[IAEP] Physics - Lesson plans ideas?

Edward Cherlin echerlin at gmail.com
Sun Aug 23 23:27:40 EDT 2009

Separate from this discussion, let me observe that the Exploratorium
museum has expressed interest in using XOs to control experiments,
including letting visitors interact with them through XOs.

On Sat, Aug 22, 2009 at 4:49 PM, Alan Kay<alan.nemo at yahoo.com> wrote:
> Hi Bill
> Let me try again, but not as long winded. (after looking below, I can see
> that I failed).
> Everything in a language describes something in a "story space". That is all
> language can do. There is nothing instrinsically about the form of any story
> that makes it relate to "what's out there?" in any necessary way. Math tries
> to be consistent and to chain reasoning together but this is not enough to
> reveal anything about the universe. It's still a story.

If you stop here, you have an unduly pessimistic picture.

Math does not help us to uncover reality by itself. As part of
science, it is quite helpful, and even essential. Our ontology is
necessarily not about the ultimate nature of ultimate reality (what
Kant called "das Ding an sich"), but it is about aspects of reality
sufficient for the purpose.

What we have to work with is sense impressions. In the same way as
stories, these have no _necessary_ connection with reality. However,
experience shows that they allow us to distinguish in almost all cases
between sense impressions related to physical reality and those, such
as dreams, hallucinations, and sensory illusions, that clearly are
not. When we start to build a scientific model of physical reality,
this is the base from which we can start.

Science requires that we have such a model of the relationship between
sense impressions and the somewhat hypothetical reality that generates
them in reaction with our sense organs and nervous system. Then, as we
refine our scientific models, theories, observations, and experiments,
we can also refine this epistemology and ontology.

> Science is the process of trying to put what we can investigate and think
> about "what's out there" in as close a relation as possible with what we can
> represent in symbols. In practise this is a kind of coevolution.

Very good.

> What people do in Etoys on computers is *entirely stories*, and some of
> these count as math (special kinds of consistent chained together reasoning
> stories). Some of the stories count as "scientific mappings". None of them
> are science.

Just so.

> So when they learn about the ideas of speed and acceleration with the cars
> they draw, they are learning a nice math way to do this (the computer's
> ability to do fast loops with simple arithmetic or vectors allows the
> equivalent of integration in calculus to be done very simply and easily --
> this is a very good thing).
> This was Seymour's genius to realize that the computer could allow certain
> things in mathematics to be done differently and much more simply but
> without losing what's powerful and central -- and that this would allow
> these kinds of mathematics to be learned much more easily and earlier in
> life by children (and adults).
> But these ideas of speed and acceleration have no necessary connection to
> "what's out there?" (and in fact we know that the seemingly reasonable idea
> of adding speeds (they don't) doesn't obtain in the universe we live in).

Who, or what, doesn't do what?

> Saying it again *science is not the same as the languages of science*.

In the Philosophy of Science courses that I took in college, I was
taught that scientific work requires a combination of a mathematical
theory with observations and experiments that support the theory, and
describe a region of validity for its predictions, with error
estimates. Observation and experiment must also be used to rule out
alternative theories and possible sources of error. This is not a
complete set of requirements, and there is a great deal of detail
involved in any particular application of this theory.

For example, Galilean gravity in a constant field is only approximate
due to changes with altitude and also the curvature of the earth.
Newtonian gravity is much more accurate for matter, but fails for
light, the orbit of Mercury, and the Global Positioning System, all of
which require Einstein's General Relativity. We do not know of any
phenomena where GR fails, but we do know that it is inconsistent with
Quantum Mechanics.

Furthermore, we cannot do calculations with complete accuracy in
either Newtonian or Einsteinian gravity. We must use various
approximations, for which we must calculate the numerical accuracy.

> Let's take the Lunar Landing example.
> This is done after the children have done some real science and have figured
> out the Galilean approximation to model gravity by taking a movie of a
> dropping object, measuring the increase in speed for each equal unit in
> time, and (to the limits of their ability to measure) decided that the this
> increase in speed looks "pretty constant".
> Four months earlier they did some play with this with the cars on their
> screen and are able to see that this should be the same model, but
> vertically not horizontally. They write a script with the two "increase by"s
> and then find a way to see if their simulated ball moves the same way as the
> dropped ball on the video. And it does.
> This was real science in every particular. It's wonderful to watch them do
> it.

Indeed, although only part of real science.

> Now they have a "pretty good" mathematical model of what they could observe
> in "what's out there?". (Or as Newton liked to say "pretty nearly".) The
> model isn't the same as what's out there. It doesn't depict "what's out
> there?".
> They can use this to do many kinds of further math, such as the lunar
> lander, shooting projectiles, etc.
> The Lunar Lander is not science or a presentation of science (there is no
> further observation of "what's out there?", etc. no further attempts to
> relate what it does to the real world -- it's making a story assumption --
> that what obtains on earth also obtains on the moon). There is science to
> make that plausible, but we don't present it. There have been visits to the
> moon, but we don't cite them.
> Lunar Lander is a *game* children make using the results of some real
> science that they did.

It is not only a game. It is "Rocket Science". (Actually, "Rocket
Technology".) It's an approximation what NASA does when planning lunar
and planetary landings.

> We *don't* teach any children science by showing them Etoys that simulate
> something (this isn't teaching science, it's just teaching a story and
> claiming something about it).
> You are very right that if a person doesn't have firmly in mind just what
> science is really about, they can confuse a representation of ideas gotten
> by scientific means with science itself.

Richard Feynman pointed out that Brazilian education in physics made
this kind of error, so that nobody with a Brazilian physics degree
could actually do physics. He gave a talk at the university where he
was teaching, in which he said, "The main purpose of my talk is to
demonstrate to you that _no_ science is being taught in Brazil!"
(Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, p. 216. Paperback, ISBN

> The simplest way to understand this is that anyone can add to or change the
> scripts in the Lunar Lander game and it's still a story, but less like what
> they children found by observation. This is because there is nothing in math
> or the computer or humans that knows anything about how "what's out there?"
> is, and most humans have been fooling themselves for 100,000 years about
> most of this.
> Stories are arbitrary, and the universe seems less arbitrary.
> So the epistemology (the "outlook") of science is one of the greatest human
> inventions. It helps us realize just how poorly our normal thinking
> activities work.

The most important thing that one can learn in life.

> The process of science is also one of the greatest human inventions; it
> helps groups of people police each other's tendencies towards myriad ways of
> bad thinking to generally result in clearer perspectives on "what's out
> there?". In computer metaphor it is like error correcting codes and error
> correcting processes. Lots of work has to be done to clear away as much
> noise as possible from our senses and bad thinking.
> This is why every human on the planet should learn "real science". It's not
> to get a job, or because science is "interesting and powerful". It's because
> we are all really bad thinkers and we just can't afford to continue with
> both powerful technologies, population growth, and bad thinking at the same
> time.
> That is a good place to end this reply, but there is one further thing I
> think needs to be pointed out.
> And this is that using math (with our without computers) is a really good
> way to create "possible worlds" that might be like the real world in
> important and interesting ways. For example, if we have some reason to think
> that animals might be able to smell well enough to follow gradients of odor
> (we can certainly do it well enough to head for cooking food when we are
> hungry) then it makes great sense to try to see what kinds of behaviors
> could be evoked just from simple following of artificial gradients. This
> isn't science, but it strongly suggests experiments that could be done.

It _is_ science, just not _all_ of science. Theories are important.
Experiments are important. Tying them together is essential. But the
most valuable possessions of scientists are not the theories and facts
established in past work. They are the current questions, where we
don't have an answer, but we have some idea how we might get one.
Finding such a question within the reach of a few years of work is the
first research problem for every Ph.D. candidate.

> In much more extreme terms, Newton liked to separate completely the math
> from the science. For example, in the first part of Principia he only does
> math, and comes up with many relationships that he proves obtain
> geometrically. Then in the last part of the book he starts to take the
> predictions of the math from the premises he started with and to relate them
> to various kinds of observations on the earth and in the heavens. This book
> is a breathtaking tour de force of the highest possible art and
> sensibilities of what science is all about, how it is different from math,
> and how the two very different systems can work incredibly fruitfully
> together.
> By the way, Bertrand Russell once remarked that "Newton was not a strict
> Newtonian", and this is quite true. For example, he didn't think that the
> inverse square "law" could possibly be the whole story (because it contains
> instantaneous action at a distance). However, many who came after him
> confused his "best story right now" with the kinds of stories in the the
> Bible that they believed in, and this in certain areas of science (e.g.
> dealing with Maxwells's equations) held them severely back. Newton
> understood the epistemology of science and they didn't.

Newton is also described as the last of the medieval magicians, in
light of his alchemical and Biblical researches. He made serious
errors in epistemology and ontology with the idea of absolute space,
which grew into the luminiferous ether and then collapsed in the
Michelson-Morley experiments.

Quantum mechanics, one of the most successful scientific theories of
all time in terms of predictions verified by experiment, has a number
of epistemological and ontological faults, such as the impossibility
of adapting it to curved Einsteinian spacetime. A radical change is
needed, perhaps to some form of string theory, but we don't yet know
which one.

> Best wishes,
> Alan
> ________________________________
> From: Bill Kerr <billkerr at gmail.com>
> To: Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com>
> Cc: Gary C Martin <gary at garycmartin.com>; iaep SugarLabs
> <iaep at lists.sugarlabs.org>; Brian Jordan <bcjordan at gmail.com>; Asaf Paris
> Mandoki <asafpm at gmail.com>
> Sent: Saturday, August 22, 2009 2:44:15 PM
> Subject: Re: [IAEP] Physics - Lesson plans ideas?
> hi alan,
> still thinking about the broader issue you raise about the importance of
> real science and its connection to computer based work and how to attempt to
> implement this in school settings (complex issue)
> however, I do notice that many of the standard etoy simulations are
> simulations of real world scientific type events, and not just maths related
> - salmon sniff
> - fish and plankton
> - particles dye in water
> - particles gas model
> I just checked the etoys gallery. It even says in the gallery, "Frame-based
> animation can be used for physics analysis"

Analysis, yes. But we need to make models of things that students can
observe and measure.

> I'm also unclear about whether an etoys car or lunar landing simulation
> could be misunderstand in the same way that you are suggesting that a
> gravity or pendulum simulation could be misunderstood in physics, (which
> would be better renamed as "toy physics")
> On Sun, Aug 16, 2009 at 12:29 PM, Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com> wrote:
>> >I'm not sure how your argument here would not apply also to etoys?
>> It does if you try to teach how the real world works by making computer
>> simulations without doing experiments.
>> But if you'll check out our materials carefully, we never do that. We
>> always keep clear the distinction between "real math" (and the fact that you
>> can do a lot of neat things with real math that are not seen in our physical
>> universe (and can easily be at odds with what is seen) and thus are special
>> kinds of usually consistent stories) and that of "real science" which is
>> done by making careful observations of the real world the final arbiter of
>> all stories (no matter how pretty and consistent they might be) we might
>> make up.
>> This is why when teaching children we separate the math of speed and
>> acceleration (using the cars on the screen and "increase by") from
>> investigations into the science of how things fall by about 4 months. This
>> technique is as old as real science, was used by Newton (it's one of the
>> many charms of the Principia), and both used and advocated by Einstein.
>> And the other distinction with the use of Etoys is that the actual real
>> math of the phenomena (whether just math on the screen of the computer or as
>> a mapping relationship between observation and mathematical modeling) is
>> actually derived and done directly by the children. (And in earlier grades
>> this is done without computers, etc.)
>> This is completely different than giving children software which may or
>> may not work like the real world but at its best it is as mysterious as the
>> real world was before science, and at its worst (where it is not like the
>> real world) it is even more misleading.
>> This is missing what science is actually about. And sadly, though we can
>> do real math on the computer, we also find a myriad of approaches that
>> bypass "real math" for various kinds of "math appreciation" or "math flybys"
>> or "math grazings". Both of these are nicely covered by a gentle but firm
>> ancient reprimand by teacher Euclid to student Ptolemy "Sire, there is no
>> Royal Road to Geometry".
>> I'm happy to answer questions about this vital issue.
>> Best wishes,
>> Alan
>> ________________________________
>> From: Bill Kerr <billkerr at gmail.com>
>> To: Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com>
>> Cc: Gary C Martin <gary at garycmartin.com>; iaep SugarLabs
>> <iaep at lists.sugarlabs.org>; Brian Jordan <bcjordan at gmail.com>; Asaf Paris
>> Mandoki <asafpm at gmail.com>
>> Sent: Saturday, August 15, 2009 7:38:06 PM
>> Subject: Re: [IAEP] Physics - Lesson plans ideas?
>> hi alan,
>> I'm not sure how your argument here would not apply also to etoys?
>> Is your objection mainly to the name of the program - physics?
>> On Sun, Aug 16, 2009 at 12:00 PM, Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com> wrote:
>>> Hi Folks
>>> I've previously written a fair amount on this list about what real
>>> science is actually about and it would be tiresome to repeat it.
>>> And I'm sure you have reasons for what you've been suggesting in this
>>> thread about ways to use a simulation software package in Sugar.
>>> But are you sure that these reasons have anything to do with real science
>>> and how to go about teaching it to children?
>>> Best wishes,
>>> Alan
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Silent Thunder (默雷/धर्ममेघशब्दगर्ज/دھرممیگھشبدگر ج) is my name
And Children are my nation.
The Cosmos is my dwelling place, The Truth my destination.
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