THE EVOLUTION OF SCIENCE AND SCIENCE EDUCATION
This is the second part of two parts from the address given at the
Science Teacher of Missouri Spring Conference 1992, Rolla, Missouri
by Dr. Clifford McCullum
I'll pick first the revolution in modern physics. To the physicist
this means all of the ideas about the physical universe that have been
generated since quantum theory was devised and used as a basis for
studying that physical universe. It involves a plethora of concepts
among which are relativity, atomic structure, nuclear structure, mass
energy, nuclear energy, etc. The names of stellar investigators
associated with these are even more numerous than the concepts. Any
attempt at listing, even as examples, is to court rebukes for
practicing personal favoritism, but here are a few: Planck, Einstein,
Rutherford, Bohr, Fermi, Gell-Mann.
Through all of this revolution has run the yearning for more
fundamental universals. What is the universal unit of structure
of the atom? What is the universal unit of energy? Of mass-energy?
Shouldn't we be able to identify the common element of
structure and operation in light, electricity, magnetism, and gravity?
This was the center of Einstein's attention during the last years of
his life. Perhaps some day!
I'll list next the DNA Revolution in the language of life. This is
based upon a mechanistic viewpoint as to the nature of life. It grew
from the application of physics and chemistry to the study of life and
life systems. From Darwinian evolution the path winds through
genetics to molecular biology. It certainly meets the criterion that a
revolution to be one should produce impacts in other fields.
Bioethical issues develop daily as DNA science and technology grow and
develop. Theology faces new challenges at the same time and old value
systems struggle and new ones explode around us. Bioengineering is
no longer an abstraction; life can be diagrammed and ordered at
will, or so it seems. A very readable account of the DNA story is The
Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson. Like modern
physics, the personalities involved are numerous. Of course,
James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins should be named.
But there are many others; among them, Rosalind Franklin, George Gamow,
Jacques Monod, Max Delbruck, and Linus Pauling.
My last revolution is harder to limit. It has to do with the search
for beginnings - the search for origins. First, we are searching
for the origins of the universe. We have an increasing certainty as to
the biography of stars - our sun included. The Hertsprung-Russell
Diagram is an insightful guide to that history and extrapolations beyond
the diagram are yielding more and more exciting gestations. We may not
have final answers as to what the first few seconds in the life of
the universe were like, but the overall age of the universe is
growing and the space geometry of it is expanding. Recent discoveries
using an NASA satellite it is believed will fill in gaps in the
story of what happened after the Big Bang occurred as matter coalesced
to form galaxies, stirs, planets, and other units we have recognized
in our physical universe.
Second, we are searching for the origins of life on this earth and
in our entire universe. This is intimately connected with molecular
biology. As this search continues, vitalism, as a point-of-view about
life, is weakening. Oparin, the Russian biochemist, Harold Urey
and his colleague and student, Stanley Miller, and Sidney W. Fox have
all outlined convincing steps in this evolution. Many others are
also working and asking questions. What kind of life are we looking
for? Is our earth's life alone in the universe? Is our earth's
life unique in the universe? Are other metabolic systems, other than an
oxygen / carbon dioxide one, possible elsewhere in the universe?
As our search for origins proceeds, the debate between mechanists
and vitalists waxes, as does the dispute between the creationists and
the evolutionists. Also, we are changing our conceptions of time in the
history of the universe and our conceptions of space in the
cosmography of the universe.
As we think of the history of science I am suggesting we pin our
thoughts for organizational purposes on revolutions in scientific
thought. Copernican, Darwinian. and Freudian in pre-twentieth
century. Modern Physics, DNA, and Search for Origins in the
But what does this have to do, if anything, with science teaching?
Well, for me it tends to stimulate some random thoughts as to
what I have done in the past as a science teacher, and what I might do
if I'd ever have the chance again. First, I fear I was almost always
dealing with outdated material in my classes. A lot of this is
necessary, for science does evolve, and ideas at the frontiers are
often too difficult for the novice. But those of us as teachers must
always keep in mind that understanding grows and does not
suddenly emerge in full blossom. Isaac Asimov was a great teacher for
all of us and I was impressed by the parenthetical remarks he
used in one of his last books, Atom. Listen: "This is no longer the
situation, but let us suppose it is and answer the question on that
basis. We can always qualify the answer later."