Saturday, July 30, 2011

One of the Worst Astronomy Questions....Ever!

In a previous blog:

I noted (at the end) an example of the sort of dreadful exam questions that led to the eventual downfall of astronomy in the Caribbean Examinations Integrated Science curriculum. Why or how were such "dumb" questions - which bore no relation to the actual content or course objectives - ever thought to be worthwhile or useful?

Long before the first CXC June (1978) exam, the astute outside observer would’ve surmised the seeds for the eventual destruction of astronomy teaching in the infighting and political battles between competing organizations that wanted their own inputs into the teaching, syllabus.

Let us begin by examining the players and the assorted roles they had, and when each originated. The Caribbean Examinations Council was launched in 1973 to : “conduct such examinations as it might think proper and award certificates and diplomas on the results of examinations conducted”. (E.N. Lambert, ‘Integrated Science to O-Level: A Caribbean Case Study’ in Proceedings of the Science Education for Progress (A Caribbean Perspective), ICASE, 1979)

CROASE (Caribbean Regional Organization of Associations for Science Education) was formed in November, 1974. It was CROASE, in early 1977 (after the Schools Examination Committee named CXC Integrated Science a “new subject for which an examination syllabus should be developed”)(ibid.), which assigned me the task of astronomy curriculum creation, design and writing both Teachers and Pupils Activity Books. In other words, astronomy would officially now be taught in Caribbean Secondary schools as part of the CXC Integrated Science Curriculum

It would have made more rational sense for the CXC not only to test the subjects but develop their syllabuses-curricula. Instead the two functions were separated. The reason was that CROASE took it upon itself to “immediately and decisively act in taking up curriculum innovation. As Lambert (op. cit.) observed:

“CXC administrators took the view that Council’s concern was only with syllabus formulation. CROASE, quite rightly, decided that curriculum development and related matters were its concern, but CROASE had no funds.

Those of us trying to prepare the Teachers and Pupils’ materials were thereby caught in the middle between the objectives and aims of CROASE and the agenda of CXC. In addition, it would later become evident that we’d be caught between the Activity teaching objectives and the examination objectives. For example, take the “creative exam format” with “a high emphasis on inquiry skills” (Lambert, ibid.).

The problem, only visible in retrospect, was that the inquiry skills didn’t match those which an astronomy specialist would designate, but rather what a chemistry teacher who thought he knew astronomy would designate. Hence, the groundwork was laid for extreme conflict!

At one CROASE Meeting, the only one I attended (in January, 1978), I was assured that whenever the CXC Integrated Science testing of astronomy commenced it would match the objectives set out by me and actually taught in the Pupils/Teachers Booklets. In other words, they’d be tested just like physics objectives are tested. At the time I wasn’t fully aware that CXC had already enlisted specialized examiners, mainly in Guyana and Trinidad, who’d set most of the future questions according to a creative format. As opposed to knowledge, this format placed more emphasis on:

- Social implications

- Inquiry skills

- Attitudes

Ultimately, this format led to the question on differing opinions of Earth's shape, such as that noted in my earlier blog. But, I believed after that episode (which caused consternation among many teachers and students) the CXC Examinations Council would've learned its lesson. Little did I realize an even worse exam question would materialize the following year!

This question is shown below:

In a number of ancient legends from around the world, the statement “the Sun stood still” has appeared. One writer has suggested that a very large comet came close to the Earth about 1500 B.C., disturbing the rotation of the Earth – so the apparent motion of the Sun in the sky was briefly halted.

a) Using your knowledge of the SOLAR SYSTEM and FORCES, try to visualize the situation. Write a paragraph that describes in what way the comet and the Earth could have been affected so the Sun appeared to stand still.

b)The writer claimed his theory was supported in various ancient writings that mentioned violent upheaval, and stoppage of the Sun. If scientists today wished to test the theory, what sort of evidence would they look for on Earth?

c)Finally, the writer suggested that the motion of the comet was so disturbed by interaction with Earth that it became the planet now known as Venus. Explain why, on the basis of energy change (potential, kinetic) considerations alone – this would be most unlikely.

In many ways, while more “astronomical” in content than the preceding test question (for 1978), this was more objectionable. The reason is blatantly evident to anyone who is remotely familiar with the sham Worlds in Collision book and speculations of psycho-therapist Immanuel Velikovsky.

For those not aware, ‘Worlds in Collision’ postulated the dynamical idiocy that Jupiter belched out a "comete" with the mass the size of Venus, which then blasted off toward the Sun, passing so near the Earth en route that it caused it’s rotation to halt (coinciding with Joshua’s famous trumpet blare) and in the process triggered the precipitation of carbohydrates (from hydrocarbons?!) – manifesting in the manna for the Israelites.

The venerable Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley was so outraged that he mounted a successful effort to prevent this insane gobbledegook from being published as a Harvard University imprint, and also from being picked up by any other major academic publishers. As Shapley noted, and I reiterate here, there are so many aspects, issues of scientific fact wrong with the book (such as mixing up hydrocarbons and carbohydrates) that it merits being sequestered from humanity forever lest the weaker –minded among us fall prey to its rank idiocy. Of course Shapley was pilloried for his “narrow-mindedness” but in truth he did everyone a favor – including the thousands of astronomers who’d otherwise have to correct this dreck.

But there it was, in all its odious glory, being tested on a CXC Integrated Science exam! Inquiry skills? How can you have an inquiry skill predicated upon rubbish?

During a CXC marking exercise in the summer of 1979, after the question appeared in the June exam, I confronted the examiner who wrote it and asked what he was thinking of, or if he was thinking. He actually said he wasn’t concerned with the astronomical accuracy or facts but rather how students might inquire into whether it could be true and put forward certain lines of investigation.

I informed him this was stark rubbish, and the question – as well as last year’s -belonged in a dumpster. He (and others) then objected and asserted if I had a problem I should set my own questions. I told him I damned sure would, but no one up to now had ever invited any from me! (After that I submitted several, including detailed marking schemes, some of which CXC used in later exams.)

Not long after, I encountered a (circulated by CROASE) article of Judith Reay of the School of Education, UWI, Trinidad. In that piece, she writes ('Where Has All the Wonder and Delight Gone?’ in The Journal of Education in Science for Trinidad & Tobago (Vol. 6, No.2), p. 37):

“In the last few years I have been reading some of Velikovsky’s books. Immanuel Velikovsky maintains that the principle of slow change (which is the basis of Darwinism, radioactive dating, geological studies and so on) has absolutely no rationale from evidence. His theories suggest a series of catastrophes, the latest of which occurred as recently as biblical times, and his documentation is enormous. Just one example of his ideas is that petroleum is by no means a fossil fuel but rained as ‘naphtha’ from the skies during a close approximation of a comet and the Earth about 1500 B.C.

Whether Velikovsky’s interpretation of his documents is sound I am not scientifically knowledgeable enough to judge. But it does seem to be the case (at least in the literature I read) that this kind of upsetting proposition is not given the thoughtful analysis that ought to be the essence of science. The reaction of scientists seems to be that Velikovksy is upsetting the sacred cows of science and they don’t like it.”

"Don’t like it?" She wrote as if serious scientists were objecting to something as simple as a personal taste or preference! Apple pie, or cherry? Or: we don’t like the flavor of poupon mustard and prefer the stone ground! Nowhere was there any remote appreciation for WHY 99.99% of all scientists (mainly astronomers, obviously) object to Velikovsky’s claptrap even being upheld as a theory!

This woman, purportedly an educator in science at UWI, wasn’t even aware of what the term “theory” implies: that it presumes observations that have already validated its hypothesis, and which itself is testable in respect of its own falsification. In addition, it permits formal predictions based on the model. Velikovsky’s nonsense does none of these!

Consider just the simple aspect of the alleged close approach of "comet Venus" to Earth as depicted in the diagram. According to Velikovskian "physics" the near approach of "comet" Venus would've halted the rotation of the Earth leading to an incident reported in the bible as "the Sun stopping" (e.g. rotation halting) when Joshua made his famous trumpet sound. The trouble here is that an OFF-axis torque is needed to effect this, and the only "torque" he has is mythical, based on: N = F_r X R_c. But F_r is a fantasy force that doesn't exist! The only actual force acting is an attractive (gravitational) one through the centers! Hence no external agent is available to halt the rotation! (And even if it could exist, and did occur, as the late science writer Isaac Asimov noted in an essay, the conversion of such rotational energy into heat would have melted the Earth's crust!)

Thus, Velikovsky is writing bollocks! Indeed, he doesn’t even do science, opting instead to plow through the world’s ancient myths as opposed to starting with scientific observations and data! He then ends up with a morass of anecdotal and circumstantial findings that he takes to be the equivalent of satisfying a scientific hypothesis.

Reay criticized scientists’ ‘lack of thoughtful analysis’ but she herself doesn’t even demonstrate the most rudimentary elements of critical thought - which a quantitative analysis of Velikovsky’s claims would have exposed! For example, the “comet” of which she writes (according to Velikovsky), is none other than the planet Venus! We are thus talking about a putative mass of nearly 4 x 10^24 kg suddenly gravitationally dislodged from Jupiter (mass 1.9 x 1029 kg) and traversing a distance of nearly 5.2 AU – 0.72 AU = 4.48 AU = 6.7 x 10^11 km, in going from Jupiter to the present orbit of planet Venus.

Had she actually done the math, she’d have discovered that the ejection of Venus from Jupiter would have required an explosive event on Jupiter more than one thousand million times more violent that the most energetic flares on the Sun. This is in defiance of all reason and commonsense. Even if the ejection had occurred suspending all known laws of physics – Venus would have melted in the process. It would not have delivered “naptha” and subsequently “manna” to Earth!

So why did a supposedly intelligent educator like Judith Reay write so fawningly of Velikovsky’s idiotic conjectures? My suspicion, supported by experiences in teacher workshops conducted in St. Lucia and Guyana: they’re too insecure in their knowledge of genuine science and so latch on to and promote a specious pseudo-scientific substitute. They then mistake this pseudo-version for some kind of “missing wonder”, when we are all best off without its spurious siren call of baloney.

There is surely enough true, exciting wonder in the universe around us, not to waste time on specious imitations!

But I will go more into these aspects in a future blog, including how the hyper-religiosity of many Caribbean science teachers adversely contributed to the outcome of the astronomy section of the curriculum.

No comments: