Of Scientific Temper, And Science Museums

Of Scientific Temper, And Science Museums A woman reaches to touch a robotic arm developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is on display at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge Expo at the Fairplex June 6, 2015 in Pomona, California. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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  • The tragedy of children and science is that we adults do not have the wherewithal to answer their questions that stem from curiosity.

    And that can be demotivating, thus pushing young minds further away from the joys of inquiry.

Over the past few years, there has been a gradual erosion of interest among students in pure science, as well as in great works of literature, due to the influence of cable television, video games, movies, lack of enlightened teachers and a misplaced emphasis on success in examinations, which, do not give a student the opportunity to experience the thrill of scientific discovery or the joy of reading great poetry or prose.

I am confining my discussion to science, in this essay.

Let us first define science, its purpose and limitations. Science represents the best mental discipline that man has at his command to understand the laws of the physical universe.

It is all about putting questions to understand a particular phenomenon, such as why the sky is blue or why does an apple fall to the ground and coming out with the best possible answer based on logic and experimental observation.

And this answer remains the same, wherever the experiment is performed and irrespective of the person carrying out the experiment.

But the entire process starts with curiosity.

It may be mentioned that children also have the same curiosity, when they begin their journey of life; they keep asking questions, some of which even adults cannot answer.

Instead of giving them convincing answers, adults snub the children.

What distinguishes the curiosity of the scientist from that of the child is that the former’s questions are more structured and organised.

What characterises his method is a certain persistence that does not allow him to forget the question till he has found an answer.

But as far as children of today are concerned, it is we adults who are to be blamed.

If the child can, by operating a small ‘remote control device', change several channels in a television in a few minutes, why would he have any interest in knowing how a television works.

No adult has the patience or knowledge to explain how an aeroplane takes off or lands.

Therefore, visual entertainment like video games and movies involving sex and violence, are undesirable and so they should be avoided.

Children should be encouraged to see films, like The wizard of Oz, The sound of music and The lion king, though the comedy movies of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel Hardy, and even some funny cartoons like Thomas the train may also be included in the menu.

Older students should be encouraged to see educational movies like The man who knew infinity about the great Indian mathematician, Ramanujan, The Darwin adventure and The fantastic voyage and classics like Cromwell but most definitely not animated TV series like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, which not only serve no purpose, but are also undesirable.

Of course, they may be permitted to see good detective movies and good comedies.

Children as well as older students should be encouraged to play with toys based on scientific principles that foster creativity and scientific curiosity.

Hundreds of shops that sell such educational toys are scattered throughout the United States.

There are many such science shops in Britain, most countries in Europe, and Japan as well.

However, I have yet to come across such a shop, exclusively devoted to scientific toys in our country.

This brings to my mind the question of science museums , in which toys based on scientific principles are on display and simple science experiments are conducted.

There is a somewhat erroneous notion prevailing among certain sections of people that science museums are sophisticated institutions dealing with complex concepts, like quantum theory relativity, and black holes and so are avoided even by adults with the result, the children accompanying them are deprived of the opportunity to visit them.

On the contrary as pointed out rightly by one eminent science writer, science museums exploit only the simple themes of elementary science such as shadows reflection, light, refraction, sound resonance, and magnetic forces.

According to him, the view held by many people that in this age of advanced technology, a visitor to science museums is old fashioned and that the museums are only meant for children, is also incorrect.

It would naturally come as a surprise to them that some of the so-called children who come to "play" in science museums are distinguished scientists, including Nobel laureates.

In fact, scientists visit such museums not only to suggest new ideas but also to derive inspiration from the exhibits already on display there.

One scientist from a prestigious university once spent an entire month in one such famous museum in the United States.

He built, among other things, a small colour table, that functioned as an experimental laboratory to study reflection, absorption and transmission of light, and a 3-D shadow sculpture that uses red and green lights to produce the illusion of depth on a flat screen: and a small steel bouncing ball that begins bouncing high and then lower, but at an increasing frequency with each bounce, clacking onto the table in an audible example of exponential decay.

Another famous scientist spoke one day about resonance at the museum and ended up making a cyclotron out of a giant pendulum, showing how a series of small successive pushes in exactly the right place could add up to large amounts of energy.

A visit to such a museum would inculcate in children and older students a heathy curiosity in scientific principles and a desire to pursue a career in science.

Who knows?

One of the students might one day turn out to be another Faraday, or Edison.

Even 'theme parks' can be educative. For example, there is a 'ride' in Disneyland, in the United States, in which a three dimensional Black beard or a ghost sits next to you. You can see them, but when you stretch out your hand to touch, it turns out to be a mere holographic illusion.

This stimulates the curiosity of the child, who is thrilled.

This brings me to my next point. What has happened to all the quiz programmes we used to have in our school days?

Being part of your college team, and answering simple questions in science and literature and winning a small trophy, was a great source of pride.

We still have quiz programmes but of the ‘wrong kind’ e.g. movies, politics et cetera, in which the reward for winning is a crore of rupees thus defeating the whole purpose.

Discussions in parties dwell on the political situation in the country or the latest movies released.

What has happened to all those friendly, scientific riddles for which everyone present at a party in someone's living room tried to find solutions?

Fortunately, some pockets of such interests do exist here and there.

I was myself present at a party recently where all took part enthusiastically in finding answers to two such riddles.

The first one was as to how one’s image gets ‘inverted’ in a mirror whereas top and bottom, i.e. head and legs, don’t get ‘reversed’.

No one could explain the reason. Then someone suggested that this occurs because the mirror takes in incoming light and shoots it back at you, thus reversing the direction of the light!

You and your image are looking in opposite directions. The question of left or right or up and down does not occur.

For the latter to occur, you have to place the mirror over the head or stand near it on the floor!

The second riddle, which I posed, was more interesting.

How is it that we humans have to brush our teeth constantly (at least twice a day irrespective of what we eat) to maintain oral hygiene whereas lions and tigers do not have to do so — they do not even wash their bloodstained teeth.

I have yet to come across a dentist who can answer this question, but the answers to such questions represent the very stuff of science.

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