Natural world

If you know a bit
About the universe

It's because you've taken it in
Like that,

Looked as hard
As you look into yourself,

Into the rat hole,
Through the vetch and dock
That mantled it.

Because you've laid your cheek
Against the rush clump

And known soft stone to break
On the quarry floor.
Seamus Heaney, from "A Herbal," Human Chain


I got whomped pretty good by a virus last week, you may have, too--it's wandering around.

Viral illness fascinates me for a variety of reasons. Pieces of viral nucleic acids take over your cells for no particular reason except to make more copies of the same nucleic acids. We respond by using eons of evolutionary memory built into our own DNA, waking up specific antibodies to tackle a problem seen before by our long gone ancestors.

This particular bout with a virus had the added bonus of hallucinations--not the feathery, febrile kind, where various blobs of color bounce through your field of vision as your teeth chatter. No, these were different--they were real.

Solid, opaque objects meticulously placed in a couple of spots around the room grabbed my attention as I lay in bed. I woke up Leslie to confirm that they were not, in fact, real, though they were as real as the cup of coffee sitting next to me now. Rock solid real. (We've been together a long time--she answered directly, then went back to sleep, just as directly.)

The only reason I even questioned their reality was because there was no particular reason why a couple of large cubes would be stacked on the corner of the bed.

In the morning,I asked Leslie if I had, indeed,asked her about the boxes sitting in the room. I had.

Most sensible people would have seen a doctor, but since we conveniently have one under our roof, and since I was otherwise OK except for the usual virally fever, sore throat, and muscle aches, I opted for watchful waiting, and except for a diminishing malaise, I have, as expected, recovered.

Most high school science classes start out the same way--before plunging into a specific -ology, we toy with the concept of science. We speak of learning more about the natural world.

It occurs to me, a few years late, that few people (besides scientists) know what "natural world" means, and the scientists know that what we know is tenuous, at best.

That's not how my lambs hear it--the "natural world" is as obvious as the noses planted on their faces. Really, just how daft is this teacher?

What makes something real in the natural world? What is the essence of stuff?

Biology is the study of how stuff puts itself together over and over again, and how energy is glommed to make this possible. A century ago, biology mostly taxonomy, a great way to teach children how to look for nuances as they classified and dissected hundreds of organisms into various categories.

This year I will spend exactly one day on taxonomy--which is one day too many the way we approach it now.

My students have not yet had chemistry, or physics, or geology--yet we expect them to learn molecular biology. This is, of course, silly, so I spend most of the year exposing children to fancy-sounding biology words but sneaking in basic science epistemology every chance I get.

What do we know, and how do we know we know it?

Until kids grasp the circularity of our most basic assumptions about matter and energy--sophomores are not quite ready for quantum mechanics--most see science as solid as the odd solid blocks someone placed on the edge of our bed last week.

They are studying hallucinations, and see them as real, because they have been told, over and over again, that they are real.

They believe in atoms atoms (or rather what teachers present as atoms) are real, without grasping their vast emptiness.
The atoms taught in elementary school  do not exist. If a nucleus is the size of a dime, the electrons would fling as far as half a football field, and even that's just an average. What's in-between? Nothing. Nothingness is a huge part of everything.

They believe in the Big Bang, imagining an explosion in empty space, truly magical thinking and a misconception of an conceptually inconceivable model, and we feed their misconceptions.
The Big Bang, as understood by most, ranks right up there with Santa Claus. The whole point is that there was no space--all energy/mass was a point, so distance, as such, did not exist. A picture of the Big Bang as seen from the outside is not science, it's religion.

I get too strident, not because I know something students don't, but because we keep assuring them that the nonsense they know is "science."

Schools muddle things up pretending that a young child who parrots science vocabulary knows more than the child babbling on about the Easter bunny or a schizophrenic babbling about critters implanted in his brain.

We praise hallucinatory thought, and we suffer the consequences.

My goal is for kids to know less by June than they knew in September, a whole lot less. Good science can be as tenuous as the wisp of a shrew's breath.

Until they know this, and it's easier to grasp when entropy takes its toll over the years, as knowledge of your inevitable path creeps into cerebral shadows, I fear I am wasting their time.

Until they know this, maybe pushing them outside, a copy of Seamus Heany's Human Chain in one hand, a cheap plastic magnifying glass in the other, is enough science for a period, for a lifetime.

Between heather and marigold,
Between sphagnum and buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

As between clear blue and cloud,

Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,

I had my existence. I was there.

Me in place and the place in me.
Seamus Heaney, from "A Herbal," Human Chain

Which is all we can ask for, all we can know.
The rest is hallucinatory.

The pieces of poem are from Seamus Heaney, obviously, but are meant to be read as part of a larger piece, not included here because I'm already pushing copyright law. Buy the book. Read it. Then a few weeks later, read it again. Months later, again. He gets it, this whole 'thing' thing. Eases some of the fear, no?

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