Thursday, December 08, 2005

Great Men and Science Education - Take 2

Hmmm, looking back at my post (, and reading johnnybutter's comment to it, I was not really clear how I made the connection between science and politics, and between Great Men and No Great Men history.

The first class I described, the class I took, was a great example of teaching a field of science using a "Great Men in Context" approach. We learned names of people who did stuff, but also why they did it, i.e., how was it possible for them to even think that way at the time they lived. Why was a certain interpretation of data possible or impossible in 1700s, or 1920s, or 1950s, although we have a different interpretation today, with 20/20 hindsight. This approach made the class extremely effective, and I wish more science classes are taught this way.

The second class, the one I taught, was an example of avoiding any people and any context BECAUSE the audience is likely to already have an a priori negative view of them. Thus, I did not talk about Darwin at all (I did later - I actually led a discussion about Creationism the following week, and it was great - I think I converted most, though not all, students). It was all concepts and principles.

Thus, these two examples served to show how different situations call for different solutions: Great Men for some, No Men for others. This is something I tried to find a parallel in political movements: Great Men are better in some situations, No Men in others.

As for art and science, I agree there is great similarity in creativity and "thinking outside the box" between the practitioners of the two. I adore Erasmus' poetry. He provided the Seed that Charles turned into Fruit.

This reminds me of my oral prelims a couple of years ago. Knowing I was one of those rare grad students who actually reads a lot about history and philosophy of science, the committee members were eager to get the science portion of the exam done quickly and to start asking me fun questions. I was asked the names of people who received the last three Nobel prizes for physiology/medicine and for what discoveries. I actually knew it. We discussed post-modernism/relativism in academia (remember: this is an exam in Zoology!). Then, one of the members asked me to name three scientists who I admire the most, and why. I think he expected me to take some time thinking about it, so he was surprised with my machine-gun rapid-fire response:

"Charles Darwin, Niko Tinbergen and Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. Although they were officially working in three different fields - evolution, behavior and physiology - they have something in common. All three went out in nature and noticed things that nobody ever did. All three went out in the nature and noticed stuff that everyone knew and took for granted, yet they found astoundingly interesting. All three displayed huge childlike curiosity. All three were very capable of putting disparate facts together that nobody before thought to put together. All three were very creative - they were well known for designing extremely simple and cheap, yet effective tests of their hypotheses: play flute to earthworms, move some pine-cones around, overheat some camels - all those things could have been done by Ancient Greeks, not to mentioned by their peers, yet nobody thought of it. All three used their results to build large theories that stood the test of time. Were they genuises? Well, they were sure thinking differently from their colleagues and contemporaries, people who had the same social environment and same scientific education."

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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