Monday, October 31, 2011

What is the highest result of education?

With all the dashing about, pretending that we can make leaders of us all, make scientists of us all, pretending that the whole point of education is test score and "college and career readiness," well, it's no small joy to be working under a Principal who puts up in the hallway a large poster quoting Helen Keller:

"The highest result of education is tolerance."

Not bad, and most teachers would appreciate the thoughtfulness (I did) and move on (I didn't).

The word "tolerance" sticks in my craw--it's not a bad word, but just the hint that it requires the tolerant to endure people not of the same ilk bothers me. OK, I can't tolerate the word.

I mentioned this to the Principal, even suggesting that "love" might be a better fit, fully understanding that even the most tolerant Principal can't have a quote like this:

"The highest result of education is love."
 That's too Kumbayesque even for me, and that's saying something.

Leslie, who keeps me sane, suggested "empathy"--which I really liked, and I mentioned it to our Principal.

And today I saw this on our school message board outside:

Amen. And thank you.

Oh, yes, that white stuff is snow. I'm not very tolerant of that, either.


Rajeev Bajaj runs Global Education Advisors, originally a "one person" company with grammar issues founded using Chris Cerf's home address.  Hey, Steve Jobs started in his own garage, why not? GEA has gotten (so far) almost $2 million dollars of the Facebook money.

Eli Broad, a philanthropist in its current sense (though maybe not quite so heavy on the "philo-" side), founded the Broad Foundation, a private "school" that converts business folks into education wizards, then feeds them into various urban school districts around country. Cerf is a graduate (2004), Bajaj is a current fellow.

Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark. His city got $100 million from Mark Zuckerberg--almost $2 million has gone into Bajaj's Global Education Advisors group. He also enjoys the support of Cerf. Booker, hypothetically, has little say over Newark Public Schools because the state currently runs them. I made him the figurehead for the distribution of the Facebook money--hey, he posed with Mark and Oprah when the announcement was made.

And Mark? Can't really blame him for anything here. Give a kid obscene amounts of money and he's going to make a mistake here and there.

The ACLU is making a stink about all this because, well, something stinks. Government should be transparent. 
I was going to toss in Cami Anderson, the Newark Superintendent, but I could only take so much MS Paint.
You can fill her in yourself, then draw arrows from Cerf and Booker (she was a paid consultant for him before this super gig) to her.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Zuckerberg Friends Cerf

Mark Zuckerberg donated a huge chunk of money, $100 million,  to Newark, to help education. A few other people kicked in $48 million more.

According to the Star-Ledger,  ~$11,700,000 has been spent so far. Less than 65% of that money has gone to "school-based programs." Over 15% has gone to Global Education Advisors, "a company started by Christopher Cerf before he became the state's acting education commissioner," a company that used Cerf's home address as its own, an "entirely ministerial" relationship according to Cerf.

Yep, almost 1 in every 6 dollars spent so far has gone to a company intimately associated with our current Acting Commissioner of Education.

Star-Ledger, February 24, 2011
Star-Ledger, October 28, 201

As Leslie pointed out, I had a shot at a chunk of that money.
At least I sleep well....

May well just be a misunderstanding, maybe nothing nefarious--just keep the money visible... 

Cerf photo is official one from NJ

Doritos and daphnia

In the middle of the snowstorm yesterday, I scrambled out to my tiny pond, a mud puddle, really, to fetch as much elodea as I could for school. Elodea is a lovely water plant that plays well with microscopes. I also scooped up about 5 gallons of pond water full of critters about as ill-prepared for the storm as I was.

Two buckets of pond water now sit in the kitchen--some will overwinter in the basement under fluorescent lights, some in the windowsill of our classroom. (One year I had mayflies in January.)

The classroom pond water has been there for years now. I should really start it over--as the years go by, the evaporating water leaves behind traces of salts, and eventually it will be too salty for pond life. For now, though, the water fleas still dance among a few translucent snails and the knolls of blue-green algae covering the bottom. All sorts of microscopic critters flit through the duckweed.

I could start over, dumping my windowsill pond down into the drain, starting fresh. Starting over without consequences, though, is a tricky thing, possibly impossible, in life, human or otherwise. Everything we do has consequences.

So I work with what I have, and what I have includes the great-great-great-great offspring of daphnia from my backyard summers ago.

The metaphysical (or at least the anti-reality folks, or ARFs as I shall call them) crowd has me worried. The Daily Show ran a piece with an ARF, Noelle Nikpour, yipping away against science:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights - Science: What's It Up To?
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

I have several children who know more about the Mayan calendar than they do about evolution. I have more than several children who do not know their connection to the earth. We tell children that our planet is round, and that Doritos are junk food, without offering a shred of evidence for either.

I'll concede that the Earth is round. Took me awhile to believe it, but after years of looking at boats disappear over the edge of the sea, shadows change over the seasons, and photos from satellites, it's easier believing it's round than flat.

Doritos, however, are miracles, a sophisticated blend of complex organic molecules fused together by plants using the energy emanating from the sun, itself a miracle, fusing hydrogen into helium. They're food, and pretty good food at that--and all food is biology at its gory best.

I get one shot to teach children biology--for most of my kids, this is the last time they will study biology in any formal sense, ill prepared to face years of propaganda via the Noelle Nikpours, Rick Perrys, and Rick Warren (what is it with Ricks?) of the world.

Tomorrow I will haul a couple of gallons of water almost a mile, as my ancestors did (though for a different reason), to bring more "real" life to my biology classroom. In the end, I cannot hope to compete with the propaganda fed both inside and out the school by the monied interests who know more about demographics than democracy, more about profit than people.

My hope is to give children a taste of just how large this universe is, how wonderful, how deeply ingrained we are with it, and it with us.

A bucket of pond water holds more life than most of us can imagine.

It starts with a single drop.

Or I could just teach to the state test, and put the microscopes away.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Exploding trees

The trees are exploding.

We're getting a wet, heavy snowfall, and the broad leaves of our deciduous trees are catching snowflakes as well as they catch photons.

Their vessels are still swollen with sap, carrying nutrients back into the ground, stored in the massive roots of the underground world we fear.

Water starts to expand as it nears its freezing point--that's why ice floats. Still, I've never seen trees explode because of an early frost, so I'll blame the snow.

I stood out in the snow watching my daughter play football. The scene was surreal--several players had dressed up for Hallowe'en, dinosaurs chasing ninjas, Goldilocks chased by a pirate. Some players wore overcoats, a few dressed only in shorts. The snow was blowing sideways.

*CRACK*--a large limb fell from a massive tree just a few feet from me.

Had my brain caught the branch, I would have regretted not finishing a few things, but that's the way it goes. I worked for years in hospitals. Massive trauma, tempered by unconsciousness and ungodly jolts of endorphins, is about as good as it gets for one's final moments.

Now, a few hours later, my numb feet warm again, my skin dry, a few thoughts:
*My daughter turns 29 tomorrow. My son will be 26 in December. Watching her intensity playing football, hearing her laughter across the field, reminds me my biggest job is done.
*Had I been brained, the last thing anyone (I cared about) would have worried about would be an unfinished curriculum being written just to meet the demands of some acronym (QSAC) emanating from Trenton.
*We're finite, focus on what matters.

It continues to snow, I continue to breathe. But I appreciate the reminder.

Photo via Baristanet.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A jelly story

When looking at a jelly lying at the sea's edge, a critter that uses the same genetic code as pretty much anything that has suffered the indignity of DNA analysis, it's hard to get worked up over nonsense.
  • A physicist says that we, like the jellyfish, are mostly empty space.
  • A priest says we have dominion this dying jelly, over all that lives.
  • A chemist says that the orderly appearance of this critter, and us, does not deny entropy--the sun's slow collapse into chaos feeds our lives.
  • A business man says the jelly is hard to sell, and loses interest.
  • A poet say the jelly has a soul, and notices the cyan halo of sky around it.
  • The astronomer ponders the angle of the jelly's shadow, a telling sign of winter to come.
  • A geologist studies the angle of repose of the grains of sand, failing to see the critter at all.
The jelly faded back into the sea, now dead, its story as interesting as mine, as yours, our stories share a common end.

I almost missed this jelly, anxious as I was to catch up on something for somebody due somewhere before Monday's sunset. Now it has become part of my story.

We found the jelly a week ago, and a moment later, dolphins distracted us.
I meant to put the jelly back. I did not.
I had a chance to change the story.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mr. President, we "learn to live"

The 2nd repost today, again more for me than anything else.

"Through this plan we are setting an ambitious goal: All students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career – no matter who you are or where you come from."

President Obama, March 13, 2010

Mr. President, can we cut through the crap?

I'm a retired pediatrician. A lot of children are damaged--some by bad luck, many by bad choices made by others.

Yes, the photo is unsettling, yes, too many children have been lost because we did not acknowledge their potential, but your rhetoric is fanning a dangerous fire.

I teach healthy children, and I teach damaged children. I teach wealthy children, and I teach poor children. I teach children with fancy orthodontia, and children with rotting teeth.

I teach America, Mr. President. If you cannot see America from your perch in D.C., please spend a weekend back home in Chicago and remember the man you once were, or pretended to be.

Come to Bloomfield--our motto here is "Learn to live." Some of us have careers, some of us have jobs. Some of us went to college, some of us were apprenticed. Most of us are happy, even the good chunk of us who have neither careers nor degrees.

Focus on getting the jobs back, and towns like Bloomfield will fill them well. We send soldiers to war--our street signs carry the names of those killed and missing in action. We have young folks overseas now. We helped process uranium during World War II, and have the contaminated useless land to show for it.

Learn to live. Not learn to earn, not learn to serve Microsoft, but simply learn to live. Most of my students will leave BHS with decent academic skills and decent decency skills.

All the degrees in the world won't fix the plumbing. All the degrees in the world will not land a job that's now in Asia. All the degrees in the world will not make you a better citizen, friend, or lover.

Learn to live, Mr. President, and let us go about our business doing the same. And if you need the name of a decent carpenter, a decent bakery, a decent school, give me a call. We got them right here in Bloomfield, the America outside the Beltway.

The disturbing photo from Temple University is real, and it's human.
The classroom photo is from Bloomfield, 1914, found here, shared at the Bloomfield Historical site by David Petillo.

Teach truth, joy follows

Because sometimes I forget...this one's from August, 2010--I needed to see it again.

So what do you do?

What do you do when major sources of information provided to children come from corrupt human sources?

What do you do when the adults around them believe whatever lights up their amygdalas the most?

What do you say when the actions of those in power, those with money, those that command the messages, no longer work in the best interests of our children, all of our children?

I work for the government. I get that.
I also work for your children, and others get that.
The two interests are becoming less and less compatible.


I overstated that.

I work for the people of Bloomfield--they pay most of my salary, and if I could remove the yoke of Arne and the Governor by rejecting the small percent of my salary covered by New Jersey and D.C., I would.

I would be a better teacher for it, I would have more class hours dedicated to sharing science with my charges, and my students would be better prepared to care for their children when the time comes.

Maybe my lambs won't act like the sheep who are training them, and will act in the best interests of their children when tough decisions are made.

Maybe they will refuse to proctor exams that ultimately harm their charges instead of just grumbling in the teacher's lounge or on Twitter.


What am I going to do?

I am going to teach science.

I trust the natural world, I trust my senses, I trust logic, and I trust the intelligence of my lambs. I let them know these things.

I do not hope (nor would want) to influence their "beliefs," whatever they may be. I do not proselytize, which would be near impossible anyway, since I know nothing. I do not take sides in many of the silly "science" either/or debates raging in the media, because there are no sides to take.

I want my children to think. I want my children to see. I want my children to trust themselves when they know "two and two is four," even when others scream it's "FIVE!"

The ones I reach, and I reach a few, will see the world differently when they leave in June. I leave them with power, they leave me with hope.


The natural world exceeds our imaginations, but our imagination exceeds its limits. Our cultural inability to grasp this leads to hubris, to dreams of infinite growth, ultimately to annihilation.

I am not going to tell children an economy dependent on ever-increasing consumption cannot be sustained for more than a few generations. I will talk about primary productivity and limits imposed by the finite sunlight that bathes the Earth.

I am not going to tell them that a lot of what they believe to be true is bunk. I will drop a huge textbook and a paper clip from the ceiling and let them see which one hits the floor first. It surprises me every time I do it.

I am not going to tell them that school is important because they're competing with the Chinese or Indians or Icelanders for the same jobs and America needs an educated work force to keep our economy strong. I will share my love of life, of the local, of the edges of knowledge we can never truly grasp. We'll study bugs and daphnia and radishes.

We occasionally have moments of joy, even in a classroom.


Here's the secret--once a child trusts her senses, trusts the joy she feels when exploring a world that is as much hers as Bill Gates' or Rupert Murdoch's or any of tens of thousands of strangers who want to shape her life, she becomes her own master.

She becomes autonomous in a world of automation.

She might even dance to her own tune in a culture of technique, a culture that worships men like those pictured above. See their smiles? Trust them?

I don't either.

The Bill Gates photo is from the UK Telegraph here;
the Rupert Murdoch photo is from What's Nextt: Innovations in Newspapers website.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Milking Albert Pujol's big game last night

Albert Pujols hits a lot, and gets paid well to do it. He seems like an all-around decent guy, but truth be told, I know nothing about the man other than what his people want me to know.

Last night Mr. Pujols again did his thing, and many people paid money to watch him do this. All of this is fine, what folks do with their spare time and money is not my business

We have a bigger than life poster of Mr. Pujols in our cafeteria, wielding an over-sized sledge hammer and a milk mustache.

I teach. What happens in my school building is my business. And a huge poster of a sports idol promoting a food that may be potentially harmful to many of my students is bad practice.

The poster promotes drinking the bodily fluids of another species fed an artificial growth hormone (a practice banned in just about every other developed nation), fluids that do not sit well with most of the human population older than a couple of years, in order to boost the profits of companies that do not know my students.

The USDA, the National Dairy Council, and various corporations have a stake in promoting cow's milk consumption here in the States. They often cite an article by the American Academy of Pediatrics from October, 2006, to assert that adolescents need to drink 4 glasses of milk a day to get enough dietary calcium.

What the article states is that is how much milk children would need to drink to get that much calcium, but the authors never state that the vehicle for calcium must be milk.

Here are a few things the authors do state [and all the bullets below are quoted verbatim]:

  • Although dairy products are the most common calcium-dense foods in Western diets, there are no long-term follow-up data that demonstrate that they are superior to other sources of calcium in promoting bone health.
  • Virtually all the data used to establish this intake level are from white children. Few data are available from other racial groups. There are data indicating that compared with white adolescents, black adolescents use dietary calcium more efficiently and may achieve comparablepeak bone masses with less calcium intake.
  • Orange and apple juice may be fortified to achieve a calcium concentration similar to that of milk. Limited studies of the bioavailability of the calcium in juice suggest that it is at least comparable to that of milk.
  • Breakfast cereals also are frequently fortified with minerals, including calcium, and this form has been shown to be very bioavailable

So if you're a white kid who gets plenty of exercise, have a source of cow's milk from well-treated cows not fed artificial growth hormone, and you can stand to drink the stuff with most of the fat removed, well, milk is one way to get the calcium you need.

For the rest of us, I suggest you do a little more research than an Albert Pujols poster....

Full disclosure: I may be a tad lactose intolerant.
Fuller disclosure: I still eat a lot of ice cream at the risk of losing friends.
Fullest disclosure: If we're going to behave like sheep anyway, I'm founding the Nat'l Sheep Milk Council. (Talk about a baaa'd joke....)

The Pujols poster came from Ehrl the Pearl's site--if there are copyright issues, I'll just take a pic of the one in our cafeteria.

    Saturday, October 22, 2011

    How many teachers does it take to say "screw the lightbulb"?

    NJ World Class Standard:
    8.2 Technology Education, Engineering, and Design

    All students will develop an understanding of the nature and impact of technology, engineering, technological design, and the designed world, as they relate to the individual, global society, and the environment.

    On this day not so long ago, Edison switched on a reasonably bright incandescent bulb using a carbon filament, and it lasted long enough to read the next evening's newspaper. (It was also the first time in history Samuel Ogden Edison, his Dad, shouted those immortal words "Shut off the damn light, Tommy, you think money grows on trees?!")

    I mentioned this to class yesterday, then added that I thought Edison had done more to cause human misery than just about any other human ever born, largely because of this invention.

    I said this on a dark Friday morning, with 22 pupating humans in front of me, sitting under the buzz and barely perceptible flicker of fluorescent lights, which, to be fair, were not Edison's thing (though he dabbled with them before an ex-employee  made a commercially viable version.).

    A couple students giggled, but I was serious, and finally one asked why. I turned the question back on them. How would life be different without articial light?

    I won't betray their words here, but I will say this--if you give young'uns a tiny bit of space to call their own, they can think. Deeply.

    We lost any real connection with what happens outside our windows generations ago, and lose any semblance of connection when we abandon our religious rituals, the last vestiges of our pastoral (OK, pagan) past. For many of us, our biggest connection to seasons is shopping and sports, both poor substitutes for living.

    I can use prepackaged glossy corporate curriculum "aids" designed to mislead, I can use textbooks tamed by fear of market loss, I can use all sorts of "educational" websites sponsored by folks with a vested interest in a particular way of thinking.

    Or I can tell them what I think is true.

    And no, I do not claim to have any special relationship with "truth"--I do have, however, a healthy respect for it, which means looking at what we do and teach with a critical eye, using logic and love, to explore the world around us. It means being wrong a lot, too.

    In science, we're used to being wrong--our goal is to be more right today than we were yesterday, but if we ever figure everything out, science would no longer exist.

    When we continue to ignore truth, though, we not only lose science, we lose ourselves.

    Saying Thomas Edison invented the light bulb is like saying Christopher Columbus discovered that the world is round.
    They both did really cool things, and both caused a lot of damage to a lot of people.

    The Edison lamp drawing is from the National Archives; the jelly taken last week at Cape May.

    And we wonder why 11% of American adults are on anti-depressants....

    Sunday, October 9, 2011

    Two neat things today

    We found a monarch butterfly with a tag on it--PBB 518. He hung around the zinnias for over an hour.
    Getting to Mexico is tough enough, especially for butterflies, but getting there on unbalanced wings is well nigh impossible. I doubt PBB 518 is going to make it, but he seemed to be enjoying the nectar and the sunshine today.

    And when you get down to it, today is all any of us have....

    Our 1994 Dodge Caravan started today, and since we happened to have our 10 year old kayaks on top of it when it did, we drove a mile to the beach to enjoy this ridiculously beautiful day on the water.

    While were out on the bay, a large pod of dolphins came by--four rose in unison so close to Leslie's boat I was sure she'd be dumped. Dolphins are really big animals, and look even bigger when you're sitting in a 16 foot long piece of plastic over a quarter mile off the beach.

    I could teach science 23 hours a day for three years and not get close to awe we felt in those short moments.


    A science guy commented that you need to note the location of the monarch in order for the tag "to be meaningful"--I took the liberty of posting my reply here:

    Dear Ento Mike,

    Oh, no worries, the location has been emailed to KU. We know the drill. 1-888-TAGGING.

    Even so, the monarch tag is meaningful. It says a lot about humans, about etymologists, about adhesive technologies, about bias in studies (this critter was unusually comfortable around humans).

    It made us wonder about energy costs to the butterfly, about balance about mass.

    And since we are surrounded by butterflies here this time of year--sometimes seeing hundreds in an hour--finding ol' PBB 518 an hour later tells me that at least one monarch butterfly has a tendency to hang around zinnias for at least an hour, and that the zinnias must be reasonably tasty when its usual sources of food are all over the place here.
    (We're talking North Cape May. We got almost as many butterflies as we do mosquitoes this time of year.)

    Photo of PBB 518 coming.
    Photo of the dolphins was never taken--hard to think when a ton of sea mammals heads towards your boat.

    "The universe is made of stories..."

    "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
    Muriel Rukeyser

    This is a lovely quote, and a lovely way of looking at the world, written by a brilliant poet who grew up in a world that saw the horrible consequences of reducing the world to a machine, in a world that slaughtered millions of those who shared her faith, because of their faith.

    The atom has been indelibly tied to the misnamed "atom bomb" and incredible abuses of the 20th century.

    I just wish she had said "machines" instead of atoms.

    Atoms, in the context of science, are stories. It's taking me weeks to convince my students that the image of atom that exists in their heads, an image perpetuated by many teachers, by television (is it called that anymore?), by textbooks, does not exist.


    If there is ever a place to teach the nature of science to children, it's in the idea of atom--a (not) tomos- (divisible)--an indivisible particle.

    Democritus' early view (poo-poo'ed by Aristotle) that matter can only be divided so far before it is no longer what it is is easy enough to conceptualize. Introduce the idea in 4th grade. Here's a piece of gold. Split it in half. Split it in half again. And again.

    No way to see what the smallest particle looks like, but it's easy to imagine that there may be a limit to how small gold may be divided.

    No need to bother with electrons or neutrons or protons or orbits in elementary school. A child who parrots these words is no smarter than, well, a parrot.

    Come 7th grade or so, after a child has played with magnets and static electricity, and has some sense of what charge means (in the observable world, not the surreal field of fields), when a child gets that opposite charges attract, then show her the Thomson experiment with the cathode ray tube.

    Not a Powerpoint, not a video--show the real thing. Deflect the stream of particles with a magnet. Here's a great video showing what we should be doing in class:

    Let the kids imagine what an atom looks like now--we know it has tiny particles called electrons, we know the charges of the electrons are negative, and we know the overall charge of the atom is neutral. Let the children draw their own models that fit these criteria. See what they develop.

    By high school, maybe sooner, they're ready for Rutherford's experiment--he fired alpha particles at gold foil, and most passed through without deflection. About 1 in 20,000 (give or take) wildly changed direction, as though it hit a chunk of incredibly dense mass.

    The atom, whatever this thing is, behaves as though it's mostly empty space, at least when hit with alpha particles.

    And that only gets us to 1911. Toss in Bohr to get us to 1913, a ridiculously counter-intuitive model of reality, leading two physicists to vow "If this nonsense of Bohr should in the end prove to be right, we will quit physics!"

    And yet my students scribble down this counter-intuitive "nonsense" without complaint. Why? Because we present it as facts, as some Universal Knowledge, as something they must regurgitate. Many of them believe humans have seen individual atoms just like the pseudo-Bohr models printed in textbooks.

    And here's the secret that even scientists occasionally forget--our worldview, science or otherwise, rises from stories. The concept of atom is pure story, though not pure fiction--there are deep truths in the model of the atom, as there are deep truths in great poems and novels.

    Literacy cuts across all disciplines--we diminish science when we fail to see the stories.

    The atom is no more real, or less, than the stories that define us. We reify the abstract every waking moment, and it's how we live and work and play as we get through a day.

    But it's still all stories....

    I lifted the quote from Mary Ann Reilly's blog--which I visit regularly.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011

    Science and the ether bunny

    I like the idea of ether, the idea that light needs something to travel through, but efforts to show its existence failed, and current theories do not need it.

    I do, though, because it comforts me, so I have a personal relationship with ether. I can still accept other ideas about the universe, and I will even admit my belief in ether theory does little--OK, nothing--to add to my understanding of the natural world, but like Spinoza's epiphenomenological universe, it fits the facts, and gives me comfort.

    But you won't hear me spout off at a physics conference about ether, because 1) it adds nothing to the conversation, and 2) I never get invited to physics conferences.

    So, yeah, I accept that the natural world is ultimately unknowable, and that, in essence, the natural world is all powerful--if you want to call it God, go ahead.

    Just don't go all bananas when I point out that unknowable means just that. As soon as you claim to know something about this God thing, something independent of the natural world (which is freaky enough to stun even the most staid among us), well, then, the idea of unknowable becomes bunk.

    And I am tired, really tired, of bunk.

    If you can attach human qualities to an unknowable God,
    then I will attach lagomorph qualities to my unknowable ether--the ether bunny.

    "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.

    My first plug

    This is a preview of a review of a must-read book for any teacher who attempts to teach science in public schools.

    I got a copy back in August, and have been reading (and thinking and doing and arguing and questioning and playing) with it since. It's already scribbled all over, pages dog-eared, then dog-eared again.

    I do not know the author--he emailed me cold back in July, and I was wary, very wary, of taking on a review--never did one, had no idea how. I still haven't done one.

    But I've changed a few classroom practices, finally have a grip on wave theory, and hope to pass the book along like a Gideon Bible. But I'll have to buy extra copies to do that--I'm not letting go of this one.

    And whenever I figure out how to write a real review, I'll do just that.....

    I rotate a few favorite books that I read--literally--for years.
    >This one joined the rotation, the first new book in the pile in two years

    I was not paid for the review other than getting a copy of the book--
    since I plan on buying another copy to share, as well as buying the 1st volume,
    I don't think that counts as payola.