Home Education Magazine
September-October 2000 Issue
My word! - David albert
Of a Flat Universe and the Nature of Science
About a month ago, a homeschooling mom with an obviously precocious ten-year-old, wrote to me with a problem:
"We read in The New York Times that scientists have now discovered that the universe is flat. Among the implications of this cited is that the Big Bang theory (of the creation of the universe) is almost certainly wrong. I wondered wryly what they'll do down the street at the brand-new, multi-million dollar Space Center at the American Museum of Natural History, which is very cutting edge and has a whole room dedicated to Big Bang. Today's Times carries an article about physicists who have reportedly proven that light can be accelerated beyond the speed of light, thereby calling into question all of Einstein's theories.
"So how do we go about teaching our gotta-know-it-all kids even the basics of something like physics when suddenly some of the underlying assumptions have gone kaflooey? When every book that's out there is almost certainly wrong? Where do we begin? I don't want to give them materials that they're going to have to unlearn. Where do we find educational materials that are as timely as needed?"
So there it was staring me in the face, a subject for my inaugural column for Home Education Magazine. But where to begin? My first impulse was to giggle. Flat universe. I could form a religiously anachronistic "Round (or Spherical) Universe Society," where we could get together, eat red M&Ms, get high by sniffing ditto machine fluid, type silly messages on our Kaypros and Commodore 64s (without, of course sending them to each other), and watch old Son of Flubber movies on Betamax. Those of us who tend toward the rotund would be pleased to learn that our "extensiveness on the horizontal plane" is really only an illusion, and that we are all really flat along with the rest of the universe. (Jenny Craig will have to employ an astrophysicist in her public relations department if she hopes to stay in business.) Light traveling faster than light I can only appreciate poetically, or reminisce about Flash Gordon. My older daughter Aliyah (now 12) never bought the Big Bang to begin with.
Three different kinds of responses immediately began to crowd in on me. The first temptation was to go the Internet and find all the most wonderful up-to-the-minute websites, connections to research institutions and science-by-mail programs associated with universities, and the latest in journals, etc., etc. But I quickly realized this wasn't going to help much. Neither my friend nor her son was ever going to keep up with what is out there except in highly circumscribed areas, if that. The rate of progress in science these days seems to match or exceed the font of information to be found on-line. It will put her well ahead of the science teacher in the local junior high school, but it wouldn't address her underlying question.
My second inkling was to respond "just read The Times and have your son read it, too. After all, they pay people to keep up with this stuff, and to write it in language that (with some work) we might all be able to understand. It will set off a new round of questioning and knowledge quests in our children, and we too might learn a thing or two as well."
When Aliyah was working through her high school biology (which we did via a distance learning course with the University of Missouri), she'd find errors all the time (based on her reading of Scientific American) and would come to me with her laments. What she was learning about, even if she didn't immediately realize it, was the process of scientific revisionism, and how textbooks (and teachers who parrot them) aren't holy writ Æ a good lesson! We'd reinforce the lesson by having her write the publisher whenever she'd come upon an error. (Never received a single response.) To turn a title of one of John Holt's wonderful books on its head, my daughter came to understand through this experience, as almost no children in school Æ and especially not the "good" students Æ ever do, that education is really about "unlearning all the time."
So don't hesitate to give the kids that old 1962 World Book Encyclopedia currently spontaneously generating silverfish in the attic of your "flat" house, or those wonderful Jules Verne nineteenth century science adventures, or H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. Just make sure you talk about how times change. Your kids will learn to understand and appreciate that Æ they're changing, too! Like a little project? Sit down one afternoon with your child and brainstorm with her (without correcting) what she currently believes and thinks she knows about the world Æ nature, science, society, history, etc. Æ make it fun. Then agree to put the list away to be pulled out again next year on the same date, and let her see how her beliefs and knowledge have been altered. (If you're into assigning writing projects, "How My Knowledge of the World Has Changed" is a great topic, and will help your child on the road to greater self-awareness.)
But I confess Æ I was an English major. That's no particular qualification for writing this column (Helen and Mark never asked for my degrees), but it does affect the way I think about learning science. For it has always seemed to me that what children really need to know is that science is not just a series of facts. Rather, it is the ability to tell a good story, based on available evidence. And when the evidence changes, the story gets transformed along with it.
I think of it rather like a game of Clue, although instead of whodunit ("Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with a candlestick"), science is a what-done-it, how-done-it, and why-done-it. Now I'm not sure there is any direct connection between playing Clue and winning the Nobel Prize for physics, but the principles are the same. And anyone who has spent time in a doctor's office has observed a physician construct an illness narrative based on the available evidence, change the story based on new evidence, and concoct a prefigurative tale of pharmaceutical employed, behavior changed, and health restored (a little bit of prayer in the mix probably wouldn't hurt).
The basis of this scientific storytelling, indeed the basis of all scientific inquiry, is freedom. You can fill your kids up with facts and concepts, but if they never experience the freedom to construct and take responsibility for their own stories, they will never be able to appreciate what the process of science is all about. Don't make them memorize the Linnaean classification (most will be able to do so when they need to anyway) Æ have them make their own, based on colors, or size, or number of legs, or speed, the permutations are endless. Do the same with the four food groups Æ the accepted chart from the USDA is all a marketing ploy anyway, and everyone knows that one should always eat more of the foods at the top of the pyramid (like chocolate ice cream Æ that's why they're at the top). Question everything Æ you've decided to homeschool, so you're already halfway there. Revel in it.
And then invite your child to join you in expanding your joint powers of scientific observation. Don't worry about lacking the latest in equipment - the most advanced scientists are always complaining that they don't have it either. Maria Mitchell, the first famous American female astronomer and first woman elected to the American Academy of Sciences, who at age 12 started setting ships' chronometers for sea captains by the stars, once said "A small apparatus well used will do wonders..." Newton rolled up the cover of a book; he put a small glass at one end, and a large brain at the other Æ it was enough. In other words, all the fancy equipment does is extend your five senses. If you can't use your unaided senses to discriminate now, the apparatus won't help one bit. Join the local Audubon chapter and go birdwatching. Plant wildflower seeds on your front lawn and see what comes up (maybe even map it!). Go to star parties sponsored by the local astronomy club or the regional astronomical league Æ you'll find hundreds or even thousands of astrophysicists, auto repairmen, Internet-surfing teenagers, childcare workers, and short-order cooks all united in their knowledge quests. (You can find a list in Astronomy Magazine Æ www.astronomy.com) Get some high boots and walk through marshes and splash in puddles. Weigh and measure your pets. Have fun. Scientists do.
First column done. Whew! There! That was fun, even if it didn't make me a scientist. Now for my next column....
© 2000 David H. Albert
September-October 2000 Issue
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