Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Magic School Bus

I'm adding a new blog to my list. The Magic School Bus is about science education, written by Bora Zivkovic, who teaches biology lab to college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I particularly liked this account of using the process of putting together a jigsaw puzzle to illustrate the scientific method:
So, what are you doing first? Looking at the pieces - that is observation. You still have absolutely no idea what the Big Picture is going to be, but you are looking for a good starting point, so you are soaking in all the information that you can glean from all the jumbled pieces on the table. So you are taking prior knowledge and using it to make sense of observed phenomena.

What are you doing next? You are trying to put some pieces together. Those are experiments. Every time you pick up two pieces and try to put them together you are testing a hypothesis - that the two pieces will fit. Most of the time your experiment fails at the first try, so you try again by rotating the pieces a little bit at a time and trying again. If it does not work, you drop the pieces and leave them for later, as obviously you need additional information. If it works, you publish your findings in a scientific journal and move on to the next hypothesis.

I see that different people have different approaches. Some look for edge pieces and try to put them together. Others are looking for any two pieces that may have shape, color and pattern similar enough that they may fit together, yet others are looking for key pieces - those with most interesting pieces of information, like an eye or a nose.This is just like personal styles of different scientists. Some start with easily gleaned information - the edges - and systematically build on it, piece by piece. They know that this approach is slow and tedious, but will certainly, over time, build the whole picture. Others do something more risky - go for the most interesting information although it is difficult to study it or to place it in a broader context. They are more likely to fail, but if they get it right, the returns on the investment are enormous - they have figured out what the big picture is going to be without doing all the detailed boring work............... Read more here.

Go ahead and read the whole piece, especially if you don't think of yourself as a scientist. Or maybe I should say "especially if you're a journalist." Journalism and science see to be butting heads a lot lately, on everything from cholesterol advice to bird flu to climate change. Journalists want the whole story now. Scientists know the story isn't whole, yet, and they reserve the right to revise the story as new data comes in. Just like working a puzzle.

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