Once upon a time — 1252-84 CE*, to be precise – there was a king in Spain, Alfonso X of Castile and Leon, who came to be known as The Astronomer or The Wise. Chambers Biographical Dictionary [New Edition 2002] tells us that, among other noteworthy things, “his planetary tables (adapted from Arabic models) were of major importance, and [that] he wrote several long poems, besides works on chemistry and philosophy”.

His “planetary tables” illustrated the observed movements of the heavenly bodies by mathematical diagrams called epicycles, or circles around circles, with the earth at the centre of the system.

Go out to your backyard with a quite heavy weight on a length of string; stand under your Hills Hoist and hold the end of one of its arms in one hand and “swing the lead” in a circular motion with your other. Now walk in a circle keeping hold of your Hills, continuing to swing the lead, and you’ll find that the weight on the end of your piece of string is moving in an epicycle: a circle around a centre itself moving in a circle.

Now imagine a tenfold increase to your backyard: you have ten Hills Hoists, and nine of your neighbours are copying what you’re doing on a Hills Hoist each, at different rates, with varying lengths of strings and differing weights. It’s a bright sunny day at noon: you’ll need ten more neighbours with ten different coloured spray cans to trace out the path that the shadow of each weight is making on your nicely cut grass.

You’re on the way to drawing something like Alfonso X’s astronomical epicycles*.

It’s no wonder that he is supposed to have said that had the Almighty consulted him at the moment of creation, he’d’ve made the whole shebang a lot simpler.

What might he say now that the complexities of science and mathematics are beyond even mere description?

They are far too complicated

Which brings us to one of the main popular responses to science and/or mathematics: they are far too complicated, along with queries along the lines of “How is knowing binomial co-efficients or the Rules of Fajans or hyperbolic geometry or magnetohydrodynamics going to help my children get a job, raise a family or know who not to vote for?”

Are our middle and higher secondary students being overloaded with the sorts of mathematics that should be done at university – in other words, are secondary schools being made to do someone else’s work? Would Year 11 and 12 students be better served with a generalist maths subject and a general science subject in the HSC curriculum instead of the fairly common double-maths/double-science which leave little room for other, broadening subjects ? How early is too early for our students to specialise ?

But there are also concerns in the other direction: that our secondary students are being short-changed in that they don’t do enough higher maths and science, and that their teachers themselves have been similarly short-changed in their own preparation, education and training. Whatever the answers, a severe shortage of qualified teachers of science and mathematics looms as thousands reach retiring age.

Mainland broadsheets have reported recent claims of this nature as follows:

Science teachers lack knowledge
Schools hit by science teacher shortages
The Oz

Much of what is reported above is sadly familiar: remuneration for teaching being uncompetitive with industry salaries, a cultural bias against the hard sciences and the inability of politicians to see past the next election campaign, particularly as their ranks, deficient in physicists, geologists and mathematicians, are filled with lawyers, ex-union officials, political advisers, spin doctors, et al., with a shallow acquaintance with science and no affection for mathematics.

Shrill propaganda from the Dark Greens

Many readers of Tasmanian Times vehemently express an all-embracing concern for the Island’s ecology, and worry about the damage, occasionally unintended, caused by industry.

Without a reasonable grounding in the mathematics and the sciences, how can Tasmanians discriminate between shrill propaganda from the Dark Greens, or corporate dissimulation from the Suits on one hand, and evidenced-based and scientifically credible reason on the other?

If industrial management has no science, if concerned citizens have been poorly taught in basic science and if decision makers are bereft of any awareness of the importance of mathematics and science, we are all losers in the ritualised battles between the ecologically ignorant, no matter how dramatically newsworthy they are made out to be.

Education’s version of “Who will guard the guards ?” is who is teaching the teachers, and what are they being taught. Disquiet about what passes for teacher training is not new, but another report in the Higher Education supplement of The Australian [Thurs 21 April 05] deepens our apprehension.

In It’s not rocket science, Peter Ridd, a reader in physics at Queensland’s James Cook University, contrasts the preparation of teachers of science and mathematics in Singapore and in Australia.

Ridd claims that Singapore’s teacher education system in maths and sciences is run by academics with a far closer involvement with science and maths than is the case in Australia, where many responsible for this have lost contact with the disciplines for which they are responsible: “[our] educationalists are generally buried deep inside a social science or humanities faculty and have little exposure to scientists and mathematicians”.

It’s C P Snow’s Two Cultures re-visited, where isolated scientists are busy discovering more about the nature of the worlds around us, and within us, and where too many of the opposing culture are intent on explaining it away, with each lot talking among their own in increasingly incomprehensible jargon or meaningless gibberish

Educational Stone Age

Ridd goes on: “Compared with some Australian syllabuses, Singaporean syllabuses look like something from the educational Stone Age. They are readable and have pages of material that the teacher is supposed to teach.

“A comparison of a Singapore science or physics syllabus with the latest physics syllabus in Queensland is interesting. While the Singapore syllabus has dozens of pages of content that must be taught, with useful detail on the depth of coverage, the Queensland syllabus has a single and completely unhelpful page. . . . the sections on equity, safety and copyright are each longer than the section outlining what is going to be taught”.

Alfonso the Wise codified laws, studied chemistry and astronomy, wrote and translated in his Castilian vernacular, founded a university and composed poetry: not for him the destructive intellectual apartheid between the arts and the sciences.

Were he with us now, he’d possibly have some questions:

“With such advances, utterly beyond the most extravagant imaginings of my age, in science, mathematics and technology, why do you deprive your young of this knowledge? Why do your leaders despise it?” [He’d probably also be stunned that our so-called “quality broadsheets”, so openly contemptuous of the tabloids, still run astrology tables !]

“And, with my countryman Santayana’s words to warn you, why are you repeating old errors through ignorance of history? My university at Salamanca became hostage to a rigidly destructive orthodoxy – why are yours doing the same?”

* CE [Common Era] and BCE [Before the Common Era] are starting to be used instead of the Christian-specific expressions AD and BC.
* Two centuries later, Nicholas Copernicus used some of Alfonso’s data to draw his at-the-time simpler sun-centred model.

Leonard Colquhoun 7248: The writer’s favourite university subjects comprised a Major in History and Philosophy of Science.

Interesting that the very next day after I wrote the above, this piece appears:

Soft science teaching bodes ill for the Clever Country

It openly acknowledges that the teaching of science [or most subjects for that matter] has to balance two opposites:

(i) school students learn physics [history/geography*/art/economics/whatever] to become physicists/historians/geographers/artists/economists/whateverists;

(ii) school students learn physics [history/geography*/art/economics/whatever] to learn about physics [history/geography*/art/economics/whatever], especially for the purpose of developing cultural literacy.

No-one can understand life, the universe and the whole damned thing in the 21st C unless they have some awareness of empirical science; their knowledge may not be very detailed, but any curriculum that deprives children of this is leaving them prey to such charlatans as astrologers, snake-oil peddlers, much of the so-called “natural” quackery, cults – I’m sure you don’t need me to go on.

Yet, academic drongos infected with the relativism of post-modernism would have us believe that the empirical sciences are just a “Western social construct”, and that various mythologies are just as “valid” as explanations. None of these frauds has, as far as I know, tried testing whether 32ft/sec/sec* the rate acceleration – due to gravity – is a “Western construct” by jumping out of a tenth storey window! Nor, to my admittedly limited knowledge, has aboriginal physics succeeded in landing any persons of colour on the moon.

Joe Wolfe’s “soft” physics does (ii), while “hard” physics – one of the “hardest” subjects in the curriculum – does (i).

How are they to be balanced ? That is one question.

LC 7248

* geography, at least in Victoria, seems to be a very sick PC joke, with “themes” like the evils of tourism and how J Howard MHR is personally responsible for every falling tree.

* expressed in this quaint old language because I had to learn it off by heart at school – and i feel quite unharmed by it: I probably need counselling.

* If only !!