Sunday, July 26, 2009

On anthropomorphizing

In Galway Bay, nestled on the west coast of Ireland, lives Fungi, a lone male dolphin who seeks the company of humans, as he has for over a quarter century now. He's a tourist attraction, and an enigma. No one knows why he sticks around—perhaps he was abandoned by his pod for some nefarious dolphin behavior during his wild youth, maybe he happens to like humans and their noise.

I once watched spearing, tiny fish with aluminum foil strips pasted on their sides, jumping over a piece of straw floating near the surf. One or two would jump over it, then circle back around, then jump over it again. The science teacher in me tries to equate this jumping over a piece of phragmites with evolutionary fitness. For all my training, though, I can't help myself—I see joy.

Our reference is human—it's all we have, really. We see trees as humans see them, smell the early morning mud flats as only humans, fear the humming of a bee as only humans can. (If you prefer a lonely nihilistic view, as only humans can, then imagine that you alone can know what you sense.)

There are certainly problems with anthropomorphizing, impugning motives on critters going about their business. I should not presume joy on the part of the silver-sided fish—no way to know—but we make a bigger mistake presuming the absence of shared motives. (Obviously the tiny fish had some motive.)

Science rests on models. A water molecule consists of 2 hydrogen atoms, 1 oxygen atom, fused together by covalent bonds, which is to say they share electrons. The electrons spend a little bit more time on the oxygen side of the molecule than the hydrogen atoms, creating a slightly more negative charge there.

If I were to draw an electron in class, it would look like this:

I might even add a charge sign to it, like this:

The children will dutifully write it down, and the symbol becomes the electron. I suspect that's the act that makes us most human, the symbol. It is also, ironically, the one that separates us from the universe.

Obviously the “dot” is not an electron—it reflects a tiny part on the board where less light reflects back to the children's eyes that the rest of the board. The “dash,” a dose of negativity (which only makes sense when contrasted with a dose of positive), reflects another slash of less reflected light.

We teach this and children memorize it, and we pretend we know what charge means, a relative term that measures, um, attractiveness, much like the confusion we have when we are attracted to others, but not in that sort of way....

We are ascribing motive or behavior to the non-sentient, or rather to models of the non-sentient, since electrons are unknowable beyond the models we create, and in my very stern voice I will chastise the children for ascribing motive to the very same things. (These are the problems with trying to keep the universe in some neat mechanistic package.)

This becomes a sticking point for a lot of us teaching science—we carefully present models using words like “attract” and “repel” and then get our knickers in a twist when a student confuses attraction with desire.

And with that, we extinguish the tiny spark.

I was once a card carrying member of the AALRT (the Anti-Anthropomorphizing League of Rational Thinkers). There are plenty of reasons to join—baby robins don't smile and crickets don't sing.

I am still a member, though I may let my dues lapse this year. If adding emotion to a cute drawing of a couple of hydrogen atoms sharing their electrons with an oxygen atom starved for electron love holds my lambs' interest long enough to get them to glance at the concept of bonding (another loaded word), maybe I'll try it.

And who knows, maybe an incomplete orbital shell is more than just a metaphor for unrequited love.

The photos are ours, which I will gratuitously place in my posts, because I like them, and because they remind me that as much as the classroom matters, a few things matter more.

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