• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

“The King Canute playbook”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who is also scholar in residence at my old college and co-founder of 350.org writes in the February 25 issue of The Nation,

Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote what many have called the first book for a general audience on global warming. One of the more interesting reviews came from the Wall Street Journal. It was a mixed and judicious appraisal. “The subject,” the reviewer said, “is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr. McKibben argues convincingly.” And that was not an outlier: around the same time, the first President Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”

I doubt that’s what the Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks, and I know that no GOP presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin is currently calling climate science “snake oil,” and last week the Utah legislature, in a move straight out of the King Canute playbook, passed a resolution condemning “a well-organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome” on a nearly party-line vote.

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All fifteen of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the United States, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, much less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.

Climate-Change Denial as an O.J. Moment

The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial, an event that’s begun to recede in our collective memory. For those who were conscious in 1995, however, I imagine that just a few names will make it come back to life. Kato Kaelin, anyone? Lance Ito?

Read the rest of “The Attack on Climate-Change Science” here.

McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, comes out next month.


The Science of Christmas

Since 1825, December has been the month for The Royal Institution of Great Britain’s “Christmas Lectures for Young People”, established by Michael Faraday, who presented 19 of the early lectures himself. According to the RI, the lectures “serve as a forum for presenting complex scientific issues to children in an informative and entertaining manner, and are particularly well-known for students’ participation in demonstrations and experiments”.  Since 1966, the lectures have been on television thanks to the BBC, and many are available free online; registration, which is free, is required and highly recommended.

Some notable lectures and lecturers: in 1964, Desmond Morris on “Animal behaviour”; in 1973, David Attenborough on “The language of animals”; in 1977, Carl Sagan on “Planets”; in 1991, Richard Dawkins on “Growing Up in the World” (which is also free online here).

This year’s lecture is “The 300 million years war” presented on Saturday, December 5th by Prof. Sue Hartley:

Plants might seem passive, defenceless and almost helpless. But they are most definitely not! Thanks to a war with animals that’s lasted over 300 million years, they’ve developed many terrifying and devious ways to defend themselves and attack their enemies. Vicious poisons, lethal materials and even cunning forms of communicating with unlikely allies are just some of the weapons in their armoury. Using these and other tactics, plants have seen off everything from dinosaurs to caterpillars.

You can watch a number of Royal Institution lectures for Children at the RI’s web archives.

Also available online at the RI website: games (What’s Inside an Element?, The Science of the Elements Quiz, Build Your Own Skeleton, and more) and pages of educational resources for teachers and others.

Science for all, and all for science

I’m still catching up on my online reading, so I only just saw Bob Thompson’s especially thorough August 1 piece at Make: on choosing a microscope, along with exciting news from the Make: folks,

We’re in the process of working on a new area of Make: Online that we’re really excited about. It’s called the Make: Science Room. We’ll have a full announcement and launch in a few weeks.

Bob Thompson is the author of the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer, as well as the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture, which we like very much and which I’ve written about here and here. To go with the home chemistry book, Bob maintains the good HomeChemLab website.

Here’s to an imminent launch of the Science Room!

Tentative high school science plans

I’ve been working for the past few weeks on what I’m going to do for science with Laura from grades 9-12; she’ll be starting 7th grade this fall, but like many home schoolers I feel more comfortable starting to plan sooner rather than later.  Of all three children, Laura, the eldest, has struggled the most with math (though this year has begun to enjoy the subject, perhaps because she’s also now finding it easier), and is also a keen naturalist, animal lover, and excellent young farmer.  Science, as well as math, are the two high school subjects I feel least comfortable winging and feel best having set out as some sort of plan.

My tentative plan, always subject to change, has involved cobbling together my own choices of books, some of which are already on the shelves at home, along with Teaching Company DVDs, based more or less the Well-Trained Mind rotation of biology (9th grade), earth science/astronomy (10th), chemistry (11th), physics (12th).  There’s also the option, I decided the other day, which I’ll give Laura for 12th grade of another year of biology instead of physics, concentrating on something she’d find interesting; in that case, we’d probably work through one or both of the Teaching Company physics courses (see below) over a couple of summers. She can specialize in ornithology, animal behavior, evolution, botany or whatever she chooses. We’d probably sort that out at the end of 10th grade, after two years of high school science.

I’ve selected completely secular textbooks where necessary (rather than “living books”), but I have tried to make sure they are written by experts in their respective fields who, preferably, are also good writers who make the subject engaging, rather than by committee.

A note: there are so many excellent, worthwhile and worthy books and documentary series on the sciences that I had a hard time winnowing things down.  There is probably more winnowing ahead.  As always, my choices were informed by own preferences.  I’m keen on the works of Chet Raymo, Isaac Asimov, and have recently become a fan of Timothy Ferris.  You might have your own favorite scientists and writers, and I urge you not to be confined by my own preferences and prejudices.  This is science, not rocket science, and there’s more than one way to do this.

OVERALL: We’ve been unschooling science for the most part.  Starting this year and next with Laura for 7th and 8th grades, and of course the boys will be around (so they’ll have two sessions), I’d like to go systematically through one of the first Teaching Company courses I bought, “Joy of Science” with Professor Robert Hazen, along with the book Science Matters by Prof. Hazen and James Trefil; I think their textbook version would be overkill for us at this point.  Also, with Laura’s love of her iPod, perhaps too the audiobook version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Aside from the four-year breakdown, over the course of high school I’d like to do a light survey of the history of science using the book and new-on-DVD series “The Day the Universe Changed” by James Burke, of “Connections” fame. I’d also like to see each of our children involved at least for one year in high school on the executive of our local naturalist club

BIOLOGY (9th grade): We’re actually going to do a fairly specific farm study, using the provincial Green Certificate program for young farmers, with the specialization of cow-calf beef production.  She’ll also be able to use the program as her 4H project for the year. I’d also like to see if the each of the kids could take a course at the agricultural college in town in connection with the Green Certificate program, in the animal sciences department (anatomy and physiology or genetics of livestock) and/or an internship at the vet clinic. Like most good cattle farmers, we have a copy of Beef Cattle Science by Ensminger on the shelf, for the kids to work through. Also to read: Cattle: An Informal Social History by Laurie Winn Carlson and Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef by Betty Fussell; possibly the new Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World by Rimas and Fraser.

The more general stuff we’ll use, especially if we can’t manage to arrange for courses at the local agricultural college: the Teaching Company class “Biology: The Science of Life” taught by Stephen Nowicki of Duke. To read: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas; The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson; if we weren’t planning on the beef cattle approach, I think I’d use Hoagland’s textbook version of The Way Life Works. Also, In a Patch of Fireweed: A Biologist’s Life in the Field by Bernd Heinrich (not as good as his later Snoring Bird, but more manageable for ninth graders).

EARTH SCIENCE/ASTRONOMY (10th grade): the combination “Nature of Earth” courses from the Teaching Company (“An Introduction to Geology” and “Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy”), along with 365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year by Chet Raymo; Seeing in the Dark: How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe by Timothy Ferris; The Crust of Our Earth: An Armchair Traveler’s Guide to the New Geology by Chet Raymo; A Field Manual for the Amateur Geologist: Tools and Activities for Exploring Our Planet by Alan M. Cvancara or The Practical Geologist: The Introductory Guide to the Basics of Geology and to Collecting and Identifying Rocks by Dougal Dixon; Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space (for general reference); and The Natural History of Canada by RD Lawrence, for Canadian content. Also perhaps one of New Yorker writer John McPhee’s series on North American geology, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, The Control of Nature, and Assembling California; if you don’t have the individual titles, as I do, you can by the one-volume collection, Annals of the Former World which includes all but Control. Additional DVDs: Timothy Ferris’s “Seeing in the Dark” and “The Creation of the Universe”, and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”; and Iain Stewart’s “Earth: The Biography”

CHEMISTRY (11th grade): working through Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson, with the help of his HomeChemLab website; and either Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham or what WTM recommends (Chemistry: Concepts and Problems: A Self-Teaching Guide by Houk and Post). I don’t know that we’d need the TC course (High School Chemistry) for this, but perhaps. Also to read: Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks; Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements by John Emsley; Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age by Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite. Also, if necessary, by the co-author (with Basher) of The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!, high school chemistry teacher Adrian Dingle’s chemistry pages; and my own periodic table round-up.

PHYSICS (12th grade): I was leaning toward the WTM recommendations (this and this) until I ran across How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life by Louis A. Bloomfield; while/before Laura works through the textbook, I would work through Dr. Bloomfield’s How Everything Works: Making Physics out of the Ordinary. At his reassuring website, Dr. Bloomfield has a guide to physics homeschooling and an instructor resources page.  Plus either “Physics in Your Life”, “Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists”, or “Great Ideas of Classical Physics” course from the Teaching Company, and the puzzle/brainteaser books by Franklin Potter and Christopher Jargodzki.

I have to admit I’m also intrigued, more for the boys than for Laura, by Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” course (with webcasts) and books (there’s a textbook edition and a general trade edition).  Also intrigued, more for Laura than her brothers, in the classic Physics for Poets by Robert March, which is also an option depending on how things go through high school; I like this additional bibliography. To read: Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov; First You Build a Cloud: And Other Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life by KC Cole (recommended by JoVE); and, if manageable, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics By Its Most Brilliant Teacher by Richard Feynman.  On DVD, NOVA/“Einstein’s Big Idea” and NOVA/”Physics: The Elegant Universe”. Free online from MIT, Physics I: Classical Mechanics with Prof. Walter Lewin.  And some Leon Lederer links: FermiLab, and QuarkNet.

*  *  *

Other useful links:

MIT OpenCourseWare

Free online MIT course materials for high school (biology, physics)

Writer, home educating mother, and GeekMom Kathy Ceceri’s Home Biology blog and Home Chemistry blog; be sure to check all the links in the sidebars

The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! co-author Adrian Dingle’s Chemistry Pages

*  *  *

The Farm School Science page (at the top above, to the far right, over the carrot leaves)

Science

Farm School blog posts/General Science:

Tentative high school science plans

Do It Yourself Science

Science with Tom Edison

Learning to think like scientists, and learning how to think about science

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

Science Summer School

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

The beautiful basics of science

A virtual education, about the debate on virtual science classes

Farm School blog posts/Biology:

Darwin and evolution resources for Darwin Day aka Darwin 200: Charles Darwin’s Day

I typed this all by myself with my opposable thumbs

Charles Darwin Has a Posse

Celebrating Darwin Day: Many happy returns

Farm School blog posts/Natural History:

Nature writing and writers

Farm School blog posts/Chemistry:

Do It Yourself Science

Retro Chemistry

Still sniffing around the kitchen: Chemistry with the Curious Cook; which means you might be interested in this review by Nicole at Baking Bites of How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science by Paula Figoni

Review: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! by Basher and Dingle

Farm School blog posts/Physics:

Spreading the love

Lists of Living Books for Science:

4 Real Learning “Great Outdoors” book list; nature study and natural history books for grammar stage and up, including picture books

Regena’s lists of science and history books

Paula’s Archive: Grammar stage science book list compiled by Carol Richey

Links and Resources:

The Society for Amateur Scientists (“Helping Ordinary People Do Extraordinary Science”), also known as SAS, and SAS’s Labrats program for children; both SAS and Labrats are headed up by Dr. Shawn Carlson

Dr. Shawn Carlson’s CD compilation of 72 years’ worth of “Amateur Scientist” columns from Scientific American magazine: Amateur Scientist 4.0 CD, “Science Fair Edition”

The Guardian‘s Science Course: Part I, The Universe; Part II, Life & Genetics; Part III,The Earth; Part IV, Humans; Part V, Energy; Part VI, Building Blocks; and Part VII, Experiments for Kids

Home Chemistry

Singing Science; free songs to download

Geekdad, from Wired

Charles Darwin Has a Posse: awareness stickers

Boing Boing

“The Way Things Work” two-disc DVD set by David Macaulay

Modern Mechanix

Scientific American article, “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense” by John Rennie, September 2002

Science books from the Farm School bookshelves, library list, shopping carts, and wish lists:

Biology:

The Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Biological Sciences by Isaac Asimov; don’t hold the unfortunate title of the 1960 book against Asimov (for older children and up)

Scientific American: The Amateur Biologist by Shawn Carlson (for ages 9 or 10 and up)

Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll (for older children and up)

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin(for older and up)

The Fairy-Land of Science by Arabella Buckley; free online in book form here and as an audiobook at Librivox here (for younger children)

Natural History/Nature Writing (by author):

Edward Abbey

Liberty Hyde Bailey

Wendell Berry

Hal Borland

Rachel Carson

Gerald Durrell

Loren Eiseley

Edward Hoagland

John Kieran

Barbara Kingsolver

Joseph Wood Krutch

Gale Lawrence

RD Lawrence

Aldo Leopold

Barry Lopez

Bill McKibben

John McPhee

Farley Mowat

John Muir

Sigurd Olson

Ernest Thompson Seton

Edwin Way Teale

Henry David Thoreau

and also

Nature Writing: The Tradition in English, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben(Library of America, April 2008

Nature Study:

How to Be a Nature Detective by Millicent Selsam, illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats (for young children)

The Listening Walk by Paul Showers, illustrated by Aliki; I prefer the original unrevised edition of 1961 with Aliki’s black and white, less cutesy illustrations (less distracting), but am glad to see that this one is still in print (for young children)

Exploring Nature with Your Child: An Introduction to the Enjoyment and Understanding of Nature for All by Dorothy Edwards Shuttlesworth (1952); out of print but worth buying secondhand

The Amateur Naturalist by Gerald Durrell, with Lee Durrell; out of print and worth tracking down (for the whole family)

The Amateur Naturalist’s Handbook by Vinson Brown (and also his How to Make a Home Nature Museum and How to Make a Miniature Zoo, two of my childhood favorites)

Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock (for the whole family)

The Beginning Naturalist: Weekly Encounters With the Natural WorldA Field Guide to the Familiar: Learning to Observe the Natural World, and A Naturalist Indoors: Observing the World of Nature Inside Your Home by Gale Lawrence (for the whole family)

The Curious Naturalist by John Mitchell and The Massachusetts Audubon Society (for the whole family)

The Fieldbook of Natural History by E. Laurence Palmer and H. Seymour Fowler (originally published in 1949, revised in 1975, and which I suspect grew out of Palmer’s 1927 The Nature Almanac: a Handbook of Nature Education); Palmer, a professor of nature study at Cornell University, was a colleague of Anna Botsford Comstock (for the whole family)

The Nature Handbook: A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors by Ernest Herbert Williams (for the whole family)

Naturalist’s Guide to Observing Nature by Kurt Rinehart (for the whole family)

Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth (for the whole family)

The Amateur Naturalist by Nick Baker (not to be confused with the Durrell title, but quite good)

The Study of Life: A Naturalist’s View by RD Lawrence

The Natural History of Canada by RD Lawrence, revised by Dr. Michal Polak

Entrusted to My Care by Grant MacEwan (older readers and up)

Collecting for the City Naturalist by Lois J. Hussey and Catherine Pessino (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975)

John Kieran’s A Natural History of New York City: A Book for Sidewalk Naturalists Everywhere

The Urban Naturalist by Steven Garber

City Birding: True Tales of Birds and Birdwatching in Unexpected Places

Snowshoeing Through Sewers: Adventures in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia by Michael Aaron Rockland

Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes

Chemistry:

The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! created (and illustrated) by (Simon) Basher, and written by Adrian Dingle

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson (DIY Science series)

Fizz, Bubble & Flash!: Element Explorations & Atom Adventures for Hands-On Science Fun! by Anita Brandolini

Mad Professor by Mark Frauenfelder

The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments by Robert Brent; out of print but available as a free PDF to download, and available in softcover via Lulu for under $30.

Basic Chemistry Experiments (A Golden Hobby Book) by Robert Brent; an abridged edition of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, also out of print. Keep your eyes peeled at garage sales.

How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen

Entertaining Science Experiments With Everyday Objects by Martin Gardner

Chemical Magic by Leonard A. Ford and E. Winston Grundmeier

Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science by Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis

The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Monty L. Fetterolf and Cathy Cobb

Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee

The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore by Harold McGee

Physics:

Physics: Why Matter Matters! created (and illustrated) by (Simon) Basher, and writtenby Dan Green

Physics in a Hardware Store by Robert Friedhoffer

Physics in a Housewares Store by Robert Friedhoffer

Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass: Projects and Activities on the Science of Music and Sound by Alex Sabbeth

How Do You Lift a Lion? by Robert E. Wells

Gizmos and Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why) by Jill Frankel Hauser

Hands-On Physics Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Cunningham and Herr

Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov

Fear of Physics by Lawrence M. Krauss

Earth Science:

Basin and Range, In Suspect TerrainRising from the Plains, and Assembling California by John McPhee (available together in the collection Annals of the Former World)

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space by Isaac Asimov

Astronomy:

Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer, first in the (DIY Science series) by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space by Isaac Asimov

The Stars: A New Way to See Them and Find the Constellations by H. A. Rey (of Curious George fame)

General/Reference:

Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery by Isaac Asimov

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier

How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond

The Way Things Work by David Macaulay

Why Science? by James Trefil

The Nature of Science: An A-Z Guide to the Laws and Principles Governing Our Universe by James Trefil

Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy by Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil

Science summer school

Herewith some choice bits from science writer Natalie Angier’s latest title, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, in the hopes that, especially if you’re the parent of school-age children, educated at home or elsewhere, you might consider adding this to your library list or bookshelf, possibly the latter for a handy one-volume (under 300 pages) reference.

Ms. Angier’s writing style is often too breezy for me (verging on blowzy at times), but the book is a useful scientific tutorial, particularly valuable for those of us who tend to feel more comfortable in the humanities than the sciences. I especially appreciated all of the interviews and quotes from scientists in a variety of fields, all of whom come across as human and deeply interested in sharing their not particularly difficult or esoteric but fascinating passions. Unfortunately, the book has no footnotes but does have a reference section at the back, compiled by chapter, citing books as well as articles and web sites. I’ve added some other articles and book titles I’ve found, linking to the various scientists mentioned in the quotes below (the links are all mine and not Angier’s).

From Angier’s introduction, on why she wrote the book and why one should want to study science — forget about promoting “greater scientific awareness” for the abstract greater good:

There’s a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbang “watch me dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor” fun, although it’s that, too. It’s fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no further — there’s your should.

Angier talked to Peter Galison*, a professor of the history of physics at Harvard, who

marvels cheekily at the thoroughness with which the public image of science has been drained of all joy. “We had to work really hard to accomplish this spectacular feat, because I’ve never met a little kid who didn’t think science was really fun and really interesting,” he said. “But after years of writing tedious textbooks with terrible graphics, and of presenting science as a code you can’t crack, of divoring science from ordinary human processes that use it daily, guess what: We did it. We persuaded a large number of people that what they once thought was fascinating, fun, the most natural thing in the world, is alien to their existence.”

Still explaining the reasons behind the book, Angier writes,

It’s not that I wanted to take dumbing-down to new heights. In peppering sources with the most pre-basic of questions and tapping away at the Plexiglas shield of “everybody knows” until I was about as welcome as a yellow jacket at a nudist colony, I had several truly honorable aims. For one thing, I wanted to understand the material myself, in the sort of visceral way that allows one to feel comfortable explaining it to somebody else. For another, I believe that first-pass presumptions and nonexplanatory explanations are a big reason why people shy away from science. If even the Schlemiel’s Guide to the atom begins with a boilerplate trot through concepts that are pitched as elementary and self-evident but that don’t, when you think about them, really mean anything, what hope is there for mastering the text in cartoon balloon number two?Moreover, in choosing to ask many little questions about a few big items, I was adopting a philosophy that lately has won fans among science educators — that the best way to teach science to nonscientists is to go for depth over breadth.

From Angier’s first chapter, “Thinking Scientifically”**:

Even more than the testimonials to the fun of science, I heard the earnest affidavit that science is not a body of facts, it is a way of thinking. I heard these lines so often they began to take on a bodily existence of their own.”Many teachers who don’t have a deep appreciation of science present it as a set of facts,” said David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at Caltech. “What’s often missing is the idea of critical thinking, how you assess which ideas are reasonable and which are not.”

What’s also missing is the fun:

“When I look back on the science I had in high school, I remember it being taught as a body of facts and laws you had to memorize,” said Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago. “The Krebs cycle, Linnaean classifications. Not only does this approach whip the joy of doing science right out of most people, but it gives everyone a distorted view of what science is. Science is not a rigid body of facts. It is a dynamic process of discovery. It is as alive as life itself.”” …

But when you treat it as if it’s not alive,

When science is offered as a body of facts, science becomes a glassy-eyed glossary. You skim through a textbook or an educational Web site, and words in boldface leap out at you. You’re tempted to ignore everything but the highlighted hand wavers. You think, if I learn these terms, maybe I won’t flunk chemistry. Yet if you follow such a strategy, chances are excellent that you will flunk chemistry in the ways that matter — not on the report card in the backpack, but on the ratings card in your brain.

Some ideas on why so many just aren’t comfortable with science or scientific principles any more:

A number of scientists proposed that people may have been more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of science back when they were comfortable with nuts and bolts. “It was easier to introduce students and the lay public to science when people fixed their own cars or had their hand sin machinery of various kinds,” said David Botstein of Princeton. “In the immediate period after World War II, everybody who’d been through basic training knew how a differential gear worked because they had taken one apart.”Farmers, too, were natural scientists. They understood the nuances of seasons, climate, plant growth, the do-si-do between parasite and host [and this is much more true of present-day farmers who farm in more traditional, less conventional methods without synthetic chemicals that kill the parasite and injure the host]. The scientific curiosity that entitled our nation’s Founding Fathers to membership in Club Renaissance, Anyone? had agrarian roots. …

“The average adult American today knows less about biology than the average ten-year-old living in the Amazon, or than the average American of two hundred years ago,” said Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. “Through the fruits of science, ironically enough, we’ve managed to insulate people from the need to know about science and nature.”

Angier on “plain-truth poems of science”:

To say that there is an objective reality, and that it exists and can be understood, is one of those plain-truth poems of science that is nearly bottomless in its beauty. It is easy to forget that there is an objective, concrete universe, an outerverse measured in light years, a microverse trading in angstroms, the currency of atoms; we’ve succeeded so well in shaping daily reality to reflect the very narrow parameters and needs of Homo sapiens. We the subjects become we the objects, and we forget that the moon shows up each night for the graveyard shift, and we often haven’t a clue as to where we might find it in the sky. We are made of stardust; why not take a few moments to look up a the family album? “Most of the times, when people walk outside at night and see the stars, it’s a big, pretty background, and it’s not quite real,” said the Caltech planetary scientist Michael Brown [which link led me to this, which definitely gives me pause]. “It doesn’t occur to them that the patter they see in the sky repeats itself once a year, or to appreciate why that’s true.”

One of Angier’s best concrete tips for parents of young children, which she did mention in her CBC radio interview the other month:

Another fail-safe way to change the way you see the world is to invest in a microscope. Not one of those toy microscopes sold in most Science ‘n’ Discovery chain stores, which, as Tom Eisner, a professor of chemical ecology at Cornell, has observed, are unwrapped on Christmas morning and in the closet before Boxing Day. Not the microscopes that magnify specimens up to hundreds of times and make everything look like a satellite image of an Iowa cornfield. Rather, you should buy a dissecting microscope, also known as a stereo microscope. Admittedly, such microscopes are not cheap, running a couple of hundred dollars or so. Yet this is a modest price to pay for revelation, revolution, and — let’s push this envelope out of the box while we’re at it — personal salvation. …”Yes, the world is out there, over your head and under your nose, and it is real and it is knowable. To understand something about why a thing is as it is in no detracts from its beauty and grandeur, nor does it reduce the observed to “just a bunch of” — chemicals, molecules, equations, specimens for a microscope. Scientists get annoyed at the hackneyed notion that their pursuit of knowledge diminishes the mystery or art or “holiness” of life. … A rose is a rose is a rose; but the examined rose is a sonnet.

I’ll leave the rest for you to discover, from the individual chapters explaining the various sciences (physics, chemistry, biology — a chapter each on molecular and evolutionary — astronomy, geology, statistics, and calibration), except for this tidbit from the chapter on physics, which caught my eye as I plan the kids’ rejiggered science program for the fall:

As the science of starter parts and forces, physics can also be defended as the ideal starter science. Yet standard American pedagogy has long ruled otherwise. In most high schools, students begin with biology in tenth grade, follow it with chemistry, and cap it off in their senior year with physics, a trajectory determined by the traditional belief that young minds must be ushered gently from the “easiest” to the “hardest” science. More recently, though, many scientists have been campaigning for a flip in the educational sequence, teaching physics first, the life sciences last. Leading the charge for change is Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois… .Lederman and others argue that physics is the foundation on which chemistry and biology are built, and that it makes no sense to start slapping the walls together and hammering on the roof before you’ve poured the concrete base. They also insist that, taught right, physics is no “harder” than any other subject worth knowing. Some schools have adopted the recommended course correction, and others are sure to follow.

Another modest price to pay for revelation is the cost of The Canon, under $25 at most booksellers in North America, so you can read the rest in the comfort of your own home. Two opposable thumbs up.

* In the linked interview, Dr. Galison recommends the following science books for children — English physicist Russell Stannard‘s “Uncle Albert” (that would be Einstein…) trilogy, The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, Black Holes and Uncle Albert, and Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest (which seem available only secondhand in the U.S. but can be bought new in Canada); and Peter Sis’s “sophisticated and beautiful [picture] books” on Galileo and Charles Darwin. He also recommends the following for nonscientists: The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979; QED by Richard Feynman; and The Elegant Universe by string theorist Brian Greene.

** Excellent for teaching kids to think scientifically is a book we discovered through the Noeo Science website, not surprisingly titled How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond (the “Mouse Cookie” lady, as one of my kids calls her).

Lastly, a summer science bonus, for those rainy days you’re not outside playing in puddles, via the Feynman website: physics coloring pages from Physics Central.