models and metaphor

I have a class of science students who, like most science students, have never done any science. This is in spite of the fact that they are in their junior year of a program that is preparing them to teach science to young science students. And so it’s my privileged position to be able to say “let’s do some science.” That is, they get to figure out how to poke at nature a bit and figure out what’s inside. They have to figure out which sticks to do the poking with and upon which bits to do the poking. Today they were presenting their first results, having paired up and found ways to measure various aspects (of their choice) of how little paper copters flutter to the ground.

These mini-projects were outstanding. I made them all name badges and associated them with made up institutions (St. Arnold’s Institute of Fluid Dynamics; Cal State Folsom Prison Campus; East Carolina State University; and other unbelievable locales) and they presented slides with data and graphs and statistics. They even asked each other questions, unwittingly imitating “real” researchers: “I’m not sure if this is so much a question as a comment,” and “You might want to try ____ because in my research ….” I was so proud of how quickly they could pick up not only the methods, but the idiosyncratic tendencies of more seasoned researchers.

It’s struck me, though, that they still see all of this as ways to collect and assemble large collections of data. They find patterns, but they’re still one step away from realizing that their real purpose in all this is to find models. They ultimately should be looking for deeper mechanisms in nature. These are things that are really there, assembled as sets of forces or conservations of energies or minimizations of some other property. In all of the messes of all of the phenomena and all of the data, the “job” of science is to figure out what is underneath it all. We know it’s there, and once we get to that level of understanding we say we can describe the science. The models become the descriptions of what is, and all of the other phenomena of times and positions, flutterings and fallings, are simply the ancillary examples.

This all reminds me that I’m overdue on a chapter I’m supposed to be writing on the topic of “Matter and Energy.” This is another marble on my wood floor.

I was trying to explain how my day went to Karyn when I came up with this “marbles on a wood floor” metaphor. Let it be known to all that this semester is magnitudes more reasonable and manageable than the previous one. But I still have all these things that I made minimal progress on, set aside, or otherwise buried a few months ago. And now they’re still there. They’re all good things, and they aren’t impossible things, but they are scattered all over the place. I wish I could make sense of them and even explain what they’re like. The reality of them is in each individual task, literally scattered across campus in different contexts and embedded in different projects. But that’s too hard to describe, so it was a relief just to be able to describe the non-reality that held the right imagery. There are all these marbles on the wood floor, and while they aren’t actively being spilled anymore, I still have to pick them up, one by one. I kick them around, trip over a few, but mostly just wander around across this wide gym floor as they slowly roll in different directions.

And so, while it wasn’t one of the marbles I am in need of picking up and putting away, I’ve tripped over a nice way to distinguish science from poetry. The reality of science is in the model we can boil it all down to. Other realities are in the multiple details, but they’re easier to explain with the metaphor. Now that I’ve found one, I’m feeling a little better about the tasks at hand. My scientific training suggests a model for which there can only be a finite number of marbles.

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