Sean Nash asked me if I’d step in for him this week. He’s a mensch, and I happen to be off this week, so I said yes. We both write about similar things, but from different angles. I’m on my best behavior here–so I’ll save my opinions on vaccines, fluoride, God, and Higgs bosons for another day….
An osprey, first one of the season, hovered over me while I was fishing this afternoon. It looked down at me, I looked up at it. 400 hundred years ago, on this same shore, an old Kechemeche man stared up at an osprey, and it stared back at him. Our story has changed. The osprey’s has not.
I think the Kechemeche had a better story than ours. In our story the osprey had nothing to share with me. I’ll never know, since their story is now dead. I know this much—the osprey was aware of me on a late afternoon. The tide was rising. The sun felt warm on my face.
There’s a tension between what we know, what we can know, and what’s unknowable. Teaching what we know seems to be the least controversial. Teaching what’s unknowable should not be a function of science teachers in public schools, but distinguishing between what’s knowable and what’s not, well, that’s science.
Why is water wet? Why does my hand get wet when I hold it briefly over a lit grill? Why does water cling to the side of my glass?
That hydrogen bonds form between water molecules, that organic fuels have electrons ripped off by oxygen to form water, and that water molecules cohere to charged surfaces are good enough answers to pass high school science. Reciting them without grasping that they are models of reality, myths, stories of a special sort, is to give science idolatry it does not warrant.
Science uses models, imaginary constructs, to piece together the world. The world (in science) means the stuff we can sense, directly or indirectly, or logically (and rationally) infer from what we sense.
If a child does not grasp the idea that the constructs of science are, in a real sense, stories, myths framed by specific parameters, the child will see science as facts, tidbits of truth, nuggets of knowledge. Trivia.
And we teach it as such. We trivialize science.
Why is water wet? What does it even mean to be wet?
I spend a few messy moments in class asking my lambs to do a simple task. Take a handful of peat moss, toss it in a beaker, and wet it. What happens?
The lab benches get messy and wet, but the peat moss mostly stays dry. Why? Why does water roll off wax paper but sticks to cotton? Why is water wet?
Now the question is not so silly. (Alas, it does not make my students any more likely to dive into the chemistry of water, but at least they have an idea what “wet” means.)
Next question. Why does my hand get moist when I hold it briefly over a flame?
“Simple, Dr. D! You sweat!”
I grab a cool beaker and flame the outside of it with a propane torch. It “sweats.” I flame the metal faucet pipe—it immediately fogs up. Where does the water come from?
I could show them this equation all day long:
C3H8 + 5 O2 —> 3 CO2 + 4 H2O
I interpret it, which helps a bit:
Propane + oxygen => carbon dioxide + water
Seeing water rise from flame still startles me, every time I do this. Despite my training, or maybe because of it, I forget that chemistry is descriptive, not prescriptive. We put together the story after we gather what we see.
You cannot learn science as you would learn truths, or dogma, or religion. We see the shadows, then we make up the story. The story, however, must make sense. It must give us a way to grasp the shadows, to predict what the shadows will do next.
The tide rises, the tide falls, no matter who tells the story, no matter what the story says. Until the child can see the osprey, the water, the tides, the stories cannot make sense, no matter how scientific they sound, no matter how hard she studies.