Suggested core concepts: The Sciences

The Sciences give us a way to methodically explore, gain insight into, and alter the world around us.  Not so long ago, our knowledge about the workings of nature was small, our power over nature close to non-existent.  Then there was little need to understand the concepts and language of the Sciences .  But now their influence intrudes into every corner of our world, bringing benefit, harm, and the inevitability of increasingly rapid change.  Now, in order to survive, we need to understand.

 

A PostPandemic Curriculum is not meant to turn students into polymaths with expertise in a wide range of disciplines.  Rather, the goal is to give every student the fundamental concepts and language they’ll need to understand, and meaningfully engage in, complex policy discussions as citizens.

In all discussions of public policy a variety of disparate core concepts interact and reinforce each other (eg. deductive logical errors arising out of the use of statistical averages due to the common cognitive distortion of framing bias).  This overlap is why the core “preparation-for-citizenship” concepts should be woven into every element of a PostPandemic Curriculum, rather than segregated by traditional subject disciplines.

  • The Scientific Method:  Predict > Test > Compare > Correct > Repeat.  Science is something that you do, not something you know.  more
  • 1st Law Thermodynamics / Meteorology / Climate:  Heat moves around (from hotter areas to colder ones).  And if the heat is contained in a fluid (eg. water in oceans, air in the atmosphere), this movement of heat also causes the fluid itself to move, creating weather and climate. more
  • 2nd Law Thermodynamics / Entropy / Eco-systems:  Thermodynamics’ 1st Law (“you can’t get something for nothing”) may be disappointing, but the 2nd Law, dealing with Entropy and inefficiency is a real downer – “You can’t even break even”.  more
  • Complexity / Chaos theory / Emergent properties: Complexity theory shows how a few basic location and movement rules generate the balletic movements of a school of herring and a murmuration of starlings arise. more
  • Pavlov / Conditioned response:    in progress
  • Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs    in progress
  • Electro-magnetic radiation / Electron absorption-emission:    in progress
  • Genetics / Heritability / Mutation:    in progress

It should not be “science has shown” but “this experiment, this effect, has shown.” And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments – but be patient and listen to all the evidence – to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.

Richard Feynman

 

Suggested Core Concepts Related to the Sciences:

  • The Scientific Method:
                           Predict > Test > Compare > Correct > Repeat.
    Science is something that you do, not something you know.  Less like a noun and more like a verb; science is not a collection of eternally true laws, theories, and Observations lead to question leads to hypothesis leads to prediction leads to test. If test supports the hypothesis, make and test additional predictions. If test doesn't support hypothesis, make new hypothesis and test it. equations
    In fact science is based on two of human-kind’s most revolutionary and counter-intuitive ideas:
     • that there is no eternal truth and
     • that a central job of a scientist is to find evidence that disproves her/his most cherished beliefs. 
    In other words: evidence, not ego, is the important thing.  Exploring the unknown, abandoning the comfort of certainty, embracing evidence while discarding truth; these are science’s imperatives.
    For hundreds of years the scientific method has been used to uncover powerful truths about how nature works, truths that are hidden from the casual observation of our senses.  It has quite literally given us great (but not complete and somewhat dangerous) ability to alter our environment. 
    Most other ways of making sense of the world are based on intuition, speculation, or faith; few embrace the goal of overturning their established beliefs.  This constant revision of what is known leaves many people uncomfortable, and leads them to be mistrustful of the work of the sciences.  This is completely understandable.  As a species, we crave certainty and stability,
    In contrast, by constantly questioning what we believe is true, the sciences often force us to abandon our most cherished ideas.  Science challenges us to bring the same courageous questioning to every part of our lives.
    Einstein is so famous in large part because he showed how Newton’s Law of Gravity, a foundational equation that had dominated physics for two and a half centuries, was wrong.  We remember Copernicus and Galileo for the same reason: together they dismantled what human had always known – that the Sun revolved around the Earth.
    In direct contradiction of the scientific method, schools usually assess students on their ability to reproduce pre-set experiments with pre-detemined “correct” outcomes, or memorize formulas, It is natural that this experience leaves them with the dangerously false impression that “science” is a fixed set of orthodox established truths to be memorized.  This can create confusion and mistrust when new evidence undermines previous understanding (eg. constantly changing evidence how CoVid-19 behaves).  It also obscures the rigorous process that allows anyone to examine and evaluate the evidence supporting a theory.
    Without an understanding of how science works, it is hard to tell if a theory makes sense or not.
    At the extreme, this leads some people to believe, based on what they see and feel, that the Earth is flat.  Whether the Earth is flat or spherical affects few pressing public policies (though if Earth is flat it would really mess up gravity, GPS, and air travel, not to mention that our planet would quickly disintegrate).  But other beliefs that run counter to evidence put people’s lives at stake (eg. those based on falsified data, about the supposed dangers posed by common vaccines).  The scientific method is a bulwark against snake-oil and falsehoods.  top
  • 1st Law Thermodynamics / Meteorology / Climate:
    Heat moves around (from hotter areas to colder ones).  And if the heat is contained in a fluid (eg. water in oceans, air in the atmosphere), this movement of heat also causes the fluid itself to move, creating weather and climate.  The greater the heat in the fluid (eg. the warmer the atmosphere), the greater the movement of the fluid (eg. the more violent and unpredictable the storms, which is why there are more tornadoes in summer than winter, and more hurricanes in the tropics than at the poles).
    Heat and other forms of energy (eg. chemical, movement, gravitational, radiation) are the heart of climate change.  The basic concept is the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, the Conservation of Energy (or quite simply “You can’t get something for nothing”):
               Energy·In + Energy·Released = Energy·Out + Energy·Stored

    When applied to the Earth’s biosphere (plants, animals, bacteria), atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (oceans, glaciers, lakes, clouds), and lithosphere (soil, rocks), the four terms in the 1st Law translate into:
     • E·In » the visible and ultra-violet light from the sun
     • E·Released » decreases of bio-mass (eg. deforestation, soil degradation), burning fossil fuels, etc.
     • E·Out » the infra-red radiation and visible light that returns to space
     • E·Stored » increases in bio-mass, warmer water and air, conversion of ice to water and water to water vapor, conversion of methane hydrate to methane, etc
    At first glance it seems that the energy imbalance comes from the left-side of the equation, that the extra E·Released from burning fossil fuels ends up adding to the E·Stored in the form of higher air and water temperatures.  While can be a problem in local areas, the amount of energy released from burning fossil fuels in a year is so small (less than the amount of energy that we get from the sun in two hours) that the source of the global problem lies elsewhere.  And E·In isn’t the problem either. (Solar Radiation has changed by less than 0.01% in the last 140 years, and has actually decreased a little over the past 50.)
    That leaves the left-side of the equation:
     • The recent increase in E·Stored has been triggered caused by carbon-rich greenhouse gasses (ghg’s) released by burning fossil fuels, agriculture.  These gasses have changed the Earth’s thermodynamic balance by absorbing some of the infra-red radiation that would otherwise have escaped back to space as E·Out.  Instead of leaving Earth, the energy of this absorbed radiation is retained as E·Stored in the form of increased heat.
    The more ghg’s enter the atmosphere, the more infra-red radiation is absorbed, and the more the atmosphere and oceans warm.  The higher temperatures lead to a loss of snow and ice cover, which adds to the problem.  Dark water, rock, and earth absorb incoming sunlight converting it into infra-red radiation that can be captured by carbon-rich gasses (E·Stored).  In contrast, ice and snow reflect visible light, most of which returns directly back into space (E·Out)  Also, as the oceans warm, carbon-containing minerals (eg. limestone, methane-hydrates) increasingly release their carbon into the atmosphere, along with more water vapor (another greenhouse gas).  In this way, warming oceans also reduce E·Out and increase E·Stored.  Taken together these effects create a runaway positive-feedback loop
    ghg’s from burning coal, oil, natural gas
      » less E·Out & more E·Stored
        » higher air and water temperatures
          » more “natural” ghg’s (eg. water vapor, methane-hydrates to methane)
            » more ice melts » more Infra-red available for ghg’s to absorb
              » less E·Out & more E·Stored
                » …
    that unless interrupted can lead to a dramatic increase in E·Stored (and global temperatures) before a new equilibrium with E·Out is eventually reached.  top
  • 2nd Law Thermodynamics / Entropy / Eco-systems:
    Thermodynamics 1st Law (“you can’t get something for nothing”) may be disappointing, but the 2nd Law, dealing with Entropy and inefficiency is a real downer – “You can’t even break even”.  Whenever you convert “free” “available” energy into work, some of that concentrated “hot” energy becomes unusable, “lost” into the diffuse “cool” chaotic background of the surrounding environment.
    There is a catch to both of these laws: they apply only to “closed” systems that have no exchange of energy/heat/work with the outside world.  Earth is not a closed system – energy is constantly being gained by the Earth (mostly in the form of “concentrated” visible and ultraviolet sunlight) and lost to space (mostly in the form of “diffuse” infra-red and visible radiation).  Living things (plants, animals, bacteria) capture and further concentrate some of the sun’s energy to do the “work” of living (and in the process “get something from nothing” and “do better than break even”, but only because the sun is losing even more “usable” energy than Earth’s bio-sphere is gaining).  Most plants do this directly through photo-synthesis (there are some exceptions like the insect-eating Venus fly-trap), animals and bacteria by “harvesting” the energy contained in other organisms (exceptions include the strange bacteria that exploit the “available” energy in hydrogen sulfide escaping from inside the Earth.through “black smokers” and “white smokers” at the completely lightless bottom of the ocean) .
    Eco-systems are built on the 2nd Law, with organisms occupying niches in their surroundings which contain available energy that they can exploit and further concentrate in the most efficient manner and with the least competition.  But at every step in this process of living – every movement, every breathe, every new leaf – the entropy of the whole eco-system increases as some of the previously concentrated available energy degrades into the background and becomes unusable.
      top
  • Complexity / Chaos theory / Emergent properties:
    Complexity theory shows how a few basic location and movement rules generate the balletic movements of a school of herring and a murmuration of starlings arise.  It also describes the beating of a heart, the formation of traffic jams, the infestation of locust swarms, even how groups of people behave.
    These and many other seemingly chaotic phenomana, including the mystery of human self-awareness, are all “emergent properties” that unexpectedly arise when a large number of simple components (eg. birds, bumblebees, brain cells), each independently following simple rules, interact.  In issues regarding eco-systems and human societies, studying the behaviour of individuals tells us little, as does studying the behaviour of a group as a single unit.
    Not only is the “whole greater than the sum of its parts”, but thanks to the newly emerged power of computer simulations, we are coming to see that paradoxically it is also true that “the sum of the parts is greater than the whole”.  It is only when we pay attention to how individuals interact inside groups that we have a real chance of implementing effective policies dealing with complex systems.  top
  • Epidemiology / Immune system / Disease transmission:   in progress
  • Brain development / function:   in progress
  • Pavlov / Conditioned response:    in progress
  • Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs    in progress
  • Electro-magnetic radiation / Electron absorption-emission:    in progress
  • Genetics / Heritability / Mutation:    in progress