“Really? You don’t know what MATTER is?”: Nobel Laureate in physics uses doughnuts to explain.

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In just a minute and a half on a comedy show, Nobel Laureate Arthur McDonald explains the discovery in physics that made him a co-winner of a Nobel Prize this month. Well, actually…..no, he doesn’t. But he does provoke a laugh, perhaps especially for Canadians who recognize the popular chocolate Timbits (doughnuts) he resorts to using in a simplified explanation. I recommend this video clip for TOK class for two reasons: first, a class laugh opens discussion of scientific discovery without distancing those fearful of physics; and second, it raises some tasty knowledge questions about the nature of explanation and responsibility.  

In an initial reaction to the video, the first knowledge question I’d encourage a class to explore hits some of the central social issues of our day, with a practical “how to” edge to the question:

How can we non-scientists best try to understand what scientists are telling us about the nature of our world, and to understand the implications?

The question also works the other way around:

How can scientists best explain to non-scientists, and help us understand the implications?

 Any discussion of gaps in understanding is likely to involve a number of central TOK topics, for instance:

  • the interaction between personal knowledge and shared knowledge, variably for the discovering scientists, their colleagues, and the public
  • the role of basic concepts, named in language, for creating and understanding knowledge – as in the knowledge framework’s “concepts/language” . How could McDonald truly explain his discovery to people who don’t know what “matter” is, and are unfamiliar with “sub-atomic particles”? On the other hand, how could scientists work together on building shared knowledge if they didn’t have a common framework supplied by basic concepts and models, and common vocabulary?
  • the nature of “a good explanation” as affected by who is explaining to whom! – and consequently the hunt for reliable sources of explanation, pitched at levels appropriate for the audience. (So much of TOK critical thinking comes back to this – to evaluation of sources to find those that are trustworthy!)
  • responsibility for communication and understanding: Who is responsible? What different responsibilities do different groups carry?

That last question is a big one. It takes us beyond scientific discoveries into their implications and applications. It takes us into an (arguable) responsibility to gain knowledge as a basis for sound decision-making, and into sometimes-debatable territory of whether and how scientific conclusions should be used within a society. It takes us into ethics, and the different ways in which we try to establish our guides for right action. I don’t think I’d use this light video clip to push discussion very far into ethics, since I’d prefer to use a discovery with more evident social implications and potential controversy as a prompt.

However, I’d certainly flag the importance of trying to learn and understand what scientists are telling us. After all, if a breakthrough discovery in science doesn’t seem to make any difference to anyone but a few scientists, why should the rest of us care about the area of knowledge? And if we don’t turn to science for knowledge of how our world works, how can we hope to make sound decisions that affect how we live in the world?  In TOK, I think we deal always, one way or another, with the value of knowledge!

And how would I conclude a discussion prompted by this video clip? I might take the discussion of science further into shared knowledge, with concepts, models, and peer reviewed communication – in which case I’d turn to more serious treatments of the Nobel Prize in physics, to use it as an example for TOK ideas.

But…if I felt I’d stirred enough of a discussion, I know how I’d close the class, especially if I were teaching in Canada, to ensure that my students remembered the lesson: I’d pass around for them a box of chocolate Timbits. We started with a laugh, and I’d want to end with one. Sometimes I think that humour is one of our most effective teaching methods.


“22 minutes: Neutrinos are like Timbits”. Published on Oct 13, 2015. Nobel Prize winner (and Cape Bretoner) Arthur B. McDonald explains his research into neutrino oscillations…using patience and some sugary props. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBwQ_hz1orQ