Science Education

It’s ok to say “I don’t know”

Josh has just come into Fifth Year. I don’t teach him this year but have had a lot of contact with him over the years; he is enthusiasm personified.

His latest query relates to that little matter of The Big Bang. What, he asked me recently, was there before The Big Bang?
I thought about it briefly, wondered if I should mention Space-Time, singularities, multiple-universes and such, then realised that I should just be honest with him.

“Josh”, I replied, “I have absolutely no idea”.

“But you’re a Physics teacher – you’re supposed to know about these things”.

“That’s as may be”, I replied, “but it doesn’t change the fact that I still have absolutely no idea what was out there before The Big Bang. Or, for that matter, what ‘out there’ even means”.

Josh obviously wasn’t too impressed with this answer. Next time I saw him I asked him if he was still annoyed at me.

“Not annoyed”, he said, “just puzzled. “I asked four other people the same question and they all tried to explain it to me but I didn’t know even know what they were saying, so I just pretended that I was able to understand so they wouldn’t feel bad. I just don’t know why you are the only one who won’t tell me the answer.”

Though Josh doesn’t realise it, his comment was rather profound. It is depressing that we as teachers promote this myth that we have all the answers to their questions.
And, on a more philosophical level, that Science should have  all the answers to life’s questions.

The late George Carlin called the entire universe ‘The Big Electron’. It’s as good a description as any, particularly when you include Richard Feynman’s description of the electron:

‘The electron is a theory we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real.’

Here is Carlin with another of my favourite comedians: Bill Hicks.

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Did you know that you won the lottery?

We have always assumed that ‘we’ will be around forever; not only that but we wonder how long it will be before we can colonise other planets and solar systems. We conveniently ignore the fact that our being here in the first place may be nothing more that the fortutitous result of an incredible set of conincidences.

Do you believe that your existence is preordained?
I’m not sure what the postion of the mainstream religions is on this (or even if they have a position) but think about it;  when your mom and dad had sex nine months before you were born that one single ejaculation from your father (I do hope you’re not reading this over your morning cornflakes) contained probably two million healthy sperm – and only one of them got to combine with your mother’s egg.
(Apparently the total number of spermatozoa in the ejaculate should be at least 40 million, but it is quite surprising how many dead and abnormal sperm can be present in a ‘normal’ sample.)

And this combination lead to you. Now if any of those other two million sperm got there ahead of yours then it wouldn’t be you reading this right now – it would be a brother or sister – and you wouldn’t exist! So if your folks had decided to wait until Eastenders was over instead of rushing upstairs in a mad fit of passion then you would not be you – you would be your brother (or sister)! I’m telling you – this stuff is mad. Why had nobody told you this before?

So next time you rip up your lottery ticket and complain that you never win anything just think about this – you’ve already won the lottery, and it couldn’t have been a bigger prize!

I mention this every time I teach human reproduction and challenge students to find a flaw in the argument and if not they they are no longer allowed whine about how hard they have it. I was reminded of it recently when reading The Frog Blog’s recent post on putting the  wonder back into science education.
I have spoken about the concept of wonder before and mentioned that you don’t find wonder in science textbooks or syllabi and as a result it may not be found at all in the science classroom. For this to change those of us who believe it to important need first of all to develop a voice. Are we in a very small minority and if so should we just shut up, or are there others who believe that Science should be about more than merely learning off trivia, all of which could be found at the end of a smartphone in 30 seconds?  
How do we find out who’s with us?
Is twitter the way to go?
Which is more difficult – changing a political system in the Middle East or changing our system of education here in the West?

The Ideology that dare not speak its name

The January edition of Science Spin included a supplement on choosing science as a career. I was asked to contribute my thru’penny bit as a science teacher. Most of the other contributors included their opinion of what science is, but either I wasn’t asked or, more likely, my reply was too boring to print. So here’s what I should have written:

Science is many things, but the more I find out the more I believe that Science is a tool used to maintain the inequality that exists between the First and Third world. It is  an instrument used to develop the military technology which enforces this inequality, and which in turn is fed by the unequal distribution of the world’s resources.

One of its strengths lies in its refusal to acknowledge its role in this. Indeed the mere questioning of this can label the critic as an ‘outsider’ and consequently negate the message or its potential validity.

For an example of this  look no further than the  manner in which the role played by war has influenced so many developments in Science, and how this is conveniently ignored for the sake of a more sanitised and noble picture which is what you will find in your school science text-book.

Now why couldn’t I think of that at the time?

It’s also only fair to acknowledge that the article was both interesting and very well written by Marie-Catherine Mousseau. It described very well the wide spectrum of careers available for graduates in Science. The magazine itself is also very impressive. I genuinely hadn’t read it in years but its production is top quality and I will certainly be checking it out again. See for yourself if you get a chance. In all good bookshops, as they say.

Science Spin