Barring a major disaster, I am scheduled to teach one of our Scholars Research Seminar classes next winter. I’ve been kicking the idea for this around for a while, with the semi-clever title “A Brief History of Timekeeping.” The idea is to talk about the different technologies people have used to mark the passage of time, from Stonehenge down to modern atomic clocks. There’s a lot of good science in there, from astronomy (sundials and the like) to basic mechanics (pendulums and so on) to quantum physics (atomic clocks) and even relativity. And there’s plenty of room for side trips into other fields– tons of interesting historical anecdotes, various works of art playing with concepts of time, etc. the hard part will be cutting it all down to fit in a ten-week term.
I have a million things to do– lecture to write, papers to grade, my AAAS talk to prepare, and, you know, a book to write–but of course, I’m already thinking about this, in a semi-idle kind of way. And in an effort to not forget all of these thoughts before I have to wrangle the vague concept into a coherent syllabus, I figure I might as well post the occasional notes here, where I can both get a permanent-ish record of it, and also bounce ideas off my very clever readers.
So, one of the learning outcomes that is supposed to come from this type of class is critical thinking, or in the terms of the guidelines: “EVALUATE EVIDENCE: Critically and ethically analyze evidence obtained for examination of a research question or thesis.” I was already thinking of using Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Stick in the Mud Science” from Death by Black Hole (a version of which is on the Hayden Planetarium website) as an easy introduction to the astronomy stuff, but it occurs to me that this could be used to hit the evidence evaluation question as well.
The idea would be to pair this with some piece of Ancient Alien type kookery, the sort of thing where the author contends that ancient humans couldn’t possibly have managed the sophisticated observations needed to so perfectly align some ancient monument with the solstices or equinoxes or what have you. Tyson specifically calls this sort of thing out at the end of the essay, which makes the point that as long as you’ve got a stick and a lot of patience, you can easily determine all sorts of cool stuff about the motion of astronomical bodies. Most of the alignments they natter on about aren’t all that difficult to manage.
I’ve also got a really old James Randi book somewhere (I got it from Ralph Alpher’s office when he retired) that has a bunch of good debunkings of this stuff, which might make for a third reading for a kind of low-impact introduction to the basic goals.
The hardest part of this might be finding the right sort of kook work to put with the science pieces. And arranging it so that it doesn’t result in money moving towards crazy people– I wouldn’t want to encourage students to buy a von Daniken book, or anything like that. But that’s what the Internet is for, I suppose– a little Googling ought to turn up all kinds of candidates…
Hmmm…. Now that I think about it, I wonder if How to Lie With Statistics shouldn’t be on the reading list, too, or at least some excerpts from it. There’s not much better in the quick and easy learn-to-evaluate-sources area, and it’s cheap.
And you begin to see how this will eat my life…