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The power of interdisciplinary thinking, the internet and ubiquitious information

July 18, 2012

Here’s an interesting story sitting in my to-blog feed that got from from Swans on Tea.

Ancient text gives clue to mysterious radiation spike

The Nature article above tells the story of how a college undergrad, Jonathon Allen, was listening to a Nature podcast and head about an odd spike in carbon-14 levels recorded in tree rings in Japan. These spikes most likely come from an ancient supernovae that caused high energy radiation to strike the upper atmosphere. However, there were no known supernovae events in 774 and 775 AD, the date of the spike, according to the tree rings.

Allen decided to a quick Google search and came across an eight century text that references a “red crucifix” that appeared in the heavens “after sunset.”

Why is this interesting? It’s a nice example of interdisciplinary, self-directed, project based learning that results in a truly signifiant finding. Allen is a biochem major, who’s clearly curious about science, so he listens to the Nature podcast. This pushes him to explore ideas about tree growth, carbon-14 production, atmospheric chemistry, supernovae, scattering of starlight by dust clouds and the analysis of ancient texts. Much of this information is on the internet, so Allen has easy and instant access to these things, so he’s able to follow tangents almost as quickly as he thinks of them. Allen ultimately finds something that he thinks is significant, and so he begins to collaborate experts in the field, and ultimately publishes his findings in Nature.

This seems to be exactly the sort of 21st century learning that everyone is talking about—making connections and learning to filter and process information. My only question is how do we help more students to do this?


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