Survey: Teachable Controversies

Today, John Timmer posted on the ‘tubes a brief summary of current debates in evolutionary biology, as unfolded at a recent Rockefeller University symposium. Timmer takes the position, and PZ Myers agrees, that these controversies don’t belong in the high-school curriculum. They require too much background knowledge to understand, and if the students haven’t spent time learning the basic principles, they’ll be sunk. On these specific points, I’d tend to agree; however, other debates might provide “teachable moments.” If trying to build lesson plans around the questions currently rocking the symposia is going too far, what about the problems which have been wrapped up in the last ten years or so? For example, in a post-Bullet Cluster world, a high-school physics class could well include some talk of dark matter.

Including such material could, I suspect, have salutary effects. It could make science less a collection of facts to be memorized and “raise consciousness” in the students, helping them see the process of science. Of course, doing this right would not be easy, and we really do have a great many preliminaries to cover!

What, then, might some of these topics be? Which problems which have recently been resolved to general satisfaction could and should be brought into the high-school curriculum, and which currently open quandaries could be presented fairly? Tell us, Gentle Reader, what you think.

Previous surveys here at Sunclipse:

Comments on all the above remain open.

9 thoughts on “Survey: Teachable Controversies”

  1. The search for the top quark might fit the bill. Though it was expected to be found eventually, its mass ended up being much higher than the early theories predicted.

    Observations and questions that could be raised in a classroom: Why did scientists expect to find a top quark? What motivated their original estimates of its mass? What ‘went wrong’ in their estimates? How was it eventually discovered? And so on…

  2. Actually, now that I’m done with the state tests, I have a certain latitude to teach what I want. This year, in my Chemistry classes, I’m doing two things:

    one, requiring my students to research, write a proposal for and develop a Power Point presentation on some topic in chemistry;

    two, revisiting the nuclear chemistry stuff in my state’s standards as a jumping off place for considering things like the Standard Model, the Large Hadron Collider, the anthropic principle, the quantum, wave-particle duality, dark energy and dark matter, etc. Thought-provoking stuff that is not all well-settled, in other words.

  3. Be careful you ascribe the proper confidence where it is warranted. The Standard Model, the basic rules of quantum mechanics and wave-particle duality are all well-settled, as are (by this point) the presence, if not the composition, of dark energy and dark matter. The challenge regarding the Standard Model, for example, is not to prove it wrong in the domain where it has already demonstrated its worth, although that is always a possibility; rather, modern fundamental physics aims to look beyond the Standard Model and find out where it came from.

  4. Some of your colleagues, Blake, are very confident in the ability of the SM to predict phenomena, but at the same time find it dissatisfying on aesthetic grounds. Too many arbitrary parameters. The DVD’s I have express that point of view more than once. We will get into the question of measuring proton decay and why that research program is under way, but NP-complete problems are out. This bunch hasn’t mastered trig, much less calculus. My vision of the curriculum is more along the lines of “Hey, let’s compare changing models of the atom” and “energy is quantized” and “quarks are a deeper level of structure proposed by the SM”, etc. All conceptual stuff. Last week I had them derive a wavelength from the frequency and vice versa, and you would’ve thought blood was being extracted.

  5. I think most physicists who deal with it find the Standard Model æsthetically deficient. But once those parameters are adjusted, dang, does the model ever work well. I was just recently looking something up in Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory (2004), so that book happens to be close at hand. Page 337 reads,

    The gauge group and the matter content of the Standard Model may seem to you rather intricate or perhaps even cumbersome. But this set of particles and interactions in fact provides a rather economical description of an extremely large number of experimental results obtained over the past few decades. The Standard Model of particle physics is indeed a magnificent accomplishment. It is not a final theory of particle physics, nor is it a complete one, but it seems certain that the Standard Model must appear in the low energy limit of any correct unified theory of all interactions. It is in this sense that the Standard Model of particle physics has become a permanent part of our knowledge about the physical world.

    I have the feeling I’ve quoted this passage before, somewhere on the Internets; to my knowledge, this summarizes pretty well the views of the physicists I’ve met, and I’ve never seen an indication that this position is a controversial one.

    Now, explaining what a “low energy limit of any correct unified theory” means . . . or illustrating the difference between æsthetically pleasing and displeasing mathematics . . . to an audience that’s still struggling to remember which is sine and which is cosine . . . well, that’s a challenge best left to the interested reader as an exercise. (-;

    I haven’t read Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Everything: The Standard Model, the Unsung Triumph of Modern Physics (2006), but it looks like a worthwhile semi-popularization to pick up.

  6. I’m having my kids read some passages from Feynman lectures to see if they can understand how earlier models (like Newtonian mechanics) are still useful limiting cases of the theory we don’t have yet. The news that the model is known to be deficient, no matter how much repeated, still scandalizes the sheep among them who do not wish to think, but merely to know. As if the goal of science was merely knowledge.

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