Fri, Jun 01, 2012 - Page 8 News List


Transit of Venus matters

On Wednesday at 6am Venus will transit the sun. This may not sound very exciting, but that we know exactly when it will happen should underpin the philosophy of good science teaching.

Traditional books give children the names of the planets and moons and information about them, but they learn nothing of importance. The solar system is a very precise clock that made itself: Your watch counts the precision of the planets’ movements, not the other way around.

Teaching children how the clock works gives them a sense of intrigue and wonder, which makes them search for reason with the discipline of logic — rather than fantasy, which leads to self-interest.

The self-assembly takes place because of what lies inside each atom. That is what is really interesting: If you just have hydrogen atoms milling about in space they will create stars, planets, elements and life by themselves. The idea of entropy starts to look questionable here.

The secret lies in the ratio of gravity to electromagnetism, a fact I have never seen written anywhere, never mind taught in schools. Magnetism is taught as an interesting phenomenon, not something responsible for powers of self-assembly. The ratio, by the way, is 10 to the power of 40. Gravity does the basic assembly and the conservation of angular momentum, along with orbital resonance, produce balance and precision, ie, orbits and timing. Gravity being so small, it takes something as big as the sun before it is strong enough just to put two repelling protons together: This releases energy, which holds up the sun (against gravity) long enough for it to make all the elements up to iron. Smaller bodies like Jupiter do not have enough gravity to push protons together.

Because magnets attract and repel at the same time, matter assembles into everything we see around us without collapsing. If magnets did not repel, the Earth would be the size of a football. Hard for us to believe, but there are places like that out in space.

Next time you look through a clean window and logic tells you there is very little “thing” there, it is really an electromagnetic interaction. When taught like this science starts to show us how different reality is from the illusion created by our senses. A rainbow, for example, exists only inside your head, not in the sky.

My Grade 1 and 2 students learn to compare gravity and magnetism as forces that work together. Newton did not invent the rules, he found them.

We cannot say what gravity and magnetism are, but we can say they need to be like this or the universe would not work. The fact it does work means there are atoms that self-assembled into molecules that can contemplate atoms.

I think that is an awe-inspiring thought and something people would never think of unless they had found it. Thank God it’s not our universe.

Oops! Did I really just write that?

Peter Cook

Greater Taichung

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