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1.4: Teaching and Learning Science

An important point to appreciate about science is that because of the communal way that it works, understanding builds by integrating new observation and idea into a network of others. As a result, science often arrives at conclusions that can be strange, counterintuitive, and sometimes disconcerting but that are nevertheless logically unavoidable. While it is now accepted that the Earth rotates around its axis and revolves around the sun, which is itself moving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and that the Universe as a whole is expanding at what appears to be an ever increasing rate, none of these facts are immediately obvious and relatively few people who believe or accept them would be able to explain how we have come to know that these ideas accurately reflect the way the universe is organized. At the same time, when these ideas were first being developed they conflicted with the idea that the Earth was stationary, which, of course it appears to be, and located at the center of a static Universe, which also seems to be a reasonable presumption. Scientist’s new ideas about the Earth’s position in the Universe were seen to pose a threat to the sociopolitical order and a number of people were threatened for holding “heretical” views on the topic. Most famously, the mystic Giordano Bruno (1548 –1600) was burned at the stake for holding these and other ideas (some of which are similar to those currently being proposed by string theorists) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), known as the father of modern physics, was arrested in 1633, tried by the Inquisition, forced to publicly recant his views on the relative position of the Sun and Earth, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.23 In 1616, the Roman Catholic Church placed Galileo’s book, which held that the sun was the center of the solar system, on the list of forbidden books where it remained until 1835,

The idea that we are standing on the surface of a planet that is rotating at ~1000 miles an hour and flying through space at ~67,000 miles per hour is difficult to reconcile with our everyday experience, yet science continues to generated even weirder ideas. Based on observations and logic, it appears that the Universe arose from “nothing” ~13.8 billion years ago.24 Current thinking suggests that it will continue to expand forever at an increasingly rapid rate. Einstein's theory of general relativity implies that matter distorts space-time, which is really one rather than two discrete entities, and that this distortion produces the attraction of gravity and leads to black holes. A range of biological observations indicate that all organisms are derived from a single type of ancestral cell that arose from non-living material between 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. There appears to be an uninterrupted link between that cell and every cell in your body (and to the cells within every other living organism). You yourself are a staggeringly complex collection of cells. Your brain and its associated sensory organs, which act together to generate consciousness and self-consciousness, contains ~86 billion (\(10^9\)) neurons as well as an similar number of non-neuronal (glial) cells. These cells are connected to one another through ~\(1.5 \times 10^{14}\) connections, known as synapses.25 How exactly such a system produces thoughts, ideas, dreams, feelings, and self-awareness remains obscure, but it appears that these are all emergent behaviors that arise from this staggeringly complex natural system. Scientific ideas, however weird, arise from the interactions between the physical world, our brains, and the social system of science that tests ideas based on their ability to explain and predict the behavior of the observable universe.


23 The History, Philosophy, and Impact of the Index of Prohibited Books:

24 The Origin Of The Universe: From Nothing Everything?: of-the-universe- from-nothing- everything

25 Are There Really as Many Neurons in the Human Brain as Stars in the Milky Way? &


  • Michael W. Klymkowsky (University of Colorado Boulder) and Melanie M. Cooper (Michigan State University) with significant contributions by Emina Begovic & some editorial assistance of Rebecca Klymkowsky.