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A Columbus Dispatch headline today reminded me of something.

The headline was “Inspired by the Olympics” and is all about kids and the winter games.

My olympics was 1976, Montreal. I was eight years old.

I was not the most athletic kid around. But the Olympics, with all their crazy events and their young, bright-eyed athletes, inspired me.

I was absolutely in love with Nadia Comanece. Despite the fact that I couldn’t do a cartwheel (or even a front roll), I decided that if I worked at it, I could be a gymnast. That seemed to be the best way to get to know her. Hey, I was eight.

I was always the wimpiest kid in the neighborhood. But I turned the backyard into a steeplechase course. I practiced the shot put (with a plastic toy bowling ball). I practiced the hurdles ( a broom handle between two chairs). I set up mock decathlons with me running for the US and a whole raft of other countries falling behind me. I made up my own scoring system and conducted my own medals ceremonies (with me winning the gold every time, of course). I watched everything from swimming and diving to long jump, basketball, and weightlifting. And I tried them all in my backyard arena.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, surprise, but I never became a professional athlete. Still, sports became an important part of my life. And I think things like tennis, baseball and softball, bicycling, and running have made my life better. Now when I was running my mock decathlons in the backyard, I never thought, “I’m going to make sports a rewarding part of my life.” Instead, I thought, “I’m going to go to the olympics and win a gold medal!” I never made it. Did I fail? Of course not. The effort, the imagination, and the memories were the real medals.

I think the same thing is true of teaching science. A little later, in 1980, Carl Sagan came along with Cosmos. And I knew I wanted to be Carl Sagan. I’m not Carl, but I am doing what I love, and I use Carl as an inspiration every day. Each day before I do my work I read his quote.

“Not teaching science seems to me perverse. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”

But Carl Sagan didn’t have to turn all those 12-year-old kids watching him into scientists, or even science teachers. Instead, I believe what he did, better than anyone else before or since, is get people to let a little science into their lives. And I’m fortunate enough to have the same job, the same chance, to tell the world.

Most of the kids I taught today won’t become scientists. Maybe none of them will. And that’s OK. What I hope for, what I try so hard to do, is to be the 1976 olympics, that inspiration that lets people think just a little bit differently about science and the way they can make it part of their lives.

It’s about inspiration.

I’ve written before about Randy Olson and one of his ideas that has really entered my life: never rise above. Today I finished Olson’s book: Don’t Be Such a Scientist.

It is written (obviously) for and to scientists in particular, but I think it has so much to say to science educators. There are some hard truths in there, things that I wish weren’t true but I know in my heart really proabably are.

Heart is something Olson writes about a lot. Science as it is practiced by scientists aims squarely at the head. It’s all about intellectualism, facts, evidence, data. But communicating science, Olson says, (like communicating anything) is about reaching people through other means: the heart; the gut; and the sexual organs.

I agree with this, but I would go further than Olson. Sure, science as it is practiced is about the head. But that’s not the prime reason for doing it. If it were, I’d have lost interest long ago.

I reject the separation of these things into neat and tidy packages. For me, the motivation for asking “scientific” questions is not free from emotion (Olson’s heart), excitement (Olson’s gut), or even sex appeal (Olson’s, well, you get it). Who am I? How did I get here? Where am I going? Why do people die? Why was I born me and not someone else? Why does the world feel like the world, and not like a computer program or a movie or something else entirely? Why does it feel so good to kiss? Why are blue whales so big? Why are atoms so tiny? Why do I like hamburgers and not Brussels sprouts?

I can’t imagine going into the world with just your intellect and nothing else. Science fiction fans know the archetypes: Spock, Data, even the Tin Man. But isn’t it interesting that for all three of these characters we’re most interested in the expression of that part that they’re not supposed to have? I remember bawling like a baby when Data’s daughter tells him that she loves him and he says he wishes he could feel it with her. Just the act of Data knowing there is such a thing as love shows us in the audience that Data knows exactly what it is to love, and of course his actions prove that he does love his daughter, whether he “thinks” he does or not. Like the Tin Man, Data had a heart all along.

Scientists try so hard to separate the heart and the gut (and the other) from their science precisely because it’s so hard to do. Is it worthwhile to do so? Of course, as a means to an end. But if in the end that scientific result doesn’t come back and hit you somewhere other than your head, what good is it? It has to stir you. It has to make you look at the blue sky and smile, realizing, now that you know why the sky is blue, that this act of knowing what’s happening on your retina just makes it that much more marvelous that such an everyday thing as the sky can be this impossible, pure, utterly lovely color. It’s not logical, it’s not in the data (little d this time), but it’s true all the same.

As science teachers, we are freer than scientists to touch people in all the ways they can be touched (get your mind out of the gutter!) Science is our subject, but it isn’t our medium, and it doesn’t even have to be our only goal. A former colleague of mine (are you out there, Martin Fisher?) once did a research study showing that in the context of a planetarium show humor actually lessens the retention of facts. Martin and I talked about this result, we both agreed that it was probably true, and we also both agreed that we didn’t care. We’d continue to use humor  . . .

(such as it is: my current favorite joke is this:

Demonstrator: The weight below the high wire unicycle is between you and the ground, and it’s between you and the ground. It’s a metaphor.

Rider: What’s a metaphor?

Demonstrator: It’s for cows to eat in.)

we’d continue to use humor because we weren’t mostly after retention. We were mostly after happiness, good feelings, positive experiences, that moment of wow! and aha! Humor doesn’t just help us get there, it’s a big part of the “there” we’re after.

I think I took a lot from Don’t Be Such a Scientist, but maybe it just reinforced what I already believed. Maybe it just made it all more real for me. I’ll keep teaching not just to the head, but to all the other parts, too. I’ll keep looking for those experiences that don’t have just head-appeal, but also heart-appeal, gut-appeal, and, yes, sex-appeal.

And maybe I’ll look for some better jokes.

A boy showed me a translucent green rectangle, about half an inch long and a quarter inch wide. “I found this on my bus,” he said. “Do you know what it is?”

Just a piece of plastic. That was my first answer. But I caught myself.

“That,” I said, “is the fossil remains of ancient creatures.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s made of plastic, right?”


“Plastic is made from oil. Where does oil come from?”

“From the ground!”

“And how did it get there?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

“Millions of years ago, tiny ocean animals died and drifted to the bottom. On the bottom their bodies turned to goo. Over millions of years, that goo got buried, squished, and cooked just enough to turn into oil. We took the oil out of the ground, turned it into plastic, and made that plastic into all sorts of interesting shapes. So what you’re holding are the last remains of tiny creatures that died millions of years ago.”


“Finding slug eggs, making the bulb light up, getting the microscope to focus, seeing cells for the first time, nurturing a seed, harvesting a tomato, catching the mealworm beetle as it “hatches” out of its pupa, making a “floater” sink and a “sinker” float, building a taller block building, getting a marble to run through a maze. Discovery that is the result of an imaginative act– one’s own “wonderful idea”– is a powerful thing. I believe that when children experience their own agency in this way, they learn that they can change the world.” – Abbe Futterman, teacher.

The above is just part of an interview with an artist-turned-science teacher named Abbe Futterman. She’s the sort of teacher I’d like my girls to experience. Science teaching, I believe, is so much about art, so little, really, about science itself. The science teacher is not a scientist, but an artist. We create art that creates itself.

I love teaching. I also love learning about science. But I’ve had the nagging suspicion for some time now that these two things are actually quite distinct. And I think that my own personal journey through science, which has taken me to places as different as the interior of the nucleus, the wondrous creatures of the Burgess Shale, and the bizarre and surprising moons of Jupiter, is just that, personal, valuable to me because it reflects my own choices, exciting to me because it is my own wonder I’ve ignited. It’s not a path anyone else could or should take. Everyone’s wonder will be, must be, their own.

My job as a teacher is to throw out many sparks. What I find amazing, wondrous, thrilling, may not do a thing for a particular learner. And that’s ok. It only takes one spark to set off that “wonderful idea,” the idea that will start the learner on her own path of discovery. When she looks back, she may never know that it all began today, with one little spark that I, in my wild flailings, happened to throw in just the right place at just the right time. And that’s ok, too.

“A sense of wonder,” Richard Fortey said, “cannot be purchased over the counter at the superstore. Nor can it be wheeled out of the corner cupboard at the behest of some curriculum or other. Instead,” he wrote, “it steals up on the child unexpectedly.”

I believe that when we encourage our learners to discover, we are encouraging them to be artists. Scientists are artists, creating their own models of the world. Science, like art, like music, like dance, like theater, and like writing, is one of the things people do. But our learners are not really doing science, not yet, not with the rigor and the insistence on skepticism that science so rightly demands. Instead, they are fiddling, tinkering, trying things out, exploring what’s interesting, what might happen if I mix this with that, if I hold this next to that, if I connect this piece with that piece. All these things are ways of changing the world, leaving a mark, making a difference.

The teaching I want to do is about inspiration. It’s about lighting a fire that will burn and burn and burn. It’s about starting my learners on a journey, maybe waving occasionally as we pass one another along the way, but always remembering that it’s their journey, not my own. Those stirring moments of discovery come not from me, but from my learners, from their own “wonderful ideas.”

It’s not about me, it’s about them. The good news is, I get to have a great time along the way, sharing my own passion as a tool for igniting theirs. That’s the sort of teacher I want to be.

If you want to read the entire Abbe Futterman interview, it’s here.

OK, I can’t help it. I wrote about neutrinos once before, but they’re too cool and I can’t leave them alone.

I’ve been reading about IceCube, a neutrino telescope at (literally, at) the South Pole. What in the world is a neutrino telescope doing there?

Well, it’s using the Earth. The idea is this. Neutrinos hardly interact with matter at all. Even the Earth is hardly a barrier to them. So by staring not up but down, into the incredibly thick and pure ice of the South Pole, what you’re actually doing is staring in the direction of neutrinos that have just passed through the Earth via the North Pole. Anything else, any other particles, would have been absorbed by the Earth long before they reached you, so you’re looking at the northern sky with a filter that only lets neutrinos through.

OK, so great. Neutrinos go through the entire Earth. Surely they’ll go through your little experiment just as easily. The IceCube neutrino telescope is a cubic kilometer, but that’s nothing compared to the Earth.

True, but remember that there’s lots and lots and lots of neutrinos. Almost all make it through the Earth, but that still leaves a huge number that interact with the Earth. And almost all make it through IceCube, too, but a smaller number interact with the ice.

Notice that the neutrinos that interact aren’t somehow weaker or slower than the rest. All these neutrinos are identical (though there are three different types, but there’s a twist there, too! See, aren’t neutrinos cool?). Just because a neutrino “made it” through the Earth doesn’t give it any better or worse chance of making it through IceCube.

So what does that mean, make it through? Or, more to the point, not make it through? What exactly happens to these little neutral ones?

Now the story gets really cool. Amazing, really.

Every once in a great while, a neutrino will slam into a neutron. When this happens, the neutron spits out something. The something depends on which kind of neutrino hit it. An electron neutrino causes an electron to come out (leaving a proton behind). A muon neutrino causes something else, a sort of electron on steroids, to come flying out. It’s called a muon.

OK, I have to tell this story. When the muon was first discovered, a physicist (one of my favorites) named I.I. Rabi, said, “Who ordered that?” The muon didn’t make any sense at the time. It was the wrong weight to be anything predicted. It seemed to have exactly the properties of the electron, except for two. It was much heavier than the electron, and it quickly decayed into (you guessed it) an electron. So what good was it. Who ordered that, indeed?

Later, scientists found that they could use muons from cosmic rays to verify Einstein’s relativistic time dilation, but that’s another story. This is about neutrinos!

Anyway, if the neutrino makes a muon, something amazing happens. The muon comes flying out of the atom at breakneck speed (if muons had necks). It’s going so fast, in fact, that it is actually faster than the speed of light.

Wait a minute, you just mentioned Einstein, and now you’re breaking the one law that everyone knows Einstein proved. Thou shalt not go faster than the speed of light.

Yes, but . . .

No buts, it’s your rule, now you have to obey it.

But wait.

OK, what?

Einstein said nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. Light, it turns out, travels just that fast. In a vacuum. But in ice, light goes a lot slower. And the muon can go faster than light in ice. Einstein is still intact, but the muon still does something remarkable.

Just as an airplane going faster than sound creates a sonic boom, a muon going faster than light creates a luminal boom! That’s right, a sonic boom for light. And it gets better. That luminal boom comes out as light we can see. And . . . ta daa . . . it’s blue!

That’s the blue glow you see around nuclear power plants. It’s really there, and it’s caused by particles moving faster than the speed of light in water. How cool is that?

So now you’ve got this ice, you’ve got these muons made by muon neutrinos, you’ve got this blue glow. The ice below the South Pole is probably the purest and clearest in the world. There’s nothing to compete with this blue light, and it just lights up that ice, traveling a great distance through the crystal clear solid water. And when it comes to a detector (called a DOM for Digital Optical Module), that detector grabs the blue glow and stores it away. You’ve just detected a neutrino!

OK, so what? So you’ve just detected a neutrino. Big deal.

It is a big deal, and here’s why. Neutrinos weigh almost nothing. Almost. We now know that they have a tiny, but real, mass. Why? Because of Einstein again. Any particle with zero mass travels at the speed of light, but any particle with a real mass, no matter how tiny, travels slower. At the speed of light time stops. But at less than the speed of light, time ticks away, however slowly.

Remember I mentioned the other twist about neutrinos? Here it is. Neutrinos can change back and forth, from one type to another. We know that now, but didn’t know it just a few years ago, and that caused a big worry. It seemed the Sun was making far too few neutrinos. Since neutrinos come directly from the Sun’s core, while visible light takes a long, long time to reach the surface, some scientists worried that perhaps the Sun’s core was dying. Instead, the answer is that the Sun is making the right number of neutrinos, but we were only able to detect one of the three kinds coming out. Since the Sun only makes one of the three kinds, it must be the case that the other two kinds (called the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino) pop into existence as the other kind pops out – in other words, the neutrinos turn one into the other.

So what does that have to do with mass? If the neutrinos were massless, then time wouldn’t pass for them, and they’d have no time to change one into the other. The fact that they can and do proves that they have mass.

Again big deal. Right? Wrong.

The big deals are many. First of all, neutrinos don’t weigh much, but there are a lot of them. A lot of them. Suddenly their mass becomes important for lots of things, including supernova explosions.

But there’s more than that. No theory we currently have shows why or how the neutrino should have mass. The mass of the neutrino points toward new physics. It’s like that cloud on the horizon of physics at the end of the 19th century that led to radioactivity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, and the modern world.  The 20th century’s cloud was the neutrino mass, and the more we learn about these amazing, ghostly particles, the closer we will come to seeing what wonders await behind this cloud. I for one can’t wait to see.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
February 2010
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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