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Brown Bag 2005-06 Forum

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Welcome--to an evolving conversation
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-09-11 22:24:50
Link to this Comment: 16095

Welcome to the 05-06 version of the Brown Bag conversations sponsored by the Center for Science in Society at Bryn Mawr. You can find all of last year's conversation here; we've just archived it to clear some space for a fresh discussion this year, which I'm beginning now...

by putting up a summary of our first in-face conversation, on the need (or not) to draw lines between evolution and intelligent design in our classrooms. As I told some of the participants afterwards, I was put in mind of the old move of English professors, whenever a classroom conversation got "too hot," to "take it back to the text." The attempt to keep the religious implications of evolution out of biology classes, like the attempt to confine a lively conversation to a textual analysis, seems to me not likely to be a very successful strategy...

More productive, perhaps? Try joining us here in thinking out loud in public about evolution, the first of a series of current social and cultural issues, of significance both in their own right and as examples of the importance for contemporary life of general scientific literacy, which we'll be exploring this semester.

the limits of what science can do?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-09-18 17:29:42
Link to this Comment: 16193

I've just put up a summary of this week's brown bag conversation with Eric Raimy about multilingualism. Writing it up, what struck me most was the need for further public discussion of what we want our schools to do (prepare students for American citizenship, by making them literate in English? prepare them for world citizenship, by teaching them several languages? make them better American citizens, by teaching them several languages? make us all better world citizens, by using our brains and voices as vehicles for preserving as many languages as possible?).

Relatedly, I found myself thinking that we also need much further discussion about the role science should play in such discussions. Eric said several times that science had very little to contribute to such a conversation --providing data about literacy, etc, but not weighing in on what should be taught, or how, or what the social implications of how and what we teach will be. (Is having many languages, for instance, a good thing, something schools should work on preserving?)

I'm pretty puzzled by that "drawing of a line in the sand"; seems to me, no more than than in last week's discussion of intelligent design and evolution, can scientists refuse to think out loud about the implications their data has for public policy (not to mention acknowledging that the way they ask their questions will affect the data they get...) De facto (if only by using English as the language of science around the world), they are surely participating in the creation and perpetuation of a mono- culture....

...But we LIKE the Text (or, Megan and Maria Weigh
Name: Megan & Ma
Date: 2005-09-18 23:45:46
Link to this Comment: 16206

Going back to the text in this case seems to us to be an interesting turn of phrase for a variety of reasons. One text that springs to mind is the Constitution. Another is the bible. Another is the standard biology textbook. There is something to be said for remembering that every year new editions of biology textbooks are published to reflect the ever growing knowledge base of the biological sciences...this is not the case with the aptly names King James Bible. When the story provided for the development of the world as we know it will not and by definition cannot bend in light of new knowledge, as is the case with creationism and its progeny "intelligent" design, we inevitably end up twisting new observations and knowledge, corrupting our intellectual progress and hindering our ability to engage in useful scientific inquiry. If intelligent design is accepted as the "story" for the origin of the world one is put in a "do not pass go do not collect $200" method of academic inquiry. (That said, Jerry Falwell would no doubt be willing to provide some form of financial remuneration that may make finding the faith worth your while.)

Evolution, on the other hand, is an adaptive thoery. Our understanding of its meaning and its implications continue to develop as we learn more about the world around us. It seeks to provide a backstory to a variety of observations we have made about our environment. In this sense it preserves the integrity of scientific inquiry, allowing it to take place free of the constrants of a self-referential dogma.

Furthermore, the inclusion of intelligent design as a curricular component serves as an inroad to a specific and insidious conservative moral agenda that has no place within the public institutions of a secular country.

On that note, it is prudent to point out that any impasse this discussion might reach is nicely avoided by the text of the 1st amdendment:"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

It should be pointed out that the amendment was written not to protect religon from government but government from the threat of religious fanaticism.

revising the textual landscape
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-09-25 11:44:17
Link to this Comment: 16282

This past week's brown bag discussion, about the (failure to) control nature in New Orleans, is another interesting location for thinking about both the necessity of revising, and the limits of the adaptability, of the texts that are the landscapes in which we live our lives....

different genres
Name: Ann Dixon
Date: 2005-09-30 11:25:13
Link to this Comment: 16390

When we describe the landscapes where we live as texts, I think we are not on common ground, not in the same genre.

The East Coast genre would be the short story.

The New Orleans genre would be the epic.

When people who are living on the East Coast talk about building New Orleans elsewhere, they are speaking to New Orleanians from incompatible, even opposite, genres. The New Orleans epic is a story about generations of family; the East Coast short story is more about transience and work.

So when someone suggests uprooting and building elsewhere, the speaker is not thinking in the epic mode. My mother is buried in New Orleans, and my grandparents; the spirit of them, of my ancestors and their stories which are bound up in my story, is included in the spirit of the particular places.

The suggestion to move the city sounds to me like the arrogance of moving Native Americans to reservations without understanding the importance of place.

Thank you all for an interesting discussion of current events in New Orleans, and to the organizers of the benefit gumbo dinner.


re-writing culture's stories
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-09-30 21:14:50
Link to this Comment: 16400

Hm. I'm from the South, and I've spent lots of time enjoying jazz in New Orleans; I am heartsick @ the damage that has been done, by nature and human error, to that city and its culture. But I do think that even epic stories can be re-written (think, for instance, of the way in which the War Between the States re-wrote the culture of the south--for the better).

For another exploration of revising culture's stories, see the summary of a more recent brown bag discussion which explored the possibility of replacing the corporate culture of science with something more "family friendly"--@ what cost? And what benefits?

working moms
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-10-23 14:50:26
Link to this Comment: 16590

I've just put up a summary of Alexis Bennett's report on negotiating work and family--along with an invitation to let me know if you would like to continue this discussion outside of the venue offered by the brown bag series. One question that I still have is why--if children are not expressing conflict about their parents' choices to work--mothers are so troubled by the choices they are making. Perhaps we don't *want* the responsibility of our choices--and their consequences? Or is it the converse: that we overrate the seriousness of the decisions we are making about our lives?

Re: working moms
Name: Alexis Ben
Date: 2005-10-24 11:58:25
Link to this Comment: 16613

Part of the reason that many mothers remain troubled by their decision to
work - despite evidence suggesting that maternal employment has no ill
effects on children - may be linked to gender role attitudes and cultural
notions about women's roles. Recent studies suggest that the large
majority of both men and women still believe that mothers of young
children *should* stay at home with them (see, e.g., Sylvester, K.,
"Caring for our youngest: Public attitudes in the United States," The
Future of Children, 11(1), 53-61; also cited in NY Times article Sept 10,

Name: betsy
Date: 2005-10-24 12:08:55
Link to this Comment: 16614

My four legged children are quite capable of making me feel bad for working, until I stay home for some reason and totally interrupt their routine...then the real truth is revealed, showing my place as can opener and periodic lap provider.
It seems from observing my partner raise her two children that it is the reaction and comments from friends, co workers, relatives and anyone in general who has an opinion that keep the bad/guilty feeling about working and or recreating without the children mode in place.
Here is an example:
"I am taking a class every Wednesday night from 6 - 9." Response - "what do the kids have for dinner, do you make them something before you go? I guess they do their homework on their own."
Correct response - "wow that is awesome, if you ever need an help with the kids let me know, but I suspect they like the time on their own."

Just this weekend she flew to a conference in California, leaving me with the youngest child who is 17. Her step mom made it sound as though she was abandoning her responsibilities, this poor child - left with me and her own car and cash and food and shelter - how will she ever get over this.
Please ........ I don't see how she or anyone has withstood the years of this type of behavior/reaction.

Name: Ann Dixon
Date: 2005-10-24 21:43:37
Link to this Comment: 16625

I'm wondering whether a lot of the guilt is passed along mother to daughter? So that all of grandma's choices, or lack thereof, in the past are passed down in a legacy to daughter/new mom?

Which is not to say that there aren't hugely significant cultural assumptions about what mom does and what dad does wrt child care. There was a column in the Inquirer recently by John Grogan which asserted that the most important thing a dad can do is show up! Would this have ever been said about a mom?


letting religion in: biological morality
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-10-29 15:29:52
Link to this Comment: 16688

I've just put up a summary of the discussion which Tamara Davis and Karen Greif led yesterday on genetic engineering. I came late into the conversation, and was still trying to find my ground by the time it ended. But I wanted to note here the thought beginning to form for me, as our discussion broke up. It was provoked by Maria's impatient, "How did religion get in the door?" I think religion got in the door because scientific procedures violate the world views of many people in this country, and I think it's appropriate/necessary/right that we have a public conversation about the ethics of such procedures. And what I think we need, in this conversation, is a "biology of morality" or a "morality of biology"--a thinking through (rather than a shrugging or ducking) of the moral claims based on what we know about biological systems.

I take this idea from the good series of lectures Anthony Appiah is giving @ Bryn Mawr this month on The End(s) of Ethics. Appiah is actually attempting to "reconstitute the moral sciences," repairing the early 20th century split between philosophy and psychology (for instance), returning philosophy from its abstractions to a grounding in and accountability to the material world, making the exploration of ethics "more experimental." His talk this past week, for instance, focused on the many studies in experimental psychology showing us all to be "situationists": we respond to circumstances rather than act out of "character" (for instance, a good smell or a found coin will make us more likely to help another in trouble. So, if most of us act instinctively, not knowing why we do what we do, if most of what we do occurs tacitly, without our awareness--how arrive @ ethical theory and judgments?)

We've actually begun, in this space, to sketch out several attempts at a "biological morality." Two years ago, Paul Grobstein wrote a piece using a biological metaphor to think about academic structures. Last spring, Scott Gilbert led a brown bag discussion about"fictions and fetuses", in which it was suggested that

the "problem can be laid at the feet of the biologists," who are at fault for describing DNA as "the blueprint of life" (rather than, more accurately, as "a structure which interacts with other structures to bring into a new structure into being")....Perhaps the most important thing a biologist can do is make the point that humans are diverse, that human development is diverse, and that--given such diversity--there is no clear "right or wrong" in any of these cases....the message from science should be that there is no single criterion for making such a decision....But why are we so afraid of dying? Is the "sin" of biology overvaluing life? Mention was made of "pathologies of hope," the refusal to let go of treatment, at a time when it is increasingly clear that we cannot support a health system that "keeps everyone alive."

To say this is, I think, not only to acknowledge biology's "sin," but to begin, more positively, to construct a morality built, from the ground up, out of current biological understandings.

Soylent Green
Name: Annabella
Date: 2005-10-29 18:44:57
Link to this Comment: 16694

Does anyone here remember the movie "Soylent Green" from the 70's? In it was the idea that in the future our society would allow and encourage people who were ready to die to do so in a peaceful, painless, dignified manner. There were other ideas about future societies put forth that I didn't like, but this one I did like.
What is our pre-occupation with avoiding death? Or as Anne put it, "Why are we so afraid of dying?" This is a very important question, and once answered, we may find solutions to many troublesome quandries we now face as individuals and as nations.
Such as what to do about terrorism. If we weren't afraid of dying, we couldn't be terrorized and terrorism wouldn't exist. It is our fear of dying that creates the environment in which terrorism is effective.
Or the thing about what to do with elderly loved-ones who are terminally ill, or chronicly unhappy, or worse yet totally healthy except that they have alzheimer's. Without the fear of death it would be a sensible decision to end our lives when our happiness is exceeded by our pain, be it emotional or physical. When our loved one says, "I don't want to live anymore." we would be happy to pull the plug, and know that we are blessing ourselves and our loved ones in the process.
It was brought up in the room that few of us would have been there to participate except for the medical advances due to science. Many of us present were older than the life expectancy of just 100 years ago. This is probably the case. Statisticly speaking, I am sure it is the case. But does that mean that our lives have been improved just because they have been lenghtened? I would argue "no".
Had I died at 40, I would have died a very happy, successful financially and emotionally, woman. But I didn't die. Instead I have outlived my successful relationship, successful business, and the life I had come to love. The years since that missed appointment with my death have been overwhelmingly painful.
The good side of all this is that my body is so healthy I think I have enough time to rebuild everything in my life in a new manner that will match this new "me" that I am becoming. But there are no guarantees at this point that I will succeed at any of that, and that's really not the point.
What I am trying to say is that extending the years of our lives is not the same as improving our lives, and could work the other way around. It used to be that if you were 20 and getting married the words "Till death do us part" meant for the next 20 years. That's all it took to have a successful marriage! Now it means for the next 60 or 80 years, and we are finding that it is much more difficult, and in many respects NOT desirable to fulfil that promise.
In addition, these longer lifetimes have contributed a great deal to dense populations around the globe, heavy consumpsion of resourses and major contributions to pollution. Stricktly speaking, if everyone over 40 were dead, there would be fewer people on the planet.
And all of this is because we as a society are afraid to die. As if there were something wrong with it. Those who come up with life-saving techniques are heralded as heros. But what are the long term consequences of their discoveries?
In my opinion, it is better to live a short, wonderful life than a long one filled with pain. It is better to be killed by an attacker than to live longer by hurting the attacker, even in self defense. That's not really self defense. That is body defense. And there is a big difference. True Self defense is to refuse to view or treat anyone as an enemy; to see every inhabitant of earth as having a right to be here and to believe what ever they want to believe, even if they believe they have to kill you.
Needless to say, if everyone lived with this kind of "Self-defense" peace would reign on Earth. No one would attack anyone for any reason. But the liklihood of this is extremely low. In fact, the last example may have been so preposterous, it left you laughing. But you could take it on as a game. Become so very comfortable with your life, all aspects of it, including your death, that you really could befriend the one who is about to kill you. To be that comfortable with my life would be the greatest degree of comfort I can imagine.
There is no way we can live in peace as long as we are afraid to die. The truth is that it is our fear of death that keeps us from living fully, and being able to find and live real solutions to the problems we face individually and as nations around the globe. It is fear of death that begets all the violence in the world.
By facing our fear of death, head-on and getting to the other side, to where we embrace our death as the logical extension of our life, we will truly live a life worth living regardless of how long it lasts.
Thanks for raising the question, Anne.

more questions
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-11-04 23:43:09
Link to this Comment: 16821

Next question(s)--arising from Drew Mirante's presentation about our need to develop more sources for nuclear energy. What is the (actual? preferred?) relationship between science and politics? Is one long-term, one short-term? One skeptical, one calculated? One risk-seeking, one risk-averse? Has science succeeded too well in teaching politicians and their constituencies to question all claims? Does it need now to do more instructing in the inevitability of the unpredictable, the necessity of taking chances, because no outcome is ever certain? Why do we always play out the worst-case scenario?

Fear of Dying
Name: Alex
Date: 2005-11-06 10:39:37
Link to this Comment: 16825

The reason why people fear death and dying is because they are not really living their life to the full, that is in an honest and integrated way. This fear, or rather, terror,is due to the fact that most of us are not actually welcomed into the world and therefore not unconditionally loved as children, which is how we come to love (as in respect) ourselves, and Life generally. When we are imbued with this unconditional love, we will automatically embrace life and enjoy all the normal challenges that life presents. If we have not been so unconditionally loved, especially in our early years of life, we will not be able to live life, but merely struggle to survive. There is a world of difference between living and merely surviving. The former is to be happy (although few if any of us are happy all the time) whilst the latter is to be essentially unhappy, that is never really being happy in one's own skin!

That's my view anyway.

re-presenting parenthood
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-11-11 17:40:14
Link to this Comment: 16933

Today, as a follow-up to a series of earlier brown bags--

we hosted a conversation about "re-presenting parenting". What myths, mythical images, and experiences of our foremothers and fathers influence the choices we make? How are our choices influenced by economics, by our partner's choices, by our own conflicts about what is important for ourselves and our children to flourish? How might we choose differently? What political, social, structural interventions are needed to support these choices? How do we work to bring them about? If you have thoughts on these issues, please share them here.

re-presenting parenthood
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-11-11 17:45:11
Link to this Comment: 16934

Today, as a follow-up to a series of earlier brown bag discussions--

we hosted a conversation about "re-presenting parenting". What myths, mythical images, and experiences of our foremothers and fathers influence the choices we make? How are our choices influenced by economics, by our partner's choices, by our own conflicts about what is important for ourselves and our children to flourish? How might we choose differently? What political, social, structural interventions are needed to support these choices? How do we work to bring them about? If you have thoughts on these issues, please share them here.

how to "have it all"?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-11-12 10:24:52
Link to this Comment: 16936

Very much appreciated the opportunity to be a fly on the wall at yesterdays Representing Parenthood conversation. Thanks to both organizers and participants.

Lots of interesting threads, not the least of which (for me at least) was the sense of two generations of women getting to know each other better, through among other things their choices of and reactions to visual images (yes, as was appropriately pointed out here as well, one person's reaction need not be a challenge to another's). Intrigued by the intergeneratonal exchange, I described it to my mother, who provided an additional generational perspective. And, when I got home, I discovered sitting on top of a pile of papers (yes, absolute serendipity) an old unpublished letter to the editor that seemed relevant as well.

From all of that, some thoughts about social/cultural change, in this case and generally, for whatever worth they might be to others. My mother (representative of her generation?) spoke of the unquestioning need to prioritize, with taking care of family being the top (though not only) priority because some single person needed to be on call for the very large number of essential family things that had to be done. Perhaps a "typical" characteristic of the next generation, reacting to the experiences of the previous one, was to explore the possibility/desireability of (as one third generation observer of the second generation put it) "having it all", ie of not presuming that women had to make family the top priority and so organizing other things around that but instead making family and other aspirations co-equal. And perhaps the third generation, reacting to the experiences of the second .... equally needs to find their own way?

What, of course, intrigues me about all this is the notion that there isn't a "right" way to deal with these matters (as there isn't for others) but there is a process that valuably links generations. Each generation has the opportunity to construct something new, using as grist what they have experienced as the problems created (or left unsolved) by the solutions of the previous generation. One could see (and experience) this as intergenerational criticism or conflict. One could equally see (and experience) it as ... a deep and satisfying intergenerational exchange, a shared engagement in an ongoing evolutionary process in which each generation is successively the creative user of the experiences of a previous generation and the generator of the experiences to be used by the next.

So much for the generalities. What about the specifics? What's the new path that the current generation of women (and men) might explore, if they are of the opinion (as at least some seem to be) that there are some problems with trying to "have it all" in the current sense and context? I am, of course, not of the new generation and it would be both presumptious and fool hardy for me to try and define a path that others will have to walk, particularly others who have a much direct sense of the origins of the path. But, having listened to the conversations (here and elsewhere), maybe I can ... do a little better than saying "find your own way"? call attention to what looks (to me at least) like a promising direction?

My guess is that "have it all" isn't itself the problem that requires a new approach, that one (both women and men) can contentedly and satisfyingly lead a life that includes both family and profession. Moreover, one can have a life in which each actually adds to rather than conflicts with the other. My guess is that where problems arise is when individuals presume the necessity of particular definitions of "family" and "profession", ones reflecting either social norms or unexamined aspects of one's own feeling/intuitions.

Peggy, in one of the conversations leading up to the present one, called attention to the effort of some people to define the profession of science in such a way as to require a time investment that would in fact be incompatible with a reasonable complementarity between that profession and family. And science as a profession is of course not unique in this regard. Conversely, it was noted in this conversation that some people may have conceptions of what children (and families) need that create conflicts, and could be usefully reconsidered (maybe the daddy perspective on what kids enjoy/need isn't quite as irresponsible/reprehensible as is sometimes thought?).

Maybe the current generation (or at least those with interests along these lines) could take "have it all in a mutually supportive way" as the desideratum, and then use that as the foundation for redefining both profession and family, exploring new forms of both not only for themselves but also as a contribution to a rethinking of social norms that might be advantageous for institutions as well?

Just a thought. Looking forward to seeing where the next generation goes, and to further conversations that, in addition to their own interest, will inevitably contribute to that in one way or another.

free and open (?)
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-11-12 13:42:13
Link to this Comment: 16937

I've just put up a summary of the talk about free culture which immediately preceded the one about Re-presenting Parenting described above. Seems relevant--this attempt to do things differently, more flexibily, with less attention to ownership...

Some questions remain, for me:

(which is a good deal of what our attempts to re-present parenthood, in forms alternative to the culturally conventional ones, were about).

We were just getting to these questions as the conversation ended--might we continue addressing them here?

Thanks, and comments
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2005-11-12 15:08:26
Link to this Comment: 16938

Thank you all for inviting Rebekah and me, and for a stimulating conversation. I should say that that there are many, many different types of people in the Free Culture Movement, and they each have different goals and motivations. But I think that there are some points that many will generally agree:

redefining both profession and family
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-11-13 08:12:19
Link to this Comment: 16943

The threads are getting tangled here, I think usefully. First: I found myself, last night, watching an astonishing performance of one variety of the (poor!) approaches to parenting we'd talked about on Friday afternoon: Mark Lord's current production of King Lear. (Highly recommended.) Some of us had spoken, on Friday, about the fears evoked by images of

children abandoned in the woods, children being tossed in the lake. What Lear, re-read on Mark's stage, gives us is the opposite end of the spectrum: a parent who cannot let go, who insists on his daughters loving him beyond how daughters should love their fathers, who insists on hearing a testimony to their "love" for him as a condition for their inheritance. He's got one Quakerish daughter, Cordelia, who will not speak what she does not feel...

and the play ends with their heartbreaking reunion. I cried my way through that final scene (I was sitting next to Mark, and asked him afterwards, "Where does this come from? How can you make such beautiful things?" He said they are in everyone's brain...).

And I thought again of our conversation across the generations, in which (as facilitated by the open source movement! the threads are making a pattern!)

each generation is successively the creative user of the experiences of a previous generation and the generator of the experiences to be used by the next.

Mark's play is actually the latest stage in a pretty remarkable on-campus example of this process: Aethestics: An Exchange arose out of a Symposium on Beauty in which Mark named as "beautiful" not the old forms (which become "kitschy"), but rather that which "is alive BECAUSE not contained by what we already know."

Doug? I expect that's why humor works pretty well as an index to what's working: as old forms break open, old structures are re-structured, as we find our way toward being our "own authority" on our own lives.


Date: 2005-11-19 17:13:50
Link to this Comment: 17078

I had a very unhappy childhood. When I became a mother myself, I discoverd that my daughter was the greatest teacher I could ever have. I guess that was because I was open to her and wanted her, and therefore loved her, and so she taught me all I nneded to know about myself, about her and about life. So many of us are closed or shut-down before we can even begin to appreciate being a child, to appreciate life and the meaning of being alive, that by the time we are teenagers, we have given up on life. What a pity! Its so sad, but its true of most of us.....

PS:: I'm a virtual recluse, but happy to say that my daughter (who is now an adult) is a very social young woman, who loves life, despite all the normalised "anti-social" people out there!!!

thinking (like a biologist) outside the box
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-11-20 13:57:11
Link to this Comment: 17095

I've just posted a summary of the presentation Blythe Hoyle gave on Friday: Confessions of a Former Petroleum Geologist. And I'm still shaking my head in surprise and amazement at where that conversation went--from thinking like a petroleum engineer, to thinking like a geologist, to thinking like a biologist, to envisioning ourselves as--like plants--recycling carbon dioxide into other forms of energy. I would love to hear more about the pros/cons, possibility/impossibility of this line of exploration: to someone who thinks "like" a humanist (i.e. lives pretty much in the world of the imagination) it sounds very promising--what do others of you, more firmly grounded in the material world, say to this proposal?

academics and ethics?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-12-03 14:54:24
Link to this Comment: 17280

I've just put up another summary, of Ralph and Liz's presentation on ethical issues in drug development, and find myself wondering about interventions. Once we understand--as we were given to understand on Friday--the range of ethical dilemmas created by drug companies funding research on the drugs they are marketing...what is academia's role? Our conversation ended just as Ralph suggested that academicians have a special responsibility to change the public story. How do we begin doing that?

Rethinking science education
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2006-01-27 10:38:53
Link to this Comment: 17821

Last semester's brown bag series, "Rethinking Science in Society", was intended to lay a foundation for this semester's discussions, to establish that science education is important not only for scientists but for all students ... and that the need to think of, and to be able to deal effectively with, science in a broader social context was as important for students who will go on to professional careers as it is to those who will not. This semester we'll be looking at a variety of innovations in science education at Bryn Mawr, with the objective not only of familiarizing ourselves with each others' activities but thinking together about how well we are meeting the challenges of science education in the twenty-first century and what more we might do along these lines.

Join in the conversation, on Friday afternoons at 1:15 in the multicultural center and here. Your experiences, perspectives, and thoughts are needed for the kind of broad conversation the issue of science education needs.

Name: orah minde
Date: 2006-01-27 18:16:29
Link to this Comment: 17824

thanks paul and all for discussion today.
compassion(sidney)/morality(paul)/human(wil) (were we using them as synonyms today?), as i heard paul saying, is not built into the present science curriculum. it is important that it is ... paul suggests (?) that those who are aimed to lead science into the future be required to take classes that will teach those to approach the science they create through a moral/compassionate/human lens. paul also suggested that courses that mix student populations with humanitites students and science students are important for both sets of students.

does this suggest that such interdisciplinary classes introduce (?) /remind (?) / teach (?) science students this morality? is morality taught in the interdisciplinary classroom? does that imply that humanitites students are more concerned with morality/compassion/the human ?

i don't think, however, that the humanities (at least the few humanitites to which i have exposure) teach morality. maybe, here, is where the tripartite equation (compassion=morality= human element) from which we (?, or I)have been working breaks down. I would say the humanitites do not implicitly deal with compassion or morality ((when approaching a litterary text i have not been to to automatically ask if a character's actions were RIGHT ... to judge actions)), but rather, i have been trained to think of how the character is made human by that which the author chooses to write into the character. Or, the religious studies classroom teaches me to ask: what about the human condition brings this character to belief? to a certain philosophy. In other words, i am not trained to make judgements, but rather observations. now, my observations of the human condition must be derived from personal experience. but aren't all observations derived from personal experience. i am not inclined more than the science student to address this personal aspect.

also, i am in the midst of reading Anne's essay "Why Words Arise--and Wherefore: Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration" (in which many of you are mentioned) ... Anne begins the essay with a scene in which a student of literature is made to feel uncomfortable because she does not hold the answer for which the teacher is pick-axing. such pick-axing reminds me of what we've been talking about in terms of the way science is taught: there is the Right answer to which students are taught to arrive. those who arrive there succeed, those who don't are lost and must find another path that they can traverse and arrive at a destination. the problem i see is not unique to the sciences, but rather, to the notion that a teacher's job is to instill the value of ARRIVAL AT A FINAL DESTINATION. all students are taught that there is reward and rest-stasis at the point of getting-it-right. i GET this poem. i got all the right answers on this math test so i don't need to study any more. students are not motivated in any discipline to seek problems, to seek the point where they have no answer. Anne writes that "I realized that, to speak with authority about this one story, I needed to read them all ... the realization of all I was expected to know, in order to read well." what inclines such to need to "speak with authority?" and is the problem of the classroom that the teacher comes in with a pick-ax slung over her shoulder, she is a seeker of answers that always already lie buried in her head and she sees her job as teaching the students the need to purchase like-pick-axes that they are encouraged to use on her mind?(ouch!) maybe teachers should stop coming into classrooms with expectations. such pressure of expectation only blocks the student's emergings.

finally: i am taking paul's philosophy of science course for which i just read some Popper. my favorite quote: "it may suggest that science progresses from theory to theory and that it consists of a sequence of better and better deductive systems. yet what i really wish to suggest is that science should be visualized as progressing from problems to problems- to problems of ever increasing depth" (Miller ed., 179). maybe this is the fundamental difference between evolution and intellegent design: that evolution moves into the chaotic leaving paths of organization in its wake while intellegent disign embodies a more apocalyptic veiw: that we are leaving disorder in our wake as we tranverse a predestined path.

thanks, again and my best to all.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2006-01-28 12:00:22
Link to this Comment:

Thanks, all for rich conversation yesterday. I've added some thoughts from that discussion at the end of the notes I prepared for it. Here's the range of topics; see the link for elaboration ...

Very much looking forward to seeing where we go with all this, both here and in future friday conversations.

the paradox of being willing to be satisfied
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-01-29 15:11:08
Link to this Comment: 17843

I've just put up a summary of Friday afternoon's conversation @ An Overview of Challenges and Directions. What I find REALLY interesting?--is the line we were trying to walk between the unendingness of scientific inquiry, and the willingness to be satisfied with not having ultimate, complete explanations. I suppose those are simply the two sides of profound skepticism: always questioning what is known, while also acknowledging that you don't--and can't--ever get hold of the whole picture. But I hadn't seen quite so sharply, til just now, the paradox of simultaneously telling stories that account for the largest number of observations (i.e. aiming for objectivity), while acknowledging that you can never have the whole story (i.e. remaining skepticial of the current ones you're using).

So: how to know when you're overreaching? How to know when you're not reaching far enough? Are there guidelines for making those sorts of judgments?

Name: orah minde
Date: 2006-01-30 16:55:42
Link to this Comment: 17872

For the sake of 'getting it out there' I want to revise something i implied last friday through a lens that Elizabeth Catanese has provided me via Anne. Elizabeth writes, "greatest strides can be made through failing and learning one's own way through that failure ... Teaching is not protecting. It has to be about love and love also means trusting the motion of life which is not steady which is only forward in so much that it is circular." ( )

and I am reminded of :
"In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking" (Stanley Kunitz, 'The Testing-Tree")

last friday, in response to Prof. Bergmeyer's assertion that the USE of the A-bomb cannot be blamed on the scientist's who made it, I suggested that the scientists should have considered how this energy would be used in our world. i implied (without really thinking) that if the scientists had realized how such energy would be used then they would not have allowed such energy to be discovered. they would have stopped research. scientific progress would have ceased in fear of future horror. or, rather, i implied a moral judgement : that if the effects of the bomb had been realized than scientific progress OUGHT to have ceased.

but no. our seeking knowledge must always progress. i think. the problem is when knowledge is translated as power: when knowledge is built tower-like: when knowledge reaches to conquer and acquire: when we try to becomes gods weilding knowledge-weapons. and that's the problem with the bomb, i think. the knowledge that the scientists made tangeble in the bomb was recreated in weapon-form.

In her essay "Why Words Arise" Anne writes of the tower of Bable myth. the reason the tower had to be felled was: "they have all one language ... and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." the risk is not in the gaining of knowledge, but rather, in the imagining of what may be done with such knowledge. in the present resides the image(ination) of the future. we cannot just stop progressing in search of future-knowledge. rather, we must imagine how we will use the knowledge we realize and release into the world. this is everyone's responsibility.

the morality of science?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-01-30 17:21:47
Link to this Comment: 17875

I was struck by a comparison/ opposition Orah described, a few postings up: "I am not trained to make judgments, but rather observations" (with the implication being--I think--that morality belongs in the sphere of judgment). You know, I keep saying that it's stories all the way down...

and I'm realizing that the most interesting thing I learned from our conversation about science education on Friday afternoon, and from some further in-person conversations since, was that science itself, qua science, as process, could actually constitute a morality--that is, a guide both to how-AND-what-to-do. Not compassion, but unending exploration might itself operate as a morality (or, of course, an immorality! But that would be a judgment each of us would need to make for herself....)

unfinished business
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-02-03 17:49:20
Link to this Comment: 17953

Thanks to all who came this afternoon to talk w/ me about A View from the Humanities (thanks, too, to all those who weren't there in person, but contributed to significant points in the conversation).

I've added some of what I learned from our discussion to notes @ the end of the talk. I've also put up the results of our common exercise in writing and revising.

Which reminds me of some unfinished business: I had intended, at the end of this session, to ask you to talk a little about what had happened in that revising process--in particular: how responsive did you find yourself to what was being written and said around you? Did you write in a mode that was "Shakespearean" (i.e., "not altering when you alteration found") or "Rortian" (that is, "adjusting your course," making "fine attunements" as you "attended" to others' writing and conversation)?

Of course I'd be delighted--should you be inclined to offer it-- to receive/gather further data on these matters.

Yours in the bonds of humanity,

generative space in the rain
Name: orah minde
Date: 2006-02-04 09:42:37
Link to this Comment: 17957

thx, Anne, for discussion yesterday.

i am struck by Rachel's in-passing observation after reading the Shakespeare poem that it was just a random assortment of words. The implications of such an observation are that the poem would have more value if each word were choosen with intent. Something is worth examining/exploring if there is a purpose that propells it to be where it is. I am especially surprised that such a statement comes from someone who (i think) resides on "that side of campus." in following the stereotypes of the humanitites vs. the sciences, it would seem to me that a scientist would find a random assortment of words more familiar to that which she studies (the evolving world) than a humanitites student who spends her time thinking about what human intention produces. Maybe what Rachel's comment demonstrates is not a disdain for Shakespeare's poetic act of random bundling, but rather, the disdain for the sacredness (other-worldliness) that some recognize in such a poem. but, i argue that there the sacredness of such a poem is not that it moves away from this world, but rather, how close it is to this world, to what it means to be a human being. the study of this poem is like the study of the human body. this poem is so present in this world, here! if this poem does deal with the sacred it illuminates a sacredness of the present human condition. there is no imagining away. but a cementing of the feet to the earth, THIS, Shakespeare says, IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HERE, AS A HUMAN IN THE WORLD.

and, for the record, i don't think that the last two lines negate the previous 12 lines. The last lines mark the writer's willingness to risk not only the validity of his whole life, but the whole history of man's love on the previous lines. the last two lines place the previous 12 lines at the crux of what it means for the writer to be a writer. NOT ONLY THAT, but the last two lines, bet the whole history of man's love on the love-formula in the previous lines: if the previous lines are not true, the writer asserts, than our whole history of loving is false.

The importance of Anne's poem, I think, is not that it redefines love against Shakespeare's formula, but rather, that it sails straight into the gust of the last two lines: Anne's act of placing her poem next to Shakespeare's demonstrates not a negation of Shakespeare's formula, but rather, that the two theories can stand next to each other. in so doing, she demonstrates that despite her fragmenting of Shakespeare's formula he still has 'writ' and the history of man's love still stands. Anne's poem breaks Shakespeare's canopy love theory, steps outside from the protection of such a canopy and says, am i not too a lover? what happens when grand theories collapse, do we melt in the rain? can a scientist function without a world-encompasing theory that clearly explains the past and perfectly predicts the future? we do not melt when canopies fall. a canopy-theory restricts movement to the under-canopy-space. by stepping outside one sees new fronteirs. the generative space is between canopies, standing in the rain.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-02-06 14:14:32
Link to this Comment:


I was so hard @ work, last Friday afternoon, at demonstrating that the difference between science and humanities is "none, none @ all," that I forgot the most insightful piece of intellectual advice I've ever gotten, from Stanley Fish:

"difference is "the remainder that escapes the drawing of any line, no matter how generous...the lesson [is] its irreducibility."

I was drawing a capacious circle in our last brown bag--one that included humanities as one of the sciencies, and science as one of the humanities (thanks to Neil for the latter turn of the screw). However, as I focused on the "inside," what escaped the new circle was all the human activity that goes on OUTSIDE the academy. I do think (as I said @ the end of our conversation) that the stories that come out of English House are generated by curiosity and skepticism, that they are actually written in order to be revised. But much of human experience and emotion is neither experienced nor emoted in order to be reflected upon and rewritten. Is it those dimensions--both of self-reflection and revision--which distinguish intellectual work from the more general human presence in the world? Or is intellectual work *simply* a disciplining of a general human disposition to be curious and skeptical?

What say ye to (either of those) revisions? (And if you say "yes," then) what difference now remains?

thinking about "none, none @ all,"<
Name: orah minde
Date: 2006-02-07 18:36:23
Link to this Comment:

we discuss on friday afternoons with the common (?) goal of demonstrating that the difference between science and humanities is "none, none @ all," . and, yet, could it be useful to spend a bit of time thinking about the real differences between the two that generate productive friction?

when i argue that there is no difference between the disciplines i think i am arguing that we are all addressing the question of what it means to be a human being in the world. our methodology of inference from observation might even be the same. we are, however, taught to don different lenses through which to regard the world. and while i think we originate from the same question, and are in constant reference to this question, i think the lessons we are taught, the lenses we are given, have an effect on the way we experience the world. we travel to different landscapes.

is the job of a teacher to give information to a student-receptical. OR, does a teacher seak to transform her student: give her new lenses through which she regards past, present, and future. if learning is a transformation than differences in study-matter will yeild differences between students of different disciplines. we share a common question, but by traveling to different landscapes we are clothed in different experiences. our minds have evolved in different ways. while i am born with an equal capacity to approach scientific question as paul or wil or rachel, i have not developled the the skills that they have developed through their experiences. experiences in life prepare us for future experiences. some experiences prepare some to address scientific circumstances while other experiences prepare some to participate in languages of the humanities. we all remain in reference to The Question but the landscapes we traverse are differ according to the skills we seek to develope.

science/math education as a complex system
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2006-02-11 11:55:07
Link to this Comment: 18068

Thanks to Victor for helping us see the importance of thinking about science/math education at Bryn Mawr as a component of a much larger system involving K12 educators, school boards, and state and federal agencies. And to everyone for a rich and stimulating discussion. A few points that seemed to me worth highlighting ...

We, and higher education generally, are both affected by and contributors to the larger system. Given that we are the purveyors of science/math education to K12 educators, it matters a lot how we go about it. Conversely, we will find in our own students the consequences of how we go about it.

There really IS a potential conflict between content driven and exploratory pedagogical missions. The issue is not whether one chooses a didactic as opposed to a hands-on interactive form of pedagogy but whether one sees the task as conveying as effectively as possible a predetermined set of perspectives/understandings or as enhancing the capacity of individual students to be inquirers. This is NOT to say that one can't develop inquiry based classrooms that will facilitate students' acquisition of particular skills/perspectives/understandings. One can. But IF one understands the PRIMARY task as the latter, then one risks creating environments (no matter how hands-on) that students will see (correctly) as encouraging not inquiry but mastery. And will begin wondering (as they do) why teachers won't just tell them what they are supposed to be seeing/discovering, which would be less time-consuming.

True inquiry-based education must, it seems to me, require the teacher to recognize/enjoy the possibility that students will discover something other than what the teacher intended. And really then needs to be assessed in comparable terms, not in terms of what the student has mastered but in terms of what the student has acquired new capabilities to create.

If we are in fact committed to this kind of education for all (and I think we should be) then we have an obligation to not only make it available to our own students but to play an appropriate advocacy role in the larger educational system of which we are a part.

new (self-generated?) forms of assessment
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-02-12 14:30:19
Link to this Comment: 18076

A summary of our conversation with Victor Donnay about Improving Science Education is now available on-line. My own ruminations, as I transcribed my notes from our discussion, ran to this always-rearing-its-head matter of assessment. If (as Paul says) "true inquiry-based education requires the teacher to enjoy the possibility that students will discover something other than what the teacher intended--and needs to be assessed in comparable terms"--then surely colleges have to get out of the business of grading. Can students themselves assess what they've done, inside of being judged within the frame of reference of what their teachers most value, in what has been done before them? Wil and I experimented with this in one of Summer Institutes last year; see Performative Assessments for a few examples.

on beyond Bryn Mawr
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-02-18 07:51:38
Link to this Comment: 18186

I was inspired by Mary Beth Davis's description of the history of the Wagner Institute--chartered in 1855 with a mission that “science education should be available to everyone”--and still offering free science classes to the general public in a range of venues around the city. I learned a great deal from listening to Mary Beth talk, yesterday afternoon, about both the challenges and the rewards of working with a population of students whose training, experience and interests are as diverse as the population of the city of Philadelphia. Lots of lessons there for our general project, here, of expanding science education to include everyone--and of the need to leave the ivory tower to really make that vision a reality. And lots of lessons for teaching within the ivory tower, in return, to be brought back from those who venture outside.

re-thinking political action
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-03-19 20:52:15
Link to this Comment: 18600

I've just posted a summary of Sandy Schram's presentation, last Friday, of rethinking the "science question" in social science. What struck me, as I was writing up my report, was the way it moved from the conventional distinctions between science and non-scientific academic work (such as the survey of differences we reviewed a few weeks ago) to accentuate the political impact that data-gathering and interpretation can have. If "science is an attempt to create a cumulative body of laws about how world works," Sandy's work is clearly different in being self-consciously designed to be proactive, to provide guidelines for a political agenda. Do scientists eschew that kind of activity (or, at least, refuse it the name of science)? And (if so) what are the implications of that eschewment for our larger project of re-thinking science education?

getting through the floors, walls, ceilings...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-03-25 08:08:51
Link to this Comment: 18683

A summary of our conversation, yesterday, with Al Albano and Peter Briggs on Promoting Cross-Disciplinary Discussion among Freshmen is now available on-line. It occurs to me that this might be the most important, so far, of the discussions we have had in this series on "re-thinking science education"--because it wasn't just about science education. It led us, I thought, into frank recognition of the reasons for the failure of the College Seminar experiment here, into some clarification about the limitations of our disciplinary structures, and about their economic consequences @ a place as small as Bryn Mawr, @ a point in history when none of us can afford not to know what's going on outside our own houses. (Perhaps relevant? This is taken from a conversation a few summers ago, between two Pauls who were "writing Descartes":

I have always wanted to find out what is around me, what is underneath, above, and beyond where I find myself. This is partly sheer curiosity, and partly a sense that there are things over there that I will have to contend with in the future and I'm better off getting to know them in advance. The upshot is that I don't like floors, or walls, or ceilings that I can't, at least in principle, get through.

CSem discussion
Date: 2006-03-25 10:35:37
Link to this Comment: 18684

I am always impressed by how Anne can so faithfully record these discussions. This itself is an example of thinking interdisciplinarily. In fact this discussion offers a number of examples of how interdisciplinarity can help the College rethink its curriculum, staffing, budgeting, etc. The verisimilitude is overwhelming.

Bryn Mawr is at a crossroads and this discussion ought to be central to the deliberations about where we go from here. The College can not simply continue business as usual, given its competing obligations and limited funding streams. Getting serious about being a College where interdisciplinary work is not seen as a luxury but as central creates the opportunity to recruit in more cost-efficient ways that can also improve the curriculum and make learning a more exciting experience for students here.

Yet, the weight of tradition weighs heavily on this institution much more than at many other established schools. I do think our particular way of promoting the "scholar/teacher" is reflective of the scholarly traditions of Bryn Mawr as a place where women could get the most advanced educational opportunities that were being denied them at all-male schools. So, I venture to say that we then are tempted to hire specialists who can do advanced work perhaps even more than other elite undergraduate colleges.

We simply can not afford to do this. It is the long way around. We then have to hire more people to get the coverage we need. And we end up with more holes in the curriculum and need to hire even more specialists.

In the process, we risk making our curriculum less interdisciplinary and less interesting. We also risk making instruction less focused on learning and more focused on coverage of content and information. We potentially are trapped in recreating our own problems.

This is what I mean when I say that thinking interdisciplinarily might help us get out of this situation. Perhaps, we all need to start to think about Bryn Mawr as an open-system, an emergent system, where we can reverse its decline working from the bottom-up to create a more vibrant curriculum at less cost. We should try to build this kind of thinking into our discussions about budgeting, staffing, curriculum, etc. Starting right now.

teaching beyond the standard boundaries....
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-01 17:14:02
Link to this Comment: 18782

I've just put up a summary of Peter's rather remarkable presentation on "Teaching Physical Concepts Beyond the Boundaries of 'Standard Culture' and Language." One of the reasons I spend so much time on these summaries is that I learn so much from doing them--as well as realizing, each week, what the new boundaries of my knowing are. Two things came clear to me as I wrote up this particular report; neither of them were Peter's main point, but both seem to be quite relevant to its realization.

The first was a matter of pedagogy: his deflecting the question of "whether an attribute is a property of reality or a story of reality," a question he found irrelevant to the key point he was pursuing (which was, of course, the need for translating special knowledge into more generally accessible forms). In this context, I found the deflection utterly remarkable. If a (self-described) "priest" won't answer the questions put to him while in the process of translating his knowledge to the (self-described) "developmentally arrested," if the priest dismisses such a question as irrelevant to his own agenda--well, then, the walls behind initiates and all the rest just get reinforced.

The second thing I noticed was (by my lights) an interesting counterpoint to the first; it was the challenge Peter got from several other participants in the conversation, that making the special knowledge of science generally available might not be an unalloyed good. It might result, rather, in the diminishment of alternative forms of knowing and being in the world (to highlight just two possibilities: mixing up attributes and action, properties and behavior, rather than compartmentalizing them; or addressing the world with an attitude of trust, rather than one of profound skepticism).

I'd be delighted to continue this conversation with others, in-person or on-line. I hope scientists can hear, in that invitation, the concern of non-scientists about the potential "imperialism" of their desire to teach us all what they know--as well as the invitation to listen to various other ways of seeing and tasting taste the world, which might expand their own sense of it. The boundaries can, I hope, expand in both directions.

why, why, why?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-02 09:08:11
Link to this Comment: 18784

Along with those observations about process...

one quite profound understanding emerged for me out of our talking with Peter on Friday. He began his presentation with the proposal that we agree to a "compartmentalization" that separates "attributes" from "action." "Evolution has made us conceptualize the world in terms of "properties" (which hold true in all instances, are "instantaneous" and "intrinsic" to the physical phenomenon), as opposed to "behavior" (which takes place sequentially, is what we call "dynamical").

Before we were finished, though, we also acknowledged that some cultures/some ways of thinking "mix up" attributes and action, properties and their behavior, "stuff and what it does." This put me in mind of an intriguing article I read in The Chronicle last week (3/24/06) about a French philosopher named Alain Badiou, whose 1988 book Being and Event divides neatly according to Peter's two terms. Badiou uses set theory to dissect "being" (groups of objects and their relations to one another); then he explains how change occurs in the world, a process he calls an "event." "An event is a clear break with the status quo." What interests me about this distinction is how...

slippery (and finally untenable?) it is. This is the idea I was suggesting, Friday afternoon, when I mentioned the discussion about Phenotype and Genotype that Tamara Davis had led, two years ago, in the brown bag series on "Information, Meaning and Noise." It interested me then to learn how little biologists knew, once they had sequenced the genome; and that the reason they knew so little was precisely because they had not been able to separate the entity from the action, the property from the behavior. A tremendous amount of the information in the genome is "non-structural," not part of the regulatory, protein-coding sequence, but much of what is identified as "not information" is central to the decoding process. Mention was made, during that session, of Susan Oyama's The Ontogeny of Information,which argues that the conventional distinction between enviroment and what's inate is "silly": why do we speak of a genome and its environment or context? Why don't we speak of the environment and its genetic context? Why don't we (preferably) talk about developmental systems?

Why, why, why?

Actually, I think I do know why. I just want to flag the instability--the constructedness, the encultured-ness, and therefore the revisability--of the handy (and sometimes limiting) compartments Peter offered us on Friday.

answering questions
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-02 09:25:09
Link to this Comment: 18785

This sounded like a really interesting talk. I wish I had figured out it was happening and been there.

I am a physics major. I am actually in Prof. Beckmann's quantum mechanics course right now. Also, I have a strong personal background in non-technical areas such as group dynamics, splitting and projection and various brain issues, mathematics culture (my dad has a phd in set theory and logic applied to the mathematics of computer programming languages. We learned his way of thinking if not the contents of his knowledge early on.) And I also love history and literature(mostly western unfortunately) which I try to remember. And yes, I have been known to diagram sentences for fun. I am... a well rounded person. I am a hard core non-techie that turned "to the dark side" ;-) and chose to land on the technical side of the spectrum. Though, I never forgot my roots. And I cherish them.

The belief that professor Beckmann's refusal to discuss whether or not there is a reality as support of an elite "priesthood" that contradicts his own message is, I believe, very much one heart of the matter. The next paragraph sounds like a digression, but I am trying to share an experience to place an idea in context so that it may be understood.

When I started to learn about higher mathematics (after 1st year physics), one concept that came up was "a vector space". I spent a GREAT deal of time pursuing the abstract definition of vector space. You see, the special case description of a vector as an "arrow with magnitude and direction" annoyed me enormously. I spoke to many math professors and tried to get answers to my questions. They just would not speak. They would repeat, word for word, "A vector is an element of a set, given closed operations, such that... blah blah blah." I could NOT get them to elaborate. What is this? "Is it elitism?", I thought. My social culture post 1970's had prepared me to assume they weren't answering my math question because I was a girl and they were prejudiced jerks. The years ticked by.

I was so wrong. The failure was MINE. I had failed to step into their culture. The *key* spirit and idea of a vector space is that they've shaved the concept down to it's bare minimum. The idea is what it is, no more, no less. They worked very hard to find that. The mathematicians do not fill in the blanks with irrelevant crap because to do so would be to fail to give you the idea. (This is last sentence is subtle to understand.)

I am fine with an idea of desseminating scientific knowledge to a general audience. But I think it is necessary to acknowledge that science is itself a culture that deserves to be respected. We do not exist to conform to your worldview either. You will have to meet us halfway. A great deal of the general public is just as "elite" in their own "priesthoods" as we are. It is not reasonable to sit passively and expect the other person to serve your worldview.

When you do physics, you learn very quickly that the question of whether or not there is a reality is extraneous crap... to physics. Not that it isn't a worthwhile question. I'm sure it fills volumes of interesting philosophy texts. (There are many people you can discuss things with.) But when you discuss these questions you are not talking to Peter Beckmann. And you are not discussing quantum physics. That's like taking your guest lecturer from mexico to Taco Bell for lunch because you "know he likes that food".

Thanks for listening

Bye for now


oops wrong email
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-02 10:37:10
Link to this Comment: 18786

sorry all. This is Nicole who just posted. My *correct* email is: *or*

sorry about that. :-)

Quantuin Physics to 3rd Graders?
Name: Annabella
Date: 2006-04-03 15:23:35
Link to this Comment: 18804

I loved the synopsis of Peter's talk. I am sorry I missed it. But I noticed how bogged down everybody seemed to get until the question was raised about whether it would be a good idea to bring Quantum Physics to everyone.
I agree with the camp that not everyone needs to know this stuff about muons, quarks and such. I am really quite sure of this because even the "priests" with the info are only now starting to figure it out, and it will be decades before its implications will be known. Since almost no one knows about it now, and this is more than the number that once knew about it, clearly, not eveyone needs to know about it.
So rather than trying to make it something everyone is required to understand (and thereby making 99% of the people struggle with it and most likely coming away hating it) how about the scientists get together with the mystics and/or philosophers (who have understood this stuff inherently and been putting it into generic languages through millenea) and put their knowledge into a form that can be shared more easily? This way those who have the aptitude and interest will also have access through scientific channels.
Fortunately, it doesn't take a knowledge of science to understand what quantum physics has to tell us. What it does take is interest, focus and a willingness to push past all interior biases against the internal knowing that we are all born with and which is trained OUT of us from the earliest age.
Science is only one approach to the understanding of reality on a quantum level, and it must be one of the most difficult, for it has taken thousands of years longer to bear fruit (i.e. useable conclusions) with regard to dimensions and the finer points of interconnectivity and relativity.
On another note: Isn't it interesting that the scientific method relys on the compartmentalizing and seperating of everything from everything else that is being observed, interpreted or explained (as evidenced by the discussion of properties vs. attributes) and yet, as we get closer to learning about the real mysteries of life by seperating life into its infinitessimally small increments, they lead us directly back to the fact that there is no way to seperate anything from anything else except in our imaginations. The very effort we have put into seperation of all the parts leads us back to the interconnectedness of everything.
People have been realizing this interconnectedness throughout the ages by sitting under a tree and being quiet for a while, but finally, our scientists are catching up. It's good to see.

metaphorically speaking
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-06 00:31:14
Link to this Comment: 18861

About this metaphor?
That asking a physicist to think w/ you about/explain how he understands the reality of reality is like asking a Mexican to go to Taco Bell...??
It's clever, it feels dismissive--but I don't quite get it, I don't think.

the point
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-06 00:35:27
Link to this Comment: 18862

This is kinda the point. How someone's statement causes you to *feel* isn't really the issue. Some issues are best served, not in an intellectual setting.

It's ok to not get things. When you don't understand, you work to understand.

or if i get it, then i don't buy it.

That's the problem. You choose to not trust someone. You choose to not believe someone that knows more than you on a particular topic. You choose to not hear someone. Again, some issues aren't best addressed in an intellectual setting.

The fact that the earth is not the center of the universe, *really* upset the pope. He thought galileo (sp?) owed him an apology.

You can say you want to learn physics and it is the responsibility of someone else to teach it to you. I can't say I agree with that entirely, but I do think you deserve support, opportunities, and access to knowledgable people who try to respect and step into your world and also believe you are capable of learning.

But when you choose to not believe someone who would of his own free will come down and spend time to help you understand and you still "don't buy it".... that's not his problem.

locating the conversation
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-06 00:37:28
Link to this Comment: 18863

When the priest says he wants to communicate w/ the general public, where does the conversation get located? in the temple? on the street? in a restaurant somewhere inbetween, w/ some ingredients provided by all comers? sort of like a potluck?

yep--sort of like Taco Bell?

issues of entitlement
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-06 00:39:13
Link to this Comment: 18864

Uh, he left his department to discuss it in the multi-cultural center
I believe.

But even that was not enough because you choose to not respect that
what he is saying might be something you are not understanding. And
still, your lack of understanding is all his responsibility.

Do you hear me? Do you hear how everything you have said to me puts
the other person as 100% responsible for whether or not you
understand? You hold the other person 100% responsible for you own
reactions and internal thought processes? We must go to the multi
cultural center. We must answer the question you feel is relevant
even when it isn't. We must not trigger any upset feelings or
inadequacy. We must distort the information that needs to be
conveyed rather than ask *you* to adjust your head. Nobody says
there is anything wrong with the question, I simply redirect you to
the philosophy department so that you may be better served.

No one has done anything to you. No one has denied you anything.
You choose to not trust. You choose to not work to understand. You
choose to make something that isn't about you a personal emotional

There are emotional/entitlement issues that belong to and are the
responsiblity of the general public to handle that must also be
addressed. The failure of scientific knowledge to disseminate
through the general public is not all the fault of the scientists.

Name: Peter Beck
Date: 2006-04-06 00:43:45
Link to this Comment: 18865

The brown bag crew might like to see SETI's recent "language." Check out

Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive

and highlight 2006 April 02 (A Cosmic Call ....). I think this attempt by SETI is dumb and I'm sure Paul will agree since it assumes other species add like we do.

Previous SETI searches have used the 21-cm line (the wave length of a photon) since most feel it will be "understood" by all advanced species (since it permeates the universe, both in space and time. See

Searches of the Harvard SETI Group

I note that the 21-cm line is the light released by the hydrogen atom (one proton and one electron) because their [sorry, no words in the culture] interact. If they interact with their two [sorry, no words in the culture] in one quantum state, the "amount of energy they have" is different if their two [sorry, no words in culture] are in a different quantum state. Not only do the proton and electron have their own [sorry - no words in culture] [math = quantum superposition of up and down spin states] , but if the mathematics of the transition from one to another that releases a 21 cm photon, is to have any meaningful interpretation, then the proton and the electron each lose their very identity and both get absorbed in a bigger quantum state of what has to be, in anybody's interpretation, with a single entity (with at least four simultaneous identities).

So, we only need to understand this if we want to communicate with a species in a different part of the unverse. But, what fun.

Note: The property of spin (woops - didn't mean to say it) has absolutely nothing to do with where anything is. There is no "being somewhere" in the mathematics of spin.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-06 00:47:34
Link to this Comment: 18866

This week's exchange has interested me a great deal; I think it has ramifications much, much larger than any particular issues I might have w/ "entitlement." I think it goes straight to the heart of the topic we've been discussing all year in this brown bag series:
--what constitutes general scientific literacy, and what the implications of that concept are for science education.

Actually? not just science education. The questions of just how much the teacher has to "translate," how much new language students have to learn, in order to "read the landscape" of the teacher's world (?) is as applicable to learning Spanish and English and art history and anthropology and sociology and political science as it is to teaching/learning physics and bio.

two different issues
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-06 00:49:44
Link to this Comment: 18867

I think we are now talking about two entirely different issues at this point.

1. Not getting the concept of abstraction and assuming mathematical science teachers are holding out on you. Also, trying to make physics something it's not.

2. The entitlement issue. I do not think that is an educational issue. At all. I think it is a theraputic issue (though many people have it.) The entitlement issue is best addressed in a theraputic setting in my opinion. When it is masked as some sort of intellectualized discussion or "pedagocial issue" people do not get to the root of their problem. They externalize their crap. They just go round and round and try to distort knowledge to bend it to their emotional needs. Teachers use students. Students use teachers. Blah blah blah. And places where people are SUPPOSED to think about IDEAS are held hostage to providing people with free therapy.

Fine with me if people think about whatever they choose. But you don't get to mislabel and mislead people. So for example: if you want to discuss "What is reality?" that is called philosophy. (Don't pretend like it's physics or the science of neurobiology for that matter). If you want to discuss spirituality, fine. Do that. But that should NOT be labeled quantum physics thank you very much. If you want to discuss the over-entitlement issue (a severe perceptual disorder in my opinion), that's therapy. Don't pretend it is teaching/education.

Can you imagine what would happen if your local libary just decided all the biology books are really geology books to simply meet their own emotional needs? What if they muddled everything? Nobody can get any work done.

Of course, if I ever find a group therapy that is NOT filled with a bunch of 40 and 50 year olds screaming "we can have it all" while they hold the group leader hostage and try to get them to do all the work for them, I'll let you know.

Serendip's Webmaster Rings In
Name: Ann Dixon
Date: 2006-04-07 12:01:57
Link to this Comment: 18894

"Serendip's forums are committed to the principle of meaningful conversation, of exchange of ideas and perspectives among people who are themselves committed to the ideal that their own ideas and perspectives may be useful to others and those of others, no matter how different from their own, in turn may be useful to themselves."

Serendip encourages conversations of all kinds, but especially those which are in the spaces between traditional academic disciplines. In that spirit, there are a lot of questions asked which may not make "sense" to others who are grounded in a different discipline with different frameworks, processes, assumptions, and history. But just because a question doesn't make sense in that context doesn't mean that it shouldn't be asked. And if we hold true to the atmosphere of individual respect that underlies the nature of Serendip's inquiry, we respect the questioner, the reasons for asking the question, and the different context from which the question was asked.

If the questioner does not get a response that satisfies the gap between the disciplines, it is altogether within the bounds of Serendip's spirit of inquiry to engage others to seek a new framework for the question. Sometimes others will not be interested in interdisciplinary engagement, and that is their choice. However, those of us who engage in conversations on Serendip do so with a willingness to talk, to listen, and to challenge existing frameworks and ideas. We do so with respect, so in response to some postings above which have gotten overly personal and potentially inflammatory, I am posting these thoughts here for the forum participants to consider both the value of interdisciplinary speech and also how it makes some people uncomfortable with its lack of boundaries.

an un-natural science
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-08 05:48:19
Link to this Comment: 18898

This sort of interdisciplinary engagement was evident in the talk Deepak Kumar just gave on "re-thinking computer science education." What struck me forcibly, in writing up a summary of that conversation, were two things which I haven't yet quite been able to bring into alignment:The conflict, as I see/imagine/experience it, is between the need to avoid premature storytelling, with having the patience to wait til one's gathered enough evidence to tell a new story, a story that might really matter, that might change things a bit in the long run--and the need to provide an answer that works. Now.

Ever since our first conversations, four years ago, about the "culture of science" (I'm thinking in particular of a discussion led by Ralph Kuncl on "The Balkanization of Science"), the tension between research driven by the dollar and education driven by exploration was laid out in stark terms. The claim made as long ago as September 2002 (as I remember it) was to "balk" at the notion that we could serve both masters.

So I found myself particularly intrigued by Deepak's explanation, Friday afternoon, that computer science is "fundamentally a discipline of inquiry"--with legs in the world (it is "driven by a societal artifact: money"). I know the latter is true. Just this week, I took my daughter to North Philly to interview for a job with Proyecto Sin Fronteras/Open Borders Projects. She went into the interview thinking this was a literacy program (think: ESL); she came out, in some surprise, to report that it was a program in technological literacy (and unsure about her capacity to provide that...) It's exciting to think that computers can be used to expand the pie, make satisfying work available to immigrants to this country, etc....

And yet, and yet...

I find myself not yet entirely convinced by the story we heard on Friday. I'd like to hear more about how it actually plays out, on the ground, in venues such as the new Bio/C.S. course on Emergence, or in the new course on Visualizing Information which Deepak mentioned. Not being, myself, a patient person, I'm wondering if you can really--really--teach courses about the fundamental nature of inquiry that also enable students to provide quick, efficient responses to on-the-ground problems. Are the two goals compatible? How is the field of computer science managing--in the day-to-day work of courses--the tension between unfeasible and feasible projects, long-term and short-term goals, theory and application, thinking and doing, exploring and engineering, playing and re-tooling?

littlewood, have it all, not heard
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-08 15:55:51
Link to this Comment: 18908

Really, the only thing I'm interested in putting up at this point is DE Littlewood's exerpt.

I have been around Serendip for about 9 years now. Off and on. Serendip is one major reason why I came to Bryn Mawr college.

I am fine with interdisciplary forums. Interdisciplinary language. Interdisciplinary discussions. I am interested in ALOT of stuff. I even get into the so-not-science stuff that annabella wood posts. (And I'm a bipolar that's gone manic and sat under the tree so I know the internal integration stuff she be talking about. True, Buddha did not have to cheat with a chemical imbalance to get there, like I did. But we both got there to be sure.)

I *do* think Serendip contains *a priori* an over-riding theme of fear-of-structure with many biased associations about structure.

Over the years, it does not matter what I say on that issue, it is never heard. Period. Discussion shut down completely. Everytime. Every post on the I-hate-structure dismantle-reality-because-if-one-exists-I-feel-inadequate theme is given a home. But my post gets an Ann Dixon "inflamatory remarks".

I don't think I said one damn thing that would undermine or discourage inter-disciplinary communication. Rather commenting on how "Taco Bell" is a cheesy fabricated stereotype of another culture as opposed to genuine intercultural discussion. (Not that I would trash Taco Bell. It is in itself a culture of it's own now.) But what does that have to do with mexico??? And why do people of mexico get mislabled/harrassed with it???? That was my point.

My "We can have it all" referred to this bizarre idea that human beings have infinite energy/time supply. It refers to unrealistic expectations. To me (and perhaps *my* generation?) it has nothing to do with a debate between home and work or whatever. It means... you can only do so much so you'll have to choose something. As for the intergenerational issue of home vs. work... The third generation perspective? I have never met a family with two full time working parents that was not being supplemented by an older sibling playing backup to the parents to the detriment of the 3rd generation's own life-launching/development. (Unless they were rich enough to hire nanny's to raise the kids, cleaning people to clean, daycare to nurture, etc.). We are the latch-key kids. We are the children who watch a lot of TV. We are the children who are best friends with our video games. 2nd generation parents (whatever their gender, whatever areas they chose) had bitten off more than they could chew. Not that I as a member of the 3rd generation don't want to help out or think the work of my parents hasn't given me a great deal and is of immense importance. I chose to miss many a trip to the mall with my friends to have the house cleaned and dinner on the table when my mom got home from work. (Because I know my mother is not no-name, non-entity, infrastructure slave. And because I love her.) My dad is not a slave either and I love him too. (But we as a society aren't ready for that one.)

I wonder what *you* heard me say?

My personal experience on Serendip (and in many areas of my life) is that it does not matter what I say. The first message is misunderstood. The clarification of the first message is misunderstood. The clarification of the clarification is misunderstood. It has not been my experience on Serendip (or many places) that I am ever particularly heard by the folks who maintain the environment. People filter things through their internal postulates. Period.

I do not think the discussions on Serendip are unbiased. I do not think it is conducive to a genuine unbiased interdisciplinary theme. In an *unbiased* environment you are allowed to say that.

I'm sorry to drop a bomb and run, but I really gotta go do homework now. (was on study break). I'll try to check back when I can.


card catalogue
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-09 05:57:17
Link to this Comment: 18914

Here is another way to illustrate what I want to say:

The library is an interdisciplinary place to be sure. See if you can come up with *one* single solitary topic or sub topic or sub-sub-topic on *anything* that does not have it's own well defined card catalogue label (call number). You can invent all the new stuff you want too. They'll find a way to organize it. Go to the library, look up *anything* and you can find it. A small town grandma who wants to read an edited summary of the latest particle nuclear astrophysics conference (or any other worthwhile topic that may be of interest to her) can go down to her local library and request it. It's called interlibrary loan. They will search their local database. Then their county one. Then the state one. They'll go to the fricking library of congress in washington dc if they have to. (It's called the Library of Congress call number system, by the way.) Then they'll get it, and deliver it to her for her reading enjoyment. For free.

Now let's have a boundriless anti-structure interdisciplinary conversation. Because structure is evil. And anyone that would dare advocate having a uniform call number system is obviously trying to control us. We must rip every book off the shelf and switch their labels to meet our emotional whims and put them in piles jumbled together. Based on what we feel like talking about at any given instant. Good luck finding *anything* except the three books that happen to be in arms reach. That's the only *real* genuine interdisciplinary approach.

You like the internet? What if there were no search engine algorithms? You like file directories? You want to know another name for lack of structure in the human brain? Alzheimers. Do you like the standardized power grid? Guess that transcontinental railway was pretty nice. Do you like the highway system with standardized traffic laws and accurate maps so we can all go where-ever we choose?

Yes. Structure. Always so evil. Always so confining. Such posts obviously need to be flagged as "inflamatory" on serendip. Because advocating a "lack of boundaries" is what serendip is all about.


Responses to Anne and Nicole
Name: Paul Burgm
Date: 2006-04-09 11:49:45
Link to this Comment: 18919

Anne and Nicole,

I am on Spring Break this week and so have time to do some musing. Sharon (Dr. Burgmayer) my wife recommended I look in on the recent brown-bag lunch posting as she thought I might be interested in the threads. I certainly was and wanted to respond to some comments made by both of you.

I have three lines of thinking related to your comments. These are 1) the need to “enter a story” 2) what it takes to “enter the story” and 3) the recognition of power (in a post-modern sense) in these discussions.

First, let me be a good post-modernist and position myself socially... I am a white, male Ph.D chemist recently turned high school math teacher (3 yrs now). I spent 17 years in industry working as a researcher and then research manager. I also am a long-time musician (trumpet).

1)You can’t understand the story unless you enter it - I agree wholeheartedly with Nicole’s first posting in this thread (#18785). Her “vector space” is a great example of needing enter the story. She writes

“I had failed to step into their (the physicist’s) culture. The “key” spirit ... is that they've shaved the concept down to its bare minimum...The mathematicians do not fill in the blanks ... to do so would be to fail to give you the idea.”

The first day of class I tell my high school students “Math is a contact sport. It is not a spectator sport. If you don’t participate (by doing classwork, HW, projects), you will never understand math.” As a chemist, I can tell you that it is the same. You can’t grasp chemistry without doing it. That’s why there are labs with science classes.

So Peter’s dismissal of "whether an attribute (say a physical property) is a property of reality or a story of reality" is appropriate. It really doesn’t matter. You can’t choose to stand outside the story and still grasp what it is about. As a musician, I can give talks about what it is like to play music but you will not grasp the ideas of musical line, phrasing, voicing etc. without studying how to play an instrument or singing for a long time.

So to respond to Anne’s comment about not understanding the metaphor (18861) of Taco Bell vs. real Mexican food, doing vs. talking science is like traveling to the Yucatan, stopping along the road to buy a stack of tortillas and some green chile sauce, then sitting there sweating in the hot sun while eating and talking to a native vs. eating greasy, tough flour pancakes while talking to your neighbor in an air-conditioned space down the street from your house. There is much more effort involved but I assume there is a payoff in your understanding of Mexican food.

Maybe a short way of saying this is that the idea of translating all, most, or even a small portion of science for the public is impossible. I can invite you into the story and can even give you the book-jacket synopsis but until you read and reread and reread the story as it is known right now, you are not going to understand what I understand. Nicole says essentially the same thing:

“I am fine with an idea of disseminating scientific knowledge to a general audience. But I think it is necessary to acknowledge that science is itself a culture that deserves to be respected. We do not exist to conform to your worldview either. You will have to meet us halfway... It is not reasonable to sit passively and expect the other person to serve your worldview.”

Which brings me to point #2

2)What does it take to enter the story? - So I have a suggestion... Nicole, why don’t you invite Anne into your lab and help her to experience physics?

Anne and Nicole, you can both expect to be immensely frustrated. There are two parts to this frustration. The first is all new terms, concepts, skills, and understandings that Nicole will use and Anne will not understand. Nicole’s comments about learning vector space is again a simple but wonderful example. Vector space didn’t seem to make sense until she immersed herself in it. Then she got it.

The second (and in my mind more difficult) is what Anne will have to unlearn. All of us have preconceived (common sense) views about the world. One especially difficult problem with entering a science worldview (perhaps any worldview) is unlearning common sense. Based on her experience, Nicole can guide Anne through these but in the end it is something Anne will have to experience for herself.

Maybe Anne doesn’t want to take all that time to learn how to be immersed in the story. Or she doesn’t have what it takes to learn everything required to grasp the story (as a teacher I can tell you that “getting it” is not guaranteed (some will be “Left Behind”)). In which case, Anne needs be humble and accept this. That is the gist of Nicole’s somewhat edgy 18862 post.

Which brings me to Point #3.

3)The importance of power is not being recognized - From my limited readings about post-modernism, I have come to understand that the post-modern position (which to me seems to undergird Science and Society discussions) is that all human articulations has interests regarding power. This power may be positive or negative but it is never neutral. Any discussion between power centers is best conducted with the power interests recognized.

From both Anne and Nicole I hear expression about powerlessness. Anne seems to be asking the perceived people in power (scientists) share power (knowledge) with her. She is frustrated when they say they can’t because of the reasons stated in #1 and #2. Nicole is frustrated because she feels like she is not being heard by the people posting on this site.

What is interesting to me is that both of you are people in positions of power (Anne as a professor, Nicole as a member of the physics priesthood) and yet you both feel frustrated.

I don’t know what to do about this except to recognize the powers that are vs. the perceived powers. To that end, I think it is important to point out that science has a perceived position of power within an academic setting. At Bryn Mawr, science looks like it has power (buildings, big budgets, lots of faculty, grad programs etc.). And so I speculate that there is some negotiation about power going on in these discussions.

As an aside, I would argue that, contrary to what is experience in academia, science is not a real power in society today. Science’s day seems to me to have come and gone with the Cold War. It seems to me the real power center is money/business. Technology as the interface between science and business is probably the closest a scientist comes to power in society.

Enough for now... to the garden.

the library of babel
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-09 11:53:08
Link to this Comment: 18920

The Library of Babel, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, begins,

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest.... Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite....Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant. I find Nicole's image of the card catalogue a very useful addition to this conversation; thanks for the concept. Of course we need categories (words are categories) in order to shape and order and make sense of the world. And of course we need some sort of organizing structure, to link the categories to one another, so we can follow out our trains of thoughts and associations. And of course we need to be able to make revisions on all three levels, in the categories, in the links between them, and in the overall system of organization. My point is really a plea: that we be open to invitations to use words that we haven't used before, to make links in directions where we haven't yet gone.

Surely relevant here is the fact that university libraries have replaced their card catalogues with computer-driven search engines, which are much more agile and flexible in the linking they do, and in which (most importantly, from my point of view) the scholar can design a system of organization that works for her particular angle of inquiry. We're not bound, any more, by a librarian's (even a Library-of-Congress-librarian's) notion of what is associated w/ what (though I grant that we may be more bound by "search engine optimization" than we realize...)

All of which is to say: I don't really think we're (or @ least I'm) talking about whether or not you get to mislabel and mislead people. That assumes a fixedness and distinctiveness and (and an accuracy) in labeling--which surely quantum physics, w/ its challenge to the conventional compartmentalization that separates "action" from "attribute"/ "properties" from "behavior," brings into question?

A year ago, I gave a talk in the tri-co language seminar series that began by pairing the Tower of Babel story from Genesis w/ a contemporary counter-story taken from a 'two cultures' conversation on Serendip. In that venue (a gathering of linguists) I was trying to think aloud about why linguists and literary folk don't talk with one another, and trying out some ways of our talking together....

When I left that symposium (feeling discouraged by my inability to communicate clearly/and/or by the resistance of my audience to hearing/accepting what I had to say--and I realize those are two very different things!), I found my way to the forum about the Nov 04 election, and wrote w/ some passion about what I'd learned:

that the classic sentences used by linguists to illustrate sentence structure are often violent ones, because such examples provide clear distinctions in "theta roles," clear divisions between subject and object (i.e. "John beat his wife"; "John doesn't beat his wife because he loves her"). That the well-formedness of a sentence is best illustrated by violent examples makes me think [that]... there are very deep shadows, here, of the great satisfaction we take in having a clear opponent over whom a decisive victory can be won.

I'm proposing that bridging the gaps that separate us one from the other (whether we are experts or novices, specializers or intermediate people) isn't well served by drawing lines in the sand (i.e.: this is physics, not philosophy; this is geology, not biology; this is sociology, not quantum physics ). Which is why, I think, the card catalogue doesn't go quite far enough for (my ideal) image of interdisciplinary conversation. It gets us the categories, but it's too box-y, not agile enough for me, as an image of the need for flexibility in association and design.

A student in the course on The Story of Evolution did a riff, last year, on Daniel Dennett's "Library of Mendel" (itself a riff on Borges' Library of Babel), which comes closer to what I imagine as what we're up to here. She said, "Every point in the universe is simultaneously next to every other point, all the time. To apply this to the library, every blueprint/possibility is next to every other blueprint/possibility all the time; it's only the passage of time and reality through this infinite space that creates distance between two points (because these blueprints have actually become reality, there is now a measurable distance between two extant forms)."

How's this for an image?

(From The Library of Babel, @ HyperDiscordia)

library girl
Name: Nicole
Date: 2006-04-09 14:29:40
Link to this Comment: 18921

I am no expert in Library Science (I chose physics. But was really tempted. ;-) ). But I *believe* the reason we use such a "cryptic" numeric call number system as the backbone is because the real number line has the lovely property that you can insert new disciplines/combinations (all the new words/ways of phrasing) that you want and there will always be plenty of room between any two numbers you pick. I *think* we switched from Dewey system to accomodate for just this reason.

Hence... you can fill in as much as you want between bio, physics, geo, anything, anywhere. And we have a uniform commonality underneath to integrate so we can all find it.

We then cross reference the words that *mean* something to different people (keywords, phrases people would think to look up, user friendly, etc.) using the call numbers as the organizing backbone. (Of course, if we want our priest for this, we'll have to bug Terri Freedman and get her down here. heh heh heh.)

This was all done long before computers. As for the computer version... thank god! Card catalogues are heavy. Speaking of which... have you ever had to shift the stacks? That is, physically make room for the new books of a particular discipline as it grows and shrink another as it becomes out of date because knowledge evolves? I always hated that job. Microfiche is your friend.

We all have a lot of power. We all have a lot of powerlessness. And we all have limited time.

At this point, I don't think we're even disagreeing with each other. Just being a multifaceted perspective. Hallelujah. (For my note in this song: Note the precise structure of a real number line we ALL had to fit into helped too.)


Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-18 20:36:22
Link to this Comment: 19087

We all have a lot of power. We all have a lot of powerlessness. And we all have limited time.

A summary of the discussion Rachel and Maeve led about "Rethinking Science Education from The Students' Point of View" is now up @

As I was writing up this summary, I noticed what seemed to be two intersecting (and contrary?) claims: that, on the one hand, contemporary math education "has gone too far" in trying to create a context and motivation for students to learn math: "foundations are lost" in the process. On the other hand, much pedagogical innovation, known as "hands-on" or "inquiry-based" work, seems not to go far enough in engaging the mind; it doesn't become "brains-on."

A similar distinction arose two months ago, in our conversation with Victor Donnay, when we identified a "deep and fundamental tension" between "trying to get some well-defined thing into students' brains" and "trying to make the brains themselves better learners" (see for a fuller report of that discussion).

I saw us, on the one hand, crawling back from the edge of applied mathematics, and on the other, crawling right over the edge: into a more radical sort of transaction where teachers are willing--not just to adapt what they teach to student interests, but--to actually be changed /have their program and their field be changed by what their students bring to the classroom.

Please continue the conversation on-line @

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-23 22:32:13
Link to this Comment: 19126

I spent three hours in the living of the Multicultural Center on Friday afternoon learning about a couple of new teaching initiatives at Bryn Mawr: the first session featured Sharon Burgmayer's new course on "the chemical history of art," the second Gail Hemmeter and Linda Caruso-Haviland's new CSem on "Performance and Self." The first presentation was about a science course special-tailored to the interests of students (in this case, art and art history majors); the second was about a first-semester course that emphasizes writing as a "discipline-independent public act, performed in order to get a reaction from others, a reaction that one can learn from. It needs to be a transactional process."

Both sessions, in short, were about messy "transactions." Both drew a distinction between the "antiseptic nature of studying and getting your hands dirty"--a distinction generally reflected in the curricular structures of the College. I learned that--like the medieval alchemists who practiced the "art of making a substance no formula could describe," modern researchers, artists, performers and writers are most fearless, and most successful, when they "don't think in terms of what is "right or wrong," but rather in terms of "what might happen."

Interesting for me to hear how well such an exploratory stance works alike in "doing chemistry and art" and "in performing and writing for the public." Please feel free to add your own thoughts about any of these--or related--processes, in the forums for the brown bag series or for stories of teaching and learning. And let me, Paul or Jody know what thoughts you might have for continuing some version of either series in the fall.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-04-28 11:32:34
Link to this Comment: 19174

Ever since Deepak's talk, a month ago, on Rethinking Computer Science Education, I'd been lying awake @ night (okay, slight exaggeration; but I had been wondering) trying to figure out why learning "how to find the freshest eggs in the grocery story " is useful to teach as a procedure in a computing science class. He's attempted, below, to help me see that "procedures" pervade the description of the solutions.

"procedures" pervade the description of the soluti
Name: Deepak Kum
Date: 2006-04-28 11:36:01
Link to this Comment: 19175


What a timely question...especially since it has roots in deciding when Easter falls, the problems created in the Julian calendar by adding the extra months of July and August..etc and leads us to Pope Gregory the XIII.

Without causing too much loss of aleep...

Here is how the problem is formulated:

Given: Today's date (say April 12, 2006)
Compute: What day of year is today?
January 1 is the 1st day of the year
February 1 is the 32nd day of the year, etc.

The general problem is: Given the day you were born, how many days have you lived? Or, how old is this nation which was founded on July 4, 1776?

The procedure (for fresh eggs/computing the day of the year):

For each whole month prior to current month (i.e. 1, 2 and 3 for today), add up the number of days in each month
Then add todays day (12) to that number.
The procedure for the general problem: If the two dates are in different years:
add up the number of days from the DOB to the end of the year (i.e. 7/4/1776-12/31/1776
then add up the number of days in the whole years from Year1+1 to Year2-1 (i.e. 1777 to 2005)
then add up the number of days in the current year (the procedure described above).
There are also special cases: the two dates are in the same year, same month...etc.

In each of the cases where you need to find out the number of days in a month, the case of February has to be dealt with. Nearly 100% of our students have the foggiest idea of the exact definition of a Leap Year (stop and think about it first and then read on).

Defining the leap year takes us back to the story of the problems with the Julian Calendar after it was extended and caused several problems ranging from timely planting of crops to deciding when Easter would fall. Then in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII issued a Papal Bull (and this could really be the topic of an entire course!!) creating the current Gregorian Calendar which we now follow and it defines a year as a Leap Year as follows:

Leap Year: Any year that is divisible by 4 is a Leap Year except century years (1800, 1900, 2100...which are divisible by 4 but are not Leap Years) except when they are divisible by 400 (thus 1600, 2000, 2400...are Leap Years).

Anyway, I hope you can see that "procedures" pervade the description of the solutions....

some replies
Name: John P. Do
Date: 2006-04-28 15:02:21
Link to this Comment: 19177

Anne wrote, What struck me forcibly, in writing up a summary of that conversation [w/ Deepak], were two things which I haven't yet quite been able to bring into alignment:
* the claim that computer science is both "theoretical and applied"

my initial thought is something like, "does it also bother you that there is theoretical and applied math? physics? chemistry?" -- it does not bother me; in fact, I believe both are needed and often complementary "in theory" -- I support Deepak's contention that computation/computer science is another field of inquiry, perhaps that substantial realizations of much of this theory/inquiry (and so rapidly realized in society) overshadows the opportunities for investigation as in the other natural sciences. * the claim that it has an " inherent bias for fast/efficient procedures." I would place this bias in the same category of bias as other "imperatives" -- in bio, there is much study of the inherent "survival of the fittest", in physics we search for the "best model" -- in computer science we explore efficiency (only after establishing correctness) ideally because it is a fascinating property of procedures -- I would suggest contrasting Deepak's discussion of the Towers of Hanoi, which grows exponentially in time, with a more common procedure to lookup a phone number (which can be defined as a binary search, a logarithmic procedure) -- it is of keen interest that we can double the size of the phone book and only need one extra step in the execution of the procedure, but the inverse is true for Hanoi: one extra input (i.e., disk) doubles the amount of execution time required. One of the open questions in computer science involves whether there are more efficient procedures for some (classes of) problems that we have yet to uncover (or perhaps our definition of computable is limited, but that is a substantially different story). *The conflict, as I see/imagine/experience it, is between the need to avoid premature storytelling, with having the patience to wait til one's gathered enough evidence to tell a new story, a story that might really matter, that might change things a bit in the long run--and the need to provide an answer that works. Now. I suspect this reaction is more a consequence of the immediate application of computer science (or better stated as the perception of this) -- I have used this analogy in lecture: it is easy to make sculpture, but very challenging to make "good sculpture"; the same holds for programming (the "storytelling" as I understand you), and our endeavor as professors is to help students to learn and appreciate good algorithms/programs (at least at the start), eventually to explore the larger questions about procedures Ever since our first conversations, four years ago, about the "culture of science" (I'm thinking in particular of a discussion led by Ralph Kuncl on "The Balkanization of Science"), the tension between research driven by the dollar and education driven by exploration was laid out in stark terms. The claim made as long ago as September 2002 (as I remember it) was to "balk" at the notion that we could serve both masters.

So I found myself particularly intrigued by Deepak's explanation, Friday afternoon, that computer science is "fundamentally a discipline of inquiry"--with legs in the world (it is "driven by a societal artifact: money"). I know the latter is true. Just this week, I took my daughter to North Philly to interview for a job with Proyecto Sin Fronteras/Open Borders Projects. She went into the interview thinking this was a literacy program (think: ESL); she came out, in some surprise, to report that it was a program in technological literacy (and unsure about her capacity to provide that...) It's exciting to think that computers can be used to expand the pie, make satisfying work available to immigrants to this country, etc....
The application of some of the results of computer science (i.e., the technology) is a related but different topic to what I heard Deepak discuss -- I am presently teaching a course entitled "Fluency with Information Technology (IT)" where the goal is to explore the fundamentals of computing and IT and their application -- I believe it is valid in the same way the study and practice of writing is important for undergraduates -- again, this is related peripherally to Deepak's discussion FRI in that some degree of understanding of computation, as well as its limits, is a desired feature of IT fluency. And yet, and yet... I find myself not yet entirely convinced by the story we heard on Friday. I'd like to hear more about how it actually plays out, on the ground, in venues such as the new Bio/C.S. course on Emergence, or in the new course on Visualizing Information which Deepak mentioned. Not being, myself, a patient person, I'm wondering if you can really--really--teach courses about the fundamental nature of inquiry that also enable students to provide quick, efficient responses to on-the-ground problems. Are the two goals compatible? How is the field of computer science managing--in the day-to-day work of courses--the tension between unfeasible and feasible projects, long-term and short-term goals, theory and application, thinking and doing, exploring and engineering, playing and re-tooling? Again, I suggest looking at other natural sciences, where it takes four years of study to prepare for graduate work -- in computer science we are working to start this process for those who are inclined to be curious about the study of computation and procedures. Just like a B.S. in English might get someone a starting job at a paper (e.g., my sister-in-law), a B.A in computer science can get a starting position in programming -- what I took from Deepak's talk was that this field is truly open, with many unanswered questions (AI alone is enormous) -- in certain ways we are benefiting because as a relatively new (or newly identified) natural science we can learn from older disciplines, yet at the same time we suffer because we are new (my big example here is the name: computer science for our field has been compared to "telescope science" for astronomy) -- personally, while not the driving motivation, the newness is exciting form me in that I can still send email to most of the giants in the field ;-)

Name: Annne Dalk
Date: 2006-04-29 19:55:08
Link to this Comment: 19192

Thanks to both Deepak and J.D. for following up on my various queries about "rethinking computer science education." I've also continued to puzzle over Peter's observation, a few weeks ago, about the question he found "irrelevant" to his key point: "I really don't care if particular features are characteristic of reality, or stories descriptive of it." While reading some of the work of Richard Rorty this week, I got some clarity on this still-to-me-puzzle. In A Pragmatist View of Contemporary Analytic Philosophy, Rorty says,

"We felt the need for an interpreter...only so long as we thought of natural science as privileged by a special relation to non-human reality, and of the natural scientist as stepping into the shoes of the priests." His argument--which I find quite compelling--is that "heartfelt devotion to realism [is] the Enlightenment's version of the religious urge to to bow down before a non-human power. The term 'Reality as it is in itself, apart from human needs and interests' is, in my view, just another of the obsequious Names of God....I suggest...that we treat the idea that physics gets you closer to an updated version of the priests' claim to be in closer touch with God than the laity.

...questions about which true sentences are made true by "facts" and which are not...capitalizes on one of Plato's worst ideas...that we can divide up the culture into the hard areas where the non-human is encountered and acknowledged and the softer areas in which we are on our own....Quine's...view that science is not special, not different from the rest of culture in any philosophically interesting way, chimes with [the] attempt to put all true sentences on a referential par, and thereby further to erase the line between the hard and the soft....stop thinking of intellectual progress as a matter of increasing tightness of fit with the non-human world....discard the question 'Do I know the real object, or only one of its appearances?' and replace it with the question 'Am I using the best possible description of the situation in which I find myself, or can I cobble together a better one?'"

trade and translation
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2006-05-05 21:05:46
Link to this Comment: 19260

I've just posted a summary of our conversation, last Friday, w/ Peter Brodfuehrer, about the possibilities which HHMI grants offer to make science education at Bryn Mawr generally more interdisciplinary in practice, and particularly more focused on communication among those who don't share the same labs or even the same disciplines.

So I send this notice to all who have participated, this past semester, in our series of discussions about "Re-thinking Science Education," as an invitation to go on thinking about such matters (in this on-line forum, if you'd like)--

with thanks for all y'all have been teaching me, all the time,
about translating and trading our varieties of thinking across disciplinary boundaries--
Anne (from up the hill and across the road)

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