Tag Archives: science

What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You…Right?

Gravity, it seems, has become a controversial subject once again! For most of my life I had been under the impression that gravity is an attractive force; every reference work I have found describes gravity as being attractive; yet apparently there is a portion of the population who disagrees. Let me elaborate.

The school where I work is, on election days, a polling station. Upon such occasions, the polling booths are set up near the main entrance; students are routed away from there, and everything proceeds as normal. I appreciate the dedication of the volunteers who monitor the polls all day, and usually stop on my way out to exchange a thankful comment or a bit of polite banter, depending on how tired they appear. A couple of weeks ago, one of the volunteers seemed to have had a very hard day. His face bore a heavy frown of weary disgust. I made the mistake of trying to cheer him up. My new business cards had just arrived from the print shop, and I handed him one with a friendly smile. The cards advertise this website; the front side asks “Are you terribly curious?” and the back reads simply “terriblycurious.com”. When I give someone a card, the usual response is to read the front and ask, “What’s this?” Whereupon I reply, “You see? It works!” Not the cleverest thing in the world, but it’s nearly always good for a quick grin.

Not that day! My disgruntled victim looked at the card and sneered, “What’s this?” I was already regretting my choice of daily public relations, and decided against the banter.

“It’s a general knowledge website,” I explained. Waving my hand about in an awkward fashion, I added needlessly, “I’m a teacher.”

His sneer grew into a snarl. “Hah!” he spat, obviously of the persuasion that teachers fall somewhere between pickpockets and drug dealers on the scale of social undesirables. “All right then!” he continued, as if to say let’s see if you know your stuff. “Is gravity a push or a pull?”

I hesitated for a second. My class had just finished experimenting with gravity; we had established to our satisfaction that an object held above the floor will, upon being released, fall to the floor. We had furthermore concluded that this behavior was due to a pulling force known as “gravity”. I considered the possibility that the gentleman confronting me was joking in a strangely belligerent mode, but a second glance at his expression rendered that hypothesis incredible. I gave the most concise answer I could: “Gravity is an attractive, or pulling, force.”

“Huh!” My antagonist tossed the card on the registration table in an overt gesture of perceived worthlessness. “Shows how much you know. Gravity is a push! Look!” And he pulled a pen from his pocket, held it high above his head, and dropped it. As it hit the tabletop, he threw his head back and fixed me with a glare of triumph worthy of Louis Pasteur showing a germ through a microscope to a disbelieving critic.

I tried to smile without showing my teeth. “I’m afraid I have to disagree. You see, the pen falls to the table because of the Earth’s gravitational field. The origin of that field is the Earth’s center of gravity; the pen falls toward the origin, thus the force is attractive, or a pulling force.”

He was utterly unimpressed. With a final contemptuous grunt, he dismissed me and all my heresy with a dismissive wave and turned away; the interview had come to an end. I walked away mystified. How had this poor man grown as old as I with so little understanding of basic scientific principles?

Alas, in our time science has become politically useful, and therefore subject to controversy. The USA has the dubious distinction of being the only nation in the industrialized world in which a significant percentage of the citizenry flatly disbelieves what passes for common knowledge in the rest of the planet.

We need conservatives to make sure we keep those things worth keeping as we travel, each moment of every year, from past to future. Just as importantly, we need liberals to make sure we continue seeking the best possible future instead of clinging to a past which, every second, disappears beyond recall. As an educator, my nature is to work for the increase of knowledge. Our nation will not long remain competitive if we reject any knowledge gained simply because it does not fit our current understanding. The result would be a scientific community made up of individuals like my befuddled friend at the polling station. Our national pride would be the least of our losses. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us.

Religion or Science? Wrong Question!

I picked my son up from his Wednesday youth group at church. He seemed more thoughtful than usual; I asked him what was on his mind.

“I don’t know, Dad,” he said. “Which should I believe in, religion or science?”

“Good news,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t have to choose. Science is the way we look for answers to questions about how the world works, and religion is the way we handle the questions that science can’t answer. Does that make sense?”

“Sort of.”

“Let me see if I can do better. If you want to know which kinds of materials conduct electricity, what would you do?”

“I guess I would link up a battery and a light bulb with wires and close the loop with the materials I wanted to know about. If the light bulb lights up, it conducts electricity.”

“You were paying attention in science class. Good. Now, people all over the world can do that same experiment and get the same results, so nobody disagrees over it. It’s easy to prove. But it’s not so easy to explain why some materials are conductors and others are insulators. It has to do with how the electrons are arranged in the different kinds of atoms, but I can’t prove that to you. A physics professor could, but I wouldn’t even know how to try. Anyway, the point is that there are ways to test it and observe the results. That’s how science works.

“People argue a lot about what things are right and wrong, too. None of them can prove it to the others. The funny thing is that everyone – even people who don’t believe in a god – agrees that there is such a thing as right and wrong. That’s religion.

“Science is about questions that can be answered by testing and observing the results. Religion is about the meaning of things that can’t be tested. You don’t have to choose between science and religion. They’re about different kinds of questions, and neither one is any good at answering the other kind. That’s not a perfect answer, or even an easy one, but it’s the best I can do without talking your ears off for a few hours. “

By that time, we were pulling into the driveway at home. It was time for cookies; there would be time enough for philosophy later.