Thursday, March 19, 2015

Quantum Physics at elementary school, in the 1950s & 1960s

It didn't happen, not in Canada - at least not in my imperfect memory.

The question is why ?

Why was it not introduced to kids in those decades --- or even in this decade more than a hundred years after it first arrived on the scene ?

I myself first read about quantum physics in Time Magazine articles when I was ten or eleven, sometime in 1962 and 1963  - probably when someone got a Nobel prize or yet another puzzling sub-atomic particle had been found in the ever frenetic search for the 'final - simple - explicable - base' of ultimate reality.

It was all totally over my head - not so much the science, as its relevance to ordinary life.

Quantum physics, like space travel,  simply didn't seem that interesting to me, though I could see from the context of the articles all this quantum stuff was considered very important research and at the frontiers of science.

By the time I was about fourteen and in junior high, I had read about it in a good deal more detail in any number of Time-Life books on science subjects.

For a long time my parents passed on giving us access to what most kids took for granted : rock and roll radio, TV and movie going and the right to leave our own property to play with other kids.

Time-Life Book Club to the rescue

But they bought every (educational book) the Time Life Book Club ever shipped out !

So I read a lot of books as a kids - suggested age level and complexity never an issue.

Now the entire Time Life series always did a great job making very complex subjects quite readable.

These were books written by real experts, not cutting edge scholarship perhaps but sharing the consensus of contemporary undergraduate textbooks on these subjects.

But despite all this, quantum physics (as opposed to the exciting new gadgets that understanding quantum was throwing up - like transistors) still made absolutely no impression on my sponge-like mind.

It seemed to have had no moral, intellectual or philosophical impact on me.

This was totally unlike the situation with antibiotics, which we ankle-biters were told all about in elementary school -- and from the earliest of grades.

I don't think my childhood experience (or adult experience) with the teaching of quantum physics was that unique.

It simply doesn't grab us emotionally.

But it should - nevertheless - be paired with the story of antibiotics and taught to grade school kids.

For if quantum physics can be best described as the science of reality's smallest (non-living) objects, the tiny microbe-attacking antibiotics produced by other tiny microbes can be described as the science of reality's smallest living objects.

As very small objects ourselves, we primary kids totally get it in both cases -  its the smallness factor.

Science stuff is usually only presented to small children as something done by big people in big laboratories making big things.

So naturally we are fascinated to be told that little children (like ourselves) were saved from death by medicine made by tiny invisible things found only on dank basement walls or in muddy tropical dirt.

We would have been equally open to an introductory explanation that everything physical in the world was based on really tiny and hyperactive objects (rather like ourselves !) with mysterious almost magical properties.

Instead we were straight out lied to - taught that the simple bland boring stable atoms were the total physical basis of reality.

We were taught Modernity.

Even though all Science had known, at least since the 1920s of thirty years earlier, that it no longer gave an accurate account of reality.

Just as Science had known, also since the 1920s, about the penicillium fungus' unique ability to produce non toxic germ-killing penicillin.

And about the microbes' still unique ability to precisely horizontally recombine gene material from different species, down at the smallest molecular level, (an activity then better known under Dr Henry Dawson's term of Bacterial Transformation).

These new areas of Science (Microbiology's Horizontal Gene Transfer and Quantum Physics' spin and anti-matter et al), precisely because both were occupied with the basement levels of reality, were instantly seen to have the ability to undermine the very foundations of the reductionist intellectual edifice we call Modernity.

In the case of Quantum Physics, this quickly became a journalistic truism said then and repeated ever since - a fact known by all among the quality newspaper reading classes.

Known and ignored - emotionally - by almost all of them.

Indeed I suggest that the very reason why Modernity Science tolerated the theoretically threatening ideas of Quantum Science being so much discussed in the popular media was because modern scientists also knew them to be emotionally impotent.

And thus unlikely to threaten Modernity itself, except among a tiny scientifically and philosophically astute minority.

Because even the largest physical molecules - let alone the smallest sub atomic particles - are not rivals of civilized human modernity.

But even the smallest living beings, the microbes for example, are.

Dawson's monkey wrench

So Dawson's articles about harmless and deadly pneumonia germs madly exchanging genes and outer coats and so confounding fifty years of mainstream serum-based medicine could arouse emotions.

For it won't just stop with Dr Dawson demonstrating that the tiny and supposedly simple-minded, crude, primitive, ancient microbes could easily pull off medical and genetic-altering wonders that the best of modern science could not begin to match.

That, in turn, would soon imply that perhaps the ancient and primitive 'tribes' now be treated as simple children under civilized stewardship by the western imperial powers might also be capable of similar such intellectual surprises.

And that simply won't do.

The research institutions that employed Dawson made no real effort to promote his ideas and nor did he - beyond the conventional journal articles, convention papers and invited lectures he gave.

But can one claim that the institutions employing the quantum physicists did any more ?

No, in both cases, the intellectual seeds were cast out, equally vigorously, and at the same time, but only one fell on fallow journalistic ground.

The harmless one, the one that couldn't be easily explained was explained and the dangerous one, the one that could be too readily explained was studiously ignored.

Ignored until 1945 and 1946.

Then the failure of a few thousand of the smartest chemists in the universe to synthesize penicillin as economically as the humble penicillium could finally opened scientific minds to the new post-modern world created by this sophisticated microbiology of the very weak and very small.

As  not a few chemists on the synthesis project, Ernst Chain and Ronald Bentley for example, readily admitted....

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