Saturday, December 20, 2008

Science and The Mystery

If you package science in a box, wrap it with shiny paper, and stick a bow on top, the world becomes safer.

This is what children want. This is what the parents of children want. This is what we do in kindergarten.

I teach high school. The adult version of science takes you to places that are open and unknown. While I have no problem with teaching safe sex in high school, there is no place for safe science.

Opening up the unknown is frightening to a culture based on immortality. We have a responsibility to teach the truth, to show the limits of what we know, and what we can know.

If you teach science honestly, you will bump into limits. You will skirt the edges of nihilism.

My students want to know what I believe--I avoid the question. Some think I am a raving Creationist, some think I'm Jewish, many assume I'm Catholic, and a few suspect I am atheist.

(One student asked me if I was a Satanist--I use my index and pinky to signify "two", a habit picked up when I coached Little League, and he misread it as some secret signal. No, I am not a Satanist.)

What I "am" does not matter in the classroom, nor should it.

I start each year explaining that science is about models, stories constructed using specific rules to explain the universe.

I have faith in patterns. Whatever this thing is, it follows rules.

We have been talking about photosynthesis, and the source of oxygen on Earth. Water is split by light, releasing oxygen.
Where did the water come from? Maybe comets, maybe not. Where did that water come from? Shrug. Where did the first cell come from? Shrug. Where did the mass/energy for the Big Bang came from? Shrug. What is mass/energy? Shrug.

I shrug a lot in class. I tell the students to ask their mothers, their rabbis, their priests, their imams, their philosopher kings, the Buddha, the whatever.

I explain that I teach science, and that this is as far as it goes. A few are frightened by this (and I am heartened to see a few see the abyss).

I also tell them they can ask me outside the school if they ever see me (and they do, since I live in town).

No one ever asks. If they do, though....shrug.

The cartoon is from here xkcd and can be found here:


Barry Bachenheimer said...

Perhaps this is similar to the astute social studies teacher talking about political issues who never quite lets his students know where he/she stands on issues because he/she can argue both sides well to facilitate discussion.....

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Michael.

I've always believed Science is about how, not why.

I don't believe Newton really asked, 'why did the apple fall?' Everything that he ever described about things falling showed us how they fell, not why. I don't believe he even thought about looking for the answer to why.

Faraday was much the same. Come to that, Einstein did similarly. If you read all the books that Stephen Hawking writes, he never asks why either.

Why is that?



How is that?

Catchya later
from middle-earth

doyle said...

Dear Barry,

A good analogy. Science teachers have the luxury of "knowing" what the current best story/model is, even though it's always in flux. I have no problem presenting ideas as darn good ones--it's the edges of science, things we cannot know, that clam me up.

And I am on my way to Montclair January 9th! w00t! Got the approval, hope you guys got the check. Really excited by it!

Kia ora Ken.

Much of science is the "how"--laws (such as law of gravity) do not explain anything, they just formalize what we observe to be "true" (or at least see as predictable patterns).

Theories do attempt to explain the why, at least in terms of the empirical universe (or in our perception of patterns). This is a particular use of the word "why," true, and your word "how" may frame the question in a better way.

My kids have a hard time distinguishing the laws from the theories--they are two different kinds of "how." The former just states what is, the latter tries to put pieces together, frames a story that hopes to explain what we observe.


Kate Tabor said...

Good morning Doyle -
Kids gets confused because our eyes can deceive us. Every day we see the sun move across the sky. Our brains can trick us. We are not Rousseau's Emile, only educated through our own experience with the world. I trust that there are neutrinos. I know people who study them, yet they seem to be magic at the very least - passing through solid objects unchanged.

Rousseau believed that we should not even begin to teach children about a god until they were 15 or 16; he thought that they were unable to understand the abstract concept of God until then.

It's very very cold here in Illinois today (endo or exothermic I know not which) but even my northern breed dogs, empiricists by nature, trust some things without question and one is the cold.

I thought of you this morning as we greet the solstice.

Keep telling stories, and light some candles tonight. Here's a good story for you - Many Moons by James Thurber, about the Princess Lenore who fell ill of a surfeit of raspberry tarts and will only be well if she can have the moon. But what do we know of the nature of the moon, and how will she ever be well again?

Find the book for the wonderful illustrations though here is the text:

doyle said...

Thanks for sharing Many Moons, a great story.

Not sure we can grasp the concept of god at any age, and the word has too many meanings to be useful anymore.

I will spend the next couple of weeks reading stories--John Dufresne, Galway Kinnell, maybe Thomas Hardy (it's been a long time since I've read The Mayor of Casterbridge).

Or maybe I'll just hibernate.

Sean Nash said...

"What I "am" does not matter in the classroom, nor should it."

I agree with this on December 27th, 2008.

However- in a better world- or different country- or different... just different... that would not be true. That shouldn't be true.

We are not puppets. Some of us are really excellent filters for the overwhelming glut of *knowledge* in the world today.

In the most real sense, what your "are" does matter. It matters a ton. In a world/space/country/time wherein an sharp, yet open mind is valued... what you "are" is to be held in highest esteem.

When thinking of this post, two quotes come to mind:

"It should be the chief aim of a university professor to exhibit himself in his own true character -- that is, as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilizing his small share of knowledge."

~Alfred North Whitehead


"The trouble with the world is that fools are too filled with certainty, and wise men too full of doubt."

~Bertrand Russell



doyle said...


Excellent point!

And by the year's end, the students so get to know who we are--and for me, anyway, that's a huge plus.

Part of parsing information is parsing the source.

I work on my "Cranky but knows what he's talking about" persona in the classroom.

But it goes beyond knowledge of the book sort. FWIW, my kids know I clam, I fish, I garden, I brew.

It shouldn't matter, but it does.

Christopher Kulp said...

Great post! I teach physics at the college level and I have had a lot of similar experiences, especially when I teach introductory astronomy.

I tell my students that there are two "whys". The scientific why is actually a how. The philosophical why is the one they are after and I can't answer.

"Why is the sky blue?" Rayleigh Scattering

"Why is the sky blue?" I don't know.