Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Monday, April 24, 2006

It Takes alot of Mistakes

I was just reading letters to the editor of the journal "Physics Today". They brought up a serious problem in our education system, maybe even a problem in our society's educational philosophy. In short, the problem is in how we treat mistakes.

Most of us have experienced the embarrassment of making a mistake in school. If we gave the wrong answer or came up with a new idea for solving a problem and it didn't work, we usually suffered some emotional pain due to how such mistakes are viewed. In reality, all progress in science requires that we come up with some ideas, hypotheses or processes that just don't work out at all. If we didn't try these things, we would never have found out that they didn't work, and we wouldn't have learned just why they didn't work. Without this knowledge, we can't zero in on the ideas or processes that do work.

I suppose we need to accept that we are never quite at our destination when it comes to understanding nature. When we realize that none of our answers are definitive, maybe we can deal with slowly building our knowledge and quit expecting to have a complete answer in our lifetime. The best we can possibly hope for is to contribute some new knowledge either about what does or even doesn't work. Expect to make some mistakes, and do something! Explore an idea, try an experiment and push it far enough to find out just how wrong you are. That is how progress happens.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Join the Rebellion

I just read a wonderful little article in the Wall Street Journal. It described a rebellion in the world of basic science education. It seems that the trend for schools, in an attempt to make science more "accessible" to a broader array of students, to "dumb" down science classes has been recognized by thinking teachers and parents as a flawed solution to a serious problem.

Of course the schools were trying to alleviate a real problem. We will be facing a shortage of scientists and engineers in the near future, a shortage that will be filled by trained workers from elsewhere. Obviously we need more students in science and math classes. The school's solution: make science easier so more students can succeed at it. Unfortunately, this solution ignores the reality that we need a solution that works beyond school. When our students get out of school they face competition in the real world. Results depend on cutting edge science, and that won't be done by young workers whose scientific depth is measured in microns due to their "no math" science classes that they aced in school.

We will be facing a global economy with global competition. Those that master math and science will win that competition, and we make it alot harder for our students to master such subjects when we avoid presenting them with intellectual challenges just so more students can "succeed". Such success is even recognized by newly included students as shallow and so fails even to boost "self esteem", which I suspect is the rationale behind this dumbing down.

Watering down science and math courses is really no different than training your football team against simulated opponents represented by little Bozo the clown punching bags on the field.

Happy to join the rebellion, I'll have to do the same as many other parents, teach math and science at home after school. That leaves us with the same dillemma we faced before public education: only those whose parents already have the skills will be able to learn them.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

More Hope

My last post was somewhat discouraging regarding the quality of science information available. Unfortunately, I have not changed my mind about that particular scientific news source, but I have cause for an improved outlook. Even on the web, higher quality information is becoming more readily available. and Britannica online have both impressed me quite a bit with high quality detailed information.

Even more impressive has been the quality I've found on the shelf of "popular" science books at the local bookstore. I often spend my lunch hour at Borders Books in Goleta (Hollister & Storke, if you're in the neighborhood) and the number of quality of science books as well as the variety of subjects written about has improved dramatically over the last several years, or maybe it has been decades, I am getting up there in years. When I was a kid, the books on science I came across were either dry textbooks (I loved my organic chemistry text I found at the salvation army store) or they were popularized science which was more science fiction than reality. Lately I have found wonderful books on mathematics and physics and biology all written in a style that anyone could understand and they manage to be both exciting as well as accurate. That is exactly what I like to find, accurate descriptions of the fascinating science being done!