I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, September 7, 2009

Teaching Science the Harry Potter Way

Seeing the most recent Harry Potter movie raised an interesting question: why do so many kids find the idea of attending Hogwarts so enticing?

After all, J. K. Rowling makes clear that the students at Hogwarts actually study hard.

And, notoriously, American kids do not like hard schoolwork.

The answer of course is obvious: at Hogwarts, you get to learn magic.

At Hogwarts, you get to acquire knowledge not possessed by mere “muggles,” knowledge that lets you in on arcane secrets about how the universe really works, knowledge that gives you vast and amazing powers not possessed by ordinary humans.

Such magic actually exists in the real world: it is called science.

For example, who would have thought, prior to the twentieth century, that a rather mundane material, so-called “yellowcake,” had within it a mysterious substance that, when properly separated out through arcane and laborious methods, could be used to make some of the most dangerous weapons in history, far more dangerous than Rowling’s “death-eaters”?

(Yellowcake is a substance produced from uranium ore, and uranium is of course the original raw material for nuclear weapons.)

Who would have thought, before the late nineteenth century, that all ordinary matter had within it tiny little particles, making up less than a thousandth of the weight of matter, that could be used not only to control each other’s motion but also to control everything from a cell phone to a jet plane?

(J. J. Thomson discovered the electron in the 1890s; electronics is the art of using a small flow of electrons to control a much larger, more powerful flow of electrons.)

Who would have imagined, prior to the twentieth century, that the entire structure, growth, and daily functioning of our bodies is controlled by a tiny stringy molecule, hidden in the nucleus of nearly every cell of our body, that embodies a sort of computer program that builds a human being from a single cell?

(The stringy molecule is DNA, of course.)

As the example of nuclear weapons illustrates, science is not an entirely benign form of magic. But that fact should not make it less interesting to children: “black” magic is at least as interesting as “white”!

I could continue at great length in this vein: almost all of the great discoveries in science, from plate tectonics to relativity theory, from quantum theory to the theory of evolution, amount to showing that the universe is a radically different, much more mysterious, magical place than “common sense” would ever have suggested.

And, the mysteries unveiled by science not only tell us amazing things about reality; the knowledge provided by science is also enormously powerful.

So, how can American public-school educators manage to transmute science education from the unveiling of deep and powerful mysteries to a numbingly boring subject that most kids shun?

A big part of the answer lies in the dogma of “developmental appropriateness” that plagues American elementary schools. It is “developmentally inappropriate” for young grade-schoolers to learn about black holes or the Big Bang or mutants or nuclear chain reactions – although the X-Men comic series has proven for decades that kids are interested in “mutants” and although it is hard not to be interested in things that make very big bangs (which include nuclear reactions and black holes, and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the Big Bang itself).

Instead, in early grade school, kids are taught that plants have roots and leaves, that seeds sprout and turn into plants, etc. – as if any normal kid did not already know this.

If anyone thinks I am being unfair, glance through the “Science Content Standards for California Public Schools: Kindergarten through Grade 12”, adopted October 1998 . The terms “DNA,” “Big Bang,” and “mutation” do not occur in the grade one through six standards at all. The terms “black hole” and “relativity” occur nowhere, not even in the high school physics standards.

Another problem is the over-emphasis in American science education on experiments.

It’s true, of course, that natural science is based on detailed observations and experiments. But real scientific experiments are not just random fooling around to see what happens. Real experiments are the result of careful thought and study and mastery of all that is already known about the subject, before one decides on an experiment that will give us insights into nature that we do not yet possess.

Real science is an obsessive search for secrets that nature is carefully hiding from common sense.

Grade-school students and, by and large, even high-school students cannot do that sort of experiment. The result is that the experiments that can be done by schoolchildren tend to be exceptionally boring and uninformative.

(The one major exception is experiments that blow things up: understandably, both teachers and parents tend to be wary of that sort of experiment!)

The emphasis on pointless experiments is connected to the educratic dogma of “constructivism,” the idea that kids can and should “construct” knowledge from their own experience, rather than learn it from a book.

The problem, of course, is that no amount of experience can cause an ordinary person to “construct” the theory of relativity for himself: we needed a genius, Einstein, to figure out how to “construct” relativity.

Prior to the university level, experiments should be put in the same category as field trips or science specials on television: perhaps an entertaining break from the daily grind, but no substitute for actually learning science.

Really learning science means reading books (not just a single textbook, but a variety of books on the subject), working problems, and, above all, trying hard to think about the concepts of science and trying to understand how science has shown that so many of our “common-sense” beliefs about the world are in fact radically wrong.

Still another problem is political correctness from both the Right and the Left.

Science is revolutionary: it proves that many of our common-sense ideas are false.

Most people have finally adjusted to the idea that the earth moves around the sun, and so the schools can safely teach that as a fact.

But many people have not yet adjusted to the idea that we are descended from fish, and so the schools must tread lightly in presenting that idea, especially in early grade school. (Needless to say, the words “evolve” and “evolution” do not occur anywhere in the grade one through six California science standards.)

Similarly, the political Left is uncomfortable with the fact that our genes have a large influence on our intelligence, our personality, etc. So, don’t expect to learn much about evolutionary psychology or behavioral genetics in American schools, either.

A final problem is the American emphasis on pragmatism: how will it help my kid practically to know more than a bare minimal amount of science?

Well, actually, kids who are engaged and excited by discussions about mutants and the Big Bang and relativity and black holes are more likely to stick with science, so that they are willing to slog through the tough advanced science courses needed to become an engineer, a scientist, or a physician.

So, yes, teaching the deep and amazing aspects of science may well help your kids practically.

But, more than that, science is the first organized body of knowledge in human history that gives us systematic, verifiable, non-obvious knowledge about reality, knowledge that is the same whether you live in New Delhi or New York, Nairobi or Shanghai.

That is a remarkable change in human history. When my great grandmother was born in 1883, no one knew what atoms were made of or how old the universe was or what made the stars shine or that there were other galaxies besides the Milky Way.

We now know all of that and more – that there are planets around other stars, how the continents have moved during the earth’s long history, how stars can end their lives as neutron stars or black holes, etc.

Before the rise of science, humans lived in, as Carl Sagan put it, a “demon-haunted world.” “Truth” was a matter of the arbitrary beliefs enforced in your native land: as Pascal sardonically suggested, what was true on one side of the Pyrenees was false on the other.

Science changed that – it banished the imaginary demons, it discovered real, objective truth.

So, kids need to know real science – exciting, revolutionary, disturbing science – not simply because it will motivate them to study enough science to get into dentistry school but also because science frees humans from the lies, myths, and dogmas of the past.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Science is magic made real. Real education in real science should be more exciting than learning magic at J. K. Rowling’s imaginary Hogwarts.

Books are available nowadays for even young kids to learn real science in a way that explains the excitement and mystery of science without sacrificing accuracy – e.g., Mahlon Hoagland’s The Way Life Works or Jenny Morgan’s The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story trilogy. Get books like these and let your kids learn real magic.


  1. It is unclear from the post whether those very abstract concepts are expected to be understood (fully taught) or introduced as a motivator. I would take it that the black holes, relativity, and Big Bang are meant to be hooks. It seems similar to the Mad Scientist technique of making goo, explosions, rockets and such that are very exciting. Give them a taste of what they themselves will understand if they stick with it for a few years?

  2. Kim,
    Thanks for stopping by.

    You wrote:
    >I would take it that the black holes, relativity, and Big Bang are meant to be hooks.

    Well, yes and no.

    The basic idea of black holes is pretty simple: gravity can be so huge that nothing, not even light, can move fast enough to escape. Incidentally, this can occur even in Newtonian physics, as well as in relativity.

    Even very young kids know that light moves awfully fast, and even very young kids understand that something pulls things back down to earth. So, at some level, even a six-year-old actually can understand this.

    Can six-year-olds fully understand all of the math and physics, the Schwarzchild solution and so on?

    No, they can’t, of course.

    But, then, at some level, even we physicists do not fully understand black holes. For several years, for example, there was a debate between Steve Hawking and a bunch of physicists (including me) over whether information could be completely lost, in principle, in a black hole (in practice, it certainly does get lost): this involves some detailed issues in quantum mechanics. Not long ago, Hawking conceded that the rest of were right: in principle, information is not completely lost.

    There is a similar debate going on as to whether black holes ever actually form: time slows down as the black hole starts to form, and there is reason to think the black hole never quite forms – some of us think that so-called “Hawking radiation” kicks in and starts causing the near-black-hole to slowly evaporate before the singularity fully forms. (For practical purposes, to an external observer, it does essentially look like a black hole.)

    So, my point is that the difference between a six-year-old’s ignorance and my or Steve Hawking’s ignorance is just a matter of degree.

    The six-year-old really can grasp the basic idea of a black hole, though of course he lacks a sophisticated understanding. I have a much more sophisticated understanding, than a six-yrear-old’s, and Hawking’s understanding is much greater than mine (except, I suppose, for the one point on which he conceded that the rest of us were actually right and he was wrong).

    But that does not mean the six-year-old’s understanding is wrong: it just means he has a lot more to learn. Everyone has to start somewhere, and I see no reason not to tell a six-year-old of interesting things we know about the universe, which the six-year-old can understand, even though the six-year-old cannot grasp everything.

    Similarly, we do let six-year-olds in on the fact that the earth moves around the sun, even though six-year-olds cannot grasp Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, much less know how to derive those laws from Newton’s law of gravitation or from Einstein’s theory.

    Similar points can be made about the Big Bang, relativity, etc. See Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland for an example of how relativity can be explained to kids.

    A few centuries ago, the idea that the earth moves around the sun was considered a very advanced, abstruse concept. We now (rightly) expect grade-schoolers to grasp that concept.

    Because black holes, the Big Bang, etc. are fairly new discoveries that most adults did not learn about in school, adults tend to think that these are ideas beyond the grasp of young kids. That is simply a mistake. The Big Bang is actually simpler to grasp than the fact that earth’s motion around the sun causes the seasons (a lot of adults still think that the earth is closer to the sun in summer; whereas, the earth is actually further from the sun during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer).

    So… to return to your question, yeah, these are “hooks” in the sense that they are interesting to kids. But I really do think that quite young kids can grasp the idea of black holes, the Big Bang, etc., and, indeed, understand those ideas as well or better than most adults do, though not of course as well as a competent physicist does.


  3. Kim,

    I jumped over to your blog after posting the above, and just wanted to add this brief comment.

    Glancing at your blog, it is clear that we have several interests in common. I have a tendency (an occupational hazard of physicists, I fear!) to write in a style that seems to say “Here is the correct answer!” I hope you do understand that I recognize that people are entitled to disagree with me, and that I do not expect you or anyone to take what I say as the “final word.”

    I’m just too lazy to constantly type “in my opinion,” “it seems to me,” etc., but I assume people will take for granted that that is what I mean.

    You raise interesting issues, and I hope you'll continue dropping by here, and I will try to drop by your blog now and then.

    I’m looking forward to continuing to exchange views and information with you.

    All the best,