Avoiding the jargon sea of middle school science
Today, I saw the following tweet:
And here’s the question from the 8th grader that the tweet linked to:
Jupiter’s core is supposedly rocky but its composition is pretty much unknown. I’ve found that the size of its rocky core may be 1.5 times the size of Earth but I also found out it has mass of 12 times that of Earth, so it must be extremely dense. It is also wrapped in metallic hadron, hydrogen gasses are compressed by its enormous gravity that it turns into a metallic state. Hadrons are categorized in two categories, Baryons and Mesons. Baryons are composed of 3 quarks, while Mesons are composed of one quark and one anti-quark. A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter, such as protons and neutrons, the most stable quarks known. Corresponding to most kinds of particles, there is an associated antiparticle with the same mass and opposite electric charge. For example, the antiparticle of the electron is the positively charged antielectron, or positron, which is produced naturally in certain types of radioactive decay. Radioactive Decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles. Antiparticles are produced naturally in beta decay, which is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle (an electron or a positron) is emitted from an atom. Now, what would happen if we took an Anti-baryon, and increased its size by 1.5, and we increased it’s mass greatly, and we put it on an accelerator with a Baryon, but the Baryon was going faster, if we collided them, what speed would the Baryon have to go at to eliminate the mass and size increased Anti-Baryon? What I’m trying to find out is if the Earth was flown off our rotational course around the sun, and we crashed into Jupiter, what force would it take for us to actually survive? Or would we be obliterated on impact?
First, I want to totally congratulate this student for writing this question and showing a tremendous amount of curiosity. I also think it’s fantastic that this student’s teacher decided to share it with the internet to see if anyone could provide additional insight to help guide this student. What an excellent way to show the power of scientific collaboration and communication.
But, I also want to take issue with the nature of the question. As Andy Rundquist said, this question really is a tour of the science jargon dictionary. Take a fact, find the first word you don’t understand, look it up, add that onto the question, and repeat, until you come away with something that sounds scientific, but is really, really, confused. Science isn’t jargon. The best explanations in science don’t overpower you with their arcane vocabulary, they captivate you with their simplicity and beauty.
Feynman said it best—if you know the name of a bird in every language, you really don’t know anything at all about the bird:
Now I often hear questions like this 8th grader’s question above from my students all the time, who all seem to have learned about quarks and strings before they really got any understanding of what an atom is, or how we know atoms exist. I think the internet often seems to make this phenomenon worse, since the Wikipedia entry of just about any common term in science turns into a detail-ridden, jargon-laced dive into arcana very quickly. But I want to be clear, my problem isn’t with the students who ask these questions—I love their curiosity. What I wonder is why can’t we redirect their curiosity to things they can understand, not by reading explanations on the internet that are likely over their head, but by doing a real investigation in the into the world around them. Each bit of trivia in the question above, such as the conclusion that Jupiter may have a rocky core, is the end result of a scientific investigation—a wonderful story that we should be empowering out students to explore. If you want to see this in action, read how Michael Doyle, the poet laureate of science bloggers suggests teaching the story of atoms to middle school students. It isn’t by having them memorize that neutrons and protons are inside the nucleus, atomic mass is the sum of the neutrons and protons, and atomic mass is the number of protons.
I worry that these easy explanations, the kind we pull up on our smart phones to settle debates between friends, or to quickly answer questions posed to by students, devalue these stories of science, and most importantly, they diminish the notion that students can write stories themselves by doing science—not reading about it.
Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Just yesterday, a question surfaced for me I’d never thought of before—”how do we measure the diameter of the Sun?”, thanks to the blog Bad Astronomy. The diameter of the Sun is one of those numbers that’s in the front of most astronomy textbooks, and a little bit of googling takes you to sites like this with all sorts of infographics to help you wrap your head around the answer.
But you never see an explanation of how we made this measurement, and you never see this picture:
Armed with this photograph, the diameter of Mercury and its orbital speed, any high school student with a tremendous amount patience and persistence could use geometry to calculate the diameter of the sun to be , and like any good story in science, answering this question yeilds a host of so many other questions, such as how do we know the diameter of Mercury?
In the age of Wikipedia, can we teach students to appreciate these stories? When you can download stunning images of Saturn from Cassini, how do we show students the joy in the much poorer image they can find for themselves using a backyard telescope?
Scientific jargon paints a false picture of science
My second concern is that I’ve had teachers of elementary and middle school science pass questions like these questions on to me before, with the implicit message that they themselves didn’t understand enough science to answer the question. I think think this is incorrect, and it plays into the false narrative of science as an inscrutable discipline beyond the understanding of normal people. I think this may also contribute to the lack of trust average citizens have for science.
I would love know ideas you may have for how we can subtly redirect students who think science is about knowing the names of all the quarks, or the difference between a baryon and a lepton, and instead, get those students to see see that they can get beyond these surface layer of science, and dig into the story itself. How do we help them to see that the story of story is unfinished, and always looking for more young, curious investigators to add a chapter or two?