Having the boys watch a Brian Greene video

This talk by Brian Greene was recommended to me by my friend Amy after she saw some of the 4-dimensional work we were doing last week. I was out the door really early today so I didn’t have a chance to work with the boys. Instead I had the boys watch the video and we talked about their ideas tonight.

Here’s the link to Greene’s talk:

Brian Greene’s talk on String Theory

Here’s my older son talking about what he saw:

And here’s my younger son’s thoughts:

Listening to them talk with interest about string theory really reinforces the idea that I first heard from Ed Frenkel – other science subjects do a much better job explaining their ideas to the public than math does. Makes me want to keep working to explain many more math ideas to kids!

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Comments

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  1. Wow! It’s so cool to hear their reactions, and how the “warped fabric of space-time” image came across so strongly to them — we actually spent a fair amount of time on that one in my class, because it’s something most of them had seen often enough that they missed the gravity-analogizing until I asked them whether there was really a trampoline-fabric out there in space with bodies rolling around in it. Or a grid. Your younger son’s point about the coin in the game not paralleling the earth around the sun because the earth doesn’t fall into the sun was also terrific — that had to be a very fun moment for you. Wonder when he’ll get to the big question about it. Four thousand points for not asking it for him.

    It’s interesting too that both the valley and the strings came across clearly enough to both of them that they were able to relay the ideas pretty clearly even after most of the day had gone by. Also interesting that neither of them found the ants-on-a-cable show particularly noteworthy.

    Chemistry also does a pretty terrible job explaining itself, which is why I’m spending increasing amounts of time helping grad students and faculty develop little analogies and explainers just to have in their pockets if they’re asked about their work. Once we get past the idea that this is “dumbing down” (and thus beneath contempt, or something to be done strictly for the purpose of ticking a box on grant applications), and we actually talk through the analogies they got as students, they’re often struck by how poorly they work as science explanation, especially for nonscientists. There are a lot of lock-and-key analogies, for instance, but the only really lively one I’ve heard is Linus Pauling’s description of how enzymes and substrates move to fit each other: it’s like having a key that doesn’t quite fit a lock, but you put it in, and both lock and key morph to fit each other perfectly. (Creepy!) Beyond that, though, the naive listener’s question is “What does it open?” And then the chemist is like, “Huh? Nothing, that’s not the point.”

    Actually I guess I see three big hurdles (so far) in the analogizing: recognizing that it’s worth doing; accepting that there will be a loss of precision — maybe a significant loss — in order to get a broad idea across to a much larger audience; and doing the imaginative work necessary to analogize well and simply enough.

    amy

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