How to teach science classically

Last week’s post about teaching mathematics classically provoked some excellent comments.  Here is one of mine, responding to the question of why the liberal arts include astronomy and not physics, biology, chemistery, etc.:

Great, helpful, and important comments! Classical educators–here are some splendid ideas. Run with them.

Webmonk and Peter, chemistry, physics, biology, etc., WERE taught in classical schools and universities (such as Oxford and Cambridge). They are not liberal arts–which deal with processes and skills–but they come under the liberal sciences (the word literally meaning “knowledge), specifically, Natural Science. (The others are Moral Science [knowledge of Man, including history, law, the humanities, etc.], and Theological Science [the knowledge of God, theology being the "Queen of the Sciences," in the sense of comprehending the source of all of the others.)

Astronomy as an "art" teaches empirical observation to which is applied mathematical analysis. As such, it teaches the conceptual "art" necessary in those other sciences.

I guess I should next post something asking how to teach the natural sciences classically!

So now I will do so. Realize, everyone, that classical education includes both the [liberal] arts and the [liberal sciences. The ART of Astronomy applies mathematics to observations. The SCIENCE of Astronomy has to do with all that stuff Webmonk is talking about (the nature of stars, blackholes, etc.).

Progressive education has always claimed to be scientific--privileging science against all other kinds of knowledge--so the irony now is that the current educational approaches are doing such a terrible job of teaching science, as nearly everyone admits. This academic crisis also sounds like a job for classical education! (Certainly many of the greatest scientists, from the original pioneers through 19th century Oxford grads and even including a number of modern theoretical physicists [such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg] had the foundation of a classical education.)

So how should classical educators teach the natural sciences?

Forensic archaeology on King Tut

King Tutankhamun

The Egyptians believed their pharoahs were gods. As such, they could not marry mere mortals but had to marry others of divine blood within their own families. Even Akhenaten, who promoted a kind of monotheism that taught that the Sun was the only god, followed this custom. New forensic studies of his son King Tutankhamun’s mummified body showed that for all the glamor and beauty reflected in that golden mask and all of his treasures that he is known for, this teenaged boy was sickly, crippled, and in pain for much of his short life. But isn’t this forensic history fascinating?

Egypt’s famed King Tutankhamun had a cleft palate and a club foot, which probably forced him to walk with canes, and died from complications from a broken leg exacerbated by malaria, according to the most extensive study ever of his more than 3,300-year-old mummy.

The findings are based on two years of DNA testing and CT (computed tomography) scans on 16 mummies, including those of Tutankhamun and his family, said the team that carried out the study. An article on the findings is to be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study establishes the clearest family tree for Tut, indicating for the first time that he was the child of a brother-sister union.

The study says Tut’s father was probably Akhenaten, a pharaoh who tried to revolutionize ancient Egyptian religion and force his people to worship one god. The mummy shown by DNA to be that of Tut’s mother turned out to be a sister of Akhenaten’s, although she has not been identified.

Tut, who became pharaoh at age 10 in 1333 B.C., ruled for nine years at a pivotal time in Egypt’s history. Although he was a comparatively minor king, the 1922 discovery of his tomb, which was filled with stunning artifacts, including the famed golden funeral mask, made him known the world over.

Speculation had long swirled over why the boy king died so young, at about 19. A hole in his skull fueled speculation that he was murdered, until a 2005 CT scan ruled that out, finding that the hole probably resulted from the mummification process. The scan also uncovered the broken leg.

In contrast to the golden splendor that Tut was buried with, he is revealed in the newest scans and DNA tests to have been a sickly teen, weakened by congenital illnesses and done in by complications from the broken leg aggravated by severe brain malaria.

via New study explains demise, parentage of King Tut –

Climategate scientist admits lack of global warming data

This chapter of Climategate scandal is even bigger yet.  Prof. Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia is the guy whose e-mails were leaked.  Now he admits that he can’t find the data that he used to create the famous “hockey stick” graph and that the earth hasn’t really been warming at all over the last 15 years!

The academic at the centre of the ‘Climategate’ affair, whose raw data is crucial to the theory of climate change, has admitted that he has trouble ‘keeping track’ of the information.

Colleagues say that the reason Professor Phil Jones has refused Freedom of Information requests is that he may have actually lost the relevant papers.

Professor Jones told the BBC yesterday there was truth in the observations of colleagues that he lacked organisational skills, that his office was swamped with piles of paper and that his record keeping is ‘not as good as it should be’.

The data is crucial to the famous ‘hockey stick graph’ used by climate change advocates to support the theory.

Professor Jones also conceded the possibility that the world was warmer in medieval times than now – suggesting global warming may not be a man-made phenomenon.

And he said that for the past 15 years there has been no ‘statistically significant’ warming.

The admissions will be seized on by sceptics as fresh evidence that there are serious flaws at the heart of the science of climate change and the orthodoxy that recent rises in temperature are largely man-made.

Professor Jones has been in the spotlight since he stepped down as director of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit after the leaking of emails that sceptics claim show scientists were manipulating data.

The raw data, collected from hundreds of weather stations around the world and analysed by his unit, has been used for years to bolster efforts by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to press governments to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

via Climategate U-turn: Astonishment as scientist at centre of global warming email row admits data not well organised | Mail Online.

Look, I know that this doesn’t disprove global warming. But to think that we were on the verge of passing a cap-and-trade bill that would risk our whole economy based on alleged scientific certainties that turn out to be so questionable is breath-taking. The scientific method requires that evidence be replicable and that experiments be subject to checking. And yet so much of the data that is said to make the case for global warming is in the hands of an absent-minded professor–who can focus well-enough on trying to silence dissenters to his findings–who can’t even find his data!

Yes, there is a difference between weather and climate, and record snowstorms do not necessarily disprove global warming. But as Dana Milibank–a liberal and a believer in global warming–points out, advocates of global warming have been putting forward exactly that same kind of anecdotal evidence (the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics, the increase in the number of tornadoes, changes in animal behavior, much of what was in the Al Gore movie) to persuade people that man-made global warming is real and to scare people into accepting Draconian remedies.

UPDATE: Here is a Washington Post news article detailing even MORE sloppiness–including typographical errors that threw off dating and unsubstantiated claims from environmentalist groups passed off as data–that is discrediting climate research.

HT: DonS

Interconnected laptops as supercomputer

Thanks to Webmonk for alerting me to this curious phenomenon. What started as a mass computer linkup to search for life in outer space has turned into a tool for other kinds of astronomical study. And all those individual computers working together now constitute a supercomputer.

Combined computing power of the MilkyWay@Home project recently surpassed the world’s second fastest supercomputer

At this very moment, tens of thousands of home computers around the world are quietly working together to solve the largest and most basic mysteries of our galaxy.

Enthusiastic and inquisitive volunteers from Africa to Australia are donating the computing power of everything from decade-old desktops to sleek new netbooks to help computer scientists and astronomers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute map the shape of our Milky Way galaxy. Now, just this month, the collected computing power of these humble home computers has surpassed one petaflop, a computing speed that surpasses the world’s second fastest supercomputer.

The project, MilkyWay@Home, uses the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) platform, which is widely known for the SETI@home project used to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. Today, MilkyWay@Home has outgrown even this famous project, in terms of speed, making it the fastest computing project on the BOINC platform and perhaps the second fastest public distributed computing program ever in operation (just behind Folding@home).

The interdisciplinary team behind MilkyWay@Home, which ranges from professors to undergraduates, began the formal development under the BOINC platform in July 2006 and worked tirelessly to build a volunteer base from the ground up to build its computational power.

Each user participating in the project signs up their computer and offers up a percentage of the machine’s operating power that will be dedicated to calculations related to the project. For the MilkyWay@Home project, this means that each personal computer is using data gathered about a very small section of the galaxy to map its shape, density, and movement.

In particular, computers donating processing power to MilkyWay@Home are looking at how the different dwarf galaxies that make up the larger Milky Way galaxy have been moved and stretched following their merger with the larger galaxy millions of years ago. This is done by studying each dwarf’s stellar stream. Their calculations are providing new details on the overall shape and density of dark matter in the Milky Way galaxy, which is widely unknown.

Individual cells link to form an organism; individual persons constitute a society; individual Christians join into the body of Christ. Everything in communion contributes to something bigger than the sum of its parts.

via RPI: News & Events – PCs Around the World Unite To Map the Milky Way.

An even bigger Climategate scandal?

Global warming advocates may have a scientific scandal on their hands that is even more serious than those leaked e-mails:

The global warming scandal keeps getting worse. Revelations over the few weeks show that many important assertions in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were based on misquotes and false claims from environmental groups, not on published academic research as it was originally presented. This is on top of the recent mess regarding data, where the three most relied-on data series used by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 assessment report still have not been released. Other data simply never seem to have existed or cannot be provided to other scientists.

But probably the most damaging report has come from Joseph D’Aleo, the first Director of Meteorology and co-founder of the Weather Channel, and Anthony Watts, a meteorologist and founder of

In a January 29 report, they find that starting in 1990, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began systematically eliminating climate measuring stations in cooler locations around the world. Yes, that’s right. They began eliminating stations that tended to record cooler temperatures and drove up the average measured temperature. The eliminated stations had been in higher latitudes and altitudes, inland areas away from the sea, as well as more rural locations. The drop in the number of weather stations was dramatic, declining from more than 6,000 stations to fewer than 1,500.

D’Aleo and Watts show that the jumps in measured global temperature occur just when the number of weather stations is cut. But there is another bias that this change to more urban stations also exacerbates. Recorded temperatures in more urban areas rise over time simply because more densely populated areas produce more heat. Combining the greater share of weather stations in more urban areas over time with this urban heat effect also tends to increase the rate that recorded temperatures tend to rise over time.

Their report provides examples of how the systematic elimination of stations and unexplained adjustments in temperature data caused measured temperatures to rise for Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United States. Many adjustments change what would have been a drop in temperatures into an increase.

via The Next Climate-gate?.

To download the paper, go here.

HT: Paul

Those multiple universes

The respectable Scientific American has an article on multiple universes, also known as the Multiverse:

Several physicists have argued that a slight change to one of the laws of physics would cause some disaster that would disrupt the normal evolution of the universe and make our existence impossible. For example, if the strong nuclear force that binds together atomic nuclei had been slightly stronger or weaker, stars would have forged very little of the carbon and other elements that seem necessary to form planets, let alone life. If the proton were just 0.2 percent heavier than it is, all primordial hydrogen would have decayed almost immediately into neutrons, and no atoms would have formed. The list goes on.

The laws of physics—and in particular the constants of nature that enter into those laws, such as the strengths of the fundamental forces—might therefore seem finely tuned to make our existence possible. Short of invoking a supernatural explanation, which would be by definition outside the scope of science, a number of physicists and cosmologists began in the 1970s to try solving the puzzle by hypothesizing that our universe is just one of many existing universes, each with its own laws. According to this “anthropic” reasoning, we might just occupy the rare universe where the right conditions happen to have come together to make life possible.

Amazingly, the prevailing theory in modern cosmology, which emerged in the 1980s, suggests that such “parallel universes” may really exist—in fact, that a multitude of universes would incessantly pop out of a primordial vacuum the way ours did in the big bang. Our universe would be but one of many pocket universes within a wider expanse called the multiverse. In the overwhelming majority of those universes, the laws of physics might not allow the formation of matter as we know it or of galaxies, stars, planets and life. But given the sheer number of possibilities, nature would have had a good chance to get the “right” set of laws at least once.

Our recent studies, however, suggest that some of these other universes—assuming they exist—may not be so inhospitable after all. Remarkably, we have found examples of alternative values of the fundamental constants, and thus of alternative sets of physical laws, that might still lead to very interesting worlds and perhaps to life. The basic idea is to change one aspect of the laws of nature and then make compensatory changes to other aspects.

The article goes on to do that and to speculate on the kinds of universes they might create. But notice what is going on here. Supernatural explanations are ruled out “by definition.” And rather than so much as contemplate the existence of God, scientists find it more plausible to believe in lots of different universes, the arguments for which are based on philosophical theory, as far as I can tell, rather than evidence. And notice the fallacy in the notion that if the number of universes approaches infinity, the chances are that one of them would be finely-tuned for life. (No, monkeys typing for a long enough time period would NOT produce the works of Shakespeare. No, Nietzsche’s contention that since time is infinite eventually the same constellation of molecules will come together to create our consciousness again after we die will NOT work.)