Thoughts on Science Education

If you have a curious mind and at least a high school level grasp of Physics, then the best thing I can recommend to you if you want to learn Special Relativity is to get Robert Resnick’s Introduction to Special Relativity. There are plenty of books, tutorials and crash courses that will tell you about relativity. What sets Resnick’s work apart is the first chapter which ironically doesn’t really teach much relativity.

Most books introduce Relativity by mentioning the 19th century concept of the ether. They go on about how the Michelson Morley experiment disproved that idea in 1887 and how the only way to explain that was by assuming that the speed of light is constant and from there we get Relativity.

michelsonmorley

Apparatus for the Michelson Morley Experiment

This is fudge and fiddlesticks, even a schoolboy can think of other ways to explain the Michelson Morley experiment and certainly many were proposed back in the day.

Resnick instead gives details about a whole body of experiments all of which were done around the same time. He also explains a number of hypotheses that were proposed and how none of these could account for all the observations, except the Relativity. Finally, at the end, even the doubtful reader or one ignorant of the theory’s prestige is forced to admit that there is no other way to account for all the facts.

Such convincing is rare in Science education. We rarely discuss all the ideas that fell by the wayside. Instead Science is portrayed as a clean path of relentless progress. Nothing of course is further from the truth.

In fact, in many circles, it is considered positively hazardous to expose and thus potentially corrupt pupils’minds to failed scientific ideas. Failures are consigned to the history of science which is treated as a separate discipline dealt with by the university’s Humanities Department.

I feel the consequences of the resulting ignorance are damaging for both Science and society.

Jacob Bronowski in the Ascent of Man discussed the problem with a scientific paper is that it only presents the final results. In contrast, when we see a work of art, we can imagine how the artist must have taken apart an idea, played with it and put it back together to form his final masterpiece. From an artist’s output, his mind is accessible. The scientist’s mind is hidden behind the curtain of academic writing. A consequence is that it is often impossible for a non specialist to appreciate the effort and creativity of a scientific endeavor.

For a student, there are at least 2 clear benefits of learning about some of the failures of science.

  1. He appreciates how many ways things can go wrong and how long it can take to get a really worthwhile result.
  2. It teaches humility about what we think we know. During the 18th century, the French Academy of Sciences threw away its precious meteorite collection declaring that the idea of rocks falling from the sky was nothing but superstition. In 1803, a shower of about 3,000 stones fell in daylight near L’Aigle, France and was seen by everyone. Arrogance thrives in ignorance.

 

 

References

[1] http://arthur.shumwaysmith.com/life/content/scientific_group_think_the_meteorite_case

[2] http://www.meteorite.fr/en/basics/meteoritics.htm

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