Not just semantics

15 May 2007

It seems to me that we’re not being totally consistent. The strongest single aggregation of knowledge going defines science as

any system of knowledge attained by verifiable means. In a more restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on empiricism, experimentation, and methodological naturalism, as well as to the organized body of knowledge humans have gained by such research.

At the same time, Thales of Miletus is referred to as the “Father of Science.

Okay so far, except that I can’t figure out a way to define the ability to succesfully survive via agriculture, which started at least 2500 and maybe more like 8500 years before Thales, that is excluded from the above.

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And such is the guilt of both the Jewish student and the Jewish teacher: The secret knowledge that no matter how much we learn, or how much we teach, it will never, ever be enough–that our parents, our teachers, our children, and our students are watching us, and so is everyone else, that eternity is breathing over our shoulders, waiting to see if we will notice.

A student facing these expectations needs to be constantly humbled, to be reminded again and again that everything she already knows is nothing more than a tiny spark in a night full of stars.


The great secret of education is that one doesn’t learn by being smart, but by being aware of the limits of one’s own knowledge–by finding those limits and then plunging over them, as if jumping off the edge of the world. The student has to know that the edge is there, and the teacher who coaxes the student over the precipice has to catch the student when she falls. It’s a sacred trust.

-Dana Horn, “The Last Jewish American Nerd”

We in the science outreach business can be pretty self-congratulatory sometimes. I think that very often we’re doing good stuff, as any kid excited about their look through a telescope or recent tidepooling trip can tell you. But that doesn’t mean that we’re trying hard enough, or thinking critically about how and why we go about this stuff. A good friend of mine is giving an astronomy talk in a couple of weeks, and his hook is brilliant. I bet a dollar that he’s going to talk about Olber’s Paradox, a seemingly simple statement that has pretty profound implications for how we frame our questions. And that’s the part we’re not talking about.
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Here’s something to try: go to Flickr’s map feature at search “Mauna Kea.” Or “duluth, mn.” Or “coldfoot, ak.” Pretty cool, if you ask me. Particularly since there are now a couple of GPS-enabled camera phones. I think I’ll wait for the price to come down a little bit (from $750-$1000, according to reports) before I think about it, though.