This is a bit long-winded.
I hope at least one elementary school teacher reds this through.
Science education lives and dies by those who teach before children before they can shave.
Learning science here in Jersey is a bit like learning in catechism class--the parts all nest together neatly in strange-sounding phrases that were once attached to miraculous things, but to get through CCD (or science class), it's more than enough just to learn how the various strange-sounding phrases fit together.
YouTube teems with videos that help children learn "science."
This video has been viewed well over a million times--and I bet most times happened in schools.
Our state standards don't help much. By 8th grade, students should be able to "explain that all matter is made of atoms."
Well, what is an atom? Turns out you really don't need to know. Oh, by 12th grade you need to know a few basic parts, but you still don't know what an atom is.
Ask someone, anyone, to draw an atom. Most will draw something, probably something like this:
If I were to draw a picture of an atom to a similar scale, say 6 inches across, on a piece of paper, this is what it would look like:
Space. Empty space.Few high school kids know this, and even fewer know why we think this. The situation is even worse among grown-ups.
My grandfather was 12 years old in 1910, old enough to read, just a few years shy of running away from home to go fight in the Great War. Electrons had been postulated just a few years earlier.
Around the same time, one of the great experiments of our time, and one that is fairly easy to grasp, was conducted by Ernest Rutherford. Remember, the concept of atoms having more than one part was still new, and atoms were viewed as a tiny blob of positive mass with electrons studded throughout (another story for another time).
Rutherford wanted to get to know a little bit more about atoms, so he (well, his underlings, anyway) shot tiny particles (the catechism says "alpha particles") through exceedingly thin pieces of gold foil, fully expecting them to pass through slight deflections by the gold atoms. He could see where each particle ended up by using a screen that lit up when hit by particles, the same way older televisions worked.
Now what's the point?
To understand how this works, imagine shooting a rifle at a mound of loose snow: one expects some bullets to emerge from the opposite side with a slight deflection and a bit of energy loss depending on how regularly the pile is packed. One can deduce something about the internal structure of the mound if we know the difference between the initial (before it hits the pile) and final (after it emerges from the pile) trajectories of the bullet. If the mound were made of loose, powdery snow, the bullets would be deflected very little; if the bullets were deflected wildly, we might guess that there was a brick of hard material inside.
from Medium Energy Ion Scattering laboratory, Rutgers University
So what happened?
Just about every particle went right through the foil like it wasn't there. About 1 in 8000 got deflected like it hit a proverbial brick wall.
No one's seen an atom--we only see the effects of particles bent this way or that. The classic atom pictured above never existed. It's not real, it's a story. A special story, molded to fit what we know of our natural world, but still a story."It was almost as if you fired a fifteen-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it bounced back and hit you."
That is the nature of science, not catechism. There is no Temple of Science (despite our culture's deep religious belief that that Temple exists). We don't get to vote on it, we don't to pick and choose our results.
We do get to create better stories as we learn more about what we don't know.
I know a lot of folks got pretty excited about the God particle last week--it was like Holy Communion for the science news fetishists, no understanding required.
The Rutherford model has long been surpassed by better models, of course--if you're looking for a permanent reality, you won't find it in science. Maybe Father Kelly can help you, though....