Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Science and Enlightenment

[This blog post is based on a talk given by Sir Harold Koto at the University of Sydney on the 4th of October 2011]. Harold Kroto received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for his work on the Buckminster Fullerene)

Before science was called "science" it was known as "natural philosophy" - referring to gaining wisdom/knowledge from observing nature. This is the defining characteristic of science: Scientific ideas are based on evidence - observations of nature.

Scientific theories are models that try to approximate nature. Science is the only method that creates knowledge with any degree of reliability. Modern science is only possible through its foundation in symbolic algebra, calculus, and statistics. The mathematical basis of science allows describing the reliability of scientific theories (how far a scientific theory is from the "truth"). [Some philosophers point out that there might not be just one "Truth" but only socially constructed "thruths".]

Many people today do not understand the nature of science - in part because science education focuses on the products of science and not the process; and because there is no mandatory course for "nature of science". Koto suggest to make "nature of science" part of every undergraduate program.

Great quote by J.F. Kennedy: "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth - persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myth allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

Koto highly recommends the essay "Scientists as Citizens" by Sir John Cornforth.

Koto advertised his two own projects: Vega (a collection of video presentations of scientists) and Geoset (a series of instructional science and engineering videos produced by college students). The main goal is to promote science and establish scientists as role models (to replace singers, sports stars, actors, and models).

Koto's efforts for science education go along the line of other prominent scientists, for example:
-Sally Ride (first female US astronaut): Sally Ride Science 
-Leon Lederman (Nobel Prize in Physics): Lederman Science Center
-Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary biologist): The Magic of Reality (a science book for children).

The only shortcoming of these commendable efforts is that they are driven by scientists with limited involvement of the education community. Ideally, science education researchers could provide the framework to guide these projects to make them more effective.

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