Ten Great Ideas

Been thinking about my previous posting.

What are the ten great ideas in Science that we don’t emphasise?

The average student remembers bugger-all about science, but if we were told there were ten things that a student had to remember, what would they be?

1. Kinetic Theory – Everything is made up of atoms and vibrate at temperatures above -273 degrees Celsius.

2. Evolution

 3. Global Warming

4. Each atom is 99.9999% empty, and so therefore all objects which appear solid are almost completely empty space.

5. Deep Time: The age of the universe, the age of the Earth, the age of first life, and the age of humans

6. Science does not offer Absolute Proof

7. Fundamental Attribution Theory: Humans are genetically hard-wired to apportion blame for our own mistakes to others while wishing to take the credit for achievements which are outside our control.

8. Quantum Theory

9. What Science doesn’t know

10. Mass Extinctions

Science and Religion

Today Mr Dungan’s Leaving Cert Religion class joined our Applied Maths class for a discussion on Religion and Science. It started off very slowly but got a little heated before too long and the feedback was fairly positive with most students hoping we would repeat the exercise later in the year, but possibly in a more structured format.

I said I would post up relevant links, so here they are. The first two are the ones I showed on the day:

Richard Feynman on Religion & Mysticism

Uncertainty about the Big Bang
(I paused the clip when the scientists started going into detail on String Theory)

John Polkinghorne discusses Science and Religion here
Steven Weinberg discusses Science and Religion here

I think if we’re running this again two issues we might look at are
1.   free will
2. Creationism and Evolution (just enter “Ceationism and evolution” in a youtube search) but be wary, there are lots.

Uncertainty in Science

Possibly one of the most important concepts that should come out of a Science Education course is that Science does not provide certainty – it simply can’t. It’s all about probability.

The experiment we do in school to ‘prove’ that solids expand when heated, does nothing of the sort. We take one metal ball and show that it passes through a ring when cold but not when hot. Now explaining why this is not a proof is a nice excercise in itself. Initially students are slow to come up with any reason. To be honest they just don’t know what I’m on about. but then you give them a couple of examples: it’s only one metal, it’s only being heated over a rather narrow temperature range etc, and they quickly get the idea and can apply it to other experiments.

Why is this important?
To take one example, the whole notion of theory versus fact versus hypothesis is very ambiguous, but yet these words often get thrown around when knocking the theory of evolution. The implication is that because it is a ‘theory’ it is not well accepted in the scientific community; the word has a different meaning in common parlance than it has in the science world.

Secondly, scientists are often pilloried because they won’t state categorically that powerlines / mobile phones / radiated foods are safe. the implication is that if these were safe then science could prove it and say so. the reality is that you can never prove anything to be absolutely safe (life is carcinogenic) and we need to bear this in mind when weighing up the evidence.

The American physicist Richard Feynman talks about uncertainty in science – albeit in relation to his views on religion – in this clip from youtube.

So you would think this concept of uncertainty in science would get mentioned somewhere in the syllabus – at Junior or Senior Level.

But not a dickie

Teaching ’bout evolution of the eye

Was at a very interesting lecture at the ISTA AGM in UCC over the weekend, where Dr Jeremy Pritchard gave a lecture entitled ‘The evolution of evolution’. He spoke about how the eye was a difficult subject for Darwin to explain.
While the audience was mostly Biology teachers, I got to thinking about how I could introduce evolution into my own teaching.
We do a little bit on short-sightedness and long-sightedness in the Leaving Cert Physics course (under the heading of Lenses), and this would be an ideal spot to open up a discussion.

Dissecting a cow’s eye used to be allowed, but no longer is, but there is a link to a nice video of it, plus some other useful links here although it can take a while to download.

There is also a movie clip of how the eye itself could have evolved here, and an animated version here

Every so often I notice that the school library receives a copy of a journal/magazine entitled (I think) creation science, or something similar. I must look into it to see why we get this.

The Applied Maths class and the religion class got together a couple of weeks ago to discuss/debate many of the issues that bring Science and Religion together and also which bring them into conflict. It went very well; hopefully we can build upon it and do something similar in the future.

‘Story with Global Warming not on the syllabus?

The nice thing about Global Warming is that it that it may very well wipe us out as a species in the next couple of hundred years.
It is the single greatest catastrophe to hit human-kind EVER.

And in the grand scheme of things we couldn’t say we didn’t deserve it, or that we haven’t been warned.

Because it’s effects are not affecting us directly at this moment in time we just choose to bury our heads in the sand.
It’s like the story of the frog in the pot:
If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out instantly.
Yet, if you were to place it in a pot of cool water and slowly raise the temperature to boiling point, the frog will unsuspectingly meet its fatal demise.

You want to know what the Junior Cert Science syllabus has to say about this calamity?
Consider the following.
Junior Cert Biology:
Consider and discuss how human activity affects the environment, both positively and negatively (two examples in each case).

Junior Cert Physics:
List the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources of energy, including nuclear sources of energy, as part of the solution to national energy needs.

Actually scratch that last one.
Apparently we only need to look at energy in terms of out national energy needs, not in terms of the fact that we are the single worst thing to ever happen this planet.
So that’s allright then.

Junior Cert Chemistry:
Not a cracker.

So how about the Leaving Cert?
Well let’s see.
There’s nothing in Biology (hopefully somebody will prove me wrong here) and nothing in Leaving Cert Physics.
Leaving Cert Chemistry does go into it in some detail (for the small percentage of students who do it at this level):
The greenhouse effect and the influence of human activity on it,
and later;
Possible implications of the increased greenhouse effect.

Well here’s one Possible effect of the greenhouse effect for you;
Your children may very well be the last generation to live what we now regard as a ‘normal’ life, and it may very well be too late for us to do anything about it now even if we did want to.
And let’s face it; with the current demand for chelsea tractors in this country, anything we do will amount to little more than lip-service.

And we can’t even say we didn’t deserve it.

Sweet dreams!

No evolution in Junior Cert? Say it ain’t so!

Okay, let’s get one thing straight.
The greatest single idea that mankind has ever – and I mean ever – come up with is The Theory of Evolution.
It is the greatest idea in the history of the universe, and even comes ahead of the idea of the origin of the universe itself. And I say this as a physics graduate.
It’s not on the Junior Cert Science syllabus.
see for yourself

Now I do believe there is a general outcry that not enough students are taking science subjects at Leaving Cert level, and indeed this revised syllabus was designed partly to address this.
Indeed the ‘Introduction and Rationale’ section of the syllabus states:
“Arising out of their experiences in the junior cycle, it is hoped that many students will be encouraged to study one of the subjects in the senior cycle, thus preparing themselves for further study or work in this area”.

So why would you leave out the most incredible, stupendous, unbelievable (almost!), bizarre, wonderful, horrible, exciting, humbling, uplifting, emotional and awe-inspiring idea that the students could ever possible come across in thier lives, never mind in their school experience?

And here’s the kick.
Every so often the media here grab hold of the fact that the U.S. education system is having difficultity keeping evolution in their syllabus, and we think to ourselves “oh those silly yanks”.
Meanwhile we remain in ignorant bliss that we never had it on our syllabus in the first place.
Of course, the percentage of the school-going public that take Biology at leaving cert level do come across this, but for the rest of us there is nothing.
At least not in their science education.

Interestingly, while I don’t see a mention of it in the Junior Cert Religion syllabus (now there’s another missed opportunity! Imagine being able to make religion interesting?), it does make an appearance in the Leaving Cert Religion syllabus (check it out here – it’s first mentioned on page 103 of 110 in the pdf document).
Here’s part of what it says:
“Outline Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and highlight the major areas of conflict with religion”
Now there’s one to get your teeth into.

This section also delves into the origins of the universe, along with concepts like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. I reckon there’ll be some serious nervous religion teachers going in to class that day.

The fact that there’s nothing about The Big Bang or Origin of the Universe in the Junior Cert or Leaving Cert physics syllabus is for another day . . .