Thursday, June 5, 2008

Powers of Ten

Cool video from the 70's demonstrating scale first by zooming out and then by zooming in. Neat way to look at huge numbers and the relative size of things. The film stops at the subatomic layer with the mention of quarks. I wondered what it would look like based on today's understanding of the atom so I did a quick search and came up with all kinds of visualizations of the different types of quarks.

I left school (K-12) with a picture in my mind of an atom that looked like planets circling the sun. Any of you who went to school in the fifties or sixties will remember this. (The picture above is close to what I remember in my high school text book.) I had this image as a working frame of reference for years until I sat down with a science teacher at a conference once and he explained that my "planetary" model wasn't really current. He gave me a short description of current thinking and never laughed at me once.

This demoed two things to me. One, knowledge changes (possibly expands would be a better word). We hear about information learned in a science class being obsolete by the time a college student graduates. My world view in terms of this particular bit of science was out of date and I didn't know it. I don't know if this changed anything in my life?

The second thing this experience helped me realize is the power of a good illustration or visual. I am a strong visual learner. If I can see it, it helps me to understand it. At the time I was taught the first illustration, science had already moved beyond that picture. I know why textbooks liked it. It was clear. It was concise. You could label the parts on a quiz. The second illustration is not quite so simple. It's a little harder to label. But, it does give me a better way to visualize an atom.

For all I know, my science teacher told me that the first picture wasn't a perfect illustration. He may have even talked about the current understanding of an atom. He may have drawn other pictures on the board. But, it was the first one that I remembered and used in my mind on those occasions that I thought about atoms.

As teachers we need to remind ourselves often that the "Map is not the territory." Illustrations are good. Visuals are important. But they are abstract and sometimes young concrete thinkers confuse the symbol with the reality.

[Image captured from Wikipedia: Atom:]
[Image captured from "Rust never sleeps": http://

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