The Discovering of Science in China

I am in England, and I thought I would briefly comment on a book I am reading entitled The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist who unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester.  The book is about Joseph Needham, the brilliant and eccentric British scientist, who starting in 1943, began a quest to uncover the mysteries of ancient Chinese science and technology.  Winchester’s book about Needham, like his previous books such as The Crack in the Edge of the World, Krakatoa, or The Map that Changed the World, is thrilling, and beautifully written. As one interested in  history, this a wonderful book to be reading while I am in England.  Needham visited China on several occasions, the first in 1943 and it was this visit that formed the foundation for his future research and writing of seven volumes of Science and Civilization in China.  But his writing and research was done in Caius College, Cambridge, England, and it feels right to be reading Winchester’s book here in England.

Needham uncovered for the world the nature and history of science in China.  For a science teacher this book will provide many examples of “Chinese inventions and discoveries” which superseded parallel discoveries in the West.  Appendex I lists nearly 300 of these inventions and discoveries, such as the Abacus (AD 190), Compass used for navigation (AD 1111), gunpowder (9th Century AD), and so forth.  

But the book is not about one discovery after another.  It is a book about a brilliant scientist who fell in love with China, and decided to find out about Chinese science, its people and culture.  It is a book about Joseph Needham, a world famous scientist before he went to China in the midst of the Japanese invasion of China as a British diplomat in charge of seeking out and supporting Chinese scientists.  

In the next several posts, I’ll talk about the book, and about Needham and China.

1906 San Francsico Earthquake Centennial

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which hit the city at 5.12 a.m. on that day. In an earlier post, I commented on the significance of the 1906 earthquake, and recommended a book by Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. Winchester’s book tells the story of the “new geology” and helps us understand the cause of the earthquake (and all earthquakes), and provides a deeper understanding of the earth.

The city of San Francisco set up a web site marking the earthquake, and also held a huge gathering in the financial district.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake literally destroyed the city, and the great fire that followed reeked devastating damage of the city for days after. The earthquake is considered one of the worst disasters to hit the U.S. with more than 3,000 people killed, more than 20,000 buildings destroyed (see image of city hall below), and it took until 1915 to re-build the city. This seems like very timely information for the rebuilding of New Orleans.

The quake was caused by a rupture (of more than 300 miles) along the San Andreas fault, the fault that separates two huge crustal plates: the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate.

These two masses of rocks rub up against each other along the San Andreas Fault, and at times, the build up of stress is released when the plates move, causing an earthquake.

The Art and Creativity in Scientific Theories

Two of the books (by Edward O. Wilson and Simon Winchester) that I am currently reading are based on two of the most robust and important scientific theories that humans have discovered to explain two different sets of natural phenomena, namely the origin of the species, and origin and movement of crustal plates. Charles Darwin conceived the idea of evolution by natural selection (along with Alfred Russell Wallace), and the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 1970’s through the work of a number of geologists such as Harry Hess and J. Tuzo Wilson.

Each theory revolutionized the thinking and the research in the respective fields of biology and geology, and have continued to be supported by continuing research. Both ideas have a robust simplicity to explain a wide range of facts and observations. The creative process in the development of these ideas is not very much different than the creativity that we often associate with art. And finally we might add, that each new idea resulted in a paradigm shift in their respective fields of science.

I was reminded about a play that I read many years ago which was written by Jacob Bronowski entitled the Abacus and the Rose: A Dialogue on Two World Systems. The play explores the similarities between art (rose) and science (abacus) and suggests that there is a great deal of similarity between an artist’s painting (say of Rembrant), and a scientific theory (say of Rutherford), and links the two systems by claiming that the both the painting and theory reflect the creativity of the the artist and the scientist.

In a recent book From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Darwin edited by Edward O. Wilson, Wilson points out that great scientific discoveries such as evolution by natural selection (and I would add, the theory of plate tectonics), are like “sunrises” illuminating first the steeples of the unknown, and then its dark hollows. Darwin’s ideas, which first appeared in 1845 with his publication of the Voyage of the Beagle, followed by On the Origin of Species in 1859, and then completed in 1871 and 1872 by The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, respectively. You can read each of these books in Wilson’s edited compendium.

The idea of natural selection, according to Thomas Huxley, is such a simple idea, he thought himself stupid that he didn’t think of it himself. Wilson, in one of the essay’s introducing the book, writes that evolution by natural selection is perhaps the only one true law unique to biological systems. The simplicity of the idea suggests that if a population of organisms contains multiple variations in some trait (say tall versus short necks, or perhaps red versus blue eyes), and if one of these variants suceeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation than the other variants, the overall compostion of the population changes, and evolution has occurred. The power of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that it was a phenomenon of populations, not individuals. Creation of subpopulations and the emergence of new species that descended from existing populatiions was part of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The idea of plate tectonics, as envisioned by Harry Hess, J. Tuzo Wilson, and a few other theorists, resulted in the New Geology, which looked at the whole earth, rather than bits of rocks and minerals here and there. Alfred Wegener had suggested that the continents might have drifted to their present locations, but he did not have observations and facts to suggest how this might have happended. Like evolution by natural selection, plate tectonics emerged as a simple idea when one realized that the earth was one very gigantic system of ocean basins and continents that move, dive and collide due to radioactive decay within the earth that results in very large convection currents that push up new and drag down old parts of the crust. As in evolution by natural selection, the geological cycle of creation of new crust and the decay of old goes on endlessly.

For further reading:
From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, Edited by Edward O. Wilson, Norton, 2006

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Harper Collins, 2005

For further surfing:
Understanding and Teaching About Evolution by Natural Selection

The Story of Plate Tectonics

The Earthquake of 1906 and the New Geology

I am in the mood to write about earthquakes. I’ve written about them before, and designed activities for teachers and high school students years ago. I have only experienced three earthquakes (in Columbus, Ohio (1967), San Francisco (1985) and Seattle (2001)). In the fact the last one was a very powerful quake that rocked the Pacific Northwest. I was doing a seminar with about 100 teachers, and we had to seek shelter underneath desks in the conference room. It was a riviting experience, but it was not at all close to the experience of the earthquake that occurred futher south many years earlier.

100 years ago this April 16th, one of the largest earthquakes along the edge of the North American and Pacific Plates occurred near Daly City (the epicenter of the Great San Francisco Earthquake). In a new book (A Crack in the Edge of the World) author Simon Winchester explores not only the San Francisco earthquake, but the emergence of the new geology embodied in the Theory of Plate Tectonics. Winchester opens our eyes to the significance of the earthquake in the emergence of geology in the United States, but also helps us understand the nature of the movement along the San Andreas Fault (SAF), and the unusual character of the geology in the American West. Winchester talks briefly about J. Tuzo Wilson, the Canadian geologist, who in the 1960’s was giving talks and writing papers on the new theory. I was a graduate student in the late 1960’s at Ohio State University, and Wilson was on leave visiting the geology department at OSU. I was fortunate to take one of his seminars and be introduced to this new theory. It wasn’t until 1970’s that many papers were written that led credence to support the Theory of Plate Tectonics. Winchester takes us on a riviting story about the earth’s geology and brings us back to pre-Pangea time and the identification of ancient continents including UR, Arctica, Baltica and Atlantica. This is great reading, as are Winchester’s other books (for example Krakatoa and The Map That Changed the World).

Most earthquakes occur along the edges of crustal plates, but they occur elsewhere as well. Powerful earthquakes occur in places that are far from the edges of crustal plates, such as Charleston, SC, New Madrid, MO, or New England. The quakes that occurred in these locations were high magnitude ones, and ocurred along faults that have moved in the past, and could (unpredictably) shake in the future. Winchester discusses the possibility that the North American Plate (which extends from Iceland to California), might be splitting apart and separating along a fault running North to South in the New Madrid area!

If you are teaching about earthquakes, volcanoes and plate tectonics, I do recommend Winchester’s book to you. You might also check out the USGS site on teaching about earthquakes.

Free Minds

“Dogmatism and sectarianism must go, for Almighty God had made the mind free,” said Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago (See Edwin S. Gaustad’s book on Thomas Jefferson). For decades, dogmatists have tried to convince us that its okey to teach evolution, as long as it is questioned, and as long as the “theory” of creationism was included along side evolution in the school curriculum.

The problem with this is that evolution was not the result of dogmatism, rather, it was the result of scientific investigation. However, there is some evidence that evolution might be taught using dogmatic teaching methods, but that is the subject of another discussion topic.

Creation theory might have a place in school, but not as a viable alternative to the concept of evolution. Creation theory (or any other idea such as intelligent design) on the other hand is not the result of scientific investigation, but rather myth or religious ideology. There are many stories of creation drawn from various cultures around the world. These do not constitute scientific thinking.

The theory of evolution as we know it today was the result of very careful field observations, collecting of specimens, measurement, cataloging, and analysis. For example, Alfred Russell Wallace, who was a contempory of Charles Darwin, and first to recognize the idea and mechanism of evolution, was a prodigious collector.

He sent to London 125,660 specimens of plants, animals, insects, and birds of the islands of the East Indies. He spent 8 years in the East Indies, and from that location came to an understanding of evolution, wrote it down in a paper and sent it off to Charles Darwin for his critique! Only after his very careful investigation of the organisms living in the islands of the East Indies, and over a long time, it “suddently flashed upon me [Wallace] the idea of the survival of the fitttest—that individuals removed by these checks must be, on the whole, inferior to those that survived.”

Wallace went on to formulate his idea, and send it onto Darwin. Teaching students about evolution is the perview and responsibility of science educators. Trying to equate the Biblical story of creation with evolutionary theory not only denegrates science, but religion as well. Science and religion can and should co-exist.

For more information on Wallace, you might want to look at Simon Winchester’s book, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.