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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Chaos Theory

Those of you who know me are aware that I transferred to my current school becuase of their program in nonlinear dynamics, aka "chaos theory". I was originally planning on making my major in math focus on that (until I found out how utterly boring differential equations are). When I told people about this, there were invariably two responses: (a) "Oh, you mean like a butterfly flapping its wings and all that" or (b) (glassy stare).

Now, with the movie The Butterfly Effect out, I've had the conversation about butterflies and hurricanes literally sixteen times. This is one of those things which shouldn't annoy me. It shouldn't make me want to harm people. But it does. See, the thing is, the effect isn't becuase of a butterfly flapping its wings at all. This would be retarded*, since this is not actually an example of chaos. A butterfly flaps its wings, and the air pressure on any sort of realistic scale isn't altered. Air pressure and fronts of the variety which cause hurricanes are not things where small differences will have some catastrophic result. It takes really huge differences for things like that to happen. Weather, in general, tends to be - but more because of temperature and the like than air pressure. The effect is from a short story written like fifty years ago where someone, back in time, kills a butterfly and returns to the future to find everything different.

I'm honestly kind of sick of the mischaracterizations things get, and all the people who read a poorly edited, largely discredited book by Steven Hawking and think they can intelligently discuss physics. The names things are given in physics are constantly being interpreted by individuals as either literal or even descriptive terms. All the business with quarks (color, etc...) and anything involving particle spin or "uncertainty" are exactly this. Scientists haven't proven by any means that any of this is meaningful in the way that a large segment of society (and even some physicists) seem to think... most of it is just math. Talking about electron "spin" is just a mathematical device which describes how field strength works, not a literal rotation of the electrons themselves.

It's high time, in my opinion, we start teaching actual science in schools. Everyone, through the course of high school, should have to take biology, chemistry, and physics (the AP versions would be preferable). I don't see how not understanding the world in which we live on a very fundimental level is somehow considered less important than nearly anything schools can offer. We consider it utterly necessary that we teach people to communicate and be able to read well, but not that they get the most basic scientific truths. This seems highly incongruous.

Another, more pragmatic, consequence of not having anyone know these things is a massive lack of both women and minorities in science programs around the country. By never equipping them with the necessary skills (or even an exposure to this sort of thing) we make it impossible for anyone to ever really succeed at the collegiate level who hasn't had some classes earlier. In no introductory physics class do they teach the scientific method over again - they expect that one has had a certain amount of the stuff if you're going to major in the discipline. Likewise, by making these things optional, we allow the typical gender role of women to continue - many see science as something which they wouldn't generally be interested in, while if they actually took it at any point, it seems much more likely that they would become interested. Colleges go out of their ways to offer special minority and female scholarships and programs in technical disciplines, and then wonder why nobody wants to take them up. It seems as if people can't grasp the simple truth that, if kids are brought up and developed with a blind eye or, at best, a sometimes cursory glance towards this entire field, they will just never grow to understand it.

The sciences remain some of the most racially homogenous areas of study (Asian, Indian and White) as well as one of the most sex-polarized. Even when other groups go into them, they tend to take them in a direction other than research and the like. Until recently, this was thought that this was becuase academic posts were reserved primarily for men - but nowadays, this excuse seems to hold less weight. This is a pity, since when some enterprising individuals have broken the trend and persevered, they have become some of the best. Lise Meitner was an amazing physicist, but even then, she lived in Otto Hahn's shadow for much of her career*.

A part of the problem also stems from the vast focus on experiment which science programs in American schools (and elsewhere, for all I know) seem to emphasize. Many poor schools assume that science requires a huge budget chunk for things like microscopes and the like, and so if they're going to cut a department, it's seen to them to be the best move to cut that one. This means that, even starting from early age, kids aren't exposed to the scientific method. The focus on naturalism and the accumulation of information is also something which seems unwarrented, despite being the primary focus of most pre-high school (actually, pre-collegiate) science programs. This is to say, a majority of what is taught is facts: the planets, photosynthesis, meiosis and mitosis, the various anatomical systems, and so on. Even lacking these things, a class should be required in all school systems, integrated however they like, at the middle school level, on the scientific process. The basic process of reasoning from a hypothesis to a conclusion is something which is invaluable to anyone, of any profession, of any academic focus. This is really the justification for having science classes anyway, and requires pretty much zero additional funding. It's probably one of the top-five most important, useful things you can teach to kids. Yet it goes pretty much unsaid for many kids.

You want an actual example of chaos theory? The required science classes in middle schools deemphasize the method of reasoning in science, instead fixating on the conclusions, and it results in massive homogeneity among an entire class of professions, consequently contributing to inequality in society in general. Such a small difference, made early in the educational path could result in a huge change.

And I wouldn't have to keep listening to people misunderstand what an Ashton Kucher movie title means. So really, we all win.

* = "retarded" in this context does not refer to any socially constructed or neural deficiencies vis a vis the biological state of any individual(s) brain - it only hastens to act as a descriptive term synonymous with "stupid."

cranked out at 2:45 PM | |

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