The Two Cultures – why our schools are to blame

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Scientists often complain about how they are perceived in literature. It seems as though the battle – with writers, poets and artists on one side, and scientists on the  other – has been going stong long before C.P. Snow wrote about ‘The Two Cultures’ back in 1959.
It was a strong theme all through the Romantic era and more recently prompted Richard Dawkins to write an entire book on the subject.  His take on it was similar to that of Richard Feynman; far from taking from the wonder of the subject, science actually adds to it. We can still appreciate the beauty of nature while having a deeper understanding of the reason nature is the way she is. Dawkins’ booktitle was a reference to a Keats poem about the wonder of rainbows, but it’s not an uncommon complaint; Richard Feynman says something similar about a simple flower.

What I find fascinating is that neither Feynman or Dawkins (or indeed C.P. Snow himself) seem to wonder why many artists have such a poor view of science. Walt Whitman’s poem above seems to be a fair reflection of how scientists in general are viewed by  the public at large.

For me, this poor image of Science (and scientists) is generated in school. The textbooks are terrible, the syllabus even more so, and it is only the enthusiasm of the odd teacher that creates any sort of positive image of the subject. It seems to me that science teachers at secondary level and lecturers at third level do very little to inspire wonder in any student who isn’t already fascinated by the subject. I have said it on many occasions before; when you consider the enthusiasm of students for the subject when they first encounter it in first year, and contrast this with their weariness for the subject in sixth year, it’s a wonder any of them choose to keep it on at third level. Of course the pigeon-holing of all knowledge into outdated compartments called ‘Subjects’ may also have something to do with this.

And unfortunately all the Science Weeks and Science Gallaries and Cities of Science in the world won’t change this.

What might result in change is if more attention was paid to our abysmal syllabus by some of these folk who are so heavily involved in promotion of science ourside the classroom; perhaps if enough artists and writers addressed this issue . . . a new romantic movement anyone?

Thanks to my colleague Mr Devitt for reminding me of the Walt Whitman poem. Young Devitt is one of those indivuals who is as happy talking Physics/Science as he is talking History (his trade). I am fortunate in my school to have a number of such colleagues, but as with teachers  everywhere else there is just so little time or opportunity to allow for cross-pollination of this sort. What I find fascinating about discussions with colleagues from the humanities side of the fence is that they always seem to have more of a sense of wonder for the (science) ideas than do my science-teacher colleagues. I don’t know why that is.


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?

Please put SPACE on our Science syllabus is currently hosting a survey of readers to find out what they consider to be the greatest mystery in Science. The leader by quite some way is “How did the universe begin?”

The theme for this year’s Science Week is “Our place in space“, and no doubt thousands of students will spend an hour or two attending special lectures which highlight this wonderful concept.

Then we all go back to our classrooms and never again hear about space, never mind the Big Bang.

If we want to grab students and hold onto them then while ScienceWeek is a nice resource, it is certainly not the answer. Why are we not telling students about the Big Bang, Quasars, Neutron Stars, Pulsars, Black Holes and all manner of other exotic phenomena as part of their science education? Because it’s not on either the Junior Science or Leaving Cert Physics syllabus (although the Big Bang does make an appearance in the Leaving Cert Religion syllabus).
And it’s never going to be on these syllabi unless we kick up a fuss. For that to happen there would first need to be a recognition of the problem. Why can’t Chris Horn and all those other commentators from the business world take an hour or two to look at our syllabi and then ask themselves – ‘would I want to study this for either three or six years?’

I don’t know if other teachers feel the same because there is so little communication between us, but that bone of contention is for another day.

This is just to serve as advance notice – next time you hear an ‘expert’ on the national airwaves bemoaning the low numbers of students taking up Physics or Chemistry, listen our to see if there is any evidence to indicate that the speaker is actually familiar with either syllabus. And listen very carefully for the one word that never gets mentioned by these business folk: wonder.

Is it a particle or is it a wave?

Sometimes I think I’d gladly be locked up in a dungeon ten fathoms below ground, if in return I could find out one thing: What is light?
Galileo, from the play Life of Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht

 The single greatest source of debate among physicists in the early decades of the last century was to do with the nature of light. Come to think of it, this concept has probably caused more angst than any other to scientists and philosophers right back to the ancient Greeks.
To take just one aspect; we can prove that light is a particle (via the photoelectric effect) and we can prove that light is a wave (via interference, or the famous ‘double slit’ experiment) yet particles and waves are two completely different phenomena. Particles are ‘things’ and are therefore supposed to be localised in space and have mass. And while there are  different varieties of waves, they are not supposed to be ‘in one place’ or have mass.
So what gives?


Answer: nobody knows. To this day there are different interpretations, but none that is accepted by all. The YouTube clip below shows some of the world’s greatest physicists coming together for one of a series of conferences to try to make sense of it all back in the 1920’s. Needless to say they did not reach a consensus. There is wonderful book called QUANTUM which describes in great detail the history of this debate at the beginning of the last century. See here  for a previous post on the book itself.

Now in leaving cert physics we need to know the evidence for light being both a particle and a wave. But there is room in the syllabus or any of the textbooks that I have come across to highlight the bizarre nature of this. It lies at the heart of one of the greatest problems scientists have ever faced, and our response is to simply pretend that there is nothing of note here.

It’s simply not good enough.

A big welcome to morestresslesssuccess


As teachers, most of us are happy to spend hours giving out about all that’s wrong with our education system and what should change. All too few of us however are prepared to put our head above the parapet and take the time to make our opinions public (with the obvious exception of salary talks). It doesn’t help that the main teacher organisations are reluctant to set up discussion forums – possibly for fear of legal repercussions should the wrong thing be said.

Which is why we are delighted to welcome morestresslesssuccess  to the blogosphere. The blogger in question is Humphrey Jones (pictured above) of thefrogblog fame. It’s best described by himself:

More Stress, Less Success is a blog about being a teacher – a busy one. But more specifically it is about recognising the work that teachers do in a society where they are rarely valued. It’s also about exploring new ways to teach and learn, specifically using technology.

 I don’t know if I would say that teachers are rarely valued – personally I believe that as a profession we could be doing so much better and so much more to help ourselves (and yes of course I include myself in that). Our teaching styles (at secondary level at least) are still very much ‘chalk and talk’ together with ‘the sage on the stage’ when that whole approach has been lambasted by educationalists for decades if not centuries.

Nevertheless it’s great to have the opportunity to ‘converse’ with a fellow teacher in this fashion – I suspect we have a lot more in common than not, and I luck forward to changing my own opinion when needbe.

With a bit of luck it may just prompt some more ‘lurkers’ out into the open.

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?

Wha’ is the stars, Joxer?

Boyle: An’, as it blowed an’ blowed, I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question — what is the stars, what is the stars?

Joxer: Ah, that’s the question, that’s the question — what is the stars?
Boyle: An’ then, I’d have another look, an’ I’d ass meself — what is the moon?
Joxer: Ah, that’s the question — what is the moon, what is the moon?

“Juno and the Paycock”, Seán O’Casey (1924)

 From pretty much the time a baby can focus on the lights overhead he will notice the stars in the sky and wonder about them. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has lasted through the years partly because it resonates with an innate curiosity in all of us to find out exactly what is up there. So you would think something about astronomy or better still cosmology would be on either the Junior Cert Science syllabus or the Leaving Cert Physics syllabus (or here’s a mad idea – why not both?). Not only is it not on either, but in the draft of the new Physics syllabus it doesn’t even get a mention.

Last year at a physics-teachers’ convention we were told that the draft could not be altered significantly and that therefore there would be no mention of stars, galaxies, the Big Bang, or indeed any reference to any of the incredibly exotic objects out there. There would, of course, be a consultation process but this seems to allow for no more than tinkering around the edges. Which begs the question why could we not have been consulted to begin with? Are we not to be trusted?

Presumably it’s still considered much more important to be able to measure the density of a stone than it is to explain the origin of the universe (interestingly you will find the Big Bang mentioned in the Religion syllabus).

 I suppose even if these topics did get mentioned we would somehow manage to distil the wonder out of them like we do pretty much everything else on the syllabus.

Did you know that there are objects in the sky which are about the size of the Earth but which have the mass of the Sun, and which can spin almost 1,000 times a second? Remember our Earth takes 24 hours to do one revolution and yet these guys can spin one thousand times a second! Mad I tell you. Oh, and they were discovered by an Irish woman (they are called pulsars; check out this cool video on YouTube)

 So what should students learn about the heavens? As always, put away the textbooks and look to our colleagues across the so-called ‘two cultures’ divide.

You want to know about galaxies? – sit up straight and listen to Monty Python.

Or how did it all begin? – Try The Barenaked Ladies.

Maybe if we want to attract students back into science we could do worse than start here.

Barenaked Ladies: It all started with the big bang

Monty Python: The Galaxy Song