Friday, 17 February 2017

the Chemistry Teacher

Chemistry teachers and Physics teachers are often very different animals.  There are some interesting souls who can teach both and teach both well, but for the most part we like to steer very clear of each others subject.  The bottom line being that we don't quite get it.  Science is not a unified whole.  Science involves models and methods that simply don't transfer from one subject to another.  The models and methods of the Physicist are a universe away from the models and  methods of the Chemist.

Being a Physicist, I will now look at the Chemist through the lens of Physics, I hope to be objective, but I am aware of the limits of my objectivity and the limits of my method.

The Physicist observes the following about the Chemist: (I will use the male pronoun for simplicity):

  • The Chemist lives in a world of reactions.  Reagents come together and conditions are manipulated to produce a variety of outcomes. The Chemist sees himself as a facilitator of outcomes.  He has confidence in his model which describes the reactions because he can be fairly confident as to the outcomes that will be produced.
  • The Chemistry teacher is often a frustrated children's entertainer. He loves the wide eyed enthusiasm and curiosity of his unsuspecting audience as various interesting effects are produced. He loves flirting with danger, making things look more dangerous than they really are to  further enhance the entertainment value of what he is doing.  And he remains confident in his model because it works.
  • However he manipulates everything, his model is all about what and how things can be manipulated.  He constructs.  His model involves building blocks that fit together following known patterns.  They are neat.  There is elegance.  It is Science.  But it is not the whole story.
The wide-eyed child fresh from her Chemistry lesson wearily trundles up the stairs to Physics. (Chemistry is usually confined to the ground floor because it dribbles more than the other sciences). This Physics teacher has an invisible sign above the door that all the pupils know about, it reads: Physics is not fun.  This sign tells them that for pleasing entertainment value, they are not to expect anything from Physics.  The will secretly find it satisfying but not in a way they can admit to their peers.  Physics will entice, but her methods are very different from Chemistry.  Where Chemistry appears as the sweet counter at Woolworths, Physics is the butchers shop or fishmongers. There is something fascinating and dangerous amidst the sharp knives, chain gauntlets and lifeless displays. We rip the carcasses apart as carefully as possible, lay the bits out, prod with as much skill as our previous training will allow ...... and most of the pupils would simply rather not be there. Just occasionally it comes together, we all see something in a new light, something clicks and the routine drudge becomes worthwhile.... something beautiful is revealed.

The thing is, I am never sure the Chemist is seeking deep understanding.  The Chemist sees himself as a facilitator; his models and methods allow a whole field of endeavour to open up.  He simply facilitates and he believes his little atoms and molecules dance to his personal understanding though they are not under his control. The more chaotic it looks, the better. The outcome is assured (he thinks). It isn't about the sharp knives of logic and law, it is about process.  Process is Queen.

The Physicist is far more likely to say that process is subservient to law. Law is not as rigid as others may think it is.  Law is about degrees of freedom, not about total control.  The Physicist finds beauty in the law; law reveals beauty and truth. Models and methods will be cheerfully ditched if a greater understanding of the law is revealed.

As I said, Chemist and Physicist, two very different animals. Let each be. And heaven help us if we ever have a Supreme Pontiff who had once been a Physics teacher.

1 comment:

Catpuss said...

Chortle. Wonderful on so many levels.