Science, evolution and creationism (again)

I have written before about creationism and science education, and how it is not mentioned in Junior Cert Science. Every so often these surveys appear in the papers; this one was in the New Scientist last May. Researchers polled a random sample of nearly 2000 high-school science teachers across the US in 2007:

[ ] asked about the teachers’ personal beliefs . . . 16% of the total said they believed human beings had been created by God within the last 10,000 years.

I guess the number shouldn’t be surprising, but I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable.


We are all monkeys

This is a wonderful four minute clip which trys to dispel the myth that humans and monkeys are completely different.

Or that we are supposed to be the clever ones.

I play this regularly at the end of a class. It doesn’t seem to have the same affect on students as it did on me when I first saw it.

But I still keep playing it. It’s one of my favourites.

Why Ozymandias?

I have this poem on the door of my lab.

Why Ozymandias?
Obviously it’s one of my favourite poems. I am always reminded of the final scene from Planet of the Apes where Taylor comes across the upper half of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand.

You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!


No matter how important I think I am,
No matter how important we think this civilisation is,
No matter how important we think the human species is,
No matter how important we think the planet Earth is,
In the grand scheme of things we are only here for a very short time.
Let’s make the most of it.

The central theme of Ozymandias is mankind’s hubris. In fourteen short lines, Shelley condenses the history of not only Ozymandias’ rise, peak, and fall, but also that of an entire civilization. Without directly stating it, Shelley shows that all works of humankind – including power structures and governments -eventually must pass into history, no matter how permanent they may seem at the apex of their influence. Ozymandias’ short-sighted pride seems amusing at first – until the reader realizes that the lessons conveyed are equally applicable today. All things must pass.
From Wikipedia

I like this website for poetry because it includes readers’ comments which are educational in themselves. I’m sure there are other such sites out there – if you know of any you would recommend please let us know.

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.