By Zvi Schreiber
Author of Fizz: Nothing is as it seems
What is heat? How does color come about? Why is the sky blue? What is electricity? How does the moon keep circling us? What is a star and how does it twinkle?.
Children naturally ask these questions. But after a certain number of questions, adults tend to express irritation at kids' natural curiosity, move on to legitimate hyperbole, and then go off into complete hype. Take a recent “international hit” movie as our case in point. It’s strangely titled: “What tHe #$*! Do wE (k)now!?” (It’s sometimes called “What the Bleep?”) Time magazine describes it as “an odd hybrid of science documentary and spiritual revelation featuring a Greek chorus of Ph.D.s and mystics talking about quantum physics.” Early on, the movie illustrates the uncertainty principle with a bouncing basketball being in several places at once. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s recognized as pedagogical exaggeration. But the movie gradually blends to quantum “insights” leading a woman to toss away her anti-depressant medication, to the quantum channeling of the 35,000 year-old Atlantis god, Ramtha, and on to even greater nonsense. This is most likely because they don't know the answers themselves, and they feel intimidated by science, or, subconsciously, because that was the response they themselves got as kids. That's a shame, because when you nurture a child's innate curiosity, you help raise a person who might discover cleaner energy, safe affordable space travel, or artificial eye sight for the blind. Here are five ways to rekindle our students' or kids' interest in our physical universe:
- 1. Focus on the physicists rather than the physics.
- Today's understanding of the universe was unearthed by a line of inspiring people continuing to this day. Discover Galileo, whose trial for the sin of challenging existing scientific ideas ended in conviction and imprisonment; Michael Faraday, the uneducated apprentice bookbinder, son of a blacksmith, who invented the electric motor and generator; Isaac Newton who spent more time studying alchemy than physics, and probably gave himself mercury poisoning; Albert Einstein, the stereotypical absent-minded professor whose poor social skills may well have been caused by Asperger's syndrome (or a mild autism); and Stephen Hawking who writes his physics lectures using twitches of his cheek. You'll find these stories at least as compelling as those of the current crop of "American Idol" contestants, and perhaps longer lasting!
- 2. Explore the little questions.
- Take a look around the room, or out of the window, and ask some questions. Let down your inhibitions, and ask away. Why do acorns fall faster than leaves? How do cables carry voice and TV? Why do you see your image in a mirror? See how many questions you—or your child—can write down in 15 minutes, and then race to find the answers.
- 3. Find common themes.
- There are patterns everywhere you look. Galileo, the first physicist, still analyzed the things he saw one at a time. It was Isaac Newton who developed an uncanny ability to spot common themes in apparently unrelated places. He wondered if an apple falling from a tree might have something in common with the earth circling the sun! From this insight, the theory of gravity was born. Finding common themes in far-flung places has become an exciting aspect of physics. For example, the same wave equation can explain water waves, sound, light and the behavior of atoms. Where do you see common themes? Try and identify three.
- 4. Make mistakes.
- Nicolaus Copernicus was so insecure about his idea that the earth circles the sun that he horded his work for decades until the year he died. No one knows if he saw his own books in print before his death. William Herschel, on the other hand, who discovered infrared radiation and the planet Uranus, was not afraid to speculate that aliens inhabit the sun.
Here's a news flash: it's okay to make mistakes! Encourage yourself (and your children) to make their own, because they're all opportunities to learn and to innovate. Once in a while, an outlandish idea, like Copernicus' idea that the earth circles the sun, proves to be accurate and revolutionary, if one only has the confidence to blurt it out. And Herschel's strange mistaken speculation did nothing to tarnish his great reputation. Encourage your kids to speculate, speculate, and speculate, even if that does lead to mistakes.
- 5. Ponder the meaning of life.
- Physics started with Galileo and Newton's attempts to find nice orderly rules for the universe. But the man who continued their work and found the orderly laws for electricity and magnetism—James Clerk Maxwell—went on to discover that the world inherently gets more disorderly, a concept he called "entropy."
In the twentieth century, it all went further downhill. We discovered that some systems, like the weather, are inherently chaotic. And modern physics has found that, deep within atoms, everything behaves randomly! Einstein himself tried to fight the discovery of randomness. But Einstein turned out to be wrong.
To make matters worse, there are hints that our universe may be one of many! So what is the meaning of our life in a universe which is disorderly, chaotic, and random, and which is quite possibly one of many universes? There may be no single answer, but it's certainly interesting to think about.
Learning about our universe and, possibly, what lies beyond it, is a wonderful way to expand our minds and the minds of the next generation. Your children might not grow up to be physicists, but, if they keep on asking questions, they'll maintain a lifelong love of learning. And, after all, someone has to be the next great scientist. Maybe that somebody is sitting at your dinner table engaging in a thought-provoking discussion about how the sun provides the energy for the food we're eating.
Asking questions is our right and our privilege. After all, this universe is our home.
Copyright © Dr. Zvi Schreiber - author of Fizz, a newly published edu-novel which explains the history and fundamentals of physics through a young woman time traveling to meet Galileo, Newton and Einstein. http://www.fizz-book.com
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