“The odds against our century’s happening to be the present century are the same as the odds against a penny tossed out at random on the road from London to Istanbul happening to fall on a particular ant.”
This is the first part of Richard Dawkins’ 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture entitled “Growing Up in the Universe” that was intended to provide young people with an introduction to evolution, and more generally, the wonders of science. In the lecture, Dawkins aims to shake off the “anesthetic of the familiar” and, in various ways, demonstrates the usefulness of science in aiding our understanding of the universe. Rather than re-invent the wheel, Wikipedia provides an excellent summary of the series here.
Also “The DVD Outsider” has an extensive review of the series (I’ll spare beleaguered theists the stridently anti-religious rant that precedes it, even though it’s highly entertaining):
The human brain is the most sophisticated object in the known universe and hey, you’ve got one! Yes, you had to go through the complex reproductive process to obtain one but the fact is that if you are reading this, you are the proud possessor of a human brain. What are the odds? Actually the odds of you being here reading this are staggeringly small. If you could grasp just how small, you’d wake up each morning thrilled to be alive and the prospect of more discoveries about the wonder that is your life before being shut down for good, with luck, at extreme old age. If you’ve passed on your genes then you’ve done your job (as far as evolution is concerned).
I am not naïve to think that life is wonderful for all (there are many things that conspire to make it hard. I could have done without pain for a start) but as a child you ask questions. If you have teachers and guardians that are well informed then the world isn’t so much an oyster as a sumptuous banquet just waiting for you to taste its many pleasures.
The tossing pennies rubbishing of psychic events and the cannonball aimed squarely at Dawkins’ own head (faith in scientific principles) are small but exquisite pleasures in this particular lecture and I’m happy to report that my ten year old put his hand up more than once after the audience was asked a question. That’s getting your audience involved.
It would certainly be wonderful to see science taught this way in the classroom rather than as is more frequently the case, in dull fashions that result in it being a stultifying exercise in boredom. In this regard, let me direct your attention to the tragic story of Andy, a gifted 12-year old who entered his junior high school science fair with the challenge to “invent something new and useful.” Andy thought about the problem for a while and, after the expected failed attempts and blind alleys, came up with the idea of a self-buttering toaster. Kind of a Rube Goldberg contraption, to be sure, but quite a clever invention for a 12-year old.
The evening of the fair approached, and Andy and I looked forward with anticipation and excitement to a night of glory. The judges, a collection of teachers and parent volunteers, methodically walked up and down each aisle. They asked questions, measured things with rulers, made notes on clipboards, and generally maintained a judgelike demeanor. When the judges came to Andy’s table, the toaster worked perfectly. With self-assurance and a smile, he handed each judge a slice of warm, buttery Wonder Bread for a snack.
But when the winners were announced, Andy’s name wasn’t called. Crestfallen, he approached the judges and asked, “Why didn’t I get a ribbon?”
“Well, Andy,” said a judge, “we thought your machine was dangerous. After all, it uses electricity and it gets very hot.”
“Of course it does. It’s a toaster,” he protested. “It’s supposed to get hot and use electricity. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a toaster.” Unswayed by logic, the judges would not reconsider.
So who won? First place went to a girl who made a cap and vest for her hamster. Second place went to a boy who “made” radar.
“Hamster clothes? That’s so lame,” Andy whispered to me during the award ceremony. “And that the second place kid didn’t invent radar. He just cut out some pictures of radar antennas and glued them to a poster board.”
More seriously, several years ago, a cross-party group of MPs in the U.K. comprising the Commons science and technology committee found that the rote learning of facts of little use has effectively made science a “tedious and dull activity.” Chairman of the committee Dr. Ian Gibson MP said: “Science should be the most exciting subject on the school curriculum: scientific controversies and breakthroughs hit the headlines every day. But school science can be so boring it puts young people off science for life.” I don’t imagine that the situation is all that much different here in Canada. What an awful shame.