Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Breaking down biology

Thermodynamics started out as steam punk physics, but now explains, well, everything.

There is a non-trivial element of faith the the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one we dance around when we toss the idea of the Big Bang around in science class. Every time there's an energy exchange in a closed system there's less useful energy available to do work--and that's the natural world in a nutshell.

Everything eventually falls apart, drifts to a state of uselessness.

From The Onion,

If students spent any time delving into the implications of that, they'd go from the nutshell to the nuthouse. Instead we toss serious equations at them, with serious sounding names for all the serious parts, and we got them playing in abstract la-la land, which is a fine place to be in you've studied physics for years, but a psyche-killer for the neophytes.

How did the energy get packed into a point billions of years ago? We have a don't ask, don't tell policy.  That kids blithely except the concept of the universe contracted to a point just assures me no one's really paying attention.

My goal this year? Get them paying attention.

So here's my question for the more experienced out there. Would it be crazy to design the biology course around the Second Law of Thermodynamics, starting out each class every day with a brief discussion of how energy transformations guide everything in biology?

Evolution is the Big Daddy of Biology--should I spend as much time on Grandpa Entropy?

I'm not going to lie to you--first time I saw this photo I thought it was a real protest. Things have gotten that crazy.

Photo lifted from The Onion--where else?


Tom Hoffman said...

As a museum guard, I spent a lot of time watching people look at art and docents talking about art. It was pretty clear that anything that would get people to pay attention to the art was the way to go. Pretty much whatever quasi-erudite variation on "Dude, LOOK AT THAT" you could come up with was best.

Also, I'm finishing a bottle of your tasty peach mead right now, so that might be a little less cogent than usual.

doyle said...

Dear Tom,

I am a huge fan of the "Dude, LOOK AT THAT!" school of science.

A huge problem in schools, I think, is that we spend too much time analyzing relationships uncovered by others, not enough time just sitting, looking.

Your mead was also fine--I may aim for a semi-sweet one again. It's been years, since we favor the dry style. But I'm thinking a semi-sweet peach mel with some vanilla beans tossed in might just do the trick.

Kathryn J said...

Ha! When I saw the picture I thought it was real too.

It doesn't sound crazy to me but I have no experience teaching biology. I just know that we need to refocus kids on the big ideas because the beauty and wonder of science is getting lost in the mind-numbing minutae which are the focus of standards and testing.

The same focus could be used for Chemistry so you've got me thinking.

Brian said...

I'm also a big fan of allowing time and opportunity for students to notice and wonder. It's an explicit goal of my current course that students walk away doing more of it on their own and even seeking out opportunities to do so. Assessing for the prevalence and depth of such transformations is an interesting challenge

On the science side of things, I'm fairly hesitant to call the 2nd law an explanation for anything. Of course it depends what we mean by explanation, but the 2nd law is more of a tautology than anything else:

Why did chalk end up on the blackboard when I moved it across the board? Because the world's entropy was higher after doing so. Why didn't chalk go back onto board when I did the motion in reverse? Because the world's entropy would have decreased by doing so. Sounds kind of silly.

In my mind, the 2nd law is a constraint on the kinds of explanations we are allowed to make, not an explanation it self.

As for teaching biology, I have been influenced by the writings of Machamer and colleagues on "thinking about mechanisms"

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I'm glad that I'm not the only one fooled. =)

It was actually the chemistry angle that got me thinking of doing this in the first place.

Not sure (yet) what to do about minutiae and testing. As we stumble towards more testing, teaching science gets more and more difficult.

Dear Brian,

You are, of course, right--the 2nd Law hardly explains anything, and is tautologous (at least to our faith in it). Science really explains nothing, and I am not being facetious here, tone is hard to convey in this tiny comment box.

I have a big sign in my room: WHY? Next to my room, another teacher, a true research scientist who retired from the lab bench few years ago, has HOW? My WHY is irksome to him because, as he has explained (and I've come to see), science doesn't deal with the WHY's, only the HOW's, and even the HOW's have limits.

The chalk example is an excellent one, because it exposes both the silliness of the tautology and the limits of science. It also gets to profound (but ultimately unscientific) explanations about origins.

I obviously overstate my case, but more to open up kids to what this process of understanding is all about, that it depends ultimately on perception, and that there are limits to understanding the shadows dancing in Plato's cave.

Indeed, the 2nd Law may best be viewed as just a constraint on the conclusions we make in science--and this has led to incredibly useful models--but until we stop presenting the Big Bang as a fairy tale , or thermodynamics as mathematical exercises just so a student can "learn" physics, I'd like to push it more in class.

But, yeah, you are dead on--and hissing you hear is some of the air escaping by August fantasy balloon. =)

doyle said...

Dear Brian,

One more thing--had I stumbled upon a post like mine, I would have been all over it like a toothache.

I appreciate your kindness.

Anonymous said...

I find high schoolers very receptive to all rooms getting messier, you never even get out what you put in, and nobody spontaneously gets up in the morning. They also love when I point out that scientists like to pin labels on things, as if it solves the unknowns. Then we begin to explore - is it an explanation, or a label?
Not sure how that translates to your perkier middle schoolers.

Mary Ann Reilly said...

I think using the 2nd Law as a frame for the year is intriguing, but then again Im not a scientist. Maybe you cd read a bit from Pynchon's short story,"Entropy" (from Slow Learners) every now and then...BTW, I thought the photo was real too and was relieved to see The Onion beneath it.