Science is a process

Science is a process, not the accumulated knowledge we have thus far.

It's like building a map - the map might change over time and mistakes might even be made that later get retracted and altered, and there might be disagreements about some regions of the map, but that doesn't alter the fact that the territory exists and that, in fact, we have managed to map out much of it and that there is a process by which it makes sense to continue to do so (the scientific method). We are building a map of reality, our universe, Nature, what is true and what is not. There's no a priori reason to believe this territory actually exists, but it definitely seems to, and we've had great success with our map-making so far (see literally all technology).

Saying science is about making up theories at random (something I heard honestly asserted by a fellow trainee teacher this year), or pointing out how scientists now believe different things (have a different map) than scientists in the past as if that invalidates the whole thing, is a misunderstanding of this fact. Science is the answer to the question 'how do we build a conceptual map of reality'? Or, in simpler terms, how do we find out about the world.

Tribute to Neil Armstrong

In 2009 my crazyawesome family threw a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing (complete with replica lunar landing module/obstacle course). Since Neil Armstrong has died this week, at the age of 82, my brother Darren has edited some of the footage from the party as a tribute to Neil Armstrong.

The Olympics were good, I admit it, but we've been to the goddamn moon, people.

And, because I can, an excerpt from a certain Harry Potter fanfiction which proves beyond all reasonable doubt that Science is more magical than Magic:

And Harry raced back up the stairs and shoved the staircase back into the trunk with his heel, and, panting, turned the pages of the book until he found the picture he wanted to show to Draco.

The one with the white, dry, cratered land, and the suited people, and the blue-white globe hanging over it all.

That picture.

The picture, if only one picture in all the world were to survive.

"That," Harry said, his voice trembling because he couldn't quite keep the pride out, "is what the Earth looks like from the Moon."

Draco slowly leaned over. There was a strange expression on his young face. "If that's a real picture, why isn't it moving?"

Moving? Oh. "Muggles can do moving pictures but they need a bigger box to show it, they can't fit them onto single book pages yet."

Draco's finger moved to one of the suits. "What are those?" His voice starting to waver.

"Those are human beings. They are wearing suits that cover their whole bodies to give them air, because there is no air on the Moon."

"That's impossible," Draco whispered. There was terror in his eyes, and utter confusion. "No Muggle could ever do that. How..."

Harry took back the book, flipped the pages until he found what he saw. "This is a rocket going up. The fire pushes it higher and higher, until it gets to the Moon." Flipped pages again. "This is a rocket on the ground. That tiny speck next to it is a person." Draco gasped. "Going to the Moon cost the equivalent of... probably around a thousand million Galleons." Draco choked. "And it took the efforts of... probably more people than live in all of magical Britain."

Read it, go on, just the first few chapters...

YouTuber and Maths-enthusiast Vihart on reaching your audience

In this video Vihart discusses a surprisingly relevant, to the internet today, piece of writing from the 70s in a video that should be interesting to all, but it has a special significance for me.

Though the theme of the video is how a YouTuber should go about reaching an audience, to me the interesting and pertinent message (as a teacher-in-training) is her opinion towards education. From 02:07 to 02:38 she compares the popularity of her maths videos to the approach, which I am well familiar with, frequently advocated in the modern teaching profession. Watch:

So, food for thought. Next time I hear somebody say that to teach maths (or any other subject) to children we should make it 'relevant', make it about sports or wrestling or whatever, I'll think of Vihart's videos, and see if I can't express some of the feeling one gets from watching them, missing from their approach.

Russell Brand at a committee about drugs

Another post about Russell Brand. This guy seems to be fascinating me at the moment! I find the argument very compelling that we should treat addiction as an illness (and the implication that drug use, without addiction, may not need to be illegal).

Why do we teach lies at school?

I learned something interesting recently about gravity. Well, it's something I'd heard before plenty of times but, a bit like how it took reading The Selfish Gene to really understand evolution, it wasn't until I read Why does E=mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw that I got a glimpse (it's more difficult to understand than natural selection) of what it means when people talk about gravity and 'curved spacetime'.

This post isn't about the subject matter of the book, as such, rather what it got me thinking about some of the things that are taught to children in school (I'm currently training to be a primary school teacher, so this is a significant question for me). But I should explain the basic principle so you know where I'm coming from.

One of the last chapters in the book describes gravity as something we observe which hints that spacetime is curved. To do my best to explain briefly, let's first think about forces. There is a law that we're all probably familiar with that objects will remain at a constant velocity (either sitting still or coasting along) unless a force acts on them. To persuade yourself of this, just think how obvious it is that an object won't spontaneously start moving without a force. Then you only need to realise there's no difference to Nature between sitting still and moving without accelerating. So it turns out that the deeper rule is that an object moving at constant velocity won't spontaneously accelerate (imagine a world without friction, there'd be no way to stop unless you hit something!).

So, to gravity. Gravity is taught as a force because objects tend to fall and it looks as if they're being pulled away from what would have been their natural course, just as if a force were acting on them. Certainly a constant downward force would have the same effect on an object in space. But in the book it is revealed that our best understanding of physics describes the natural course of objects to be along straight lines through spacetime, spacetime which is curved by the presence of mass. So an object you're holding in your hand would coast along a straight line through space time that would bring it closer to the Earth, if you let it go. You're constantly bumping against its spacetime-momentum, like you would bump against someone if you tried to walk in a straight line parallel to each other due to the curvature of the Earth's surface. It's not that you're attracted to each other, it's that your paths intersect.

In other words, gravity isn't a force. This is crucial, because it is explicitly described as a force in primary science. Watch this (brilliant) video I found of Dr Richard de Grijs teaching primary school children about gravity. I'm sure he's heard of Einstein, so why is he teaching children that gravity is a force? Perhaps, I've been thinking, he shouldn't be...

I am still finding a lot of the concepts (pretty much anything to do with movement through spacetime from multiple perspectives) in Why does E=mc2? to be very hard to focus on and I strongly suspect this is because it contradicts what is drilled into our heads in school. What sort of obstacles are we putting up with miseducation like this?

We don't have to teach children advanced physics, obviously, but should we teach them lies? Why do we still teach children that gravity is a force, if we know it's not? Is it really necessary? Surely it would, if nothing else, be better to just avoid discussing it, as we avoid discussing the relationship between magnetism and electricity, if there's really no way of describing it to them. Then when they're older they won't find it such a hurdle to wrap their head around the actual theories we use to understand Nature.

And perhaps it is possible to teach children the rudiments of these things. Isn't the point of the curriculum to work out the best way to break down complicated subjects into steps that children can handle? Is it really more complicated than other scientific concepts, or is it a very new way of understanding Nature?

In praise of idleness

A blog post, originally published in 2005, I enjoyed by Massimo Pigliucci (of Rationally Speaking and Machines Like Us):
I'm reading Bertrand Russell's collection of essays, "In Praise of Idleness," an intriguing idea (the praise, not the collection of essays) for modern Western society, especially the American one, where idleness -- as Russell remarks -- is frowned upon as a waste of "productive" time.

Among the radical ideas Russell puts forth is that we have the technology that would enable us to work about four hour a day, and employ the rest in relaxation and cultural activities, or in volunteer work. But, he quickly points out, we are raised in a society for which something like that would be unthinkable, because the people at the top of the economic ladder have never liked those below to have leisure time, and even less to improve their lot. You never know, educated people might start thinking critically, which may lead to dire consequences for the establishment.

Some of my favorite quotes from the British philosopher, from the first essay of the book (the one that gives it its title):

"I think that there is far too much work done in the world."

"The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work."

"[Work] is emphatically not one of the ends of human life."

"The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake."

"The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy."

Pretty revolutionary stuff, for being written in 1932, eh?

Bertrand Russell, in his collection of essays entitled "In Praise of Idleness," goes on to discuss the role of "useless" knowledge in our society. By this he means knowledge that is valued for its own sake, regardless of any particular practical application (in a way, similar to the way we value art for its own sake, regardless of how much money we may make by selling that Picasso we all have in our attic).

"Learning, in the renaissance, was part of the joie de vivre, just as much as drinking or love-making." Interesting comparisons there, no? Indeed, one can get -- in a metaphorical sense -- inebriated by intellectual pursuits (even drunk, perhaps?), and certainly the sudden joy of discovery can be compared to love-making (though usually the sensation of release isn't quite that overwhelming...).

Russell becomes very worried about the tendency of modern society (he was writing in the 1930s) to reduce the size of its vocabulary, to make language more "practical." One consequence of this, he argues, is the potential loss of literary flourishing and of a sense of style in writing and reading. But of course, as Orwell magisterially pointed out in "1984," a much more dangerous result is the inability of people to think about certain thoughts -- especially those that are dangerous to the establishment -- because of a lack of appropriate words. Words and concepts are closely related, one can hardly have the latter without mastering of the former.

Russell, of course, isn't saying that practical knowledge isn't, well, useful! On the contrary. But there is no need why that has somehow to be seen as opposite to theoretical knowledge: culture isn't a zero sum game, and the more the better.

Most importantly, Russell points out that too much focus on practical results often leads to nervous breakdowns, or at least to unpleasant levels of stress; moreover, lack of culture affects human behavior in a most decidedly negative manner, including that of children. As he puts it: "The bully in a school is seldom a boy whose proficiency in learning is up to the average. When a lynching takes place, the ring-leaders are almost invariably ignorant men."

In the chapter/essay on "The modern Midas," Russell discusses the differences and connections between finance and industry. As he puts it:

"Finance is more powerful than industry when both are independent, but the interests of industry more nearly coincide with those of the community than do the interests of finance."

This is exactly the sort of problem that brought us -- 70 years after Russell wrote -- Enron and the whole Wall Street mess. The idea is that capitalism, if it has to work, has to be based on certain rules ("managed capitalism," they call it in Europe). One of these rules is a tight coupling between investments (capital) and the products of the industry one is investing on. In turn, this means that things like day trading and other short-term "investments" are not investments at all (because there is no time for the industry to actually use that capital and deliver a product), they are speculation. And speculation is gambling pure and simple.

We now live in a society in which, for some bizarre reason, it has become normal to accept the idea that people can "make a kill" on the market and become millionaires overnight. Usually, of course, on the skin of thousands of others who either lose their money or their jobs. This is nonsense on stilts of the highest order.

The solution, of course, is pretty simple: regulate stock trading in a way similar to, say, government bonds: you can't sell before a certain minimum period of time, and if you do you incur a penalty. This sort of measures would reconnect, as Russell puts it, finance and industry, and would greatly benefit the welfare of the majority of people. Alas, the American public has been sold on the idea that anybody can become instantly rich, and this hope dazzles and blinds us into acquiescence to a system that makes most people's lives worse than they could be. Just think of the fact that the richest country in the world (and the self-professed best democracy on the planet) still has the shame of having tens of millions of its citizens and children without health care. But that's another story...