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Friday, December 31, 2010

Predators eat their veggies, too

Predatory dinosaurs, the Coelurosauria of the theropods, may have been loved veggie pizzas as well as meat-lover's:
"[Scientists] found 21 markers of a plant-eater, including a longer neck, leaf-shaped or peg-like teeth, and the evolution of a beak." (Live Science)
If not direct proof, we do have a correlation.

The Problem of Neanderthals

A 49,000-year-old murder scene of Neanderthals shows what may be a cause of their demise. (from Science Now)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Analogy Games

Quia (Jeopardy-style) and Sadlier-Oxford (speed) have games to test out your analogy skills.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

B.S. (Bad Science): Web Site

Here's a website talking about bad science that science teachers and their textbooks teach called Bad Science. I checked out the bad chemistry and I have read and repeated some of these items to students, but they seem minor quibbles. All teachers teach something wrong; for example, the same chemistry professor wraps up with:
"[Adding salt to boil water will] only decrease the cooking time by a few percent. If you are such a Type A personality that you feel compelled to save even this small cooking time, then the last thing you need is to risk increasing your blood pressure further by consuming so much sodium!"
Actually, your blood pressure constantly fluctuates. There's nothing wrong with eating salty food so long as your blood vessels are supple--that is, not hardened or calcified via atherosclerosis. Ah, well. Even professors get it wrong.

I have asked graduating students who take the same classes in college to inform me of anything they wish I'd done differently or gotten wrong. Perhaps younger students worry about perfection, idealizing teachers as infallible founts of all information, but older students may be more capable of understanding the science teacher's actual role to teach how to
  1. assimilate basic science facts (hopefully, mostly true)
  2. process new information in a scientific manner
  3. test simple hypotheses
  4. practice learning, critical-thinking, work-ethic, and human-interaction skills
  5. something else?
If I've gotten anything wrong, feel free to share.

B.S. (Bad Science): Water Marbles

I did a few B.S. sessions last Fall with students who brought in various videos asking if they were real. One was this video of water marbles (Youtube). We walked through this, step by step. Questions to ask:
  1. Combining acetic acid (vinegar: CH3COOH) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda: NaHCO3) produces sodium acetate, CO2 and water. Hey, maybe these guys are on to something! If one wants to supply B.S. (Bad Science), it is critical first to supply truth. Famous liars: Satan, Iago, Jabba the Hut.
  2. The next step is calcium carbonate (shown in video as a solid but according to Wiki exists only in the aqueous form (ions dissolved). It sure looks and sounds scientific though.
  3. Also, grab some "ionized salt." Look up ion. Look up salt. One exists as a solid, the other is what happens when dissolved. Well, it could a typo for iodized salt.
  4. What happens when you add Calcium bicarbonate to Sodium acetate? What kind of reaction is that? Double Displacment: Ca(HCO3)2 + 2NaCH3COO --> 2NaHCO3 + Ca(C2H3O2)2. According to our equation, we just made more baking soda and calcium acetate (check out uses). Both of these are bases.
  5. Wiki: "Chemistry teachers often prepare 'California Snowballs,' a mixture of calcium acetate solution and ethanol." Sounds fun. Probably the baking soda would interfere, unfortunately.
  6. The fizz shown in the video (what caused the fizz earlier? What causes fizz in soda pop?) must be residual vinegar mixing with baking soda.
  7. Where'd all that liquid come from? (Conservation of Matter)
  8. Take a look at the size and shape of all those marbles. What do you notice? Why is that unusual?
  9. How did the water turn purple? Why might it be important to use coloring? Refractive index of the marbles hidden in the water must be quite similar. Also, it doesn't hurt to be looking at the water through a translucent plastic.
  10. Have the student most convinced of the reality of these water marbles look up "polar hability." Would water be water if it stopped being polar? What makes water polar? What would happen if water were no longer polar? Would it stick to itself? I have no idea what hability is.
  11. How can water be a solid if what you were making was a polymer of calcium acetate?
  12. What happens to the water marble that falls outside the plastic tub?
Somehow I still had a student who wanted replicate this experiment.

If I've gotten anything wrong, feel free to share.

National Geographic Educational Resources

Last year, we used way-cool [please pardon technical jargon] National Geographic educational interactive programs to create tornadoes and shake buildings to rubble. The junior high students and I enjoyed this. Unfortunately, if they have similar programs for other educational curriculum, I cannot find them. In fact, I didn't spot these in their lesson plans. It might help if the site provided more clues on how to track down some of these sites.

8 to Great: The Foundation

These are notes and reflections on the book by MK Mueller that may 1) inspire you to purchase it for yourself or 2) tell you that it's not for you, or 3) if you already own and read it, engage you in a conversation that you can continue in your head or in the comments below.

Like most first nonfiction books, the first chapter has flab--trying to sell you on the book, saying how wonderful it is. But it also has some food for thought: that your power is dependent on your attitude or your mental state. If feeling 95% good, you're working at 95% efficiency. There's some truth to this, but at the same time, teachers (or students) will have bad days. The main thing to focus on is that not everyone has the same opinion. Try not to let one poor encounter infect other encounters. Keep smiling. If you pretend like it's not there, the feeling will go away faster.

In summary, Mueller advises we imagine the future we want, take risks to get it (overcome fears), own past mistakes, don't bottle up feelings, and communicate honestly.

: Mueller says to Forget the past, be Grateful for something in your present circumstances, and maintain Hope for the future. Great idea, but can you access this info while preoccupied with teaching? That's the key.

I'm supposed to write down three things I'm grateful for, everyday:
  1. I'm not dead (yet)
  2. Yeti have not clobbered me (yet)
  3. My parents love me (Aw. Isn't that sweet? I had to say something nice).

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sketchup (Google)

Sketchup (Google) creates virtual models students can build and rotate in 3D. Walking through the first 3 basic tutorials (~15min) and practicing as the concepts were introduced, I felt fairly confident that I and my students could use this for projects. Presently, the only application I can think of is for an invention unit where students create their own models. Please suggest other applications that you come up with.


Picasa (Google) was offered to teachers as a bell ringer:
Create a slide show of pictures intimating what they'll be studying that day. You can pilfer pictures already uploaded.
Still, unless you only have one or two classes, it doesn't sound practical. The amount of time invested may not pay off. Interesting idea, though. It may be worth trying a time or two.

Thursday, July 22, 2010 claims its fame as being truly random. You can flip coins from different eras and countries. Coin flipping is useful for genetics and radioactive decay. Maybe this would be useful for time pressure, but I suspect that actual coins might feel more engaging.

Also of note is a piece by Samuel Beckett--"Lessness"--which is 120 sentences that can be mixed up. Unfortunately, you need a password to use this.

National Geographic Games

National Geographic games appear to have little connection to curriculum. Please let me know if you find some of relevance.

Pluto's Secret has some content (minor facts about the planets). Play is along the lines of the old Duke Nuke Em. Most of it's about the game play. It might have been interesting to show different gravities on each planet. It does try to cover up why things that shouldn't work do: Our intrepid heroes walk on Jupiter: "How can we walk on gas?" "It's our special mystery boots."

Library of Congress' American Memory

Library of Congress' American Memory has oodles of original documents to peruse. Useful for English and social studies teachers. There may be a use for science, but it's certainly not easily navigable for such a purpose.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid

  • Text (online -- broken as if it were a poem)
  • Text (interactive, online -- including pre-packaged interpretations)
  • Video (student production -- very well done but perhaps it forces an interpretation upon the work)
  • Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
  1. Is this a story? Do any of the characters change? Should they have changed? Does your perspective change when the characters do not? Support your answers from the text.
  2. What effect does the lack of quotes give?
  3. Is this a dialogue or a monologue? How does this affect our view of the speaker?
  4. How fast does time pass during the course of the work? Are these independent clauses spoken one after another or must actions take place between them? How does the passage of time affect interpretation, either way? Write down how long you think these words were spoken and why you think that. Compare your answer with your classmates.
  5. Make a list of things attributed to the younger woman. Add question marks or questions to items you're not sure if you buy. Make a list of characteristics you suspect about the speaker.
  6. Why might a mother say, "don't squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know?" How old might the daughter be? Write down your answer. (It's difficult to assess as it may not be our culture. A low number would affect how the reader interprets the text; however, older girls can be interested in the affairs of younger children, especially those interested in having children of their own one day.)
  7. What kind of mother would say, "this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn't fall on you?" All serious business?
  8. What does the addressee respond to? What does she not respond to that you would think she would? Why do you suppose she does not?
  9. How does the title elaborate or alter our understanding of this work?
  • Without the above questions, interpretations on the internet tend to be rather flat: Bad mama tongue-lashes her daughter. The Bedford virtual anthology does suggest that the mama is a product of her society and can't help being... unfriendly. The unfortunate problem with jumping to Bedford's interpretations is that we lose sight of the characters in favor of pre-packaged interpretations guided by politics. They may be reliable, but the story should be tackled for itself before tacking on one's pet interpretation templates. Let's focus instead on characters: What do they do, and what should they do?
  • The girl states, "but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all" [emphasis mine]. Afterward, she states, "and never in Sunday school" [emphasis mine]. What does the effect of the second half of the statement make? If she doesn't sing on Sundays at all, why does she state "never in Sunday school." Perhaps the implication here is that she does sometimes sing benna on Sunday.
  • But more important is that she does not respond to what we would think she would respond to: the shocking "on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming." Clearly, the girl is not afraid to deny. Why doesn't she deny wanting to be a slut instead of denying spreading gossip (benna)? How does this inform their characters and their world?
  • Note, too, that the mother stated, "on Sundays." So is it okay to walk "like the slut" on other days of the week?
  • Notes on the use of "slut":
  1. That the daughter does not respond suggests the term is not terribly damning.
  2. This may mean something closer too overly flirtatious. An Alice Munro character discussed how girls tested out flirtation with everyone. Perhaps the daughter is the kind of girl who wants to be seen as attractive and flirts with everyone, so the term has no denigration in her mind (at least at this point in her life).
  3. Also, in a word processor, count the words in phrases that sound cruel and cutting to you. Now count the rest--full of useful advice. Coupling this with the daughter's lack of emotional despondency, does this mother truly sound like she doesn't love her daughter? Has one of your parents ever disapproved of one of your behaviors?
  4. Does the mother even disapprove of this behavior? It's only on Sunday that the mother suggests it's wrong.
  • The mother states, "this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up." Does this sound like a helpless, embittered victim? If society has pushed her down, it sounds like she's coping quite well.
  • When the daughter asks, "but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?" The mother responds, "you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?"
  • How could the daughter become a woman that the baker will let near? Let the text suggest an answer. Two possibilities exist, but they may be closely related.
  • Feel free to suggest other interpretations, questions or new ideas.
About the Author:

Drawing Applications

Crayola has a drawing application, but it appears useful for either lower elementary grades or art classes.

GE has a rather nifty one, Imagination Cubed, you can use to replay the work done, which would animate processes or cycles quite nicely.

Voice Thread

Voice Thread appears to be a useful resource for displaying illustrations or pictures or graphs that have a lot of information embedded in them.

I'd like to try this out with various biological cycles--to check out how well it goes over: 1) one class to break up the class into groups, one for each cycle--variable sizes as some cycles require more work than others, 2) present info beginning at the end of the period or maybe the next class period.

Like a lot of these online resources, I will look for how much learning is accomplished for the amount of time invested. Of note are the multiple intelligences involved. Here's a class dissecting the carbon cycle that shows a number of students using sign language to explain what's happening as well.

At the moment, I'm not sure what I'd do about students who don't add much (or even add accidental misinformation or misleading information). Redo as homework? Probably. As a group, students should help each other and correct problems.

Ed Heads: Science Resource (upper elementary to jr. high)

Ed Heads is a fun little interactive program introducing a few scientific concepts. The concepts and questions are basic. As yet, most of these are not integral to your curriculum, but they might be a good way to spark interest in your subject for students who finish their assignments early.

Google Lit Trips: English Resource

Google Lit Trips allows students to visualize where characters journey during the course of a book. As yet, not too many books are listed, but maybe your class can create one for themselves. As one teacher put it, you don't have to know the technology: just set the kids loose to figure it out.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wordle: English Resource

Wordle allows users to enter a document or webpage and displays the frequency of various words' appearances via a correspondent increase in font size. This may help readers identify motifs and words the author found important.

It's fun to play with, for the writer as well.

Science Magazine: Improving Adolescent Learning

Learning declines for adolescents entering puberty--for human beings or mice. In mice, scientists discovered that learning improves when administered a stress hormone. This phenomenon does not appear in adults or the prepubescent.

Audio (largely layman's)
Transcript of Audio Interview

Monday, July 5, 2010

WOWIO: Free eBook in July

WOWIO is offering Daniel A. Rabuzzi's novel, Choir Boats, for free.

We published his poem, Emperor Fish, at Abyss & Apex in 2009--a poem brimming with images and imagination.

Falling Torch by Algis Budrys

  • The Earth's government, now graying and pleasantly employed on Cheiron, has been in exile from invaders for twenty years. Few are even motivated to liberate Earth any longer. Michael Wireman, son of Earth's president, joins a group of rebels to liberate Earth. The leaders, however, are self-serving (engaging in battles only to pay back a man who insulted him) instead of focusing on the job of liberation. So Wireman goes to join the Invaders, to belong within any framework of humanity. But even here there's vague dissatisfaction in that the people lack freedom and power to do what they would like with their lives. Moreover, the invader society lacks a place for Wireman, so Wireman is forced to foment his own rebellion.
  • This is a fun, rollicking one: Young man learns he has more to him than he thought. Events lead him to self-discovery.
  • This reads almost like a prescription for how to overthrow your invaders in a cold-war world.
  • John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls this discursive and that it "asks of its generic structure rather more significance than generic structures of this kind have perhaps been designed to bear." It has moments of discursiveness, but they all flow out of the narrative, making them interesting to read. Contrast Heinlein's Starship Troopers to Stranger in a Strange Land, where the former's discursiveness is interesting due to its narrative and the latter is interesting as a philosophical tract or as a cultural document of the 60s). Falling Torch falls into the Starship Troopers camp. The speculation is perhaps more subtle and psychological/sociological (who is a man? what is his potential? where does he belong in society?) than futuristic science and technology, but the plot is quite a ride, making the second read enjoyable, not to mention worth plundering for thought.
  • Steven Silver writes, "most of [Michael Silverman's] growth is either behind the scenes or only comes into play when it is needed." True, but this struck me as part of the novel's point: We learn and grow as we go. You have to do it on the fly. We have the information we need to succeed: We just have to put together who we are for ourselves when it's needed, reminescent of the notions presented in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.
  • As a critique of the Cold War era, it's objective and relentless. The invaders are much kinder than expected but destroy freedom through prescribed occupations (what if you want a different occupation than the one they tell you you're best suited for?). The Centaurian leaders are well-meaning but self-serving. And the rebel leaders are corrupt.
  • History: 20th Century, Eastern European, Cold War, etc.
  • It might prove fruitful to compare this to Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being--although these have different perspective (Kundera's view of life on the inside).

How to Survive a Robot Uprising by Daniel H. Wilson

  • On the face of this nonfiction book, it's a humorous poke at the popular media's portrayal of robots. However, in the process of discussing how to elude and avoid detection, it discusses the problems of having robots perceive and navigate their environments. Humorous, fun, and enlightening. Keep it in stock to hand your advanced students looking for something to do.
  • If they're doing it for credit, students might write down three things they learned about robotics for each chapter they read.
  • (If they write down one or more of the jokes, inform them that these are good attempts but they need X more to get credit. If they insist that they have followed the assignment, tell them that this will be a good time for them to learn how to distinguish humor from science.)

Fear by L. Ron Hubbard

  • James Lowry, professor and ethnologist, claims publicly that demons do not exist. That's when he loses his hat and four hours of his life. When he tries to find them, he confronts the very real possibility that these creatures do exist and that they are entangled in his life. They force him to find both and to find the demon lodged inside.
  • This first appeared in the WWII-era magazine, Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell. The magazine's focus was to treat fantasy as if it were science--an idea of combining supposedly conflicting elements (supernatural vs. natural) that's still appealing.
  • Fast-paced tale that follows a strange nightmare logic. Readers are likely to recognize the dream-like structures.
  • Probably longer than most students would want; however, the nightmare imagery/logic is likely to appeal to a certain subset of students (tale recommended by Stephen King--if that will help explain the subset).
  • The idea worth exploring here is that science may not have all the information necessary to dismiss ideas out of hand. This idea may not be as effective with more skeptical students as they could contend that if demons were to actually confront those who disbelieve, should not the world's skeptics not exist?
  • On the other hand, you could ask the student to reflect on the title and the ending and ask whether the fantastic events actually took place. Maybe they can debate, using the text, why it may have happened and why not.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Doom!: NASA Photo Shows Alignment of Planets

Downloaded from NASA. Might be fun to name planets, then to ask for three things wrong with this photo.

Hint: Light.

Possibly the sun is there, and a new supernova has lit up the sky. Still: Shadows? Artistic license.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Charles Sheffield's "That Strain Again"

  1. Microcosmic Tales, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg & Joseph D. Olander, Taplinger 1980
  2. Science Fiction and Fantasy Story-A-Month 1989 Calendar, ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg, Pomegranate 1988
  3. Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, Tor 1995
  4. 100 Amazing Little Alien Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg, Barnes & Noble 1996
  5. Online
  • You may want to use this for either (or both, but it may be too far above or below students' ability level depending on the use)
  1. Reading Science Articles (more critically--10-12)
  2. Earth/Space science (seasons, earth's axial tilt--6-9)
Pre-Reading Terminology (or Post):
  • Here are some terms that may be useful to prime students to think about the issues presented in the story if you're using this to help students read more critically:
  1. Causality (cause and effect--which causes which?)
  2. Coincidence (note root word: coincide; have them note the term's use in science)
  3. Correlation (importantly, correlation does not imply causation--simplified: co-relation = (as in co-opertion = operating together) things relate to one another.
  • These articles will be largely over the heads of most students. However, if you have advanced science students, tell them to read at least the introductory paragraphs. They need to get comfortable with not necessarily understanding everything they read and with picking up what they can.
  • If pressed for time, explain the terms yourself.
  • Aliens visit planet Earth but flee when they believe they've infected it with some disease that kills off the primary life forms. They are surprised when visitors from Earth arrive on their home planet.
Questions & Experiments:
  1. Why were Vega IV people surprised or relieved to see Earthlings?
  2. Take a flash light and point it straight down at your desk. Now compare that to when you tip the flashlight at an angle. Do some parts get more light than others? Explain.
  3. What effect do you think more light might have on an area? Devise an experiment with paper, the sun, and a magnifying glass that demonstrates your hypothesis. Have a classmate conduct the same experiment with a flashlight rather than the sun. If the results are the same or different, hypothesize why that might be.
  4. Apply: What kinds of things use sunlight? What might happen if those things did not get enough sunlight? Think about what happens during a year. When do these creatures get lots of sunlight and when do they get very little? Search "Earth's axial tilt." Summarize your findings.
  5. What makes Vega IV different? Make a model of Earth's axial tilt, by thrusting a pen through a styrofoam ball, and one of Vega IV. Shine your flashlight on Earth and on Vega IV. Explain to a classmate and have them explain it back.
  6. Using what you've learned so far, could all of Vega IV be a "paradise" or "Garden of Eden"? Explain what would probably happen at the equator versus the poles.
  7. If you've read the book or seen the movie War of the Worlds, compare and contrast what happened there with what happens here.
  8. Can these "Ethical People" of Vega IV be called "Wise People?" Why or why not?
  9. The narrator may be implying that the people of Vega IV were nicer and more ethical, if a little dull, because of their environment's consistency. Do you agree? Support your answer. Ask yourself to what degree does environment impact behavior. Can you find scientific evidence online supporting your hypothesis?
  10. If you can think of other questions, please let us know.
Critical Thinking/Science Article Questions:
  1. Explain which term applies to what happened (support your answer): 1) correlation, cause and effect (causality), coincidence.
  2. When there are too many variables to isolate, science does correlations--that is, it tries to find if there's a relationship between two events. Devise experiments that the Vega IV people might have conducted to see if actions or presence caused the events occurring around them. Why is their presence in one time and location not a very good experiment? Would conducting such an experiment be ethical? Explain your answer. Although it might require quite a long time, come up with an experiment that would lower the possibility of violating any ethical problems.
  3. If you can think of other questions, please let us know.
About the author:

Reading science articles

Reading current science articles can help change the pace, keep students abreast of what's happening in the world, and make their learning feel relevant. Teachers do it differently, but this how I do it with minimum fuss:

--> Read article
  1. I don't say how long the article has to be, but
  2. Scientists have to learn something new about science
  3. Science News
  4. Jr High Science News (or for differentiating students): (Both of these are from Science News, I believe, but are different: Science News For Kids 1, Science News For Kids 2)
-->Summarize article orally in your own words
  1. Students can write stuff down, but they can't read it--bores everyone.
  2. This question helps focus wandering students: "What did the scientists learn?"
  3. [Bloom's: Comprehension]
-->Ask a question:
  1. This is the critical thinking aspect, bringing the Bloom's Taxonomy level quite high (analyze, apply, evaluate).
  2. The first time you do this, the questions won't be very insightful, but they improve over time. It's exciting to watch their questioning grow.
  3. This question helps focus their questions: "What question do you have about what the scientists learned?"
  4. Some students still flummoxed can be helped with this: "What are five question words that start with the letter 'W'?" Who? What? When? Where? Why? (and How?)
  5. Another method to consider when questioning is simply to ask what you want to learn more about. This helps make the learning personal [Bloom's: Apply].
  6. You may need to rephrase their questions in a way that their classmates can understand.
  7. Feel free to answer their questions, but it's not necessary. If you can remember, try to compliment their efforts.
  8. Higher level learning [Bloom's: Analyze, Evaluate] comes best when they start using the scientific method to ask questions.
  9. To improve critical discussions, go back to your inquiry method, your controls and variables. From what you've read, did the scientists control all possible variables?
  10. When a science article uses statistics, caution them to be wary, especially if the statistics involve opinions. Opinion polls tend to corral the opiners into certain channels. Also, interpretation of statistics is highly problematic. Often, they are used to say more than they actually say.
  11. Good statistics require A) randomization and B) a good sample size.
  12. Charles Sheffield's "That Strain Again" (see blog post for teaching) helps us think of other, higher-level questions that can be asked of science articles. All students will get the gist, but a few may miss nuances, which is okay.

OK Go video for demonstrating energy transfer

Many of the sciences discuss energy transfer and energy loss.
  • Biology: Sun --> plants --> herbivores --> carnivores, etc.
  • Physical Science: solar --> chemical --> mechanical, etc.
  • Physics: potential, friction, etc.
  • Chemistry: (less so here, but) energy can be harnessed from one reaction to start another
OK Go put out a video last spring that I used and the students seemed to enjoy: This Too Shall Pass (Rube Goldberg Version).

Questions to ask:
  1. How is this relevant to what we're learning?
  2. Explain how energy moves from one to another.
  3. The energy seems endless, doesn't it? Where did all this energy come from? Could it happen again if you went back to the beginning and hit that domino with your truck?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"They're Made out of Meat" by Terry Bisson

  1. Omni Apr 1991
  2. Nebula Awards 27, ed. James Morrow, Harcourt Brace 1993
  3. Bears Discover Fire, Tor 1993
  4. Virtually Now, ed. Jeanne Schinto, Persea Books 1996
  5. Online (there may be many copies online, but this is straight from the author's website)
  6. Audio
  7. Video (save the video for after to see how one's interpretation can differ from another)
  • Dialogue makes this story look easy to read, but it's trickier than it appears: 1) We don't know who is talking nor 2) what the who is talking about. This may be purposeful, even thematic: not knowing what a thing is.
  • Two aliens discuss life on planet Earth--or a planet just like Earth (so it may as well be since Earthlings are the ones reading it).
  1. Before reading, skim over the text. Who's talking? What kinds of situations might dialogue be heard but the listener doesn't know the speaker(s)? Brainstorm with a classmate. (It looks like a play, but plays generally label speakers--if for no other reason than to aid actors.)
  2. To whom is the first sentence--"They're made out of meat"--referring? Can we know immediately? What might we suspect with a pronoun like "they?" Possibly beings (considering this is SF, we cannot assume those are human). How about the word meat? What does that conjure up in your imagination?
  3. What are the characters' attitudes toward these beings when they repeat the statement?
  4. What does this dialogue suggest about the other character's attitude when it is addressed to it/him: "There's no doubt about it."? (Hint: there's a word in this sentence that suggests the other's feeling.)
  5. After this line, some students should be able to guess (and that's all it is right now) who or what the beings are talking about: " We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."
  6. Students may or may not get the joke about the probe. Different generation. You may not want to go there anyway.
  7. (If no one has correctly identified the meat, do not advance to this question until they have.) Knowing to whom the beings are referring, what makes this first line--"They're made out of meat"--a science fiction sentence? If we know to whom they're referring, what do we know about the speakers?
  8. What do we know about the speakers when they say:

    "That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

    "They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

    What kinds of things radiate radio waves? Is that what immediately comes to your mind when you think of sentience or life? How does the author challenge our assumptions by having the assumptions of aliens challenged?
  9. What do we know about the being who says, "So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."?
  10. The incredulous being mocks the reality of humans: " You're asking me to believe in sentient meat." What word makes the reality of sentient humans ridiculous? Why? Apply this to your own life: Have you heard people do this before? What was the outcome?
  11. "Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage." Name some creatures that go through different life cycles.
  12. What does this statement suggest about the aliens themselves: "We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long."
  13. "They're meat all the way through." Is this statement true of how we think of meat? How do we think of meat? What must that mean about what they think of when they think of meat?
  14. What word about the aliens comes to mind when you read, "It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?" When in history have humans done this to humans?
  15. To what famous Einstein equation are they referring to? "[T]hey can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim." What happens to objects as they approach the speed of light (faster than light)? What does this statement suggest that separates their knowledge from ours?
  16. Come up with a question about the aliens or their attitude not yet raised and pose it to your classmate.
  17. If you can think of other questions, please let us know.
Videos: Use the videos to ask what the actors and/or directors left out of their interpretation that you had come up with. Also, how did they interpret the story that you didn't think of? Does it keep within your understanding of the story? Was any interpretation particularly insightful or bad?
  1. Youtube videos
  1. Biology: Life: What is life? What are life stages? What species go through life stages? Do humans?
  2. Biology: Animal Behavior: What makes a species sentient?
  3. Chemistry: Chemical Behavior: What makes carbon ideal for living creatures? Knowing what you know about carbon's flexibility as an atom, explain why it is more ideal for combining with other chemicals in more ways than other atoms? Because elements in the same column have similar properties, some scientists believe that silicon-based beings is possible. Create a list of pros and cons. Replace carbon in famous chemicals with silicon. Can it work the same? What conditions might make it possible to have a silicon-based being (consult Also, use what you know about electronegativity to talk about chemical properties.
  4. Physics (some physical science): Radio waves, speed of light & ramifications
  5. Science: Assumptions: Sometimes science assumes it knows more than it does. Scientists need to be prepared for possibilities it hasn't yet imagined--or even those it quickly discards.
About the author:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"And So On, And So On" by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)

  1. Phantasmicon Jun 1971
  2. Star Songs of an Old Primate, Ballantine 1978
  3. Microcosmic Tales, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg & Joseph D. Olander, Taplinger 1980
  4. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, Arkham House 1990
  5. 100 Amazing Little Alien Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg, Barnes & Noble 1996
  • This is a story students may have to read twice due to the difficulty of the number of different speakers of unidentified alien races.
  • Passengers on a spaceship talk and convince one another of the end of the frontiers and knowledge, saying there's nothing left for the next generation to discover. The story ends with a member of the next generation staring excitedly out into space.
Key Passages:
  1. "Rovy! They asked you not to play with the screen while we're Jumping. We've told you and told you there isn't anything there. It's just pretty lights, dear. Now come back and we'll all play--"
  2. [S]omething happened.... a very slight something, just enough to make the drowsy passengers glance up.
  3. "I feel sorry for the youngers today." ...blew out his ear sacs comfortably. "We had all the fun."
  4. "The primitive phase is finished. The true frontier is within now. Inner space.... I refer to reality, to that simpler and deeper reality that lies beyond the reach of the trivial methodologies of science."
  5. "Ooh, science is horrible. I cry every time I think of the poor Armers."
  6. "Life has never before met the ultimate challenge.... In the history of every race, society, planet, or system or federation or swarm,whenever they had expanded to their spatial limits they commenced to decline."
  7. "For the first time all life is closed in a finite space. Who can rescue galaxy? The Clouds are barren and the realms beyond we know cannot be crossed even by matter, let alone life. For the first time we have truly reached the end....The young sense this. They seek to invent pseudo-frontiers, subjective escapes. Perhaps your inner space can beguile some for a while. But the despair will grow.... We have come to the end of infinity, the end of hope."
  1. What kind of name is "Rovy?" What word does it make you think of? How might this word aid our understanding?
  2. Many scientific discoveries were due to mistakes--penicillin, radioactivity (look up how these were discovered). Scientists have suggested that play distinguishes species of higher intelligence from the lower--as play helps the player discover or uncover or stumble upon new tools. If you were a child, what would the word, "Jumping" make you think of? How does Rovy's action compare to scientific inquiry and the discoveries mentioned above? How is the adult reaction to Rovy counter-productive?
  3. How does the young clanwife's remark sum up the story's theme?
  4. What does it mean that the passengers are drowsy?
  5. How does the captain's statement, "The momentary discontinuity we just experienced is quite normal in the mode of paraspace," validate this interpretation? Look up all words (including para- and space). For the thematic use of "normal," see title.
  6. How do the passengers feel about science?
  7. It may prove useful to students to know that scientists in the nineteenth century--before relativity and Einstein--felt they were nearly finished discovering all there was to know about science. All that was left was the cataloging. Knowing that, how does key passage #7 read to you now?
  8. How does the final image/action of the child counteract Pathman's statements? How does it fit into the title?
  9. What is "no-space" literally and figuratively in terms of the story?
  10. If you can think of other questions, please let us know.
  1. History of science
  2. Scientific Inquiry
About the author:
  • Wiki
  • James Tiptree was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon

"A Solar Labyrinth" by Gene Wolfe

  1. F&SF Apr 1983
  2. Storeys from the Old Hotel, Kerosina 1988
  • If you're going to read Gene Wolfe, this may be a place to start as it may reveal his M.O., his modus operandi (indeed, Robert Borski links this title to the author's most famous series: Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun"--link includes additional commentary). Although the story is brief, it's probably not for the less enterprising, less adventurous. You may choose to walk through a close reading in order to model similar readings.
  • Students can often feel that close readings are random or arbitrary. You might try terribly mis-reading the story and see how students react: Any and all interpretations cannot fit a text. If you have religious students, have them compare what you're doing in class to what might be done by a preacher, priest, rabbi, etc.
  1. Explain the mystery of the first sentence: "Mazes may be more ancient than Mankind." How can that be? How does that support what the author constructs in this story?
  2. What's a "clew"? Pronounce it. What two things might the author be referring to at once? What's a denouement? Pay close attention to the word's origin: to un-knot or untie. How might that be closely related to what Theseus had to do? How does that relate to what you have to do with this story? He calls Theseus a "fictional detective." How does that term play two ways? Think about what we're doing now. How does this confirm our interpretation so far?
  3. Have students look up "Fayre [Fair] Rosamund." One critical resource makes the point that this is not true. In a fiction about fiction, is it necessary that it maintain fidelity with reality? What's a definition of "yarn" that aids our interpretation while also downplaying the importance of reality?
  4. With our interpretation in mind, how might the second paragraph play? What does the author feel is lost in current mazes (Hint: "the great days of...")? Why does the narrator seem troubled by "armchair adventurers solv[ing these] with a pencil"? Hint: Compare what's lost to how they are presently done. Have students point out the pun. What makes it a good pun as opposed to a slight one?
  5. Who is Daedalus? How might what he constructed for Minos mirror our interpretation? Why might the maze be located in the Adirondacks? Like the Catskills, the Adirondacks may be considered deeply iconic American geography.
  6. Why use the name, Smith? Give at least two reasons (see picture and first line of wiki entry).
  7. The maze is constructed of "charming if improbable objects." If we are talking fiction, what is usually considered "charming if improbable?" Speculative fiction. Obelisks, mysterious objects that denote timelessness and that memorialize, are common, possibly emblematic imagery in speculative fiction. The conjunction and misplacement of all of these objects, in fact, also denote speculative fiction. Moreover, what are the walls constructed of? The shadow is an even more common image in SF. The maze becomes something more of a mystery when it is "insoluble" at noon when the shadows are most short and, presumably, easier to solve. If the maze is constructed out of shadows, what happens to those shadows as the day progresses?
  8. One interpreter states, "When adults get stuck in the maze, it means that they cannot understand the message of the story," which must be referring to the following: "a maze from which the explorer can walk free whenever he chooses. And yet it is said that most of them--most adults, at least--do not." Explain how this follows the text. Explain how the text may be stating the opposite.
  9. What does the following suggest about interpretation: Mr. Smith, the maze builder, "invites his guest to discover paths of his own.... New corridors appear; old ones close.... Mr. Smith's path joins that of his guest (Mr. Smith knows his own maze well)... the guest leading the way.... As Mr. Smith talks, shadows shift."? How much will Mr. Smith help his guests?
  10. Interpret: "Most adult guests do not escape until they are rescued by a passing cloud. Some, indeed, refuse such rescue."
  11. What is the sinister aspect of the story that Wolfe mentions? How would you feel if you were a young child and an adult said that "the frowning figure of the Minotaur, a monster,... haunts the shadows."?
  12. Why must the children be young but not too young?
  13. Why would glasses help? What do glasses do?
  14. Who is Ariadne? Of what use is showing her picture?
  15. What's a gnomon? Check out the word's origin: Interpreter, discerner. Who survives the maze? What are they doing?
  16. If you have additional questions, please let us know.
  • Author's from Storeys from the Old Hotel: "'A Solar Labyrinth' is another favorite. Labyrinths fascinate just about everybody, and for a while I was almost equally interested in what used to be called dialing [Borski refers solely to television in order to maintain his theme's continuity, but one may also refer to the telephone, an object used to reach others at a distance]. I tried to keep the sinister element well in the background, and it seems I kept it so far back that few readers notice it at all; but I like it that way."
  • Sean Whalen (similar to this interpretation if a bit exacting)
  • Same site, different interpreter
  • A unit speculative fiction or close reading.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"The Dead Man's Child" by Jay Lake

Appearing in Cosmos, "The Dead Man's Child" is Jay Lake's latest--an inspirational tale.

Summary: Marguerite wants to know about the high lines. Whatever it is, her father has passed away doing it. She desires to work them before even knowing what they entail. She risks getting herself in trouble at school by daring to ask about it.

Key Passage:
"I advise simplicity in life. Choice kills."

"And choice can make you great," says Marguerite stubbornly.

"Of course." Mr Grieve sounds surprised. "Without risk, there is no reward."

"So tell me of the high lines."

Comment: Interestingly, Jonah Lehrer states a case for something similar to advocating simplicity in How We Decide--too much information paralyzes us, essentially preventing us from making good decisions. (This comment is merely a note of interest.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Collector's Fever" by Roger Zelazny

  • Galaxy June 1964
  • The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, Doubleday 1971
  • 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg & Joseph D. Olander, Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1978
  • 100 Amazing Little Alien Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg, Barnes & Noble 1996
  • Threshold: Volume 1, NESFA Press, 2009
  • online reproduction of text
  • Science has much strange vocabulary when you first encounter it. So does science fiction. What readers of science fiction do is temporarily suspend the immediate need to know, suspecting they can learn what the term is from context. See if you can do that with this story. Write down the new term. Each time it appears, jot down any new layers of meaning you might get from the context. Don't worry if you can't come up with much.
Summary: A human, who never earns a name, has come to the newly christened planet of Dunghill in order to collect specimens for his rich uncle. This human plans revenge, using what he knows about the scientific nature of the unusual rock species found on Dunghill.

  1. Stone asks a lot of questions. Why? When you finish reading the story, compare your experience of reading the story to Stone's experience of hearing the human's story. How are they similar? When and where do you think this happens on planet Earth every day?
  2. "Human" never gets a name. What does that do to him as a person? Does he deserve this? Using the text, point to where you get this feeling.
  3. How does human feel about his uncle? Using the text, point to where you get this feeling.
  4. Why does human call the planet, "Dunghill"? What does Stone think the human refers to?
  5. Human quotes, "one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind," in order to convince Stone of its future importance in a place he doesn't want to be. What text does this allude to? Country of the Blind by H. G. Wells (Wiki): "In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King." Knowing how well that works for Wells' protagonist, should Stone feel comforted by such an allusion? Explain.
  6. Half way through the story, the term "deeble" is introduced. Write down the new term. Each time it appears, jot down any new layers of meaning you might get from the context. Don't worry if you can't come up with much. The reason you will want to catalog this experience--at least once--is that it mirrors how you and infants acquired language.
  7. What happened to Stone in the ending? to human? Is it a happy ending? Justify your answer.
  8. What are two ways to refer to this statement by another sentient rock: "An excellent deeble.... It always pays to be a cautious collector."? (Hint: two creatures are collecting in this story.) Considering the first statement, which is the more likely interpretation? Might the author want us to consider both?
  9. What is fission? Does it release or absorb energy? How does society, especially France, use this energy today? [Tie-in to social studies] What makes alternative energy so attractive to world leaders today? Where has fission been used destructively in history?
  10. Stone says, "I've added so carefully to my atom collection, building up the finest molecular structure in the neighborhood [in order to deeble]." What sorts of atoms must Stone be collecting? Hydrogen? Helium? Lead? Uranium? something else? Explain your answers.
  11. "[T]he space... sedan, customized by its owner, who had removed much of the shielding." What's the point of shielding an atomic pile? Is this human very bright to remove the shielding? What is the atomic pile probably releasing?
  12. If you can think of other possible questions , please let me/us know.

On Teaching:
  • One way to use this story would be after an introduction to nuclear reactions. However, it may be useful at the beginning of a course for students to feel more comfortable with the upcoming unfamiliar terminology coming up.
  • For teaching physical science students the difference between fission and fusion, we break down the words: FISSion looks a lot like fizz, where bubbles leave your soda. So FISSion = FIZZ apart. FUSion comes from FUSe, where you fuse things together. An over-simplification, but the mneumonic solidifies their understanding well enough for that level. Also fUSion occurs on the SUn. Does the sun release energy? Do you think fusion releases energy? Fission occurs in nuclear bombs and in reactors. Do nuclear bombs and reactors release energy? Do you think fission releases energy?
  • Language
  • Psychology: Language Acquisition
  • Understanding Science Terminology
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Physical Science

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Paul Ekman & Facial Emotions

As soon I heard this Fresh Aire program on Dr. Paul Ekman (wiki, website, blog)--a researcher who decoded universal emotional reactions and teaches others to do the same--I had to buy the book, Emotions Revealed. Unfortunately, like many books that didn't immediately grab me, it collected dust.

Reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, I revisited Ekman's website and this time bought the basic facial recognition program. It takes about an hour to complete. (Background on Micro Expressions, 8 basic facial expressions which Ekman's software trains you to spot, TV program Lie to Me based on Ekman's research, Ekman research used with parenting, Ekman research used with law enforcement, On the Media.)

While it is thrilling to "read people's minds" as Gladwell puts it or to know whether someone is lying as the above websites put it less judiciously, I'm not sure that glimpsing these split-second emotions tell the whole story. Here's a personal example from my early post-high-school days:

My father made a comment to me, which aggravated me for a fraction of a second. I dismissed the emotion as quickly as it came because my father hadn't meant anything by it. So I forgot the emotion and responded in a normal, rational tone. However, my father replied in anger. I was puzzled: Why was he angry? As it so happened, the door was open at an angle that reflected my facial expression back at me. It still contained that earlier aggravation. It took me a moment to recall that flash of emotion that I had felt and dismissed. I felt no aggravation. If I had flashed aggravation and later denied it, would I be lying?

Could it be that the emotions we feel are our pre-packaged reactions, not true emotions (unless some people operate purely on pre-packaged emotions) taught to us by experience with our environment? These would help us cope with life using split-second reactions--reflexes or knee-jerk responses--much as one would remove his hand from a stove were it hot.

Perhaps Dr. Ekman responds to this in that dusty book of mine.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Video Illusion & the Necessity for Verifying Results

Sometimes students believe they know something to be true based on their senses. Here's a fun illusion that may help reinforce the idea that science has to be verified experimentally:

"Impossible Motion" video by Kokichi Sugihara of the Meiji Institute for Advanced Study of Mathematical Sciences in Kawasaki, Japan.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Andre Norton's "All Cats Are Gray"

  1. Fantastic Universe, Aug/Sep 1953
  2. The Many Worlds of Science Fiction, ed. Ben Bova, Dutton 1971
  3. Zoo 2000, ed. Jane Yolen, Seabury 1973
  4. The Many Worlds of Andre Norton, Chilton 1974
  5. Science Fiction A to Z, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg & Charles G. Waugh, Houghton Mifflin 1982
  6. Top Science Fiction, ed. Josh Pachter, Dent 1984
  7. 101 Science Fiction Stories, ed. Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh & Jenny-Lynn Waugh, Avenel 1986
  8. Wizards’ Worlds, Tor 1989
  9. New Eves, ed. Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman, Longmeadow Press 1994
  10. 100 Amazing Little Alien Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg, Barnes & Noble 1996
  11. Project Gutenberg: text online (other author works)
  12. Librivox: audio online.
Pre-Reading: I would recommend introducing various types of electromagnetic radiation, around which concept this image should be central. The easiest way I've found of teaching this is to start with energy: Which wavelength looks calm and low energy? Radio. Which looks angry and energetic? Gamma. Now we have bookends. Visible light is in the middle. What acronym--or abbreviation--reminds of the colors found in visible light? Sometimes art students know this, but they'll usually all recognize ROY G BIV when you put it on the board. Walk them them the naming. Ask them what's below red? (Hint 1: it has the word "red" in it. Hint 2: You use it to see things at night.) IR -- Infra-red. Ask "What's above violet?" (Hint 1: it has the word "violet" in it. Hint 2: It'll give you a burn and possibly skin cancer if you don't put on sunscreen.) UV -- Ultraviolet. "Micro" means small so you know that's below IR. Usually, students can guess that X-ray--it can penetrate skin and cause deeper cancer--would go above UV. It may help to emphasize the importance of changing wavelengths determining what a wave's electromagnetic type is, but the wavelengths do change across a spectrum. This might be best demonstrated with a volunteer gradually waving a rope using more and more energy to do so.

Summary: Steena, Bat, and Cliff investigate the mysteriously derelict spaceship, Empress of Mars. What at first seemed a handicap becomes a necessary attribute in difficult circumstances.
  1. What is the narrator's initial impression of Steena? It is mixed. Point out at least three positives and three negatives from the descriptions. Count the total of each. Toward which does the narrator appear to lean more?
  2. What is an "attachment?" What does this suggest about Cliff Moran's financial state? What will happen to Cliff if the courts succeed in attaching his ship?
  3. Without looking it up, guess what a manstone is. It does not appear to have a dictionary definition. It may be science fictional term used to evoke a future word. What does the word combination (man and stone) evoke for you? Added this to this context--something from Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter: What does you imagination conjure? Possibly, you thought of a creature ("come stumping in") reminiscent of a man and a stone. What does the term "stumping" indicate about how the creature moves?
  4. Now that you have the creature from #3 in mind, what does that imply about Steena approaching Cliff?
  5. Biology: If you had heard of cat (or cat-like creature) named Bat, what attributes or abilities might you surmise it has? How does a bat behave differently from humans?
  6. If the Empress of Mars were a sailing ship instead of a spaceship how would this rumor about it sound to you? What further descriptions confirm this feeling?
  7. What does this phrase "Steena and Bat went prowling" suggest about the natures of these two characters? Different or similar? What does it make you think of?
  8. How is the following passage like and unlike the fairytale of Bluebeard? "Closed doors were a challenge to both of them and Steena opened each as she passed, taking a quick look at what lay within. The fifth door opened on a room which no woman could leave without further investigation."
  9. Knowing something of electromagnetic radiation, explain how the following might be: "What sped before them both was invisible to her but Bat was never baffled by it.... To human eyes they were alone in the cabin. But Bat still followed a moving something with his gaze."
  10. Why doesn't Cliff Moran see the creature? Why might Steena only see the creature when Cliff is in the background?
  11. Steena is handicapped by being colorblind, yet what does the story suggest about handicapped?
  12. Physical Science: Steena states, "[Bat]'s been compensated for he can see above and below our range of color vibrations and—apparently—so can I!" What parts of the electromagnetic spectrum lie just outside the visible, to which Steena may be referring? How are both used in practical terms of everyday life? How do humans use infrared? What kinds of objects radiate in the infrared? How do humans use ultraviolet? What kinds of objects radiate ultraviolet? Which part of spectrum do you think is more probable that Steena used to see the creature?
  13. Take a second look at the title, at one of the descriptions in question one, at question seven, and at the fact that both the cat and Steena see the invisible creature. How do you read the title differently?
  14. How might the title by playing off the idiom, "All cats look the same in the dark"?
  15. What happens to Steena in the dénouement?
  16. If you can think of other possible questions , please let me/us know.

Critical commentary:
  • From Fantastic Universe Science Fiction: "An odd story, made up of oddly assorted elements that include a man, a woman, a black cat, a treasure—and an invisible being that had to be seen to be believed. Under normal conditions a whole person has a decided advantage over a handicapped one. But out in deep space the normal may be reversed—for humans at any rate."
  • Chemistry, Physics, or Physical science: Introduction to Electromagnetic Radiation.
  • Biology: Limited: colorblindness or bat behavior.
  • Inclusion: People with special needs are shown in a positive light.
  • English: This might fit well with a unit on comparative literature, genres, fairy tales, or science fiction.
  • If you can think of other possible uses, please let me/us know.
Side note: Kage Baker wrote an award-winning story called "Empress of Mars."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Resources for Brave New World

Record Brother has released mp3s of a two-part dramatization of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (part 1, part 2). The author speaks! A quick search turned up this site as a critical resource, which includes the text online and an mp4 video author interview on the text from 1962.

In case cross-pollination were desired, Gutenberg has his first novel and a book of poems available online. Librivox has the author's first novel in audio: Crome Yellow.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

More Resources to peruse

David Brin has a list of webpages to explore (movies, catch-all, even his own stories). We adults tend to forget 1) the step-wise transition from child to adult, 2) classroom time comes at a premium--a precious commodity--and 3) the specific science covered in a science course. These three ideas are often inextricable. For example, combining #1 and #3, one does not leap too far ahead of where the students are. Nonetheless, I look forward to exploring all that Brin has to offer science teachers.

Meanwhile, I have read Geoffrey A. Landis' "Approaching Perimelasma" mentioned in the last post concerning Mike Brotherton's anthology of science fiction stories about astronomy, Diamonds in the Sky. It is perfect for the discussion of black holes. However, 1) it may be longer than students are willing to put up with, which means this should be given to upper-level students or at least not required, 2) it requires some background knowledge that Landis assumes readers will already know. I'll try to prep this into something more usable next weekend (weekends never seem long enough).

Friday, May 14, 2010

Teaching Astronomy with SF

I recently stumbled upon Mike Brotherton's anthology of science fiction stories about astronomy, Diamonds in the Sky--free and online. It includes the following authors:

Jerry Oltion, Alma Alexander, Wil McCarthy, David Levine, Jerry Weinberg, Mike Brotherton, Dan Hoyt, Mary Robinette Kowal, Valentin Ivanov, Jeffrey A. Carver, G. David Nordley, Kevin Grazier and Ges Seger, Alexis Glynn Latner, and Geoffrey A. Landis.

I will look into its usefulness at a later time. Meanwhile, feel free to post your observations.

International SF

World Literature Today has published an issue of World SF, edited by Christopher McKitterick, has some online content from the print magazine.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Using 2012 in the Science Classroom

Students tend to ask whether movies can happen. When a student asked about 2012 (wiki)--since I do not get out to movies often--I had not anticipated that a Mayan 2012 prophecy (government scientist debunks a number of these) would lead to a movie using science as fodder to explain this doomsday scenario.

Like Roger Ebert, I enjoyed the movie for what it was--a science-fantasy lark (if a few too many one-damn-thing-after-anothers). The source of all the trouble is neutrinos, which for some reason stokes up the fires in the earth's core. Neutrinos normally pass through the earth without hitting anything. The movie does some hand-waving and says these neutrinos are behaving abnormally. That's good enough for me; however, most audiences may not pick up on the sleight-of-hand, which no doubt ruffles a few scientists' feathers. But as I see it, crazy science gets people asking questions, which allows scientists--such as those who wrote the blog column just linked--to correct misunderstanding and disseminate science to those who might not have looked it up, otherwise.

If in the sun were to have a larger than normal solar flares, one would have bigger problems than neutrinos, but mostly with our satellites and electrical appliances, which many countries have grown a stronger and stronger dependence upon. Another problem, depending on how much radiation penetrates the atmosphere, might be an increase in cancer.

But back to neutrinos, this brings us to two critical points that we can drum up in our Physics and Physical science classes: 1) momentum (mv) & kinetic energy (1/2mv^2) are dependent upon mass, 2) average kinetic energy of particles translates to its temperature.

If neutrinos are already extremely hard to detect when you're trying hard to locate them--no doubt due to their electrical neutrality and their minuscule but nonzero mass--it seems improbable that even a hundred-fold increase could cause much concern. Also, thanks to its low mass, it is unlikely that matter that doesn't have a desire to interact with matter due to mass and neutrality would raise temperatures. If a dust particle strikes you, it's unlikely to move you. Even a thousand particles should cause you little alarm. Why? (Students should be able to answer this intuitively.) Because their mass compared to yours is insignificant.

If you see any science here that needs correcting, please let me know in the comments. If you have another link or other science you'd like to comment on, please do so.

"Warm" by Robert Sheckley

  1. Galaxy, June 1953
  2. Second Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction, ed. Horace L. Gold, Crown 1954
  3. Untouched by Human Hands, Ballantine 1954
  4. Galaxy Science Fiction Omnibus, ed. Horace L. Gold, Grayson 1955
  5. Untouched by Human Hands, Four Square 1967
  6. Alpha 8, ed. Robert Silverberg, Berkley 1977
  7. The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural, ed. Bill Pronzini, Martin H. Greenberg & Barry N. Malzberg, Arbor House 1981
  8. The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces, ed. Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, Arbor House 1983
  9. Is That What People Do?, Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1984
  10. Great Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, ed. Bill Pronzini, Martin H. Greenberg & Barry N. Malzberg, A&W/Galahad 1985
  11. Great Tales of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, A&W/Galahad 1985
  12. Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 15 (1953), ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg, DAW 1986
  13. The Collected Short Stories of Robert Sheckley Book One, Pulphouse 1991
  14. Evolutionary Rag #1 1993
  15. A Century of Science Fiction 1950-1959, ed. Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, MJF Books 1996
  16. Vintage Book of Amnesia, ed. Jonathan Lethem, Random House/Vintage 2000
  17. Project Gutenberg: text online.
  18. Librivox: audio online.
Summary: Anders, who is in love but dreading it, hears a voice in his head, pleading for help. It guides him--through his date with Judy, through a typically shallow party, through an encounter with the hungry homeless--to the ultimate, scientific understanding of life and existence. Once he arrives, it isn't what he expected.

  1. After you have read the story, ask yourself how the story's first sentence comes to have two simultaneous meanings.
  2. Anders is in love. How does he feel about this? Point to specific passages. How do you explain Anders' dress and where he is at the story's start? How is his approach clinical or scientific from the start?
  3. How might the word "stamp" taint the love conveyed in this sentence: "the seal of acceptance would, figuratively speaking, be stamped across his forehead"? How does his yawn play up the humor of his love?
  4. After you have read the story once, how does the voice's "Help me!" have sadder undertone? The voice doesn't know who or where it is. Knowing how events turn out, explain how this make sense. Is there hope for the voice?
  5. Psychology: To which psychologist does this allude: "Don't tell me you're my guilty subconscious, attacking me for a childhood trauma I never bothered to resolve"?
  6. Psychology: What is schizophrenia? Read up on this. Might this be what Anders has?
  7. Psychology: Is it "lamentable" that Anders has confidence in his own sanity? Once he concludes this, what does he logically--at least according to his logic--conclude? Note his reaction upon learning that the voice is coming from inside his head.
  8. Note the different usages of "warm" in the story and compare them to dictionary definitions. What all does the term encompass? How does this aid our interpretation of the story? What sorts of actions help him get "warm?"
  9. What key adjectives describe where the protagonist is headed: "It was suddenly a mixture of muddled colors, instead of the carefully blended pastel shades he had selected. The lines of wall, floor and ceiling were strangely off proportion, zigzag, unrelated"?
  10. On his date with Judy, Anders' perception slowly changes. What personality trait does he display before the change that accentuates this perception?
  11. When he makes the change in the third passage, what words and what type of language does Sheckley employ to help you sense his distancing? How does he describe people?
  12. What is the big question asks us to think about regarding the intersection of science and humanity?
  13. What does Anders mean when he tells a party-goer in a loud tie that Judy's sick and hasn't got long to live? Is he lying, manipulating the party-goer's reactions, or speaking metaphorically?
  14. What happens to Anders (and what is his reaction) that causes Anders' final transformation?
  15. When Anders returns to himself, how does he find himself? What progress has he made?
  16. If you can think of other possible questions , please let me/us know.
Key Passages:
  • Anders lay on his bed, fully dressed except for his shoes and black bow tie, contemplating, with a certain uneasiness, the evening before him.
  • It really would be much more comfortable not to be in love. What had done it? A look, a touch, a thought? It didn't take much, he knew, and stretched his arms for a thorough yawn.
  • "Help me!" a voice said.
  • "Who are you?" he asked.

    "I don't know," the voice answered.

    Anders realized that the voice was speaking within his own mind. Very suspicious.

  • It was suddenly a mixture of muddled colors, instead of the carefully blended pastel shades he had selected. The lines of wall, floor and ceiling were strangely off proportion, zigzag, unrelated.
  • A lemming in love, he told himself.

    "You're getting warm again," the voice said.

  • "Teaching psychology to young apes—"

    "Oh, come now!"

    "Warmer," the voice said.

  • The analytical young instructor was better off in the classroom. Couldn't science wait until 9:10 in the morning?
  • Her feelings were nakedly apparent to him, as meaningless as his room had been in that flash of undistorted thought.
  • the reactive machine opposite him on the couch said, expanding its shapely chest slightly
  • the flesh-clad skeleton behind the total gestalt Judy
  • "When you look at a girl, you're supposed to see—a pattern, not the underlying formlessness."

    "That's true," the voice agreed, but with a shade of doubt.

  • "Give me a dime for some coffee, mister?" something asked, a thing indistinguishable from any other thing.

    "Old Bishop Berkeley would give a nonexistent dime to your nonexistent presence," Anders said gaily.


    "I'm really hungry," the intricately arranged atoms muttered.

    All atoms. Conjoined. There were no true separations between atom and atom. Flesh was stone, stone was light. Anders looked at the masses of atoms that were pretending to solidity, meaning and reason.

    "Can't you help me?" [...]

    "I don't believe in you," Anders said.

    The pile of atoms was gone.

    "Yes!" the voice cried. "Yes!"


    What was an atom? An empty space surrounded by an empty space.

  • The voice of Anders reached back to someone who could save him, perhaps.

    "Save me," the voice said to Anders, lying fully dressed on his bed, except for his shoes and black bow tie.

  • Science: A number of important concepts are contained here--atom and space being primarily space (chemistry, physics or physical science--the major key here lies within the realm of philosophical implications. This may be most useful at the beginning of any science course where students are learning about what science is and does.
  • Psychology: See uses in science.
  • Philosophy: Science, certainty, existence.
  • English: This may be one of Robert Sheckley's most dense stories for literary mining. This should work well for any number of units.
  • If you can think of other possible uses, please let me/us know.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Come All Ye Faithful, by Robert J. Sawyer

  1. Space Inc., edited by Julie E. Czerneda (DAW Books, July 2003)
  2. Identity Theft, story collection by Robert J. Sawyer
  3. Escape Pod, audio read by Mike Boris
Summary: Stationed on Mars, Father Bailey is sent out to investigate a purported appearance of the Virgin Mary. He reports in gilded detail that indeed she is.

  • From the introduction, the author calls this his "schtick [about] the conflict between faith and rationality."

  1. The story opens with someone damning in the name of God in front of Father Bailey, our narrator--possibly in an attempt to anger or upset the Father. Does it work? Why or why not? How does this set the stage for what is to follow?
  2. What is Father Bailey's feeling about how the Mars colony feels about Father Bailey and his religion?
  3. What is Father Bailey sent out to investigate? What significance might there be that he is sent out to investigate this near the face on Mars?
  4. How does Father Bailey feel about the televangelist, Jorgan Emet?
  5. Why does Father Bailey choose to lie? See question #2 and the story's title for one possible explanation. How is this choice complicated by his feelings toward Jorgan Emet? Was Father Bailey wrong to do this? Traditionally, in science fiction, there is a history of stories (such as that found James Gunn's Station in Space) where the implication is that lying is a means justified by the end. In fact, many in politics feel this way. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  6. Returning to what the author calls his "schtick" (see Source above), what does this story have to say about religion? Robert Sawyer writes, "[A]s an author I no more am obligated to truly believe in all the things I write about than George Lucas is obligated to really believe in the Force." Is the story about religion in general or an aspect of religion? Might your beliefs impact how you read the story?
  7. If you can think of other possible questions , please let me/us know.
  • Science: This is probably not a story that applies to the science curriculum.
  • Philosophy: A course in philosophy may be the best application for a story discussing choices made by religious authorities.
  • English: Clearly the story has some thought-provoking elements, but it may be best suited for a science-fiction unit or as story choice for a student interested in philosophy, religion, or science fiction.
  • If you can think of other possible uses, please let me/us know.