific method.
“In astronomy, old ideas are constantly discarded in favour of new ones which more closely match the evidence,” he said.
An example is Newton’s theory of gravity, which was accepted for 300 years but eventually replaced with Einstein’s more precise theory of general relativity.
“Einstein’s theory allowed astronomers to introduce new concepts, such as black holes and gravitational waves, which could not exist in Newton’s theory,” Shoshany said.
“The same principles of scientific inquiry, critical thinking and skepticism can be used not only to find new theories of science, but also on a smaller and more personal scale, to debunk misinformation.”
Shoshany’s teaching excellence was recognized at a Faculty gathering Friday, June 2, where he and others received awards from Dean Peter Berg.
Joining Shoshany in being recognized was Earth Sciences Professor Mariek Schmidt, who received the 2023 FMS Research Award.
Over the past two decades, Schmidt has been involved with three Mars rover missions, first with Spirit and Opportunity as a post-doctoral fellow, then as a Participating Scientist with Curiosity for 10 years, and most recently with Mars 2020 Perseverance.
“It feels strange to say it, but I have the most experience with more Mars rover missions of anyone in Canada,” she said.
As part of the Perseverance mission, Schmidt works with other Participating Scientists from around the world to help guide use of the rover’s instruments for research and data collection. Schmidt focuses on one of the rover’s seven key instruments: the Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which is an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer used to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials.
Schmidt’s research spans Earth and Mars. She applies knowledge and experience from working with volcanic rocks on Earth to rocks encountered by Mars rovers as she and her colleagues search for signs of past life.
“Some of the oldest life forms on Earth were probably microbes that eat rocks,” she said. “If we’re looking for life on Mars, it’s most likely we would find evidence of microbial activity.”
As part of a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Schmidt is investigating microbial alteration of basaltic glass, which is glassy volcanic rock.
“We see evidence for little tunnels in the glass,” she said. “We’re looking at under what conditions and what range of minerals these microbes can dissolve the glass.”
Alongside Schmidt and Shoshany receiving formal recognition from the Faculty of Mathematics and Science was Justin Pentesco, Online Course Developer/Administrator for the Department of Earth Sciences, who received the FMS Distinguished Staff Award; Eric de Hoog (BSc ’15, PhD ’22), who received the FMS Best PhD Thesis Award; and Muheater Mukaidaisi, who received the FMS Best MSc Thesis Award.