Studying Science in My Retirement Years–Breaking the Science Barrier

I am listening to From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll and although I can understand his words I doubt I understand what he’s trying to tell me.  The book is about time and entropy, and how they are seen from classical physics, relativity, and quantum physics.  I read and listen to a lot of science books, but I believe there’s a science barrier that I can’t break through.  I’ve also been reading Brian Greene and Lawrence M. Krauss, whose books often overlap what Carroll is covering.  These books are fantastic, both in the quality of writing and research, and in scope of topic.  They take the reader to the edge of space and time and describe the cutting edge of scientific knowledge.

The fruits of my study show a murky comprehension at best.  I can understand science at the level Galileo and Newton understood it, but 21st Century science is magical and closer to science fiction, lots of razzle-dazzle.  I’d like to truly see where science is pointing.  I’d like to grasp the experimental logic of how scientists got there.

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I’m sixty years old and I never stopped trying to understand reality.  The older I get the more sure I am that religion has nothing to say about the nature of reality.  In recent years I’ve come doubt the validity of philosophy.  Logic and rhetoric can be very seductive, but also deceptive.  I am quite confident that science is the only system that explains reality. 

But I’m not sure I can understand science’s explanation!

What’s hilariously ironic, is we believers in science must take so much of what we’re taught about science on faith.

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I struggle to make sense of quantum physics.  I wish they’d stop talking about cats and talk about actual experiments.  When science writers try to convey quantum physics they end up talking in metaphors that just don’t make a lot of sense.  Black holes and cosmology have a conceptual reality that makes sense, even though I can’t understand why information won’t be destroyed if it fell into a singularity.  I was very lucky to read The Information by James Gleick before reading these books, because information theory does make sense to me, just not at the quantum mechanics level yet.

When little kids ask their mommies where everything comes from and their moms answer “God created everything” – that’s a big convenient cheat.  Moms really don’t know or don’t want to take the time to explain what science has learned about the nature of reality.  The truth is out there, at least part of it, and it’s not what Fox Mulder and Dana Scully discovered with the help of Chris Carter, or anything you can learn from prophets and their religions, or even from Plato and Aristotle, and their philosophical descendants.

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If you want to know the truth you have to study science.  It’s the only game in town.  Trust me.  I’ve read hundreds of books searching for the truth, and it all distills down to that.  Religion and philosophy can take you down years of blind alleys.

How badly do you want to know the truth?  Bad enough to study math?  Yeah, I thought so.  At 60, I don’t think I can go back and pick up where I left off after my B in Calculus I.  Without being a math whiz, how close can we come to really understanding science?  Without math, how close can anyone get to understanding what science has to teach?  I don’t want to accept science on faith.  Nor should anyone else.

In school and college I studied physics, chemistry and biology.  I know a fair history of science and great experiments, and how we gained the scientific knowledge we have up until around Einstein.  This is classical science.  It’s the science at the world’s eye view of things, where most experiments can be repeated in the classroom.  I’ve explored the larger world of astronomy with telescopes and books, and the mechanical universe makes sense too.  It’s when cosmology melds with particle physics and the quantum reality that my mind fails to grasp what’s going on.

Since I never had my own personal atom smasher, I’ve never really understood how scientists know what they know about the zoo of sub-atomic particles, much less quantum physics.  Because this world is invisible, and exploring it is so mathematical, science writers often resort to analogies, metaphors, similes, and thought experiments to explain this frontier of reality.  These stories sound wonderful, but they don’t help me see what’s really happening.  Classical experiments in gravity, optics and electricity have a immediate truth to them that doesn’t work when studying particle physics.  Chemistry is abstract, but models of molecular bonds help picture it.  The microscope gives biology a direct view.  Animations of the sub-atomic world help me picture things, but I’ve been told my whole life these animations are wrong.

What I need to do is go back to the 1600 and retrace all the experiments that were done to set the stage for particle physics.  That might help me conceptualize quantum mechanics.

I did find Following the Path of Discovery – Repeat Famous Experiments and Inventions – Hands on Activities for High School and College Students.

I once bought a CD-ROM copy of Scientific American’s “The Amateur Scientist” but I can’t find it now.  Too bad, it’s out of print and selling for $852 used.  But it contains the complete run of the “The Amateur Scientist” from Scientific American.  That would be a great way to spend my retirement years, doing those experiments myself.  But DIY science has gone out of fashion.  SciAm dropped “The Amateur Scientist” in 2001.  Heathkit and Edmund Scientific gave up on budding scientists years ago.  Make Magazine has rekindled the old DIY craze, but it’s not quite the same.

The big movement in Education now-a-days is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  Maybe it will reignite a rediscovery of science learning through teaching classic experiments.

PBS should create a television series on historical science experiments.  There’s lots of stuff on the net about fun science experiments, like what Steve Spangler does, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  PBS NOVA comes close sometimes, but they don’t follow an experiment step-by-step, but instead create a historical summary of it.

And I might not need to see historical experiments performed to understand particle physics.  Studying the history of quantum mechanics from the beginning, starting with Michael Faraday, might do the trick.  I’m reading 21st century books when I might need to read 19th century books first, or good histories of that period.

I’ve often wondered if I should start a reading program that covered the history of science.  My problem might be I’m reading about modern science without enough historical foundation in science.

If I was an ambitious blogger I’d create a timeline of science history, and then link the best science books I could find to the timeline.  Maybe someone has already done that?  So far I haven’t found such a timeline, so I might get to work on it.  It would be a great retirement project that could take years.

Here’s an example.  In 1838, Michael Faraday noticed a strange light arc between the cathode and anode in a glass tube.  It took science until 1897 to discover this light was electrons.  At the time science thought atoms were the smallest bits of matter.  What are the best science books that cover those years and experiments?  How would I arrange such books on a timeline?  What other science experiments were going on between 1838-1897 that should go on the timeline too.  What books cover their history?

I’m rearranging my books right now, so this gives me an idea.  I want to start a reading project that starts with 1600 and moves forward in time.

JWH – 8/22/12

17 Responses

  1. Hey, Jim,
    I listened to the audio of Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces and though it was pretty understandable.

  2. Hey Jim. This post resonated with me for a variety of reasons but let me first thank you for the link to “Following the Path to Discovery”. I’m currently creating a series of online physics courses for a high school and I actually am going to use one of these experiments in an electromagnetic waves course I’m working on. So THANK YOU! :) Now in terms of your post, this is something that is of great interest to me because I’m spending the next several years in grad school working, in large part, on researching not only how we can fight the natural digression that occurs in our memories as we grow older, but how we might make education (particularly SciEd) easier for adult learners. Do you feel that you’re struggling with these concepts (quantum physics for instance) because these books are throwing too much information out there without doing a sound job of providing references to other resources that you might use to supplement your understanding…OR…do you think that individuals just need a great deal of formal science education in the first place in order to grasp the concepts these authors are writing about? I understand what you’re saying about study…that is indeed important but I’m wondering what your thoughts are on these 2 specific ones I threw out there? I like your idea of the timeline of reading projects starting with earlier experiences to gain a foundation of today’s science…PLEASE let us know how that goes for you. It will be interesting to learn if that helps you gain a better grasp on a particular “modern” subject. Thanks as always Jim!

    • When we are children we spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to be when we grow up. Now that I’m getting close to my social security years, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to be when I retire.

      My memory is going. I had several senior moments today. I’m trying to learn new concepts at the same time my brain is turning to Swiss cheese. Part of this is due to having an overly full brain and pursuing too many different subjects. My biological hard drive constantly rewrites over old files. What I need to do is jettison a lot of crap and start focusing. In other words, I need to specialize. What this means is I’ll die knowing a lot about science, and little about anything else. How far I can push my old noggin remains to be seen.

      To answer your question, I think modern books on physics cover too much territory. They have to catch up with hundreds of years of science before they can talk about the current action at the edge of knowledge. So popular physics books tend to be repetitious, and that’s okay. It helps to go over this stuff over and over again from different angles. However, I feel these summaries aren’t doing the job of getting me to actually understand the reality of the science. I’m constantly reading new versions of the Cliff Notes without reading the real books, which would be understanding the actual experiments.

      I don’t know if I need more formal education. I had physics in high school, and then three semesters of physics and two of astronomy in college, as well as chemistry, biology and botany. It’s pretty much all forgotten. It’s the old use it or loose it proposition.

      I’ve always been a scatterbrain auto-didactic, but what I’m proposing is specializing. This is very hard for me to do because I love so many different topics. But I’m never going to understand science unless I do, and maybe not even then.

      How do you feel about your high school students and their grasp of physics? Do they get it, or just learn the Reader’s Digest version to pass tests?

      • Not sure on their grasp just yet. I’m just developing the curriculum under contract with the ISD up there but they have agreed to share outcomes with me. One way I’m working to ensure that students are “getting it” is to break up physics into modules rather than one huge course. For example, one module may deal with electromagnetic waves while another deals with circular motion and gravity. I’m hopeful that by breaking a complex subject such as physics into smaller parts, their overall retention will be better. Well see…

  3. I love your blog. Your such a good writer. I’ve listened to the three books you’ve highlighted in this post. All three of them I would consider as my favorites. I too am retired and have decided the best path for discovering truth lies in science. Brian Greene in his “Fabric of the Cosmos” mentioned he wrote that book for the retiree who didn’t have time to learn about the subject while working. I figure, I was one of those people he wrote that book for.

    I would recommend listening to “The Short History of Nearly Everything”. I was reluctant to get it from audible since it cost two credits. I’m glad I did. It’s incredibly well written and laid the foundation I needed to read those books you mentioned above.

    “The 4 Percent Universe” was the other book that gave me the foundation and brought me back up to speed on Cosmology.

    I did enjoy your post on what you’d do if you went back in time to meet your 13 year old self. I listened to “Replay” because of your recommendation and loved it. My first fiction book in over a year. BTW, the two things I would have told myself is one, floss your teeth daily, and two, read “Replay”.

    The science books have lead me to reading evolution and evolutionary psychology books. Probably my favorite has been Steven Pinkers “The better angels of our nature”. It’s changed my world view. If I had not read the science books, I probably would not have been able to understand books like that or the philosophy books I’ve branched off in to now.

    Your post on how Audible changed your life spoke for me too. Thanks and I consider you my favorite non political blog.

    • Gary, it sounds like we have very overlapping reading tastes. I listened The Short History of Nearly Everything a few years ago, and was very impressed. In fact, I’ve been thinking about buying the illustrated edition to reread. At work a lady friend has been telling me about how her 10-year-old son has gotten into science, and I recommended he try it. He already reads at a 12th grade level. Bill Bryson’s overview of science is a good start, and maybe a good place for me to re-study.

      I have not read The 4% Universe, but I’ll get it on Audible and give it a listen.

      I’ve bought The Better Angels of Our Nature, as well as a few other Steven Pinker books, but I’ve only read The Blank Slate. I hope to find time to get to them all. They are so huge that they intimidate me.

      I’m glad you liked Replay by Ken Grimwood. I believe its becoming an underground classic – especially for people who can remember 1963.

      I appreciate your compliments about my writing. It encourages me to work harder. Thanks.

  4. Jim, it’s not faith to accept the scientific consensus as the best answer we’ve currently got. If you understand the scientific method, you’ll understand how science works, why it works, and why we should accept the consensus on any particular scientific issue.

    After all, even scientists can’t understand everything in science. I’ve heard biologists say that they can’t keep up with everything even in biology, that they have to specialize more than that. And those are the professionals, so what hope is there for us laymen?

    Furthermore, I hear people claiming to know a lot about evolution (as one example), who get even the basics of it wrong. They think they can argue biology with biologists when they have virtually no understanding of the subject at all. (Even I, a complete layman, can see that!)

    So I’m not sure how much more than a murky comprehension we laymen can expect, especially without specializing. I find evolution fascinating, so I know more about that than about global warming, but it’s still only a very basic understanding.

    But with a basic understanding of the scientific method, I can understand why it makes sense to accept the scientific consensus on both. The rest of it, I try to understand because it’s interesting. But I’m not going to become a scientist, not at my age. And I know that my understanding will be murky, at best.

    • What you’re saying is: If a person understands the scientific method, then they can trust scientists who use it to gather knowledge for us, and thus we can trust the results. I don’t think I’m bending the English language too much to call that a kind of Faith in Science.

      Few people could prove that the Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth. They just accept that knowledge. Few people could prove the existence of radio waves, even while listening to radios. Science overwhelms us with successful results, so we do feel we can trust science – even the people who protest against it. People who refute evolution will fly in an airplane or take medicine their doctors give them.

      We do trust science, but I believe that trust is closer to faith. In fact, it’s far better faith than religious people use to believe in God. How many people will trust prayer over medicine?

      However, I feel most people are so ignorant of how science works, that the word faith is much better than trust or acceptance. It’s akin to the old statement of Arthur C. Clarke that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic to most people.

      I disagree that knowing the scientific method is enough to trust science. I think children (and adults) should be taught to do the original experiments of a lot of famous scientific discoveries. I’m not sure how many, maybe 25, or 50, or even 100. Once they get the knack for how the scientific method works by doing it, then I’d be willing not to use the word Faith when it comes to people’s acceptance of science. And I don’t mean those fun experiments teachers are pawning off on kids today. I mean recreating the original experiments that led to our common beliefs.

      • Not exactly, Jim. Like most words, “faith” has different meanings. But in religion, “faith” is believing without requiring evidence or even despite the evidence.

        In that sense, you don’t have “faith” that the sun will come up tomorrow. You do expect that, yes. And casually speaking, some people might use the word “faith” for that. But not in the same meaning.

        Likewise, you don’t need “faith” in science. There’s plenty of evidence that science. while it’s NOT infallible, is the best method we’ve discovered for determining the truth. And if you’re willing to make the effort, the evidence of that is available to everyone.

        However, it’s not the case that you can pick and choose who to believe without doing the experiments yourself (or accepting the results of scientists who have). For a layman, that just leads to choosing what you want to believe, exactly what the scientific method was invented to counter.

        That’s why I say that understanding the scientific method will get rational people to accept the scientific consensus. It’s not “faith,” not at all. It’s just an understanding of the process. When you understand the process, you’ll understand why that makes sense.

        But sure. Science classes need to teach science – through experiments, as much as possible – in order to educate students to that understanding. People who don’t understand the scientific method might be trusting science for the wrong reasons. But given the abundant evidence that science WORKS, I’d still have a hard time describing that as “faith,” I think.

      • Bill, the trouble is most people accept science on faith, without asking for evidence or understanding the evidence. Science is so successful that people just accept it rather than try to understand science.

        They accept science until it tells them something they don’t like, and then they reject it. Most people will accept cars and airplanes, computers and television, medicine and doctors, but they want to reject global warming and evolution.

        I use faith in science the same way you use faith in God. People don’t question God either. People just want to believe in what they like. Few people ask for evidence. Most people’s acceptance of science is exactly like their acceptance of Jesus – it’s faith based without asking or caring for any kind of evidence.

        To them, hearing that Jesus was born of a virgin is exactly equal to all matter is made up of atoms. They don’t care, and probably don’t know that we can prove the existence of one but not the other.

        Jim

      • No, Jim. You’re missing my point. You CAN’T examine the evidence for everything in science. That’s physically impossible, even for professional scientists, because there’s just too much of it. Our lifespans aren’t that long to become an expert in everything.

        You can try to become familiar with some of it, but we laymen will never have the kind of knowledge we need to say that the scientific consensus is wrong.

        I see this all the time, from people who don’t want to believe that evolution is true (or global warming, or anything else they don’t like). They’ve read some things, and they’re convinced that they have good reasons for their beliefs. But even I can tell that they’re woefully ignorant about evolution. They tend to get even the basics wrong.

        I’m just a layman myself, but even I can see that. Biologists pull their hair out at that level of ignorance. But these people think they’ve looked at the evidence “on both sides.” They think they’re doing just what you suggest. But they’re not professional biologists, and they’re never going to have that level of expertise – the level of expertise required to say that the scientific consensus is wrong.

        This isn’t a matter of “faith.” It’s just a recognition that we’re no longer in the Renaissance era. Science has gone far past the point where an intelligent layman can understand everything. Biologists can’t even be expert about everything in biology! Most have to specialize even within that discipline.

        However, we laymen can understand the scientific method well enough to realize why the scientific consensus is the best answer we’ve currently got. If you understand that, all you need to do is know what the scientific consensus is. If the consensus is that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that’s what I accept. I don’t have to run the experiments myself, because I know that the experts have done that.

        If there’s no consensus – and there won’t be on cutting-edge science – then I reserve judgment. But if there is a consensus, I accept it – provisionally, as all science is provisional. Yes, the consensus is always provisional, always subject to change if new evidence is discovered.

        Note that there’s no “proof” in science. It’s all about the evidence, and there’s always the possibility of new evidence. It’s always possible that the Earth doesn’t revolve around the Sun. (I can think of several ways that could be wrong.)

        So this isn’t “faith.” Just the reverse, in fact. It’s a recognition that we CAN’T become an expert in everything and that, if you try, you’ll likely end up believing whatever you want to believe. After all, that’s always very easy.

        The solution is to understand the scientific method. And yes, as students, we should teach experiments in order to demonstrate that. But the whole point should be understanding the scientific method. Once you understand that, once you understand why it’s the best method we’ve ever discovered of distinguishing the truth from delusion and wishful-thinking, you can justifiably accept the scientific consensus on everything (everything that has a consensus).

        Provisionally, of course. But if the consensus is wrong, scientists will be the first people to discover that and the consensus will change. We have ample evidence of that. It’s not “faith.” That’s just how the scientific method was developed and why it was created. It was designed to do this very thing, and although it’s not perfect (human beings will never be perfect), it does it very, very well.

        I don’t see any other rational alternative, Jim. Anything else will just lead to believing whatever you want to believe.

      • I agree there is lots of evidence for science. My point is most people never concern themselves with it. And most people do not have enough training to even understand how science works at a basic level. Bill, you’re a lot smarter than the average bear, so I think it’s hard for you to understand how blind the average person is to science. There’s no reasoning with them. It’s out of their conceptual framework.

        Sure, science is a rational alternative, but most people don’t see it. Most people on Earth have taken the route of believing whatever they feel like believing.

        My point is some of those people do accept some of what science tells them, but they accept it on faith rather than understanding how science works. My point is we have to get people away from accepting science on faith and educated how to understand how science actually works. They don’t have to learn everything, or even most of what science has to teach. They just need to learn the scientific method and a bit of skepticism so they can apply their own rule of thumb to any science news. Our society is full of crap ideas that’s sold as science. Without training to think skeptically, people will just accept the crap ideas.

        One reason to believe there is “faith in science” is the willingness of most people to believe something if they are told it’s scientific.

      • Well, I can’t argue against any of that, Jim. :)

      • Part of our disagreement comes, I think, from your strong bias against religion and me using a religious term like “faith.”

        But I’m thinking if we could do brain scans of people as they are “acquiring” knowledge or beliefs, the scans would show the acceptance of religious ideas would be no different from science ideas for most people.

        I would guess that people who can think critically, who can understand the scientific method, who can be skeptical of new information until they have evidence to validate it, would show activity in different locations of their brains.

        Science has shown that there are areas of the brains that are active for reading comprehension. I’m wondering if there are areas in the brain for critical scientific thinking and most people are just blind to science, like I’m blind to music theory, etc.

        When I see Republicans on TV spout all kinds of weird nonsense ideas and call it science, I’ve just got to wonder if they are blind to science like autistic kids are blind to social communications. Bill, you’re lucky to have such a good analytical mind.

        I think I can give you an example of “faith in science” thinking. Growing up I loved the idea of faster-than-light space travel. I figured science would find a way to make my science fictional dreams come true. I’d read about all kinds of theoretical concepts to allow for space travel. Because they caged themselves in science, I had faith they could be true. I was wrong. Star Trek preaches a faith in science so people accept the idea of warp drives. We think if scientists can build planes to break the sound barrier, then they can break the light barrier. I wanted to believe in FTL travel like Christians want to believe in Resurrection. It’s faith that keeps us believing.

        I use the word faith for accepting any idea without critical thinking, regardless of the subject.

      • Jim, the problem is that, when you use religious terminology to refer to science, you’re giving ammunition to the people who think there’s no difference between science and religion. They’re both just a matter of “faith,” right?

        That’s a fundamental misconception, and I see your earlier comments as supporting that – though not intentionally, I’m sure. You have to understand science to know why accepting the scientific consensus is rational. But you don’t have to become an expert in every scientific discipline (which is impossible for any one person), and it’s not a matter of faith or an absence of critical thinking. Just the reverse.

        Finally, a belief in FTL travel isn’t science. It might be science fiction, but those are two completely different things. (In fact, I think the scientific consensus is that FTL travel is not possible.)

  5. [...] A Universe from Nothing (2012) – Lawrence M. Krauss [...]

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