The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Review of “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)Hyperion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes science fiction fans, you can in fact have it all. Far-thinking ideas, imaginative world-building, hard-SF space combat, deep character arcs, compelling portrayal of AI, strong motifs dealing with human questions, beautiful language, an element of horror, and the most essential component: a well-written story. This novel delivers on all of these components.

Hyperion made my to-read list after appearing on NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books, I saw it on a used shelf in the Huckster’s Room at Boskone 50 for $2 and snagged it. Dan Simmons’ novel becomes, so far, the only science fiction novel to hold a five-star rating in my GoodReads*.

Fans of literary science fiction… read it.

(*Note: Neil Stephenson’s Anathem initially held a five-star rating, but was subsequently demoted. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep was a contender briefly, but ended up being rated four stars as well. Both of these novels, though far-thinking, enjoyable, and also appearing on the NPR Top SF/F list, fall just short of five stars on the same count: I don’t believe that they are well-written in a literary sense.)

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Literacy in the Science Classroom

I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy across the curriculum since I took a class called… well, Literacy Across the Curriculum. As a science teacher in training, I suppose one might wonder why I would want to think so much about literacy, but the more I do the more I realize how important it will be.

Literacy as a goal is an important prerequisite for science instruction as it is a primary means by which science content is accessed. In other words, a student’s aptitude for, learning of, and/or inclination towards science may be irrelevant if they are unable to read the textbook, write what they know on an exam, or share their thoughts with peers. This means that it isn’t enough to simply focus on content. Literacy as the means by which science is accessed in effect makes it my job as a science teacher to ensure functional literacy in my students.

Literacy as a process is also an important tool that may be used to open up many oft-neglected aspects of science education. I am saddened and/or annoyed when I come across people who assume science is little more than crunching equations, sitting at a computer, or conducting solitary experiments in an isolated laboratory. But given how education and the media present science to the public, who can blame them?

Science which is politicized suffers from accusations of manipulative agendas, and the science which touches on contemporary social issues is often labeled as “controversial” or “disputed.” Human-caused climate change, the link between vaccinations and autism, the veracity of Darwinian evolution, ethical considerations of genetic engineering, the origins of our planet and universe, the appropriateness of funding for scientific endeavors — these are all issues in contemporary American life that are highly interwoven with scientific research and discourse. There are many more examples ranging from the mundane to the cosmic. Nearly every aspect of daily modern life is influenced by science, yet in many cases, science education can remain far removed from a place of relevance in students’ lives.

It seems to me that as education experiences a push towards increasing quantification in the name of accountability, the scientific and mathematical disciplines have been particularly susceptible to a systematic gutting of all that is not quantifiable. The ease with which certain aspects of science and math (e.g. numeracy and equation solving) may be quantified has made it just as easy to push out the “fuzzier” aspects of these two disciplines, reinforcing a negative feedback loop of misconception regarding what science actually is.

Real science cannot ever be de-politicized or de-socialized. Science is always conducted towards some end, and these ends are driven (and funded) based on socio-political objectives and needs. To isolate science from the other disciplines and focus purely on its quantitative aspects is to strip science of its essential humanity, and relegate it to the safe sterility of some abstract laboratory in the public imagination.

Ironically, it is imagination that is perhaps the most neglected aspect of science education. Science is two-sided in this fashion. On the one hand, study of what is, how the world works and our relationship to it. On the other, it must also be an imagining of what could be. The latter aspect is the core of what drives innovation, research, and scientific progress, and it is tied intimately with cross-disciplinary, out-of-the-box thinking.

This will be a major focus of my residency year I think. Lot’s to try and figure out here, maybe for the rest of my career.

A little light evening reading…

Books, books…

Ok so, today I was “just browsing” and… totally blew through all $100 in B&N gift cards I got from my perpetually generous Great Aunt and Uncle. But! It’s all for a good cause. Among my purchases today, the following three education-related titles:

Also got some Rachael Maddow (Drift) and Carl Sagan (The Demon-Haunted World). Not gonna lie, kind of have a nerdcrush on Rachael, and Carl is always a good thought-provoker (though I don’t always agree with either). Can’t wait to get cracking on these, though perhaps I should pace myself… apparently the pre-reading for BTR is about to start rolling in…

…the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable, not just adequately but well and with grace.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow.

Review of “The Sparrow”

The SparrowThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and LOVED it. The style is very interesting… it starts from both ends of a 50 year ish story and works towards the middle (climax) with alternating perspectives. From the description of the book, one might be tempted to think that it is a “Christian” book… after a few pages in, this is what I was expecting. I continued only due to the strong recommendation from a fellow sci-fi geek whose tastes overlap with mine often.

The themes are surprisingly accessible, as long as one is even mildly spiritually inclined even in a vague way. It is really more about how our understanding of the human condition and faith in general could and would change upon contact with another sentient species. The construct of the Jesuit worldview is used as as convenient vehicle for this theme, and adds a very interesting perspective that I normally would not consider.

The science is on the hard end (near term accessible technology and propulsion for example). The culture of the new Jana’ata and the Runi species is laid out with decent rigor, though not with a whole lot of depth or backstory (not necessarily a bad thing, just noting it).

Thumbs way up, a very thought-provoking read and well-written too.

He was always working or laughing or studying, and his intensity and humor made him seem ageless. She knew something of his life, having worked with him, and recognized him as one of her own kind: an eternal beginner, starting over and over in a new place in new circumstances, with new languages, new people, a new commission. They had this in common: the continual rushed confrontation with change, the feeling of being hothoused, forced to bloom early, the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable not just adequately but well and with grace.

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