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Category Archive • Science
November 09, 2004
Is your kid not going to get into Harvard? Operate!

This has obvious educational implications, especially in an age of rich and competitive parents. (See the posting below about which are the world's best universities.)

Some neurologists recently have wondered whether their field is the next frontier in elective medicine. The specialty now tries to protect ailing brains from conditions such as Parkinson's disease or migraine headaches. But doctors' efforts one day may extend to normal brains.

"This is coming, and we need to know it's coming," said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania.

Got you, Doctor.

As he envisions it, cosmetic neurology one day could mean not only sharpening intelligence, but also elevating other dictates of the brain reflexes, attention, mood and memory. Studying for the SAT? Take this drug to retain more of those pesky facts. About to report for duty at the fire station? These pills will improve your reflexes. Here's the 800 number. Ask your doctor.

These are not only theoretical musings. Last month in the journal Neurology, Chatterjee noted that some current drugs already may have many of these effects. In one study, for example, emergency-room patients given a memory-altering drug appeared to be spared some symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Another small study of pilots in flight simulators suggested that those taking medications for Alzheimer's disease performed better, particularly under emergency conditions.

Chatterjee reserves opinion but says the idea speaks to the basic purpose of medical practice.
"I'm not arguing that this is a bad thing, and I'm not arguing it's a good thing." Before doctors are caught by surprise, he said, they need to be prepared. "What I'm hoping to do with this is get people talking."

And if for some reason they can't talk, there is presumably going to be some kind of operation to fix that.

I had already started on this posting before I even got to the bit about getting people talking. So I guess here is a doctor who knows how the world works, as well as just the brains in it.

My thanks. Arts, letters and a lot else.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 PM
Category: Science
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October 18, 2004
David Wolfe is a great physics teacher but is he "qualified"?

The Government makes a rule. A particular case shows the rule to be ridiculous, and the media get heavily involved. Contemptuous people assemble in crowds saying: rubbish. So, the Government suddenly invents a policy which says that the rule doesn't apply to this particular case after all.

DavidWolfe.jpgI'm talking about the case of Dr David Wolfe, an excellent physicist and a superb physics teacher, who, the Government said, because he hadn't passed his GCSE maths, wasn't "qualified" to be a teacher. There can be no exceptions. Curse rage, government is idiotic, media hubbub, David Miliband is a plonker, and hey how about that? There can be an exception. It turns out there's a "fast track". Some government inspectors can sit in on his classes and declare him qualified.

Read the Telegraph here, or the Guardian here.

I read about this in the Sunday Times here, who end their report yesterday thus:

But this may yet be a story with a happy ending. After the flurry of media exposure last week Wolfe was summoned to the phone. On the other end was "a very nice man" at the Department for Education and Skills. He told him that an assessor from the University of Gloucester would soon come to the school to observe one of his lessons. If it was fine, hey presto, he would be a qualified teacher.

"It's a complete volte face by the government," says Dingle. "No other head has heard of this 'fast-track' route. Heads up and down the country are saying, 'I beg your pardon?'" Nonetheless, he adds, "This time next week I earnestly hope David Wolfe will be a qualified teacher. Hurrah!"

But the rules remain in place, and not many good but "unqualified" teachers will be as vigorous in challenging them as Wolfe and his many friends have been.

The obvious riposte to this is that there do have to be rules. Well, maybe, in this centralised, nationalised system that we now have, with London in charge of everything, well, then, London has to be in charge, to have rules, and to stick to them. In Brian-world, people just educate themselves as they wish, and get what help they want. The idea that the government could forbid people to learn from some particular individual that they want to learn from would be regarded as ludicrous.

I should have picked up on this story sooner, instead of just babbling on about America. Sorry about that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 AM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsScience
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September 24, 2004
"Implicit local skills and understandings are enough"

Christie Davies has some intriguingly provocative views about science teaching. Basically, he's against it.

A knowledge of science we are assured is essential for a proper understanding of the modern world. It is not. Very few English people whether adults or teenagers have any serious knowledge of the sciences but this does not hinder them in any way when it comes to earning, buying and selling, taking care of their children, playing elaborate games on their computers, tinkering with their car engines, giving up smoking or choosing between one fool and another at election time. It would not assist them in any way to understand the properties of silicon or carbon monoxide or lead tetra-ethyl or serotonin or the nature of thermodynamics or electro-magnetic fields, even though these underlie their activities. Implicit local skills and understandings are enough. The English are competent in their ignorance. Those who have studied national curriculum science are if anything more ignorant but also more competent than their elders. They have a purely nominal knowledge of science like that conveyed by a glossy encyclopaedia or human interest science documentary film from which all difficult thinking have been carefully excluded. It is lowest common denominator science learned by rote, Gradgrind's dream. It is a worthless piece of paper on a par with a Weimar thousand mark note. For those who can not even manage 'nat cur sci' there is tendentious environmental science and for the great uncertificated majority complete incomprehension National curriculum one, enlightenment nil, sullen resentment considerable.

Personally, I think children should be allowed to learn what they want, how they want. Anything gets tedious if other people are telling you what to study and how to study it.

If teenagers were rewarded for being useful, and if science really is as useful as is so widely assumed, then plenty of children would learn science, and learn it well, of their own free will. And many more would learn it for the sheer fun of it. And Christie Davies is right that much science teaching all too often drains the fun out of it, and that more recent science teaching also empties the exercise of any great value.

But what if Britain needs lots of scientists, and we don't have them? The answer, says Davies, is immigration. Foreigners have always done the boring and unwelcome British jobs. Hah!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:53 AM
Category: Science
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August 02, 2004
Matt Ridley on either learning it early or not learning it at all

MattRidley.jpgI've been reading Matt Ridley's book Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human. (Matt Ridley picture to the right.) Robin McKie, quoted on the back cover, describes it as "A balanced, entertaining gallop through the world of environmental influences and genetic impulses." The relevance of such a book to education and to educators is obvious.

Chapter 6 is entitled "Formative Years", and here is the section from it entitled ""Young Tongues":

Critical-period imprinting is everywhere. There are a thousand ways in which human beings are malleable in their youth, but fixed once adult. Just as a gosling is imprinted with an image of its mother during the hours after birth, so a child is imprinted with everything from the number of sweat glands on its body and a preference for certain foods to an appreciation of the rituals and patterns of its own culture. Neither the gosling's mother-image nor the child's culture is in any sense innate. But the ability to absorb them is.

An obvious example is accent. People change their accents easily during youth, generally adopting the accent of people of their own age in the surrounding society. But some time between about 15 and 25, this flexibility simply vanishes. From then on, even if somebody emigrates to a different country and lives there for many years, his accent will change very little. He may pick up a few inflections and habits from his new linguistic surroundings, but not many. This is true of regional as well as national accents: adults retain the accent of their youths; youths adopt the accent of the surrounding society. Take Henry Kissinger and his younger brother Walter. Henry was born on 27 May 1925, while Walter was born just over a year later on 21 June 1924. They both moved to the United States as refugees from Germany in 1958. Today Walter sounds like an American, whereas Henry has a characteristic European accent. A reporter once asked Walter why Henry had a German accent but he did not. 'Because Henry doesn't listen,' came the facetious reply. It seems more likely that when they arrived in American Henry was just old enough to be losing the flexibility of imprinting his accent on his surroundings; he was leaving the critical period.

In 1967 a Harvard psychologist, Eric Lenneberg, published a book in which he argued that the ability to learn language is itself subject to a critical period that ends abruptly at puberty. Evidence for Lenneberg's theory now abounds on all sides, not least in the phenomenon of Creole and pidgin languages. Pidgins are languages used by adults of several different linguistic backgrounds to communicate with each other. They lack consistent or sophisticated grammar. But once they have been learnt by a generation of children still in their critical period, they change into Creoles new languages with full grammar. In one case in Nicaragua, deaf children sent to new deaf schools together for the first time in 1979 simply invented a new sign-language Creole of remarkable sophistication.

But the most direct test of the critical period in language learning would be to deprive a child of all language until the age of 15 and then try to teach the poor creature to speak. Deliberate experiments of this kind are thankfully rare, though at least three monarchs King Psamtik of Egypt in the seventh century BC, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the thirteenth century and King James IV of Scotland in the fifteenth century are said to have tried depriving newborn children of all human contact except a silent foster-mother to see whether they grew up speaking Hebrew, Arabic, Latin or Greek. In Frederick's case, the children all died. In a variant on the practice, the Moghul emperor Akbar is said to have done the same experiment to find out whether people were innately Hindu, Muslim or Christian. All he got was deaf-mutes. Genetic determinists were made of stern stuff in those days.

By the nineteenth century, attention had shifted to natural deprivation experiments in the form- of 'feral children'. Two seem to have been genuine. The first was Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, who appeared in 1800 in the Languedoc having apparently lived wild for many of his 12 years. Despite years of effort, his teacher failed to teach him to speak and 'abandoned my pupil to incurable dumbness'. The second was Kaspar Hauser, a young man discovered in Nuremberg in 1828 having apparently been kept in a single room with almost no human contact for all of his 16 years. Even after years of careful coaching, Kaspar's syntax was still 'in a state of miserable confusion'.

Two suggestive cases, but hardly proof. Then suddenly, four years after Lenneberg's book, there was a third case of a wild child first found after puberty: a 15-year-old girl named Genie was discovered in Los Angeles after a childhood of almost inconceivable horror. The daughter of a blind, abused mother and a paranoid and increasingly reclusive father, she had been kept in silence in a single room, mostly either harnessed to a potty chair or confined in a caged cot. She was incontinent, deformed and almost completely mute: her vocabulary consisted of two words: 'Stopit' and 'Nomore'.

The story of Genie's rehabilitation is almost as tragic as that other childhood. As she was passed between scientists, foster-parents, state officials and her mother (the father committed suicide after her discovery), the initial optimism of those who set out to care for her was gradually spent in lawsuits and bitterness. Today she is in a home for retarded adults. She learned much, her intelligence was high, her non-verbal communication was extraordinary and her ability to solve spatial puzzles was ahead of her age.

But she never learned to speak. She developed a good vocabulary, but elementary grammar was beyond her, and the syntax of word order was a foreign land. She could not grasp how to phrase a question by altering word order or how to change 'you' to 'I' in an answer. (Kaspar Hauser had the same problem.) Though the psychologists who studied her at first believed she would disprove Lenneberg's critical-period theory, they eventually admitted that she was a confirmation of it. Untrained by conversation, the brain's language module had simply not developed, and it was now too late.

Victor, Kaspar and Genie (and there have been other cases, including a woman not diagnosed as deaf until she was 30) suggest that language does not just develop according to a genetic programme. Nor is it just absorbed from the outside world. Instead it is imprinted. It is a temporary innate ability to learn by experience from the environment, a natural instinct for acquiring nurture. Polarise that into either nature or nurture, if you can.

Though language was the most severe of Genie's problems in adjusting to the world, it was not the only one. After her release she became an obsessive collector of coloured plastic objects. She was also for many years terrified of dogs. Both of these characteristics could be tentatively traced to 'formative experiences' in her childhood. Just about the only toys she had were two plastic raincoats. As for dogs, her father would bark and growl outside her door to frighten her if she made a noise. How many of a person's own preferences, fears and habits are imprinted during her youth? Most of us can recall in astonishing detail the places and people of our early years, whereas we forget much more recent adult experiences. Memory is plainly not all critical period it does not switch off at a certain age. But there is an element of truth in the old notion that the child is father to the man. Freud was right to emphasise the importance of formative years, even if he sometimes generalised too freely about them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:49 PM
Category: Science
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July 03, 2004
James Croll and the ages of ice

Another bit from the Bill Bryson book I've been reading. I've now nearly finished this book. Still excellent.

One of the more charming oddities of university life are those people who manoevre themselves into positions in the university which are not academic, but for an academic purpose. This is not done out of indifference to academic concerns. On the contrary, the people I am talking about take charge of the faculty air condition system, or (as is the case I am about to refer to) become janitors, out of an enthusiasm for the academic life, but accompanied by an unwillingness to bear the usual burdens of a conventional academic post, in the form of such annoyances as teaching unwelcome pupils, administrative duties, or tiresome instructions from academic superiors. Either that, or the university just wouldn't give them a proper job, so they got an improper one.

I remember people of this sort when I was at university. Their success rate is presumably not much different from that of regular academics. Most just live out their lives in obscurity, and by the end of it all they are janitors, or whatever. But occasionally they hit the big time. Bryson recounts one such success story.

In the 1860s, journals and other learned publications in Britain began to receive papers on hydrostatics, electricity and other scientific subjects from a James Croll of Andersen's University in Glasgow. One of the papers, on how variations in the Earth's orbit might have precipitated ice ages, was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1864 and was recognized at once as a work of the highest standard. So there was some surprise, and perhaps just a touch of embarrassment, when it turned out that Croll was not an academic at the university, but a janitor.

Born in 1821, Croll grew up poor and his formal education lasted only to the age of thirteen. He worked at a variety of jobs as a carpenter, insurance salesman, keeper of a temperance hotel before taking a position as a janitor at Anderson's (now the University of Strathclyde) in Glasgow. By somehow inducing his brother to do much of his work, he was able to pass many quiet evenings in the university library teaching himself physics, mechanics, astronomy, hydrostatics and the other fashionable sciences of the day, and gradually began to produce a string of papers, with a particular emphasis on the motions of the Earth and their effect on climate.

Croll was the first to suggest that cyclical changes in the shape of the Earth's orbit, from elliptical (which is to say, slightly oval) to nearly circular to elliptical again, might explain the onset and retreat of ice ages. No-one had ever thought before to consider an astronomical explanation for variations in the Earth's weather. Thanks almost entirely to Croll's persuasive theory, people in Britain began to become more responsive to the notion that at some former time parts of the Earth had been in the grip of ice. When his ingenuity and aptitude were recognized, Croll was given a job at the Geological Survey of Scotland and widely honoured: he was made a fellow of the Royal Society in London and of the New York Academy of Science, and given an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews, among much else.


People like this, when they make their first academic breakthroughs, are often celebrated as Holy Fools. Uneducated illuminati. They are nothing of the sort. They are very well educated, but by themselves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:15 PM
Category: Famous educationsScience
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June 24, 2004
"Wilt thou sit down whilst I put this lad right about his arithmetic?"

I've already quoted here from the delightful A Short History of Nearly Everything, about the American scientist Michelson. Here is Bill Bryson describing that modest genius of chemistry, John Dalton (1766-1844). Dalton was a school-teacher from a very early age, until despite his scientific eminence a very late one.

Dalton.jpgDalton was born in 1766 on the edge of the Lake District, near Cockermouth, to a family of poor and devout Quaker weavers. (Four years later the poet William Wordsworth would also join the world at Cockermouth.) He was an exceptionally bright student so very bright, indeed, that at the improbably youthful age of twelve he was put in charge of the local Quaker school. This perhaps says as much about the school as about Dalton's precocity, but perhaps not: we know from his diaries that at about this time he was reading Newton's Principia in the original Latin and other works of a similarly challenging nature. At fifteen, still school-mastering, he took a job in the nearby town of Kendal, and a decade after that he moved to Manchester, whence he scarcely stirred for the remaining fifty years of his life. In Manchester he became something of an intellectual whirlwind, producing books and papers on subjects ranging from meteorology to grammar. Colour blindness, a condition from which he suffered, was for a long time called Daltonism because of his studies. But it was a plump book called A New System of Chemical Philosophy, published in 1808, that established his reputation.

There, in a short chapter of just five pages (out of the book's more than nine hundred), people of learning first encountered atoms in something approaching their modem conception. Dalton's simple insight was that at the root of all matter are exceedingly tiny, irreducible particles. 'We might as well attempt to introduce a new planet into the solar system or annihilate one already in existence, as to create or destroy a particle of hydrogen,' he wrote.

Neither the idea of atoms nor the term itself was exactly new. Both had been developed by the ancient Greeks. Dalton's contribution was to consider the relative sizes and characters of these atoms and how they fit together. He knew, for instance, that hydrogen was the lightest element, so he gave it an atomic weight of 1. He believed also that water consisted of seven parts of oxygen to one of hydrogen, and so he gave oxygen an atomic weight of 7. By such means was he able to arrive at the relative weights of the known elements. He wasn't always terribly accurate oxygen's atomic weight is actually 16, not 7 but the principle was sound and formed the basis for all of modern chemistry and much of the rest of modem science.

The work made Dalton famous albeit in a low-key, English Quaker sort of way. In 1826, the French chemist P. J. Pelletier travelled to Manchester to meet the atomic hero. Pelleder expected to find him attached to some grand institution, so he was astounded to discover him teaching elementary arithmetic to boys in a small school on a back street. According to the scientific historian E. J. Holmyard, a confused Pelletier, upon beholding the great man, stammered:

'Est-ce que j'ai I'honneur de m'addresser a Monsieur Dalton?' for he could hardly believe his eyes that this was the chemist of European fame, teaching a boy his first four rules. 'Yes,' said the matter-of-fact Quaker 'Wilt thou sit down whilst I put this lad right about his arithmetic?'

Although Dalton tried to avoid all honours, he was elected to the Royal Society against his wishes, showered with medals and given a handsome government pension. When he died in 1844, forty thousand people viewed the coffin and the funeral cortege stretched for two miles. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography is one of the longest, rivalled in length among nineteenth-century men of science only by those of Darwin and Lyell.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:37 PM
Category: Famous educationsScience
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April 20, 2004
Teachers the best shall win prizes

I think that giving prizes to great teachers is a great idea.

Who was the best maths teacher in Britain, last year? Who was the best science teacher in Britain, last year? Is there any award ceremony which tries to find out? I seem to recall some kind of televised (in Britain) event at which teachers were given prizes and celebs took it in turns to recall their favourite teachers, but alas I missed it for some reason. Can anyone fill us (me) in on that?

We'll know when this process has worked. The great teachers will be celebs.

Oddly enough it was this prize, which has had an amazing effect (on space flight), which got me googling for teaching prizes.

A recent Glenn Reynolds TCS article about this X-Prize, and about prizes generally, ends thus:

NASA wonders too, and is establishing its own prize system called Centennial Challenges. At the moment the program is new and relatively small, but I hope that we'll see other government agencies and private philanthropists consider the prize approach. It's not a panacea, of course, but it's a way of bringing many minds to bear on a problem, and trying out many different approaches in parallel. I suspect that many of the 21st Century's problems will benefit from this sort of approach, and I hope that the X-Prize example will break new ground, not only in terms of spaceflight, but in terms of all sorts of other problems.

Why shouldn't that sort of thinking apply to teaching?

teachaward.jpgThis picture here is captioned as follows:

20 November 2001
Mrs Susan Burr from the Kyle Academy in Scotland wins the 'Most Inspiring TEACH SPACE 2001 Award'.

Well done TeachSPACE. I picked this picture simply because it looked nice, and illustrated the principle, of turning little known good teachers into slightly better known good teachers. It was pure coincidence that once again the space exploration angle asserted itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:49 PM
Category: MathsScience
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April 17, 2004
Teaching past a hundred

Further proof of the usefulness of the elderly as teachers of the next generation (but three or four). Ray Crist was a scientist. He retired from that at 70. He started teaching - at Messiah (ha!) College. And he stopped teaching there last Tuesday, at the age of 104.

He's decided to go back to being a scientist.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:40 PM
Category: Science
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January 20, 2004
It is illegal to ban the teaching of Darwin in USA state schools

In a comment thread provoked by a posting about the French school head-scarf ban (of interest to readers here in its own right of course), the somewhat tangential but interesting matter of whether Christian religious fundamentalism deranges the teaching of biology in the USA was raised. llamas commented thus:

Both claims that evolution may not be taught, and/or that Creationism is mandated to be taught on an equal footing with evolution are specifically outlawed by US Supreme Court decision. Epperson v Arkansas, 1968, Freiler vs Tangipahoa Board of Education, 1997, and Epperson v Arkansas, 1987.

Every time somebody tries one of these 'creation-science' stunts, it gets lots of media time, and, no doubt, self-satisfied tut-tutting from the more-enlightened French. Noone ever reports what happens the next day, when the lawyers call, and the proposed policy is ditched because it is so self-evidently against the law. This is a popular election-time stunt in some parts of the country, where a candidate seeks to curry favour with a tiny minority of fundamentalist Christians. For example, Kansas Board of Education, about 2 years ago. Everyone reported what the Board said it was going to do. Noone reported the injunctions that prevented them from doing it. And it never happened.

There's more in a similar vein, and that was the point of view which carried the argument.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:44 PM
Category: Science
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November 12, 2003
More fish


Hi Brian,

I thought I'd email to say thank you for the good write up that you gave to the Australian Museum fish site in your "Educate yourself about fish" entry.

I regularly put up images and factsheets on all sorts of strange fishes that your users might be interested in. Today for example I've added a factsheet on another deepsea fish, the bizarre Fangtooth. As it's name implies it has an impressive set of teeth!




Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:18 AM
Category: Science
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November 07, 2003
Educate yourself about fish

A (perhaps junk but thanks anyway) email from "Russ" went thuss:

Hi Brian,

Thought you might be interested in this fathead (genus Psychrolutes)
trawled during the NORFANZ expedition:

Or, for a for a full range of fish info:


These links plug into what strike me as being excellent educational resources. Many a child might learn a lot rootling around in these kinds of virtual locations.

You absorb a mass of good stuff by such wandering, such as spelling, the way different species are classified, the use of the letters of the alphabet in a set order (something often forgotten) to organise and present information and to make it easily accessible, and much much more.

Above all, if you like this kind of thing, it's fun. I quickly found my way to extraordinary images like this one.

And remember also to eat fish.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:39 PM
Category: ScienceThe Internet
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September 18, 2003
The importance of faraway theories

Physical events provoke virtual connections, there's no doubt about it. As a result of attending this physical event, I went here, and then found my way to this article about science teaching. Here, it seems to me, is the key idea of the piece:

This preference for the concrete reality of everyday life over theory and abstraction dominates educational practice. Yet science is based on a set of abstract ideas. It has to be, in order to deal with the counterintuitive behaviour of the natural world. You cannot explain electricity without introducing the idea of charge and charge carriers but try explaining what charge is. Electric charge is an abstract model used to explain electricity. In order to understand electricity a pupil needs to know, not only that charge exists, but also that it is a model.

Once a pupil makes that leap of imagination, a whole new world of ideas opens up. When we move from understanding everyday life to grappling with an abstract system of ideas, we can really appreciate the power of science. If we avoid dealing with the problem of moving pupils towards a more powerful way of thinking about the world, we avoid teaching them science. Many teachers try to use analogies that relate the flow of electricity to water in a pipe, or a model train on a track but the more you try to make an abstract idea concrete, the more you stop children appreciating the difference. In the end, you have little choice but to demonstrate to them how powerful the ideas are.

Teaching should not only be incremental additions to the mental territory that the pupil is already familiar with. It should also be news of faraway places, of wonders and magical beasts and faraway lands, of the earth, of the stars, and of the mind. It should include parachute drops into enemy territory (the land of the unknown), not just safe little pushes launched from existing fronts. And among those faraway places should be those occupied by the theoretical sciences, theoretical because our mere senses give us no intuitive understanding of what scientists have nevertheless learned to be true.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:42 PM
Category: Science
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