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What is Science?

The following was extracted from "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out". You are encouraged to buy this book or borrow it form your local library. I prefer buying, then I can add it to my library.

The following is such as it is, because it is a transcript of a lecture given to the National Science Teachers' Association in which Richard gave his fellow teachers lessons on how to teach their students to think like a scientist and how to view the world with curiosity, open-mindedness and above all, doubt.

I thank Mr. DeRose for the opportunity to join you science teachers. I also am a science teacher. I have too much experience only in teaching graduate students in physics, and as result of that experience I know that I don't know how to teach.

I am sure that you who are real teachers working at the bottom level of this hierarchy of teachers, instructors of teachers, experts on curricula, also are sure that you, too, don't know how to do it; otherwise you wouldn't bother to come to this Convention.

The subject "What Is Science?" is not my choice. It was Mr. DeRose's subject. But I would like to say that I think that "What Is Science?" is not at all equivalent to "How To Teach Science," and I must call that to your attention for two reasons. In the first place, from the way that I am preparing to give this lecture, it may seem that I am trying to tell you how to teach science - I am not at all in any way, because I don't know anything about small children. I have one, so I know that I don't know. The other is, I think that most of you have some kind of a feeling of lack of self-confidence. In some way you are always being lectured on how things are not going too well and how you should learn to teach better. I am not going to berate you for the bad works you are doing and indicate how it can definitely be improved; that is not my intention.

As a matter of fact, we have very good students coming into Caltech and during the years we found them getting better and better. Now how it is done, I don't know. I wonder if you know. I don't want to interfere with the system; it's very good.

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What is science? Of course you all must know, if you teach it. What can I say? If you don't know, every teacher's edition of every textbook gives a complete discussion of the subject. There is some kind of distorted distellation and watered-down and mixed-up words of Francis Bacon from some centuries ago, words which then were supposed to be the deep philosophy of science. But one of the greatest experimental scientists of the time who was really doing something, William Harvery, said that what Bacon said science was, was the science that a lord chancellor would do. He spoke of making observations, but omitted the vital factor of judgement about what to observe and what to pay attention to.

And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have siad it is and certainly not what the teacher edition say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.

Feynman: In His Own Words is available on tape.

Volume 1: Quantum Mechanics
Volume 2: Advanced Quantum Mechanics
Volume 3: From Crystal Structure to Magnetism
Volume 4: Electrical and Magnetic Behavior
Volume 5: Feynman on Fundamentals: Energy and Motion
Volume 6: Feynman on Fundamentals: Kinetics and Heat

You can order the Feynman tapes by clicking this link!

(continued)

Under these circumstances of the difficulty of the subject, and my dislike of philosophical exposition, I will present it in a very unusual way. I am just going to tell you how I learned what science is. I learned it as a child. I have had it in my blood from the beginning. And I would like to tell you how it got in. This sounds as thought I am trying to tell you how to teach, but that is not my intention. I'm going to tell you what science is like by how I learned what science is like.

My father did it to me. When my mother was carrying me, it is reported that my father said that "if it's a boy, he'll be a scientist." How did he do it? He never told me I should be a scientist. He was not a scientist; he was a businessman, a sales manager of a uniform company, but he read about science and loved it.

When I was very young-the ealiest story I know-when I still ate in a high chair, my father would play a game with me after dinner. He had bought a whole lot of old rectangular bathroom floor tiles from someplace in Long Island City. We set them up on end, one next to the other, and I was allowed to push the end one and watch the hole thing go down. So far so good.

Next, the game improved. The tiles were different colors. I must put one white, two blues, one white, two blues and another white and then two blues - I may want to put another blue, but it must be a white. You recognize already the usual insidious cleverness; first delight him in play and then slowly inject material of educatonal value!

Well, my mother, who is a much more feeling woman, began to realize the insidiousness of his efforts and said "Mel, please let the poor child but a blue tile if he want to." My father said, "No, I want him to pay attention to patterns. It is the only thing I can do that is mathematics at this earliest lever." If I were giving a talk on "what is mathematics?" I would have already answered you. Mathematics is looking for patterns. (The fact is that this education had some effect. We had a direct experimental test at the time I got to kindergarten. We had weaving in those days. They've taken it out; it's too difficult for children. We would weave colored paper through vertical strips and make patterns. The kindergarten teacher was so amazed that she sent a special letter home to report that this child was very unusual, because he seemed to be able to figure out ahead of time what pattern he was going to get, and make amazingly intricate patterns. So the tile game did do something to me.)

I would like to report other evidence that mathematics is only patterns. When I was at Cornell, I was rather fascinated by the student body, which seems to me was a dilute mixture of some sensible people in a big mass of dumb people studying home economics, etc., including lots of girls. I used to sit in the cafeteria with the students and eat and try to overhear their conversations and see if there was one intelligent word coming out. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a tremendous thing it seemed to me.

I listened to a conversation between two girls, and one was explaining that if you want to make a straight line, you see, you go over a certain number to to the right for each row you go up, that is, if you go over each time the same amount when you go up a row, you make a straight line. A deep principle of analytic geometry! It went on. I was rather amazed. I didn't realize the female mind was capable of understanding analytic geometry.

She went on and said, "Suppose you have another line coming in from the other side and you want to figure where they are goint to intersect." Suppose on one line you go over two to the right for every one you go up, and the other line goes over three to the right for every one that is goes up, and they start twenty steps apart, ect. -I was flabbergasted. She figured out where the intersections was! It turned out that one girl was explaining to the other how to knit argyle socks.

I, therefore, did learn a lesson: The femal mind is capable of understanding analytic geometry. Those people who have for years been insisting that the male and female are equal and capable of rational thought may have something. The difficulty may just be that we have nevery yet discoverd a way to communicate with the femal mind. If it is done in the right way, you may be able to get something out of it.

Now I will go on with my own experience as a youngster in mathematics.

Another thing that my father told me was that the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of all circles was always the same, no matter what the size. That didn't seem to me too unobvious, but the ratio had some marvelous property. That was a wonderful number. There was a mystery obout this number that I didn't quite understand as a youth, but this was a great thing, and the result was that I looked for pi everywhere.

When I was learning later in school how to make the decimals for fractions, and how to make 3 1/8, I wrote 3.125, and thinking I recognized a friend wrote that it equals pi, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. The teacher corrected it to 3.1416

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What science is may be something like this: There was on this planet an evolution of life to the stage that there were evolved animals, which are intelligent. I donít mean just human beings, but animals which play and which can learn something from experience (like cats). But at this stage each animal would have to learn from its own experience. They gradually develop, unit some animal could learn from experience more rapidly and could even learn from anotherís experience by watching, or one could show the other, or he saw what the other one did. So there came a possibility that all might learn it, but that transmission was inefficient and they would die, and maybe the one who learned it died, too, before he could pass it on to others.

The question is, is it possible to learn more rapidly what somebody learned from some accident than the rate at which the thing learned from some accident than the rate at which the thing is being forgotten, either because of bad memory or because of the death of the learner or inventor?

So there came a time, perhaps, when for some species the rate at which learning was increased reached such a pitch that suddenly a completely new thing happened; things could be learned by one animal, passed on to another and another, fast enough that it was not lost to the race. Thus became possible an accumulation of knowledge of the race.

This has been called time-binding. I donít know who first called it this. At any rate, we have here some samples of those animals, sitting here trying to bind one experience to another, each one trying to learn from the other.

This phenomenon of having a memory for the race, of having an accumulated knowledge passable from one generation to another, was new in the world. But it had a disease in it. It was possible to pass on mistaken ideas. It was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race. The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable.

So there came a time in which the ideas, although accumulated very slowly, were all accumulations not only of practical and useful things, but great accumulations of all types of prejudices, and strange and odd beliefs.

Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered. This is to doubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true and to try to find out from experience what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down. And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile, rechecking by new direct experience and not necessarily trusting the experience from the past.

pages 184-185

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More later.

Buy the book if you don't want to wait. You really should support the writing profession by buying the author's book.

Home will take you to the homepage.

The Education Resource Table contains links to sites with valuable information for teachers.

The latest news relevant to teachers.

Lesson plan writing assistance.

Access to the world's best search engines.

Where teachers help others.