Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Data visualization video with Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling is Professor of Global Health at Stockholm’s prestigious Karolinska Institute and founder of the Gapminder Foundation. He’s a man who revels in the glorious nerdery of stats – and in The Joy of Stats he entertainingly explores the history of statistics, how statistics works mathematically, and how with statistics we can take the massive deluge of data of today’s computer age and use it to see the world as it really is – not just as we imagine it to be.

Enjoy Rosling's latest data visualization video:

Rosling’s famous lectures use enormous quantities of public data to reveal the story of the world’s past, present and future development. Rosling became widely know through his great TED talk in 2006.

Google allows users to create their own Rosling-style interactive bubble charts: Google visualization tools.

500th exoplanet identified!

Did you know that astronomers already discovered 500 planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets)?

In the past 15 years, the count of those extrasolar worlds has climbed through single digits into the dozens and then into the hundreds. The pace of discovery is now so rapid that the catalogue of identified planets leaped from 400 to 500 entries in just over a year.

Scientific American interviewed Jean Schneider, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory, who is the record keeper of exoplanets in the The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia.

According to the Encyclopaedia, the closest exoplanet is eps Eridani b, which is only 3.2 parsecs away (=10.43 light years). A spaceship travelling at light speed would need ten years to get there. Unfortunately, technology is currently not available to build spaceships that get even near that speed. Maybe a matter/antimatter-engine will be available one day, if CERN can produce some more antimatter (see blog entry on antimatter here).

How One Astronomer Became the Unofficial Exoplanet Record Keeper

Monday, November 29, 2010

Science and the Loss of Certainty

By Beat Schwendimann

The world we live in is a complex environment. Humans are seeking to find order in chaos and longing for certainty.  Humans are driven to understand how the world works and what keeps the world together. This knowledge allows humans to predict and control the world. 
Early cultures aimed to explain natural phenomena by conceptualizing them as the doing of gods. The ancient Greeks distinguished between the gods (rational control) and the Titans (elementary forces), with the gods dominating over the titans. The concept of gods served as a higher order principle that allowed explaining a wide range of phenomena. Understanding the characteristics of gods, combined with devotion and sacrifices, gave people the comforting illusion of having some control over the chaos. (See blog entries on Representations of knowledge in mythology and Trees of Knowledge)
Humans created other mental concepts to see order in the world, for example structuring the world into a system of opposing elements. Seeing the world through the lens of basic elements made the world appear orderly, manageable, and controllable, for example the ancient Greeks distinguished four elements and the Chinese used five elements.

Aristotle distinguished two different forces that influence the world:
  • Episteme: The purpose of the universe ‘pulls’ objects towards the grand goal. The transcendental structure of the universe gives everything purpose and direction. This structure and purpose of the universe is meta-physical (non-physical). Aristotle understood this grand idea of the universe as ‘God’. However, this philosopher’s view of God as being a single impersonal ordering principle of the universe differed from the colorful pantheon of the common people. God was understood as being the order and the purpose of the universe. This allowed reasoning about why things happen (reasoning about the intentionality of phenomena).
  • Techne: This refers to the forces between material objects. The world of objects works through causal relationships. Causal connections ‘push’ objects without the need for intentionality on the side of the object.

According to Aristotle, reasoning about the world can happen on the level of Episteme (ideas, intentionality) or Techne (objects). However, Episteme was regarded as of higher order as Techne (God higher than natural elements). Over the centuries, organized religion promoted God as the controlling force. Belief in God was a comforting certainty for many people. The Christian Church actively silenced any critical voices who dared to question God’s existence or the Church’s authority (which was based on the belief of God’s existence). Christian philosophers attempted to prove God’s existence through a series of logic proofs. However, skeptics showed that none of the proposed ‘proofs’ of God’s existence finally held true. Descartes showed that everything could be doubted - except one’s own realization of existence. Even one’s own existence could still be an illusion, but at the least there must be some form of consciousness that creates that illusion. Rationalism brought an end to Episteme reasoning (belief in God) as no logic proof for the existence of God could be found. Nietzsche provocatively declared the death of God. He reasoned that God only exists as long as there are followers who believe in him. Since the Enlightenment period, the Christian Church lost significant influence and people started looking for alternative ways to find certain true knowledge.

People turned from Episteme to Techne as the way to find Truth. Since the Enlightenment, empiricist science became increasingly popular. At first, science was mostly considered a hobby of aristocrats displayed in for entertainment in social clubs. However, science found its way into the school curriculum and became a major enterprise. Science focuses exclusively on the natural world, which is composed of objects that behave according the certain causal natural laws. Empirical natural science began to replace religion as the source of trustworthy knowledge [1] . Scientific laws appear to be certain and reliable, based on repeatedly cross-checked evidence.

Scientists shattered many previously held false beliefs. Humankind, especially in the Western world, was certain that earth is the center of the universe. This geocentric view was challenged by Copernicus and Gallilei. Considering their observations of star movements, they concluded that only a heliocentric model of the solar system could explain their observations. Humankind lost its place in the center of the universe. Modern astronomy moved earth even further away from being central in the universe: Earth is not the only planet but only one of many. Our sun is only one of many and not even in the center of the galaxy but far out in one of the branches. Our galaxy is not the only one but only one of many.
Humankind may have lost its place in the center of the universe, but people could still be certain about the space around them and the flow of time. Einstein took this certainty away. He discovered that time and space are connected to each other, making both of them relative to each other. Space and time are not absolute but change with the influence of mass, for example the curvature of space around a black hole, or speed, for example the difference in the speed of time as seen from objects that move at different speeds.

Humankind lost the certainty of being in the center of the universe, space and time. However, people could still hold on to the belief that humankind holds a unique place in nature. Darwin took the belief that the existence of humankind and every individual human has a higher purpose away. He presented evidence that there is no divine plan in nature, but that life changes according to the undirected mechanism of natural selection. Since Darwin, his ideas of evolution got extended and confirmed by many different branches of science. Humans are no longer God’s special creation, but cousins of apes. 
The scientific view does not offer the comfort of a benevolent divine plan and an afterlife. However, science offered humankind the comforting belief in the certainty of causal natural laws. Hume shattered this certainty. His skepticism destroyed the very foundations of science. Hume pointed out that natural “laws” are not necessarily true, but only contingent. Natural “laws” and principles are based on repeated observation, for example the rising of the sun. However, repeated observation of a phenomenon is no sufficient and necessary guarantee that it will happen again. Hume changed our understanding of science as resulting in necessary Truth to statistical ‘truth’. Science does not and cannot result in Truth [2]. There are several reasons for this: First, as Hume pointed out, causal relationships are only contingent not necessary. Statistical methods were developed to estimate how far we are from the Truth, without ever reaching it. Second, measurements with scientific instruments always include certain measurement errors. We can never measure the world with finite precision. Third, scientific measurements need interpretation. They do not tell us truth in their raw data form. For example, a probe delivers a string of numbers. The scientist needs to decide how to group those numbers to find patterns, defines certain values as desirable, and decides which outliers to exclude.

Hume’s critique ended Aristotle’s Techne reasoning the way Descartes critique ended Aristotle’s Episteme reasoning. This left the world in an epistemological void. Scientific findings are by definition always tentative and do not give us the comfort of certainty. 

Since Hume, many philosophers responded to his critique of science in an attempt to open up another path towards Truth. Kant argued that while we cannot find causal connections in nature itself, our brain is hardwired (a priori) to construct causal understanding. Kant proposed that all humans are born with the same hardwired capacity to construct such causal views of the world. In Kant’s view, there was one Truth out there (‘the thing in itself’) but we cannot ever perceive the true world directly. We can only perceive phenomena and construct causal mental models of them. As all humans are born with the same senses and basic mental processing capabilities, we all perceive the world in a similar but not identical way. As all humans have the same rational capacities, we can detect and eliminate false ideas.
Hegel responded to Kant by criticizing his view that all humans have the same hardwired (a priori) rational capacities. The existence of rationality cannot be justified without already presuming rationality. If Truth is not to be found out there in the world but only in our heads, then our minds will be fundamentally influenced by the society we live in. Hegel reasoned that the human mind is not hardwired (a priori) but formed through experience (a posteriori). Depending on which society we grow up and live in, we will acquire different mental concepts (some of them false and some of the true). Hegel believed that societies need to go through a dialectic process in which each next generation eliminates the false ideas of the previous one until one generation reaches the ultimate Truth.
Marx critiqued Hegel’s dialectic process by pointing out that as long as the power relations remain the same from generation to generation false ideas cannot be eliminated. Marx suggested that society should not be ruled by the wealthy, but by a group of intellectuals who would know best how to create an egalitarian society. Neo-Marxists, for example the Frankfurt School, criticized Marx’s view by pointing out that a ruling class of intellectuals would not eliminate power structures but only shift them. To ultimately eliminate false ideas, humankind would need to become truly egalitarian by overcoming all hierarchies of power and becoming a multicultural and class-free society. Hegel, Marx, and the Neo-Marxists were all positive that their utopian society could indeed be created and Truth be found (liberation from all false consciousness).

Post-modernism criticized this positive view that power structures can ever be truly overcome. Power is pervasive. There can never be a society without hegemony and therefore interest-free Truth can never be reached (if it exists at all). Dewey responded in a pragmatic way: If we cannot ever overcome power structures, then we should abandon the illusion to ever find that one Truth altogether and focus instead on finding pragmatic “truths” that allow us solving practical problems. Dewey viewed scientific inquiry not as a way to find Truth, but as a way to find practical solutions to solve problems. Through systematic inquiry, society can determine which ideas work and which do not. Dewey’s vision is a society, which is open to scientifically try out new ideas, learns from its experiences, and continually grows in whatever direction it functions best (similar to natural evolution).  Pragmatism seems to work well to advance technology and solve problems, but it gave up on ever finding Truth.

As we cannot find Truth independent of cultural influences, Dilthey suggested approaching Truth by going to opposite way - by further deepening our understanding of cultural influences in our mental frameworks. Studying another human means to communicate from one mental framework to another. There is no “view from nowhere”. Projecting one’s own framework onto another person’s framework does not lead to true understanding. Noddings suggests to perceive the other person’s view instead of projecting one’s own views onto the other. 

Truth is no longer seen as being external and to be discovered, but as a construct through negotiation. This is a different definition of truth than the transcendental absolute Truth that exists outside of language in humans’ heads. This is the practice in communities of scholars: The scientific community aims to create a shared understanding by creating shared definitions and agreeing on certain methods.  If truth is defined as a mental construct, then truth is no longer an external fix point, but is only “relatively true”. Instead of looking for Truth-out-there, we can try to understand how truth inside our heads is constructed. This is a loop back to Aristotle’s Episteme. This line of (qualitative) research aims to understand the factors that influence human thought and how human thought is structured. Humans are no longer seen as objects that behave according to causal “laws” but as subjects who have intentions (will). As a researcher cannot step outside his or her own conceptual framework, it is important to make underlying factors of conceptual frameworks explicit, for example our conventions, definitions, and social visions. To understand another person’s intentions, one needs to understand one’s own intentions. However, Freud destroyed our belief that we understand our own intentions. Our intentions (our will) are not primarily controlled by our conscious verbal rational mind (ego), but by the nonverbal subconscious (Id and super-ego). Only through indirect methods (symbols, dreams, self-reflective psychoanalysis) can we try to access the subconscious (which contains also cultural and social experience). Understanding of the human mind (its conscious or subconscious parts) is ultimately an interpretative activity with no ultimate answer. Our trust in knowledge (certainty) cannot be found in an external ultimate foundation, but can only be grounded in our capacity to interpret what is there. 
This review of the search for certain Truth showed that the current approaches fail to find absolute Truth. I believe that there is only one reality (Truth) out there that existed long before humans came along. Being human however, we cannot ever perceive this true reality unbiased. Through our limited senses, we do not see the world as it is, but perceive only a filtered and interpreted representation of it. Depending on our existing mental framework, we interpret what we see differently. This perception varies from person to person to some degree. We do not passively perceive the world, but rather actively construct our view of the world. I agree with Kant that all humans have certain inherited mental processing capabilities. However, the interpretations of those perceptions are dependent on our concepts, which are culturally acquired. We cannot step outside of those cultural bonds.

While I consider it desirable to find ultimate Truth that could give us the comfort of certainty, philosophy showed that our current epistemological approaches couldn’t lead us there. Science aims to find culture-neutral truth, but it can only lead to pragmatic approximations. Science made the development of modern technology possible, but it cannot discover or construct Truth. Constructs of truth are always influenced by culture. This can lead to the view that there are many truths and that no judgment can ever be made (no certainty; anything goes) over another viewpoint (hard relativism). However, while I agree that we cannot know which idea is absolutely right or ultimately best, we can at least say which ideas are wrong (soft relativism). Based on Popper’s falsification concept, evidence shows which ideas did not work in the past. This pragmatist view represent a middle ground between only one Truth (ONE Truth) and everything goes (MANY truths). Evidence-based judgment of false ideas is justified and necessary while still allowing for alternative ideas (SOME truths).

Living in a world dominated by science means living in a world without the comfort of (albeit illusionary) certainty of pre-scientific times. Science took our false trust in the certainty of knowledge away (See blog entry Knowledge comes at a high price). However, science does not provide us with ultimate Truth either, it can only show us in a piecemeal fashion what is not true. I find it disappointing that there seems to be no way to ever reach Truth. Living in a science world comes with the price tag of living in a world without the comfort of certainty of what is true.  Our next best approach is to pragmatically construct relative truths that aim to approximate Truth, without ever reaching it. I agree with Popper who said “I believe in absolute Truth, but I don’t believe anybody has it in his pocket.” Despite all our scientific and technological advances, finding ultimate certain Truth still seems to be as far away as it ever was. As all our knowledge is influenced by culture, we need to critically self-reflect on our own and our culture's concepts, definitions, conventions, methods, and goals. This allows us to define a social vision and ethics, but they will always remain relative and only one of many possible ideas.

[1] Knowledge is traditionally defined as “justified true belief”. Therefore “trustworthy knowledge” is a pleonasm. In vernacular language, “belief” is often used in a religious or moral context. In philosophy, “belief” refers to all the content in a human’s mind. In vernacular use, “knowledge” refers to justified/trustworthy beliefs, while philosophy considers only “true” beliefs as knowledge. (This implies that there is one Truth out there against which beliefs can be compared to (absolute truth). Otherwise, “true” could also mean “internally consistent”, “no contradicting evidence found yet”, or “true according to a self-defined value” (relative truth).
[2] Truth (capital t) refers to the one absolute Truth (independent from humans, language, or cultural influences), while truth (minor case t) refers to multiple possible human constructed truth.

Happy Birthday Bill Nye The Science Guy!

Bill Nye
Happy 55th birthday to William Sanford Nye, aka Bill Nye - the Science Guy! Bill is best known as being the host of the popular Disney children’s show bearing his own name (1993-1997) and the show "Eye of Nye". He has also appeared in countless other shows as a comedian and science educator. 

Here is a clip in which Bill Nye busts astrology.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Knowledge comes at a high price: A look at ancient mythology

By Beat Schwendimann

Humans are driven to gain more knowledge, but knowledge comes at a price. The price of knowledge is found in many ancient myth. Humans and even powerful gods and goddesses had to endure much hardship to gain great knowledge.

Odin with his two ravens Huginn and Muninn
The norse god Odin was the god of battle and also of wisdom, magic, and poetry. His name means "fury" or "frenzy," the quality of fierce inspiration that guided warriors and poets alike. Despite his warrior appearance, Odin was an intellectual god. Odin was credited with great wisdom, including knowledge of magic and divination. Odin's knowledge came at a high price: He had to self-sacrifice one eye (by stabbing himself with his magical speer Gungnir) and hang upside down for nine days from the tree Yggdrasil (the tree of life) to get the knowledge of the runes, the Norse symbols used for writing and fortune-telling. Odin's ordeal of hanging on the tree until his enlightenment reminds one of the stories of both the Buddha and Jesus. Odin's ordeal is also resounds in the tarot card "The Hanging Man"). Odin also gained knowledge of the world (Midgard) through his two ravens Huginn ("thought"), and Muninn ("Memory" or "Mind"). These circled the Earth each day, seeing all, and then at night reported to Odin what they had learnt. [Odin was also called Wodan: In English, Wednesday is named after him, "Wodan's day. "Friday" is named after Odin's wife Frya, "Frya's day"]

Prometheus's torment by an eagle
Prometheus, was the wisest Titan. His name means "forethought" and he was able to foretell the future. He was the god of fire. A master craftsman considered the wisest of his race, he was credited with the creation of humans and with giving them fire and various types of skills and knowledge. His name means "forethought". Prometheus was a wise craftsman who taught humans many useful skills, including navigation, writing, and architecture, and he brought the knowledge of fire to man. Zeus punished both Prometheus and mankind for gaining the knowledge of fire. Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a mountain peak. Every day an eagle tore at Prometheus's body and ate his liver, and every night the liver grew back. Because Prometheus was immortal, he could not die, but suffered for thousands of years (until Zeus showed mercy). Zeus punished mankind by creating Pandora and her box containing all evil. Pandora's curiosity (to gain knowledge what is inside the box) released all evil unto mankind, only "hope" remained in the box.

Athena -  Goddess of Wisdom
Athena (called Minerva by romans) is the daughter of Zeus and Metis. Metis was the Titaness of the forth day and the planet Mercury. She presided over all wisdom and knowledge. She was seduced by Zeus and became pregnant with Athena. Zeus became concerned over prophecies that her second child would replace Zeus. To avoid this, Zeus devoured Metis. Athena emerged in full armor from Zeus' forehead. Athena is fierce and brave in battle but, only fights to protect the state and home from outside enemies. She is the goddess of the city of Athens, handicrafts, and agriculture. She invented the bridle, which permitted man to tame horses, the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot. She is the embodiment of wisdom, reason, and purity. She was Zeus's favorite child and was allowed to use his weapons including his thunderbolt. Her tree is the olive. The owl is her bird. She is a virgin goddess.

Ganesha (notice the one broken tusk)
Ganesha is also the god of wisdom and prudence. These qualities are signified through his two wives: Buddhi (wisdom) and Siddhi (prudence). Ganesha has a thorough knowledge of the scriptures and is a superb scribe. Ganesha has an elephant's head with one broken tusk. According to one legend, Ganesha was asked to scribe down the epic of Mahabharata, dictated to him by its author, sage Vyasa. Taking into note the enormity and significance of the task, Ganesha realized the inadequacy of any ordinary 'pen' to undertake the task. He thus broke one of his own tusks and made a pen out of it. The lesson offered here is that no sacrifice is big enough in the pursuit of knowledge.

Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge
Adam and Eve ate a fruit (The Bible does not say "apple") from the tree of Knowledge, gaining knowledge of good and evil.  God responded, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." (Genesis 3:22). The price for gaining knowledge was getting expelled from paradise.

These are just a few of many examples of how great knowledge comes at a great price. Humans and Gods alike paid high prices to gain knowledge of writing, fire, and morality. Knowledge and Wisdom do not come for free, myth tells us that people often pay a price for it. (or as Robert Heinlein put it "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (TANSTAAFL).

Many gods of wisdom and knowledge were not gods of peace but were associated with war (power). The symbolism representing the saying "knowledge is power".

It is interesting to notice that the source of knowledge in many ancient myth is a tree - symbolizing nature as the source of knowledge. See further discussion in the blog entry 'Trees of Knowledge').

Today, humans no longer hope to receive knowledge as a gift from the gods (a transmission model of learning), but consider knowledge not as received but as constructed (a constructivist model of learning). Humans developed to tools of science to gain more knowledge about the world. Does human constructed knowledge come with a catch? Yes, of course. As our knowledge is constructed is never certain and always influenced by human interpretation. Uncertainty and tentativeness is the price we pay for scientific knowledge. Science leaves us with ever more questions, increasing complexity, and tentative theories. While science cannot reach ultimate true knowledge, as a pragmatic approach it lead to great technological developments. (Read blog entry on Science and the Loss of Certainty)

Representations of Wisdom and Knowledge in Mythology

By Beat Schwendimann

Humans like to visualize abstract ideas to make them more tangible. In ancient times, people described abstract ideas often in the form of various gods and goddesses. Among the most abstract ideas are the concepts of knowledge and wisdom themselves. Many cultures imagined gods and goddesses of knowledge and wisdom (See previous blog entry on the difference between knowledge and wisdom).

The wisest of the Egyptian gods was Thoth (Djhuty, Djehuty, Tehuty) (depicted with the head of an isis or a baboon). Thoth was one of the earlier Egyptian gods, thought to be scribe to the gods, who kept a great library of scrolls, over which one of his wives, Seshat (the goddess of writing) was thought to be mistress. He was associated by the Egyptians with speech, literature, arts, learning. He, too, was a measurer and recorder of time, as was Seshat. The magical powers of Thoth were so great, that the Egyptians had tales of a 'Book of Thoth', which would allow a person who read the sacred book to become the most powerful magician in the world. The Book which "the god of wisdom wrote with his own hand" was, though, a deadly book that brought nothing but pain and tragedy to those that read it, despite finding out about the "secrets of the gods themselves" and "all that is hidden in the stars".

Sarasvati - Goddess of Learning
Sarasvati (also spelled Saraswati) is the goddess of learning and the inspiration for all music, poetry, drama and science. Hindu musicians pray to her before performing and students ask for her help before taking a test. Sarasvati has four hands: in one she holds a book; in another she holds prayer beads (because she is the source of spiritual knowledge, too); her other two hands hold a vina, a sitar-like musical instrument. Not suprisingly, Sarasvati is especially revered by students and teachers. At the beginning of spring (January-February), her image is taken out in a jubilant procession.

I find it interesting that Sarasvati represents learning, the PROCESS of gaining knowledge, not knowledge itself. Saravsati illustrates that knowledge needs to be gained through learning and not through some magical transfer.
Ganesha - God of Wisdom and Prudence
Ganesha is the Hindu god of wisdom and prudence. These qualities are signified through his two wives Buddhi(wisdom) and Siddhi (prudence).Ganesha has a thorough knowledge of the scriptures and is a superb scribe. Ganesha has an elephant's head with one broken tusk. According to one legend, Ganesha was asked to scribe down the epic of Mahabharata, dictated to him by its author, sage Vyasa. Taking into note the enormity and significance of the task, Ganesha realized the inadequacy of any ordinary 'pen' to undertake the task. He thus broke one of his own tusks and made a pen out of it. The lesson offered here is that no sacrifice is big enough in the pursuit of knowledge.

Odin with his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn
Odin was the god of battle and also of wisdom, magic, and poetry. His name means "fury" or "frenzy," the quality of fierce inspiration that guided warriors and poets alike. Despite his warrior appearance, Odin was an intellectual god. Odin was credited with great wisdom, including knowledge of magic and divination. Odin also gained knowledge of the world (Midgard) through his two ravens Huginn ("thought"), and Muninn("Memory" or "Mind").These circled the Earth each day, seeing all, and then at night reported to Odin what they had learnt.

Athena - Goddess of Wisdom (Statue in front of parlament building in Vienna)
Athena (called Minerva by romans) is the daughter of Zeus and Metis. Metis was the Titaness of the forth day and the planet Mercury. She presided over all wisdom and knowledge. She was seduced by Zeus and became pregnant with Athena. Zeus became concerned over prophecies that her second child would replace Zeus. To avoid this, Zeus devoured Metis. Athena emerged in full armor from Zeus' forehead. Athena is fierce and brave in battle but, only fights to protect the state and home from outside enemies. She is the goddess of the city of Athens, handicrafts, and agriculture. She invented the bridle, which permitted man to tame horses, the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot. She is the embodiment of wisdom, reason, and purity. She was Zeus's favorite child and was allowed to use his weapons including his thunderbolt. Her tree is the olive. The owl is her bird. She is a virgin goddess.

Prometheus (by Heinrich Fueger 1817)
Prometheus, was the wisest Titan. His name means "forethought" and he was able to foretell the future. He was the god of fire. A master craftsman considered the wisest of his race, he was credited with the creation of humans and with giving them fire and various types of skills and knowledge. His name means "forethought." Prometheus was a wise craftsman who taught humans many useful skills, including navigation, writing, and architecture, and he brought the knowledge of fire to man (read more on how Prometheus got punished for his deed here)

In addition to the goddess Athena and the titan Prometheus who were wise and knowledgeable, ancient greeks also knew Sophia (being wisdom impersonate) and Episteme (being knowledge impersonate).

Sophia - The greek goddess of wisdom
Episteme - The greek goddess of knowledge
Today, we describe abstract concepts no longer as deities but use the language of mathematics, science, and philosophy.

Further information: Wikipedia list of Knowledge Deities

Trees of Knowledge

By Beat Schwendimann

Since ancient times, philosophers distinguished between two world: The material world and the world of ideas.

The two world are connected with each other: Man cannot exist without ideas, and ideas would not exist without man (Or as Hermes Trismegitus put it: "As above, so below". Hermes Trismegitus is the representation of the syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, more about Thoth see below.

Humans strive to gain more knowledge ("justified true beliefs") to improve our lives. We have two different ways to approach truth: Through the study of the natural world through science, and through the study of the world of ideas through philosophy and theology. Both approaches try to approximate true knowledge as closely as possible; however, both approaches are subject to human interpretation and our human constructs can only approximate Truth without ever reaching it.

In Norse mythology, the two worlds were represented in Yggrasil, the tree of life. Yggdrasil connects the world of man with the divine (upper and nether) world.
Yggdrasil (The tree of life) connecting the world of man to the divine world
The world of objects is directly observable through our senses and measurable with scientific instruments. The world of ideas on the other hand is abstract.

The source of knowledge in many ancient myths is a tree - symbolizing that knowledge represents the connection between ideas from different worlds, for example the world of man and the divine world (see blog entry on Gods representing Knowledge and Wisdom here)

Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge
The tree of life is a tree planted by God in the Garden of Eden, whose fruit gives everlasting life. Next to the tree of life, God planted the tree of knowledge, whose fruit give the divine knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). After Adam and Eve ate a fruit from the tree of knowledge, God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." (Genesis 3:22)[3]

The tree of life (or World Tree) is represented in several examples of sacred geometry and is central in particular to the Kabbalah (the mystic study of the Torah), where it is represented as a diagram of ten points. 
Sephiroth - the tree of life in the Kabbalah
The tree of knowledge (World Tree) is found in many religions and mystic traditions: 

  • Tree of Eden
  • Holy Tree made by Ahura Mazda,
  • Norse Yggdrasil, 
  • Hindu Aswatha, 
  • Gogard,
  • Hellenic tree of life
  • Tibetan Zampun, 
  • Kabalistic Sephiroth Tree.
There are different ways how to get knowledge closer to Truth. Gods and humans alike often have to pay a high price to gain great knowledge (see previous blog entry). The ultimate reason why we want to gain more knowledge but the same: To learn more about ourselves and the world around us to improve our lives and find happiness.

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

Image originally published in the December 1982 issue of THE FUTURIST.
By Beat Schwendimann

Knowledge and wisdom are ambiguous terms that are difficult to define. I find the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) model a pragmatic working definition.
  • On the first level is data: I define data as unsorted numbers or letters. Data on its own carries no meaning. In order to become information, data must be arranged meaningfully.
  • The second level is information: Information consists of isolated concepts that represent patterns (perceived regularities) found in data. For example a trend or average in statistical data, or words (concepts).
  • The third level is knowledge: For information to take on meaning, it must be interpreted by putting it into context with other concepts. Knowledge is a network of inter-connected concepts. This definition of knowledge is different from the classical philosophical understanding as"justified true belief". I understand connectedness as the central criterion for knowledge (without judging its truthfulness). People can hold concepts of varying truthfulness in their mental network.
  • A fourth (and epistemologically different) level is wisdom (also called meta-knowledge or strategic knowledge): Means knowing when to use knowledge.

Also see previous blog entry for further discussion.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Internet Access Divide between Rich and Poor Persists (PEW survey)

Not very surprising findings from a PEW survey: Wealthier households have more often a broadband internet access then less-wealthy households.

The digital divide continues to exist, even though broadband Internet has been widely available for over ten years. The study found that while 95% of households earning $75,000 or more use the internet in some way, just 57% of households earning $30,000 or less do so. 87% of users in the income top bracket have Internet in their homes, but just 40% of the lowest bracket do.

On the other hand, game consoles are almost equally common: 54% of those living in higher-income households own game consoles, compared with 41% of those living in less well-off homes.

iPads are still luxury products: 9% of those living in higher-income households own tablet computers such as iPads, compared with 3% of those living in less well-off homes.

Online news services are the main source of information next to television, especially for higher income households (74%) compared to low income families (34%).
To reduce the digital divide between households, affordable broadband internet services are needed.

Read the full results of the survey here: The Better-Off Online - Pew Research Center

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Should teachers get a raise for earning a master degree?

Teaching is one of those professions you can safely say no one goes into for the money. One way some teachers boost their modest paychecks is by going back to school. Most school districts pay some kind of bonus if you have a master's degree. Districts today currently pay about an additional $8 billion every year to teachers with master degrees. Many teachers get a master degrees in a field not directly related to their teaching, such as education administration. An exception are master degrees in content areas like math and science.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan favors paying teachers based on their performance in the classroom instead of their academic credentials.

I think that professional development (for example through lesson studies) could have more impact on improving student performance than master degrees that focus on theoretical knowledge.

Should teachers get a raise for earning a master's? | Marketplace From American Public Media

How diagrams can promote scientific thinking

Florence Nightingale was the first to use a pie chart to represent data.
A picture, the old adage goes, is worth 1,000 words. But in science a diagram can describe things that transcend the written word. A single image can convey the simple underlying pattern hidden by words or equations.

This article describes several examples of how diagrams helped promote scientific thinking: BBC News - Diagrams that changed the world

8 Ways Technology Is Improving Education

[Reposted from Mashable.com]
Don Knezek, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, compares education without technology to the medical profession without technology.
“If in 1970 you had knee surgery, you got a huge scar,” he says. “Now, if you have knee surgery you have two little dots.”
Technology is helping teachers to expand beyond linear, text-based learning and to engage students who learn best in other ways. Its role in schools has evolved from a contained “computer class” into a versatile learning tool that could change how we demonstrate concepts, assign projects and assess progress.
Despite these opportunities, adoption of technology by schools is still anything but ubiquitous. Knezek says that U.S. schools are still asking if they should incorporate more technology, while other countries are asking how. But in the following eight areas, technology has shown its potential for improving education.

1. Better Simulations and Models

While a tuning fork is a perfectly acceptable way to demonstrate how vibrations make sound, it’s harder to show students what evolution is, how molecules behave in different situations, or exactly why mixing two particular chemicals is dangerous.
Digital simulations and models can help teachers explain concepts that are too big or too small, or processes that happen too quickly or too slowly to demonstrate in a physical classroom.
The Concord Consortium, a non-profit organization that develops technologies for math, science and engineering education, has been a leader in developing free, open source software that teachers can use to model concepts. One of their most extensive projects is the Molecular Workbench, which provides science teachers with simulations on topics like gas laws, fluid mechanics and chemical bonding. Teachers who are trained in the system can create activities with text, models and interactive controls. One participant referred to the project as “[Microsoft] Word for molecules.”
Other simulations the organization is developing include a software that allows students to experiment with virtual greenhouses in order to understand evolution, a software that helps students understand the physics of energy efficiency by designing a model house, and simulations of how electrons interact with matter.

2. Global Learning

At sites like Glovico.org, students can set up language lessons with a native speaker who lives in another country and attend the lessons via videoconferencing. Learning from a native speaker, learning through social interaction, and being exposed to another culture’s perspective are all incredible educational advantages that were once only available to those who could foot a travel bill. Now, setting up a language exchange is as easy as making a videoconferencing call.

3. Virtual Manipulatives

Let’s say you’re learning about the relationship between fractions, percents and decimals. Your teacher could have you draw graphs or do a series of problems that changes just one variable in the same equation. Or he could give you a “virtual manipulative” like the one above and let you experiment with equations to reach an understanding of the relationship. The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, run by a team at Utah State University, has been building its database of these tools since 1999.
“You used to count blocks or beads,” says Lynne Schrum, who has written three books on the topic of schools and technology. “Manipulating those are a little bit more difficult. Now there are virtual manipulative sites where students can play with the idea of numbers and what numbers mean, and if I change values and I move things around, what happens.”

4. Probes and Sensors

About 15 years ago, the founders of the Concord Consortium took the auto focus sensor from a Polaroid camera and hooked it up to a computer graph program, thereby creating the ability to graph motion in real time. Today there are classrooms all over the world that use ultrasonic motion detectors to demonstrate concepts.
“I’ve taught physics before, and you spend a lot of time getting these ideas of position, and what is velocity, and what does motion really mean and how do you define it,” says Chad Dorsey, the president and CEO of the Concord Consortium. “And you end up spending a lot of time doing these things and trying to translate them into graphs. You could spend a whole period creating a graph for an experiment that you did, and it loses a lot of meaning in that process. By hooking up this ultrasonic motion detector to a graph right away…it gives you a specific real-time feel for what it means to move at faster rates or slower rates or increasing in speed or decreasing in speed and a much more foundational understanding of the topic than you could ever get by just drawing the graph by hand.”
Collecting real-time data through probes and sensors has a wide range of educational applications. Students can compute dew point with a temperature sensor, test pH with a pH probe, observe the effect of pH on an MnO3 reduction with a light probe, or note the chemical changes in photosynthesis using pH and nitrate sensors.

5. More Efficient Assessment

Models and simulations, beyond being a powerful tool for teaching concepts, can also give teachers a much richer picture of how students understand them.
“You can ask students questions, and multiple choice questions do a good job of assessing how well students have picked up vocabulary,” Dorsey explains. “But the fact that you can describe the definition [of] a chromosome … doesn’t mean that you understand genetics any better … it might mean that you know how to learn a definition. But how do we understand how well you know a concept?”
In Geniverse, a program the Concord Consortium developed to help students understand genetics by “breeding” dragons, teachers can give students a problem that is much more like a performance assessment. The students are asked to create a specific dragon. Teachers can see what each student did to reach his or her end result and thereby understand whether trial-and-error or actual knowledge of genetics leads to a correct answer.
The organization is also developing a program that will help teachers collect real-time assessment data from their students. When the teacher gives out an assignment, she can watch how far along students are, how much time each a spends on each question, and whether their answers are correct. With this information, she can decide what concepts students are struggling with and can pull up examples of students’ work on a projector for discussion.
“What they would have done in the past is students would make a lab report, they’d turn it in, the teacher would take a couple of days to grade it, they’d get it back a couple of days later, and two to three days later they’d talk about it,” Dorsey says. “But they’ve probably done a couple of lessons in between then, [and] they haven’t had time to guide the students immediately as they learned it.”

6. Storytelling and Multimedia

Knezek recently saw a video that was produced by a group of elementary students about Bernoulli’s Principle. In the video, the students demonstrated the principle that makes flight possible by taking two candles and putting them close together, showing that blowing between them brings the flames closer together. For another example, they hung ping pong balls from the ceiling and they pulled together.
“With a simple assignment and access to technology, researching and also producing a product that would communicate, they were able to do deep learning on a concept that wasn’t even addressed in their textbook, and allow other people to view it and learn from it,” Knezek says.
Asking children to learn through multimedia projects is not only an excellent form of project-based learning that teaches teamwork, but it’s also a good way to motivate students who are excited to create something that their peers will see. In addition, it makes sense to incorporate a component of technology that has become so integral to the world outside of the classroom.
“It’s no longer the verbal logic or the spoken or written word that causes people to make decisions,” Knezek says. “Where you go on vacations, who you vote for, what kind of car you buy, all of those things are done now with multimedia that engage all of the senses and cause responses.”

7. E-books

Despite students’ apparent preference for paper textbooks, proponents like Daytona College and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are ready to switch to digital. And electronic textbook vendors like CourseSmartare launching to help them.
E-books hold an unimaginable potential for innovating education, though as some schools have alreadydiscovered, not all of that potential has been realized yet.
“A digital textbook that is merely a PDF on a tablet that students can carry around might be missing out on huge possibilities like models and simulations or visualizations,” Dorsey says. “It takes time and it really takes some real thought to develop those things, and so it would be easy for us as a society to miss out on those kinds of opportunities by saying, ‘Hey look, we’re not carrying around five textbooks anymore. It’s all on your iPad, isn’t that great?’”

8. Epistemic Games

Epistemic games put students in roles like city planner, journalist, or engineer and ask them to solve real-world problems. The Epistemic Games Group has provided several examples of how immersing students in the adult world through commercial game-like simulations can help students learn important concepts.
In one game, students are cast as high-powered negotiators who need to decide the fate of a real medical controversy. In another, they must become graphical artists in order to create an exhibit of mathematical art in the style of M.C. Escher. Urban Science, the game featured in the above video, assigns students the task of redesigning Madison, Wisconsin.
“Creative professionals learn innovative thinking through training that is very different from traditional academic classrooms because innovative thinking means more than just knowing the right answers on a test,” explains The Epistemic Games Group’s website. “It also means having real-world skills, high standards and professional values, and a particular way of thinking about problems and justifying solutions. Epistemic games are about learning these fundamental ways of thinking for the digital age.”
See the original post of the article here: 8 Ways Technology Is Improving Education