“This is the nature of science.”

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Today I offer you morsels from a book I’m reading as a delectable snack for your mind. Beautifully written, it reminds me that, in our course, we look at areas of knowledge not just for their description and analysis but also for their wonder. In many ways, I feel TOK to be a celebration of what we can know, and what we do know — almost, at times, in spite of ourselves. Let this reflection on science by Carlo Rovelli give you a bit of refreshment as you guide your students to the kind of vast overview that we aspire to take in IB Theory of Knowledge!

Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amid the infinite arabesques of forms that constitute reality, we are merely a flourish among innumerably many flourishes.

The images that we construct of the universe live within us, in the space of our thoughts.   Between these images – between what we can reconstruct and understand with our limited means – and the reality of which we are part, there exist countless filters: our ignorance, the limitations of our senses and of our intelligence….

We not only learn, but we also learn to gradually change our conceptual framework and to adapt it to what we learn. And what we are learning to recognize, albeit slowly and hesitantly, is the nature of the real world of which we are part. The images that we construct of the universe may live inside us, in conceptual space, but they also describe more or less well the real world to which we belong. We follow leads to better describe this world.

When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundred of thousands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah – scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science.

Why do I like Rovelli’s comments so much? Altogether, I am amazed by science – not really by the details of it, which I always forget, but by its sweep and ingenuity.

Do you, like me, come from a background of literature, the arts and the humanities? Like me, do you feel no yearning for a laboratory, and zero inclination to apply formulae to findings in clever calculations? And yet … and yet … talking about science with our students as we do in Theory of Knowledge is talking about curiosity and imagination, keen observation and brilliant connections made by the mind, and an attitude toward knowing — learning with care, humility and openness to changing one’s mind – that anyone with values in accord with TOK will find wholeheartedly admirable.

Besides, this passage from Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics isn’t just a morsel of writing to enjoy privately. It could be useful in class – if you’re prepared to take all the poetry out of it.

Possible questions for class:

  • “This is the nature of science,” claims physicist Carlo Rovelli in this passage from his 2016 book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. What characteristics of science does he identify here?
  • What TOK ways of knowing does he allude to, directly or indirectly, as contributing to science?
  • What essential difference does he pick out between the stories of literature and the accounts given by science?
  • What important point does he make about being right or wrong in science?

Not being a scientist, I would find it really corny to wax rhapsodic in class about what is amazing about science and knowledge. For authenticity, I’d always depend on colleagues in the science department, or scientists who convey their love of the area they study in their writing or talks. That’s why I like Rovelli’s writing about science: because he conveys some of the fascination, challenges, and ideals of science. I’ll never love Carlo Rovelli as much as I love Carl Sagan, but I guess I’m a fan.

These scientists convey a personal knowledge that we non-scientists can’t contribute.  But in our TOK classrooms we can use their voices to augment what we are fully able to do: to reinforce a scientific literacy that is essential for understanding not only how the physical world works but how some major world issues are best understood.

PS

Is it corny to be a fan, still, of The Symphony of Science, with its poetic and musical invocation of scientific ideas?   If you don’t know this resource, I urge you to start with “Science is the poetry of reality”, noticing that the speakers/singers are prominent scientists.  It’s also, with images, on youtube:


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References

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. trans by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. Riverhead Books, New York, 2016. pp 67-69

The Symphony of Science. http://www.symphonyofscience.com/

“Science is the poetry of reality”, Symphony of Science, youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Cd36WJ79z4 

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