Wonder in Science

Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein: not a bad roll-call

The following is an edited extract from notes which I give to students before going through the derivation for the rather intimidating equation below.

Congratulations
You have just arrived at an equation which bookmarks a seminal moment in the history of science.

kepler

Around this time (16th century) an astronomer called Johannes Kepler discovered empirically (i.e. by analyzing data on the motion of planets) that the square of the periodic time of these planets (time for one complete orbit around the sun) is proportional to the cube of their distance from the sun.
Kepler actually stole the necessary data from a colleague, Tycho Brahe, but that’s nothing new in the world of Science. We will conveniently ignore that for now.

Later on Newton came along and was able to demonstrate this relationship mathematically, by combining a well known equation for circular motion on Earth with his own universal law of gravitation. We are about to follow in his footsteps and see exactly what he did and how he did it. Do not under-estimate the importance of this exercise (yes you have to know it for exam purposes, but that’s not why I consider it important).

This event had two very important consequences.
1. It showed that Newton’s Law of Gravitation must be valid in its own right, which was very important in securing Newton’s reputation as a giant of science, both at the time and for posterity.
2. Even more importantly, it demonstrated that ‘the heavens’ followed the same rules of science as those which operated here on Earth.
This meant that they were a legitimate area of study, and so Astronomy (which in turn led to Cosmology) was given an added respectability. Just to give a sense of what people believed at the time, Kepler had to spend much of his time during this period defending his mother of charges of being a witch.

I can think of no modern discovery which compares with this. Even if we discovered life on Mars it really wouldn’t be that big a deal. For up to this point the heavens were considered off-limits – the realm of God or the gods or whatever you’re into yourself. But now they could be shown to be just another series of objects which followed set rules, much like cogs in a complicated clock. So God was being pushed into the wings. You could see why neither Martin Luther or the Vatican Church would have been keen fans.

Kepler was following on the work of Nicolas Copernicus (known to science students down the ages as ‘copper knickers’), who in turned showed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around.
Galileo’s run in with the Church was because he supported Copernicus’ view, so Galileo never actually made that discovery but was happy to use it to make fun of the church authority figures of the time. I think we all know how that worked out for him.

This was really the dawn of science, and progress was hindered by medieval views of the astronomers themselves. It took Kepler many years to realise that the orbit of the planets was elliptical in nature, not circular. He had assumed initially that the motion had to be circular because a circle was a perfect shape (harping back to the teachings  of Pythagoras and Aristotle, among others) and therefore would have been more pleasing to God who obviously had created the planets in the first place.

Similarly Newton, despite being heralded as one of our greatest ever scientists, spend up to 90% of his time trying to date the creation of Earth by tracing who gave birth to who in the bible.

But then Newton had another problem. He realised that Kepler was correct in stating that the planets traced out elliptical orbits, but even Newton’s equations didn’t fully match the path of the heavenly bodies; according to Newton’s equations the planets should slowly but exonerably drift from their current pathways. He couldn’t figure out why this didn’t happen – after all, his equations seemed to be perfect in every other way. And Newton believed that he was getting his ideas directly from God. Which doesn’t leave much room for admitting you made a mistake.

We now know that while Newton’s equations are very accurate, we actually need Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to explain why they don’t precisely describe the motion of the planets.
It’s interesting to note that Newton’s explanation was that God must step in every so often to gently nudge the planets back into their preferred orbits. Now as you now know, invoking a deity to explain discrepancies in scientific observations is the antithesis of Science. So perhaps Newton wasn’t actually so mighty after all. This is partly why he is sometimes referred to as the last sorcerer rather than the first scientist.

So now we’re up to Einstein. His general theory of relativity suggested that the universe was expanding, but just like all of his predecessors he was a man of his time, and this coloured how he saw the world. It was believed at the time that the universe had always been the way it is now (this is referred to as the ‘Steady State’ theory). Einstein figured that there must be some mistake in his paper so he introduced what he called a ‘cosmological constant’ which basically amounted to a fudge factor which altered the implications of his calculations and prevented the universe from expanding.

Which was all very well until Hubble (he of the ‘Hubble’ telescope) showed that the universe was actually expanding after all.

Doh!
Einstein referred to this as his greatest ever blunder.

So there you have it. This has been my attempt to put some context on the derivation that we are about to carry out. It is our chance to repeat one of the greatest moments in the history of science.

So you have two options; you can consider this exercise to be a pain in the ass or you consider it an incredible privilege to be in a position where you can follow in the footsteps of giants.

I think we know which option I go with.

And don’t be afraid to tell your parents this tonight; they may well throw their eyes up to heaven but if they do that’s a slight on them – not on you.

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Aims and Objectives? I have but one: see science as a source of wonder

This is to serve notice that I am changing the Aims and Objectives of my Leaving Cert Physics subject plan.
The existing plan was cobbled together at short notice by copying and pasting from other schools courtesy of some nifty google searching.
But it’s pretty bland and therefore not really fit for purpose.

So what are my objectives?
Actually, there are very few:
I simply want students to appreciate science as a source of wonder.
Science, to paraphrase Feynman, does not diminish our sense of wonder – it can only enhance it.

Feynman: wonder in ScienceI want students to see science as a cultural activity – it is an integral part of what it means to be human.

The awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable… to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.
Richard Dawkins

Science represents the best and worst of what humanity is capable of. We celebrate literature, poetry, art, dance, music as aspects of culture. We need to see Science in the same light.
And we need to stop portraying it as all good. Because it’s not. We’re on a one-way ride to global catastrophe as a result of global warming. It may well lead to the extinction of the human species in the not too distant future. And I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t have happened without Science and it’s hand-in-hand link with uncontrolled capitalilsm. But you’re not likely to see that in any school textbook.

Science tells us as much about where we have come from as it does about the world we inhabit. This must not be downplayed. In this context psychology is probably the most important of all the sciences and it is deeply unfortunate that psychology plays no part in traditional school science.

I want students to appreciate that Science not merely an accumulation of facts. The picture we portray of it in school is therefore not only incorrect but totally at odds with reality.
We should all apologise to our students for this.

Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks: but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house
Poincare

Do I want my students to go on and become scientists?
Not in the slightest. If they do then good luck to them, and I will help them if I can, but it’s not a priority. Does anybody seriously think that being a scientist is somehow any more noble than being a writer or a poet, an accountant or a tax official? How about a lawyer? Or for that matter a teacher?
So why should I push them in a specific direction?

Do I want to re-dress the gender balance?
Not for its own sake, no. I would like as many students as possible to appreciate the wonder of science, but I can understand why lots of girls are reluctant to take on Physics and/or Applied Maths as they are currently presented and I can’t say I blame them. Sticking up posters of token female scientists isn’t going to have much of an effect either, so please stop sending them to me.
If I’m being very honest what matters most to me is that we have enough students to justify two physics classes and one Applied Maths every year.
We get on average 40 – 45 students taking on Physics and anywhere from 15 – 24 taking Applied Maths.
So I’m happy on that score.

Do I think my students are going to become better citizens, or more informed in relation to science controversies than students who don’t do Science?
Not a hope.

Am I interested in how the students do in the Leaving Cert exam?
Yes, but really only in the sense that it’s all a game. And it’s not even my game; it’s their game.
But if I want them to play my game then it’s only fair that I play their game.

So I take both the syllabus and the past-papers apart and base the main section of my notes just on these.
And then I go off on all sorts of tangents based loosely (sometimes very loosely) on the topic at hand. But then when I’ve finished I go back and cross-check what I’ve done against the syllabus and questions from past papers and pick up the pieces that way. And I teach it just about as well as I possibly can.
I do appreciate that there are students in my class who are looking for an A1 and I know that I need to facilitate them as part of my bread-and-butter duties. And I’m happy to do so.
But I don’t stress over it. Once the students walk out of my class for the last time in May I wish them well but then take the stance that my job is done. So I don’t look at their results. In fact I believe strongly that this is actually a dangerous thing for any teacher to do. I accept that I’m in a minority here but I don’t need to see the students’ leaving cert results to find out whether or not I’m doing a good job. There are any amount of ways to find that out throughout the year, and adapt accordingly.

So that’s it.
Those are my aims and objectives or whatever the buzz phrase is these days. I see no reason to change this just for inspection purposes. If that makes me a ‘bad’ teacher in some folks’ eyes well, I guess I can live with that too.

For more recent blogposts on wonder in science see this link

antimatter

http://smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2088#comic

Why do we remove Wonder from Science Education?

If it’s possible to dedicate blogposts to individuals then I choose to dedicate this to my aunt; Sr Cathy. Like many religious folk I know, her passion for Science may well surpass her passion for her religion. Or maybe she’s just passionate about everything. Either way, I’m looking forward to meeting up with her over the Easter break as part of a big extended family celebration.

Wonder is a theme we return to again in again in this blog. More specifically the theme is one of frustration that we have deliberately removed all reference in our science textbooks and syllabi to concepts that evoke a sense of wonder. And it doesn’t help that it seems to bother so few other people. Which is why every time I come across somebody else expressing the same frustration I move to wrap the up in cotton wool and store in away in s0 that I can return to it anytime I need reassurance that it’s not just me. And where better to store it than here?

Students today are often immersed in an environment where what they learn is subjects that have truth and beauty embedded in them but the way they’re taught is compartmentalised and it’s drawn down to the point where the truth and beauty are not always evident.
It’s almost like that old recipe for chicken soup where you boil the chicken until the flavour is just . . . gone.

The speaker, David Bolinsky, is famous for having created an incredible animation on the private life of cells. I have watched that video many, many times (it’s a beauty in it’s own right) but it was only when I watched its Bolinsky talk about it on TED that I zoned in on his quote above.

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. . . . It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary.

That was from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

That was courtesy of well known columnist George Monbiot

The way I was taught science made it feel like nothing more than a series of disconnected facts – the eureka moments of long dead scientists. My knowledge of Einstein’s work by the time I went to university was E=mc2; something like the Einstein-Silárd letter was completely absent from my education. I learned more about the history of nuclear physics from the play Copenhagen than I ever did from a school discussion.

Andrew Holding

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called Science and distil it again and again until all the wonder has been removed! We are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this drivel into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time.
And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.

That one’s mine.

It’s really such a shame that the wonder of Science only seems to be spoken about by artists, poets and writers. Why do scientists (and science teachers, and in particular those who are responsible for drafting the science syllabi) hide from it so much?

Anyway, the reason for this particular post is that it’s time to add the opinion of the author of what is for me the greatest book ever written in the Popular Science genre; Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything.
I’ll paste in the short quote first, but to understand the context it deserves to be read in its entirety so I’ll follow with that (and anyway, reading Bryson could hardly be termed a chore).

It was as if he [a science textbook author] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

Here is the full context:

My own starting point, for what it is worth, was a school science book that I had when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook – battered, unloved, grimly hefty – but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cutaway diagram showing the Earth’s interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when I had not seen such an illustration before, but evidently I had not for I clearly remember being transfixed. I suspect, in  honesty, my initial interest was based on a private image of streams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over the edge of a sudden four-thousand-mile-high cliff running between Central America and the North Pole, but gradually my attention did turn in a more scholarly manner to the scientific import of the drawing and the realization that the Earth consisted of discrete layers, ending in the centre with a glowing sphere of iron and nickel, which was as hot as the surface of the Sun, according to the caption, and I remember thinking with real wonder: ‘How do they know that?’
I didn’t doubt the correctness of the information for an instant – I still tend to trust the pronouncements of scientists in the way I trust those of surgeons, plumbers, and other possessors of arcane and ¬ privileged information – but I couldn’t for the life of me conceive how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye had ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of. To me that was just a ¬ miracle. That has been my position with science ever since.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before ¬ dinner – an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was all right – and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here’s the thing. It wasn’t exciting at all. It wasn’t actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it didn’t answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal enquiring mind: How did we end up with a Sun in the ¬ middle of our planet and how do they know how hot it is? And if it is burning away down there, why isn’t the ground under our feet hot to the touch? And why isn’t the rest of the interior melting – or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sinkhole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure it out?
But the author was strangely silent on such details – indeed, silent on everything but anticlines, synclines, axial faults and the like. It was as if he wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying – universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose – Timothy Ferris, Richard Fortey and Tim Flannery are three that jump out from a single station of the alphabet (and that’s not even to mention the late but godlike Richard Feynman) – but, sadly, none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the  children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a  section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.

 

There’s that word again . . . WONDER

Students today are often immersed in an environment where what they learn is subjects that have truth and beauty embedded in them but the way they’re taught is compartmentalised and it’s drawn down to the point where the truth and beauty are not always evident.

It’s almost like that old recipe for chicken soup where you boil the chicken until the flavour is just . . . gone.

I have this video numerous times but it was only when I watched its creator David Bolinsky talk about it on TED that I heard that powerful word again: Wonder.

Here’s another take on it, this time from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. . . . It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary

Or how about George Monbiot:

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

This one is mine – maybe we should form our own society!

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called Science and distil it until all the wonder has been removed and we are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this drivel into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time.
And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.

It’s really such a shame that the wonder of Science only seems to be spoken about by artists, poets and writers. Why do scientists (and science teachers, and in particular those who are responsible for drafting the science syllabi) hide from it so much?

Would they not accept that by acknowledging the Wonder that lies at the heart of the subject we might actually engage the students a little more? Maybe it goes right back to the origins of Science.  Adam Smith once wrote that “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition” and the philosophy behind the world’s first scientific society was to discover knowledge, not by force of argument or flowery speech, but rather as a result of cold, objective facts (hence the gradual removal of the use of the first person singular when describing experiments and the move towards the more impersonal ‘the experiment was set up as seen in the diagram’).

What a disservice we do to our students.

Harry Chapin – Flowers are red

Criticising our education system is not new – why would it be when it’s like shooting fish in a barrel? One of the better known recent commentaries came from Sir Ken Robinson at a TED conference a few years back who made a very convincing argument for changing our focus away from the  academic subjects and instead develop a greater emphasis on the arts as part of our students’ formal education.

Sometimes the best critiques come not from ‘experts’ but from those well outside the academic circle. Harry Chapin’s Flowers are red  always been one of my favourite songs in this regard. It really doesn’t require anything more to be said. Listen for yourselves and if you’re a science teacher ask yourself which teacher you want to be like.
And then try to answer honestly which of the  two teachers your students would match you with.

Remember almost every student comes into secondary school with a deep sense of wonder which is all you should need to succeed in Science. Few leave with this passion still in good working order. We must at least allow for the possibility that we teachers are part of the problem.

Aims and Objectives won’t get us out of this one.

The BBC – supporting Science

World of Wonder -Science on the BBC
Tagline:
This series is part of World of Wonder – a year of Science across the BBC in 2010. From popular science to Chaos Theory, there’s a little something for everyone.

Did you know that the BBC has a Science homepage?
It’s called “World of Wonder” – what a cool title.

You see the BBC know that if they want the public to watch their programs then they have to first of all draw them in and then they must deliver.
And the single best way to do this is with wonder. And the single best source of wonder is science.
And of course it helps if you have a passionate presenter who is comfortable in front of the camera.

The following represents just some of what they have produced lately:

The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion

Hammond’s Invisible Worlds

Museum of Life 

Journeys from the centre of the earth

The Power of the Planet

How the earth made us

South Pacific

Wonders of the Solar System 
Professor Brian Cox (the “rock star physicist” who looks as awed as I do when watching it) visits some of the most stunning locations on earth to describe how the laws of nature have carved natural wonders across the solar system.
Professor Cox has just started work on a new series entitled “Wonders of the Universe” – follow him on twitter.

Not a bad roll of honour – each one a wonderful representation of the story of science.

When RTE does Science it is invariably a natural history program – nothing wrong with that in itself, but a little more from the physical sciences would be nice.

Presumably it’s rather expensive to produce a Science program. The last wildlife program from the Nature department of RTE was aired recently: Wild Journeys was a three part documentary with wonderful scenary but woeful narration. It was completely devoid of that one word which the viewer could respond to more than any other – wonder.  Check it out for yourself

Next time RTE is looking for material for a Science program they should just ask Mary Mulvihill for pointers and then give a lot of thought to choosing a presenter (and not just go with whoever happens to be passing on the corridor at the time). Why not have somebody who isn’t afraid to sound amazed or in awe of Nature? Imagine someone like Kathryn Thomas, Tommy Tiernan or Ray D’arcy narrating, or better still in front of the camera rather than just providing the voiceover.

Or my personal favourite – physicist/comedian  Dara O’ Briain.

A step too far for the fuddy duddies  in RTE methinks.

On the lack of wonder in education: Monbiot hits it on the button

George Monbiot, who writes for The Guardian, finished a recent piece on communication in science with the following:

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

There’s that word again: wonder. Why does eveybody ignore this- surely it’s not that difficult to fix?