Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Eyn chaya kazo"

"There can be no such creature."
Daniel Shechtman, 2011 Chemistry Nobel Prize

I am attempting to teach my lambs the concept of atoms. Their concept of the atom is much like that of the adults around them--nucleus of protons and neutrons in the middle, scattered electrons zipping around the "outside."

Their misconceptions are understandable--their synapses have been wended together by a combination of bad schooling and laughable pop culture that confounds abstractions with reality.

I've only managed to get them to recede into older models--some now "believe in" the plum pudding model, which is a start, I suppose. Many were stunned to hear that our models of atoms are just that--models. How many children believe you can see atoms with a microscope? How many adults?

If I present a Rutherford model of an atom in its textbook form, ask young children to memorize its parts, and get them to internalize the concept as real before they lose their baby teeth I'm pushing religion, not science.

Their performance on the state test would likely be worse now than it would have been a month ago, but this is fine with me--I'd rather a kid be confused by reality than sure of misunderstood models.

(If any parents are reading this, it's all good--the test is still 7 months away.)

The quote above is by a man who played with aluminum alloys during his sabbatical and found "crystal" patterns that his field of science did not believe could exist. He had trouble believing this as well, leading to his quote.

High school students do not need to know anything about the nature of crystals to learn something about the nature of science in  this tale. This is the universe--here it is. The universe has a bad habit of intruding on our models. Even professional scientists occasionally find this annoying.

We create abstract models that feel as real as the tree I see through the window, forgetting, over and over again, that our view of the world, as detailed and lovely and solid as it seems, is not the world.

Every year I tell my students the story of Erasto Mpemba, a high school student in Tanzania who (back in 1963) trusted his eyes more than his teacher. Mpemba noticed that his warm ice cream mix froze faster than cooler batches.

Aristotle apparently knew this already, and even up to Descartes' time, the cognoscenti accepted it, but part of being modern is being sensible, and Mpemba was ridiculed by his teacher and his peers.

Under certain conditions the same volume of warm water will freeze faster than cold water. This phenomenon is now known as the Mpemba effect, but no one is sure why it happens.

But it does.

And that's the point--science is about attempting to understand why the world behave as it does, and our understanding of the world will always be a bit fuzzy.

If you want the security of facts, of a concrete reality, of a world where the abstract is the reality, well, the First Amendment makes it easy to do this in these parts--we got all kinds of religions more than willing to tell you the truth.

If you want to learn something about the world, though, at some point you need to look beyond the abstract, get beyond words, abandon human conceits, and just look.

The universe is full of creatures that cannot exist, far more real than the ones in your head. It would be a lot easier to teach science if folks bothered to let the kids know this somewhere along the way....

Imagine how lonesome Newton felt when he first got it, how terrified Darwin was, how bemused Einstein must have been.
None of this makes any sense.
Enjoy the ride.

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