This week in Science 7

Each class has made preparations to investigate the question–what happens when popcorn is popped in a pan without a lid. Representatives from each group have been developing procedures–determining what to count and measure, how to set up the apparatus, how to control and account for the effect of a number of variables, and the safety precautions we must take. Several classes have posed questions about times involved in the popping. How long, for example, from the moment of heating to the first pop and how does the time vary when the pan is uncovered and when it has a lid? Other classes have wondered about the heights popped kernels leaving the pan might reach. They are planning to use the flip video and the frame by frame function to measure the heights. Every class is making a target of butcher paper with concentric circles increasing in radius by 20 cm. These targets will help describe the spatial distribution of the popped kernels.

Other groups have been describing and assessing the ideas 7th graders have about matter. They are using brainstorming, ordered lists, and concept maps. Some very fascinating discussions have emerged. Today Noa, Prarthna, and Sofia were discussing whether or not ‘Thought’ should be considered a form of matter. On one side, the fact that a brain could be weighed and would have a certain volume linked it to matter–and the brain, the girls pointed out, makes thoughts. On the other hand, how could a thought be weighed or captured in a container. It made me realize how much deep philosophy there can be in the discourse of 7th graders. In our own time, a number of cognitive scientists are wrestling with ideas related to the “embodied mind” and “embodied cognition.” A number of years ago, a professor of mine, on the last day of an undergraduate class on the history of science, introduced us to V. I. Vernadsky’s paper on the Biosphere and the Noosphere and pointed out an essential puzzle:

“Here a new riddle has arisen before us. Thought is not a form of energy. How then can it change material processes? That question has not as yet been solved. As far as I know, it was first posed by an American scientist born in Lvov, the mathematician and biophysicist Alfred Lotka. But he was unable to solve it. As Goethe (1740-1832), not only a great poet but a great scientist as well, once rightly remarked, in science we only can know how something occurred, but we cannot know why it occurred.”

an excerpt from
The Biosphere and the Noƶsphere by Vladimir I. Vernadsky
December 1943, and published in English in the American Scientist, January 1945

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