Friday, March 20, 2009

52 Books in 52 Weeks: update

If my 14 year old son has his way, I'm going to be reading mostly science books for the rest of the year. It is really sweet that he wants me for his reading buddy -- he told me last night that he needs me to read the same books so he will have someone to discuss them with. Problem is, I can barely keep up with him!

Since February, we've read To See Every Bird, by Dan Koeppel, A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, and The Pluto Files by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Quite the diverse range of topics, going from hard core birding to the far reaches of the galaxy to everything in between, but what ties these books together is one of the fundamental challenges of science -- how to define and categorize the things around us.

To See Every Bird, which isn't really a science book, but a memoir of the author's life with his birding obsessed dad, has a chapter all about "splits and lumping". It simply means that a single bird species can be split into 2 distinct species or conversely two can be lumped back together into one. It matters greatly to hard core birders as it changes the tallies of the numbers of species they've seen. Birders don't particularly care about the details that make one species distinct from another -- they have the single obsession of keeping a count, but it is the work of ornithologists who must decide what makes a parrot distinct from a pigeon from a peregrine falcon. Is it something structural? Is it their song? Their diet? It was a fascinating chapter.

Bill Bryson goes on at length in several different chapters about how many things in the world still defy classification. He seems a bit obsessed about the all the microbes and lichen and hominid fossils that have yet to be definitively labeled and classified, as if scientists are slacking off on the job. He also has very colorful stories of the lives of scientists, their mistakes and foibles, and the mistakes of the greater scientific community when they are reluctant to embrace a new discovery or theory. The book is a result of Bryson's own endeavor to educate himself. His enthusiasm is infectious and the twists and turns of his curiosity are unexpected and delightful, making all 500 pages go by quickly and effortlessly.

The Pluto Files is all about classification as it chronicles the discovery, naming and demotion of Pluto, which has gone from being "Planet X", to being the 9th planet, to being a simple dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was in the thick of it all in his position as director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He was in charge of the team designing the new exhibit space, which does not display our solar system as a line up of 9 planets, but instead displays them according to like characteristics. As Pluto is neither a rocky planet nor gas giant, it got left out of the display and a media fire storm ensued. The issue of Pluto's classification was finally voted upon by the members of the International Astronomical Union, who had to come to grips with the defining characteristics of what makes a planet.

Reading these three books has had me thinking about what science is and what should constitute a science education. Not that I'm thinking the work of science is only about classification, but rather I'm struck that science is a very active discipline which requires constant questioning and continual observation and lively debate. It has made me more convinced than ever that learning science solely through the passive activity of reading text books is a huge mistake, especially in the earlier grades, as it makes science seem like a static subject of memorizing terms and data. Good scientists and young children share the characteristics of observing the world then incessantly questioning why, qualities squashed by forcing learning from dull text books.

My son's science text book this year isn't helping my opinion on the matter, either. He dutifully reads each assigned chapter, but finds it dull, not in depth enough and written to confuse rather than enlighten. These books I've just described are, on the other hand, making his eyes light up, making him ask for more like them. He has already finished a book on Black Holes and is currently on Temple Grandin's book on animal behavior and is impatient for me to read them as well. I truly may never catch up with him!

I've been keeping up with my 52 books by balancing the non-fiction with fluffy non-fiction. Maybe I'll get back to serious fiction over the summer...

1 comment:

  1. I am on a similar journey of thought. I know that most scientists can't abide textbooks. I am currently chosing a curriculum for the next couple of years which will enable our two very sciency children to sit the exams here in the UK. The problem is that they have been spoilt by their experiment and good writing rich curriculum so far. In some way they have covered a great deal of the exam syllabus already. But we need to formalise and fill in the gaps with those dry, writing-desert text books.
    I am enriching as much as I can but let's hope this process doesn't simply kill their love of the subject.