Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Oh yeah!

This being close to the beginning of the new academic year in the US, Eli thought a comment or two on things academic might be in order. Over at ATTP, Guthrie had, what to Eli, was an interesting comment, though not, to Eli, interesting in the context of what was being discussed over there, but interesting in the context of the new term coming up

This also reminds me of the complaint about history of chemistry I heard recently, which is that it’s been taken over by historians. Which is something I agree with, it has rather been historianised, which can lead to imbalances in what is studied and how it is studied and a loss of focus on the science.
Interesting because the traditional approach of teaching chemistry, sequentially running through any number of simple models for chemical bonding and reaction follows the historical development of the science. As each model is stacked on the next to extend them and handle myriad exceptions to each, students struggle. Why each of these simplifications works and their limits of applicability is not obvious, or at least not so until the course reaches the last few weeks when instructors rush through the quantum basis of atomic and molecular structure.  At that point, perhaps in the last lectures of the term, when it is explained how each of the historical models is an expression of quantum mechanics everyone, hopefully nods their heads and says "Oh yeah".

At least intellectually the Atoms First method, which starts by teaching baby quantum chemistry, Aufbau principle and all that, is cleaner.  It has been around roughly fifteen to twenty years although early examples no doubt existed and increasingly gchem textbooks come in two flavors, traditional and Atoms First.

Atoms First is harder to grok for students at first because, well quantum is weird (as in not harder than you think but for some harder than they can think).  However, students today do not swim in the same water as Eli did, when Sienko and Plane was the first gchem text to even talk about aufbau (and no, Eli is not going to haul down his copy of Pauling to check that, besides the only thing that Pauling ever pushed in his book was electronegativity on the Pauling scale, and the Bunny prefers the Mullikan scale because it can be explained).

To be honest there are two things that make Atoms First a bit of a pain to deal with.  First, as mentioned, is quantum weirdness.  Why is hard to get across.  Second is that it is hard to think up labs for the first few weeks that support the text and for lab to have any value it must support what is being taught concurrently.

The later may not be such a biggie, because this ain't 1960.  Everybunny is hunting Pokemon.  Students accept, nay they flourish in virtual reality, so to them applets are hands on, and there are some really good atomic and molecular structure applets out there to transport down to the atomic scale.

Here is one from pHeT


Bryson said...

Historians often treat history as just more (and more) of the same-- more detail, more ideas, more disputes. It's a descriptive enterprise, not a normative one, so it's hard for them to take an evaluative stance-- and this problem is made worse by the fact that, when you follow the details of things closely you find blind alleys, proposals that seem interesting but never caught on, heroes with feet of clay-- all of which go to make digestible stories of progress seem simplistic and often misleading. But in science (unlike, I fear, in history in general-- President Obama to the contrary notwithstanding) there really is an arc, and the arc bends towards epistemic progress. That is, norms of science, grounded in pragmatic/ epistemic values including reliable accuracy, increased precision, successful prediction and application, growing scope etc., have a real impact on how new scientific views emerge and come to replace earlier ones. So 'Whig history' isn't all wrong -- even though it's bad historical methodology and very often wrong about who said what, why, and how good their reasons for saying it were at the time.

guthrie said...

Yay, fame at last. I have left my mark on the internet!

Well, the simple models stuff in chemistry, maybe you're doing it differently, but it doesn't quite recapitulate the actual historical ideas about how stuff worked.
This atoms first thing sounds interesting, I shall have to get a book on it. I have a fine collection of chemistry textbooks from the last 100 years or so, and it needs some more up to date ones.

Bryson- yes, some historians go overboard on the descriptive, but a lot, i.e. the ones I know/ have met, are also interested in the norms at the time, and how the research programs and approaches to reality were shaped by norms, and indeed find blind alleys interesting too.

Chris G said...

Worth reading in last month's Physics Today: Matthew Stanley, "Why should physicists study history?" - http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/69/7/10.1063/PT.3.3235

Bryson, I think Stanley would disagree with your characterization of historians. His lead-in: "Just as physics is not a list of facts about the world, history is not a list of names and dates. It is a way of thinking that can be powerful and illuminating." Further on he writes (elaborates) "History trains you to think critically about received ideas. History provides evidence of roads not taken. There are many ways to think about the mysteries of quantum physics. The ubiquity of the Copenhagen interpretation does not make it the best one, and it is certainly not the only useful one. Einstein himself would want physicists to take a critical approach to the foundations of quantum mechanics." The whole essay is good but those lines re history training you to think critically about received ideas and providing evidence of paths not taken are particularly worth keeping.

Bryson said...

Chris, I'm not trying to disparage history or historical methods-- I'm just trying to indicate a tension between the detailed narratives that historians pursue and the normative epistemological concerns that are central to the practice of science (that have led to very successful systematic accounts of so many aspects of our world). And I certainly agree that there's value for scientists in understanding the history of a science--much gets lost along the way, and knowing where you've been can help guide choices about where you might want to go...

At the small-scale, short-term individual level scientists are as human as anyone-- subject to bias, to misunderstanding and miscommunication etc. But they are participating in a social system (of course only partly isolated/insulated from the rest of society) that regularly (but imperfectly) supports and rewards various kinds of epistemic accomplishment, and has been able to recognize, disseminate and build on those accomplishments over time.

I think most historians of science appreciate this, but within their discipline it's hard to express it. This is partly because they aren't epistemologists (though some influential forms of epistemology don't properly grasp the interplay of observational practice, the language of fields of science, and the development and adoption of new patterns and systems of inference either). Further, especially on the smaller scale, it can be very hard to see and appreciate the role and special status of epistemological values (hence the radicalism of the 'strong program' in sociology of science). I think a pragmatic turn in epistemology that emphasizes reliable, independent agreement among members of an epistemic community about observations and inferences, and reliable application of knowledge in various kinds of application helps with this...

neverendingaudit said...

One big advantage of teh (stoopid) modulz is that one can haz many at concurrent times. Perhaps akin to the descriptive mode for historians, but more Rashōmon like. The more channels modulz trigger the merrier:


8c7793aa-15b2-11e5-898a-67ca934bd1df said...

Shhhh, dontcha know there are social scientists reading your blog!

You're killing the buzz. Haven't you heard? Nothing can be known!