Saturday, June 18, 2011

June ramblings

I'm reading Umberto Eco, a June indulgence. He's bright, and interesting, and mostly right, but he's also, well, um, a professional dilettante. I have nothing against dilettantes. in another lifetime I'd consider being one, but in a time when honest folks can't find a job, dilettantes seem obscene.

But if you have the time, he's worth a read.

In Language and Lunacies, he argues, among other things, that we believe, "as factual truth, that the chemical composition of water is H2O." We teach it as such, but it's not true.

Imagine a solitary molecule of water--what properties could it possibly possess? It would have to be gaseous, since it has no connection with its neighbors, and even then, alone, it really has no special qualities.

Water behaves as water because water has an unusual attraction to itself--the Brittney Spears of molecules. We call this hydrogen bonding, but no matter. Without other water molecules around, the concept of H2O is a human conceit. (To be fair, it's a human conceit anyway, but not in the sense that Mr. Umberto recognizes.)

I will bore the love of my life with this tonight--I will prattle on, so I will save you the grief. But I will say this much.

If you think you know anything about water because you call it H2O, you are mistaken. Calling it "H2O" only means that you know it takes two parts of hydrogen for every part of oxygen, and few of us take the time to accurately measure how much water gets generated every time we blow up some hydrogen.

We practice a lot of pseudo-science in education. We encourage an Asperger's Syndrome culture, spouting off "facts," without any connection to the ground that's under my bare feet as I write.

We really know nothing, and that's OK, so long as we remember that the stories we tell are resurrections of the stories told by pretty much any vertebrate with a brain. "I'm here! I'm here! Listen to me! Listen to me! I have a story to tell!"

Which brings me to the Big Bang. This is a wonderful story--we have characters and drama and intrigue--but ultimately it is absolutely (and I do not use the term loosely) incomprehensible. If you tell a child that the universe erupted from a single point, and that child dutifully records such nonsense in her notebook, and you let her without letting her in on the secret, then you may as well teach astrology.

And a lot of us are teaching astrology.

Astrology's interesting, but not nearly as interesting as a teaspoon of soil, a drop of water from the Delaware Bay, the purple shit of a common robin.

If science does noting else, it should remind a child that the universe exceeds our imaginations, and that the stories derived from the natural world , our stories, exceed the stories about humans alone.

Most cultures know this. Our culture mastered metallurgy, and weaponry, and we forgot. God help any culture that is bold enough to remember. We destroyed the Amerinds, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Afri. Don't screw with us. We shoot, then let God sort out the souls.

As I write this, a robin dances a couple of yards away from me as I water the garden. He's a couple of years old--he knows me, and I know him. I could make up a tale, anthropomorphize him, but that would require a huge assumption, that I know more about him than I do.

If you're going to teach in any way that matters, you're going to have to challenge assumptions.

So this is what I know.  When I water my garden, he eats worms that erupt from the earth. He's alive, I'm alive, and we share the same mitochondria, the same ribosomes, the same ancestors. We're cousins.

If you internalize this, you're less likely to wipe him out. If you're less likely to wipe him out than the Eurodescendant next to you, you're less likely to have a seat at a boardroom table.

So I teach.

The commissioner of education in this fine state calls me an "ankle biter." I doubt that Arne knows who I am, but I also doubt that his view of me would be any more flattering than our commissioner's. '

At least one robin loves me, a few mature humans, and maybe even a child or two.

That a child even needs a gateway to the world, the natural, real world outside the pixels that damn her to a life of drudgery and limited choices, is sad. But she does. And I consider it an honor to be that gateway.

Arne doesn't know this world, nor does Bill or Eli or the Acting Commissioner of Education here in the Garden State.

But I do.

And so will every child that walks into my classroom.

I love June. I'm brave in June
Lord, please, let mebe brave when the sun runs away again....


Kathryn J said...

Water is truly one of the most amazing substances on earth. I know of no other that is less dense when solid enabling ice cubes and icebergs to float - allowing fish and other creatures to live the winter under a blanket of ice rather than gasping on top of the ice. Given its molecular mass, it should be a gas at room temperature but its unique electrical structure makes it a liquid. It can be an acid or a base and it will dissolve just about anything. I love water!

Are you - specifically you - an ankle biter or was he referring to teachers in general?

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I love playing with water in class--the kids think they know the stuff, then realize they don't not really.

I'm the ankle-biter.

Barry Bachenheimer said...

Dr. Doyle-
I too love water as well. I have a question about it, though this is more chemistry than biology.

If water is Two H's and and O to make water. Why isn't sea water, which has a huge salt content H2ONaCl?

Dr. B

PS- I'm still waiting for my letter. :-)

Kathryn J said...

Salt water is actually H2O molecules with Na+ and Cl- ions. Salt is completely soluble at the concentration of seawater. The Na+ ions form complexes with the oxygen end of the water molecule and the Cl- ions form complexes with the positive end of the water molecule.

The fact that water molecules have a positive and negative region (dipole moment) is the reason for most of the important attributes of water including low boiling point and high surface tension. It's the coolest molecule!

Question of the day - what's your favorite element?

doyle said...

Dr. B,

I am filling in Monday for a presentation--my summer starts Monday evening, and I will get reacquainted with my typewriter.

I want to tackle the water question. It is a good one, and while Kathryn writes an excellent and precise answer, I suspect it does not satisfy those who do not know a lot of chemistry.

Look for it--a post is coming, likely sooner than the letter.

Dear Kathryn,

Maybe Fe, because of its marvelous characteristics, and because it's the last element not dependent on a supernova. I think. I need to bone up on my astronomy.