Saturday, November 28, 2009

An informal lesson

Autumn gets serious now.

More dark.

Here's something you can do with your children to help them see the world. You need nothing but normal vision and a clear sky.

*Find Polaris, the North Star, at 7 P.M. It's not as bright as you might think, but it's there, and it's special, as your child can discover in just an evening.

*Find Aldebaran, the Eye of the Bull, the Eye of Revelation. 5,000 years ago it rose in March, now it rises in November. This, of course, our child cannot see, so do not trouble her with it.

What she can see, though, is that the eye of the bull moves across the evening sky. In an hour or so, it will have creeped a bit across the sky, following the path of our closest star--she might have noticed even if the adults around her do not.

Now ask her to look at the North Star--it sits stubbornly in its spot, the universe seemingly rotating around it.

She might ask why, she might not.

If she doesn't, don't push it.

She's already gotten more science education in an hour than she may get in my classroom in a week. Or two.

Science starts with observation, and it starts outside. Trying to do astronomy inside is like trying to make gold from tin.

Alchemists were seriously bright people earnestly trying to make a precious metal for all the wrong reasons. Alchemy has since been discredited.

Science teachers may be headed for the same fate.

The illustration was originally from John Flamsteed's star atlas,
revised by J Fortin in 1776, available online via the
Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology, Kansas City, Mo.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bloomfield's sidewalk astronomers catch a galaxy

I advise the Bloomfield High School Astronomy Club--we are sidewalk warriors, fighting the glare of streetlights, security beacons, and gaudy church steeples. A few times each night flashing emergency lights roar past us a few feet away.

We live under 3 runway lengths from Newark Liberty International Airport. (To be fair, runway 4L/22R is about two miles long.) One of our games is called "catch the plane"--students attempt to get the plane in the telescope's field of view, not as easy as it sounds when you're just a few miles from the airport.

I get a handful of kids every clear Tuesday night, chasing Jupiter and the few stars we can see naked eye. Even with the light pollution, though, a peek through an 8" scope changes their view of their universe.

We finally caught the Andromeda Galaxy a few days ago, using an 8" telescope on a manual mount. We have a computerized mount somewhere, but I keep pretending I don't know how to use it. The budding astronomers are getting to know the sky the old-fashioned way, which is to say, they are getting to know the sky.

I've been covering cell energetics the past few weeks. How does life get its energy, its "stuff"? I have a time-line in the classroom, a meter for ever billion years.

(OK, the time-line stops at 4.5 billion years ago, just short of Earth's birthday, but I've swept along the imaginary portion of the time-line so many times I'd bet you'd get a dozen kids to testify times that we have a time-line that goes back 14 billion years or so. I really need to get another roll of paper.)

I start at the beginning. I call it our creation story, and it is a story. It has a name--Big Bang model. I'm careful not to call it a theory.

How do we know, Dr. D?
Well, we know this much. The visible galaxies around us keep going farther and farther away. Where will they be next week?
Farther.... (It's amazing to hear kids roll their eyes with their voices)
Where were they last week?
Well, doh, closer
Last year?
A thousand years ago?
A billion years ago?

And they get it, at least they get the impetus for the model. It's our creation story.

I speak carefully, but the words are the right ones--it is a creation story. It's a model. It's a good one, but by acknowledging that we cannot know as a fact (apparently the gold standard in sophomore debate) the origins of our universe keeps their own creation myths safe.

For most of my students, Genesis is the myth they believe in, but most of them could tell you as much about Genesis as they could the Big Bang model. I've taught both, but never in the same place. They're both useful stories. They're both human stories.

Neither explains why an apple tastes so good.

The Andromeda galaxy is the only object beyond our galaxy we can see naked eye.

First time I saw it without glass was a week before Hallowe'en, many years ago, right after we took our two youngsters on a haunted hay ride in the Jersey skylands. It hung out there even beyond the stars, a puff of fine mist hovering beyond my known universe.

You will not see Andromeda without a scope in Bloomfield.

When we did find it, we saw an oval smudge. I worried that the kids may feel let down, and started to pontificate about how long it took the light to go from that smudge to our eyes.

I should have stayed quiet--they thought it was cool. They kept going back to look at it.

Besides, turns out I couldn't remember exactly how far the galaxy is--I thought it was a bit over 3 million light years away, but the experts changed their minds and calculated it to be "only" 2.5 million light years away.

And that's the point.

My grandfather was in his late 20's before Edwin Hubble convinced other astronomers that these blobs of stars lay outside our own galaxy. That wasn't so long ago.

And it's hubris to think any of us can know the difference between 2.5 and 3.2 million light years.


Cosmology rests on light. Cosmologists study light in its various forms, but unlike biologists, have no need for their noses, for their skin. Cosmologists work with the intangible.

Our modern creation story has been written by a very few men with very big brains who trust their eyes more than their tongues. It is thus written.

The Big Bang model, like Genesis, is ultimately incomprehensible. It's important that my kids know this, at least about the cosmological models. I leave Genesis to their parents.

Once science becomes known "as a fact", once it becomes frozen in mythology, it becomes useless.

Even worse, it becomes boring.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Luddite mushes a mash-up

This is my very first ever video, and likely won't stay up long.
No threat to the eventual winner of the Palme d'Or.

" smells like butt."

I have a fruit of the gingko tree sitting in a Dixie cup on a lab table in my classroom. It smells like vomit. I brought it in because, well, because it smells like vomit, and I teach sophomores.

Yesterday a group of several young men spent a few minutes sniffing the fruit, screwing up their faces in disgust, then sniffing it again. And again. And again.

At the table across from them, a few young women watched bemused.

It's amazing this species ever procreates.

Photo from "Wildman" Steve Brill's site, a site well worth the visit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November horseshoe crab

Ida blew through here, and took a good chunk of the coast with her.

Leslie and I walked down the beach to see what we could see (every one of our walks is different).

I found an old, male horseshoe crab turned upside down at the edge of the bay, digging its tail into the new sand, trying to flip itself back over.

This is an unremarkable story for most, but it mattered to me, and it mattered to him.

Finding a live horseshoe crab is a rare event in November. The fellow has descended through a few million generations of similar critters, and here he was at my feet.

I come from a much shorter line of humans (though the horseshoe crab and I have both been evolving for through the same few billion years). A few decades ago, my family left Ireland; horseshoe crabs abandoned Europe millions of years ago.

Through happenstance, I got to play with a distant cousin of mine.

If you think of life in terms of individual organisms, each with meaning, well, you'd be paralyzed--each step you take destroys life, each step you take makes life possible.

Every time I clean my pond filter, thousands, maybe millions, of critters die.
Every time I walk through the grass, I kill innumerable creatures.

If you imagine your own life is something special, more special than anything else, you're in for a bit of a surprise in the next few decades. Even you, as special as you are, are finite.

If you extend this specialness of your own life to all of God's critters, you may end up angsty sitting in a dark room, afraid to move for fear of hurting a fly. Eating becomes an act of betrayal.
You may as well be dead.

If you transfer this feeling of specialness to life itself, recognizing the joyful party that must end for each of us individually, but which will continue so long as the sun keeps shining, well, welcome to the party.

Humans are not the only organisms that feel fear, that feel ecstasy, that feel life. I have no idea what the horseshoe crab felt as it was lifted into the air, only to be gently set into the now gentle waves of the Delaware Bay.

But I know how I felt.

Dancing with the stars

When someone says, "Science teaches such and such," he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach anything; experience teaches it.
Richard Feynman, 1966 NSTA Convention, NYC

I live in New Jersey.

If you spend an hour or two watching the sun rise, you'll notice that it rises sideways here.
If you watch the stars looking east, they rise sideways as well.

A huge problem with what we call science education is that we think we've educated our children because they "know" the Earth spins on its axis, and that it revolves around the sun.

Yet the few that notice the stars, the curious ones, are still surprised when some stars rise sideways faster than others, some travel in circles, and one doesn't move at all.

You can show this on a computer, but that's pointless, because on a computer I can make stars do anything I, a human, want them to do.

The Earth spins. Imagine that.
Now go convince your kids.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Five years ago tonight, a self-described Christian missionary ran my sister off the road, and a few hours later she was dead.

A couple of months ago I finally tore up the letter in which he explained that God's will can be incomprehensible.

I get angry when people try to explain the incomprehensible.

So I am going to sit here and eat an apple that came from the same place she now rests, and will rest.

The apple's existence is inexplicable, as is that of the bee that fertilized it. The stuff of apples, an impossible blend of what we breathe out every few seconds, water and carbon dioxide joined by the energy of the sun, cannot be explained.

Don't try. Especially when I am eating one.

She was close enough to the orchard that it is possible still that some of the molecules of her last few breaths were captured by the same tree that bore this apple I am eating. Her last breath might rest in the amygdalin I taste when I chew on the seeds, a bitter sweet dance with traces of cyanide.

No, I don't understand why apples happen, nor do I think anyone else understands, either. So don't bother me when I sit there munching away on the core.

This whole business of living is, like apples, incomprehensible.

I know I like apples, though. And life. And Mary Beth did, too. No sense wasting time pondering what you cannot know.

That time's better spent enjoying the apple for what it is, whatever that "what" is. It won't be here forever. And neither will you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Stemming STEM education

I am a science teacher; the STEM movement gives me job security. If I wanted job security, I would have remained a pediatrician in north Jersey--given the way we treat kids, especially poor kids, I would have always had business.

STEM, of course, stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It has its own coalition, its own journal, and has endeared the folk in power (first Bush, now Obama). It puts the sexay into nerd-dom.

But it's a farce.

People in power (Presidents, Generals, CEOs) would like to remain in power--it takes a special kind of warped person to gain that kind of power. Yes, intelligence matters, but plenty of intelligent people have opted to raise families, get involved in their communities, and resist the pull.

STEM education is all about power. There is no AHEM (Arts, History, English, Music) equivalent. We are not ruling the world with our literature or our concept of self-government or even our music--we are ruling the world with our bombs.

My bias is, obviously, science.

Science is not math. Math uses logic, and is rational. Science is stuck with what we can observe. It is often clunky and inelegant, leading to monstrosities like the string theory--we do the best we can, but the universe keeps burping.

Math is a closed universe, a warm school marm opening her bosom to those students who persevere--it makes sense.

Science, well, we got problems. Antimatter, Higgs bosons, cosmic rays, origins--the field is a lovely mess. If you don't like uncertainty, become a mathematician or an engineer.

The reason we need more technologists is because of the nearsightedness of technologists before us.

Mind you, I am a bit of a Luddite--I think the automobile has more downsides than benefits. Still, why the emphasis on STEM?

Because we want to improve the economy.
Because we want to remain a superpower.
Because we want to improve the Third World.

You won't hear things like "to become a better person" or "to promote a student's happiness."

I think anyone who has even an iota of a chance to get involved in weaponry capable of destroying lives needs to know Keats, to know Blake.

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

I'm not playing here. Who made the technologists, the politicians, the money class the gods?
What is our goal in school?
What matters?

We revere technology, much more so than science. A child who chases butterflies does not do as well as a child who assumes the role of little engineer, plowing his way through elementary school math, pleasing his teachers and his parents with his adult ways.

We judge success by our grades as children, by our income as adults. We judge our nation's success by our ability to kick international ass, by our rockets, by our military.

We do not judge it by the way we treat our children--if we did, we would be ashamed.
We do not judge it by the way we treat our elderly--if we did we would be ashamed.

I teach science. I teach children how to see, how to question, how to predict events based on prior events.

Some of my students will go on to be mathematicians, or engineers, or technologists--a very few will go on to be professional scientists.

Still, more than a handful will spend a few moments each day pondering just what this thing called "universe" really is, pondering mystery, pondering life.

It will not result in riches; it will not result in power. It will, however, make them feel a very real part of this universe, a part of a huge, incomprehensible mystery that makes those of us paying attention joyful.

Maybe even ecstatic. Maybe even a life of sustained ecstasy.

Pure, unadulterated science can help you get there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Electrostatic magnetic ion attraction: The ADE 651

A story ran in the New York Times claiming that the Iraqis are using divining rods at checkpoints--a "small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel" can apparently detect bombs.

Since the device employs the principle of "electrostatic magnetic ion attraction," it must be effective.

I'm still not convinced this is not an April Fool's prank with a calendar problem, but I guess if the world's leading expert on bombs (just ask him) tells you a divining rod can detect bombs a kilometer away (as well as ivory and truffles) and only costs $16,000, well, I got to have one!

It's worth it for the truffles alone.
(Do you have any idea how much it costs for me to maintain Snuffles my truffle pig?)

OK, this is too easy, and I figure a lot of bloggers will jump on the obvious, but that's not what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about our military's response:
“I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives. If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work.”

Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr, who " oversees Iraqi police training for the American military"
As reported by the New York Times, November 4

We tested it--we spent our hard-earned tax dollars and spent it testing a divining rod. Our DoD used the National Explosives Engineering Sciences Security Center at Sandia Labs to check out the claim.

And this is where I am supposed to sputter and spew about how tax dollars are wasted.

But I won't--because I teach science, and that is exactly how science works. You empirically test things. Especially things that are being sold to monitor checkpoints that might save the lives of our soldiers.

“Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs”
Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri
Head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives.
NYT, November 4

Go us! Despite our love of psychics, astrology, and Dr. Phil, our military still practices science.

If the Iraqi government wants to stake its citizens' lives on magical devices, that's their business. If they want to risk our soldiers' lives by ignoring science, that's ours.

Time to find a magic carpet and get ourselves home.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"I am a molecule, I cannot stop moving...."

Early in the year, I introduced a very simplified version of the kinetic theory, itself a simple (but powerful) idea. Something happened about 14 billion years ago, give or take a billion, and things have been moving ever since.

This past week we've been working on diffusion.

I get my kids up into a corner, then tell them to pick a direction, walk in that direction until they hit something, then ricochet as though you were a billiard ball.

After a few moments, I ask them to stop and note their positions. I tie their motion to the "Whoever Smelt It, Dealt It" hypothesis of fart diffusion--silly but effective--then ask them to keep moving again. The students are interspersed throughout the room, but two critical ideas emerge:
1) They are not evenly dispersed, and
2) Their positions keep changing even when they are at equilibrium. (Equilibrium is a dynamic state--true equilibrium, in the sense that every part of a system has the same concentration of particles, does not hold in tiny volumes.)

I have a box of balls--yellow on one side, black on the other, with a free agent blue ball (yes, sophomores giggle at "blue ball") randomly tossed in the mix. I shake them up until the blacks and yellow balls are reasonably interspersed.
"Will this arrangement of balls ever happen again if I keep shaking the box?"
Most say no.
"Is this arrangement possible?"
Well, yeah, Dr. D, duh--it just happened.
"Will this arrangement of balls ever happen again."
It could, maybe...
"Will it?"

Most think not, and I agree with them. I think. Playing with an infinite number of possible arrangements over an infinite number of trials scrambles the mind.

A child muttered in class this week that she keeps knowing less than she thought she knew.


I stole this exercise from Ms. Rinaldi here at BHS--I steal from a lot of folks.
Leslie makes a good point--Michael Franti rocks!


(I've been running a fever the past couple of days...we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming once my complement system wakes up and starts kicking some H1N1 ass.)

Despite whatever virus is playing tootsies with my hypothalamus (or maybe because of this), I found myself in thigh deep water on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at dusk, trying to catch a striped bass. I spent the evening shivering under a blanket.

The waters here are about 62 degrees, still plenty warm for wading. The air temperature wasn't bad, either, and the wind didn't bother me until the sun set. In my feverish napping, I realized that for all my training and prepping and struggling as a science teacher, a student can learn far more about life on the edge of the Hallowe'en sea than she ever will in the classroom.

As the sunlight recedes on Samhain, the dead walk among us.


This morning I noticed a drop of water on the shower curtain. Light rays were bent by the drop of water clinging to the curtain, and the threads of the curtain loomed larger than life. At least that's how I perceived it.

If I had not been there to catch the bent rays of light, the light rays still would have been bent for whatever light-sensing creature might pause to look at it, or so I believe. Faith, really.

This past week we have been talking about diffusion in biology class. I started the year off with a mini-history of the universe, talking about two huge articles of faith in science:
1) Whatever rules apply here at this moment apply everywhere in the known universe (given, of course, the same conditions), and
2)Whatever rules apply now (at this given spot) applied throughout the past and will continue to apply in the future.

If we're going to tackle issues of faith in the classroom, may as well tackle them head on. Science requires a special kind of faith.


Like the drop of water visible only to me, or the fin of the striped bass cutting through the surf while I stood alone at the beach, most moments only happen once. We see patterns in our moments, and some patterns, particularly those based on the natural world, become predictable. (This borders on tautologous--if a moment defies observable patterns, we toss it out of the science realm.)

The dead among us walk among us. My mother, my father, my sister, my grandparents, and great aunts and uncles and the hundreds, thousands of my clan that preceded me still live in the common spirit our clan shares, carried by me and others, passed to our children.

We ask children to study the complement system in the face of viremia, something none of them will see in a lifetime, yet deny the ghosts they see in the shadows, as real as the refracted light on my shower curtain. I know that the shower curtain threads did not magically enlarge, and I know that ghosts do not lurk in the shadows.

What I know and what I believe, however, do not always mesh. On the edge of the ocean at night, I am afraid. Perhaps without reason.

We try to bend them to a scientific view of the world in a place where science rarely happens, in a classroom, on a forced time schedule, in order to educate them "to a better economy."

We teach models as though they are real. Science is useful, but it is based on models, a special way of looking at the universe, a way that has resulted in all kinds of wonderfulness, but not real.

Or rather, no more real than the shadows lurking under the early November moon, reminding us that we, too, will walk among the dead, no matter how education we have. If I did not believe this I would not fear the night, even though I know better.

Photo by Immanuel Giel, no permission needed