The World is Made of Styrofoam Balls and Pipe Cleaners

Consider this picture:

These are Styrofoam models of a couple molecules, ubiquitous in grade school and high school chemistry classes, at least back in my day. Their usefulness as a teaching tool is evident – they show the elemental composition of the molecule and the relationships between the various elements. Balls of different sizes and colors represent the different elements. You can even get fancy, and use multiple silver pipe cleaners to show carbon bonds.

All and all, a young student can learn a lot about molecules via Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners.

Now, imagine if some angry pedant were to walk into a 7th grade classroom and start railing against Styrofoam ball molecules:

“Come on, you can’t really believe that the Universe is made up of Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners! Only an idiot could believe that! We KNOW that molecules are tiny, so tiny that it takes trillions of them to make even a single Styrofoam ball! And atoms aren’t different colors – they’re smaller than the wavelength of visible color, so it’s meaningless to even say an atom is red or blue or green! And molecular bonds aren’t solid like a pipe cleaner – they are electromagnetic phenomena! All of you Styrofoam ball believers are idiots!”

Now imagine that you, a startled 7th grade teacher, tried to reason with this guy, pointing out that the Styrofoam model is merely intended to convey a few basic ideas about molecules, and that no one believes that the world is made up of Styrofoam molecules, and that, while his observations were all quite true, in order to teach them the student would first of all have to have *some* idea of the basic properties of molecules so that they would have some idea what you are talking about – and that’s all the model was hoping to convey.

But, being angry and on his high horse, he won’t listen. Nobody goes away happy.

Absurd? OK, then check out this:

This is the beautiful image of God the Father creating Adam from the Sistine Chapel. God is depicted as a vigorous old man floating in the sky, attended to by angels, with Eve held beneath his left arm. This masterpiece is intended to convey a few basic ideas about God (and a couple more advanced ones, as well). First off, he is not a physical being – we know this because physical beings don’t float in the air. He is strong – look at those arms! He is Lord of Hosts – see all the angels. And, subtly, He has Eve in mind even as he creates Adam – Adam may be first in time, but he and Eve are essentially one idea.

Now our cranky critic walks in:

“You’re telling me God is some magical old man floating in the sky? What kind of idiot believes that? And he just floats on down and creates Adam and Eve? Come ON – you know that’s a myth! We KNOW man evolved just like all the other animals and plants! And isn’t obvious that, by making God a man, you are simply projecting your wishes into some daddy that will take care of you? You people are all idiots!”

You, a startled theology teacher, might say: Nobody believes God is an old man in the sky. We believe Him to be a spirit, outside of time and space, in Whom we live and move and have our being.  He’s not even a ‘he’ in any of the limited senses of masculinity we can understand. But, if you are going to paint a picture, the painting will be of something, and a powerful father figure is a very good way to get across some basic ideas – that God is powerful, that He is our father, that He created heaven and earth and everything that fills them.  Only once the student has those basic ideas in place can he understand what God is like, insofar as we can understand Him at all.

We know how this song ends.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “The World is Made of Styrofoam Balls and Pipe Cleaners”

  1. The science teacher’s position will become more difficult when a bunch of “supporters” charge in and confront the angry pedant, declaring that the universe is to made of Styrofoam.

    1. That could make a good scene in an over-the-top high-school comedy: kids who had become totally convinced that atoms really were Styrofoam balls just like the the ones on the teacher’s desk,, only smaller, and had built their entire world view over this misconception, and now, faced with the bitter truth, they rebel.

      It would take genius writing and acting, as it would not be skewering any obvious parallel real world experience….

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