Old News

According to an article in today’s Chron, a Stanford study found the portrayal of climate change in California middle school science textbooks “dishonest”.

I’m not going to link the Chron story; it’s a bit short for my taste. I prefer the story on the Stanford News site. Or, if you’re curious, the actual paper discussing the study is available for free.

The short version of the study is that the science textbooks currently in use in California present climate change as something that “may” be happening and that it “might” be “partially” caused by humans. In other words, the texts are taking the Republican anti-science line.

Bluntly, there is no scientific debate about the reality of climate change or its cause. There’s a political debate, but actual scientists are as united in their agreement about climate change as they are about the theory of evolution, the safety of vaccination, and, to be quite blunt, the existence of gravity.

My initial assumption was that this is another case of Texas setting the national standards for textbooks*. It turns out, however, that there’s more to it than that.

* We’ve covered the subject before, but it bears repetition. Texas is a huge part of the textbook market, so publishers often have to slant coverage of certain subjects to be acceptable in Texas.

Part of the problem is that the textbooks are almost a decade old. California, it seems, only updates its list of approved science textbooks every ten years.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Given the amount of time it takes to write a textbook, get it through the publication process, and then approved by school boards, it’s likely–and I’ll admit I don’t have any hard data on this–that the information in the books is three to five years out of date by the time a book makes it onto the “approved” list. By the time a school district actually replaces a textbook, it could be fifteen or twenty years behind current science. Anyone want to put a bet on the proportion of middle school astronomy textbooks that still list Pluto as a planet, nine years after it was demoted?

So yeah, if you care about the quality of science education in schools, have a chat with your local school board and make sure they know you disapprove of “teaching the controversy” in any field where the only controversy is political (see that list in Paragraph Four for starters).

And while you’re talking to them, find out how old the books they’re using now are. If you don’t like the answer you get–personally, I’d be upset at hearing anything more than five years–urge them to update. Schools are, in most states, free to add “supplemental” materials that provide newer and more accurate information, even if they haven’t been formally added to the state-wide approved lists.

The Perks of Princes

It must be nice to be a prince.

No, not the Artist Formerly Known As Squiggle, I mean the real thing.

Well, let’s be precise here. Modern princes don’t seem to get the same benefits as that earlier princes did.

Consider, for example, Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682). An early precursor to the modern job hopper, he had careers as soldier, scientist, artist, privateer, and colonial governor. At one time, more than a third of the land that became Canada was named for him (“Rupert’s Land” included all of modern Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, and parts of Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Minnesota, Montana, and snippets of both North and South Dakota) and the city of Prince Rupert is still a going concern.

But having places named after you is a pretty standard perk for a prince. Rupert had some real goodies. According to contemporary documents, he had a hunting poodle that could find hidden treasure, catch bullets in its mouth, and predict the future. That’s one heck of a dog!

More seriously, as a prince, Rupert had mathematicians standing by to help him win his bar bets. In 1693, he bet that it would be possible to cut a hole in a cube large enough to allow a second cube of the same size to pass through. Mathematician John Wallis stepped up with a mathematical proof showing that it was even possible to cut a hole that would allow a cube larger than the original to pass through. How many modern princes have on-call mathematicians? (“Prince Rupert’s Cube” is still found as a question in books on recreational mathematics.)

The really interesting perk of being a prince was the tendency of scientists to curry favor by naming things after you. The objects now called “Prince Rupert’s Drops” were known at least as early as 1625 in Germany and Holland. Rupert’s contribution was limited to giving a few of them to King Charles II as curiosities. It was Charles who passed them on to the Royal Society for study, but Rupert got the credit.

Prince Rupert’s Drops are droplets of glass created by dripping molten glass into cold water. The glass solidifies incrementally from the outside in, resulting in a series of compression stresses that act to toughen the glass against impact. One can hit the droplet with a hammer without breaking it. However, any damage to the extended tail of the droplet results in the stresses being released in a high-speed chain reaction that explosively reduces the glass to powder.

Modern high-speed cameras can capture the explosion and allow it to be appreciated as both a scientific and artistic phenomenon.

It may be good to be king, but if Rupert is any indication, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to be prince.