Must Read of the Year for Science (and Science!) Fans

Mike Flynn’s historical tour of how heliocentrism went from cool mathematical theory to established science, with a heapin’ helpin’ of the Galileo Affair  on the side. Proving, once again, that a little real history is always more interesting than ossified myths we tell ourselves.

It’s Science! Intrigue! Italian politics! Flame wars! Titanic clashes of egos! The Inquisition! It’s like American Idol meets reality TV with Renaissance Italians. What’s not to like?

So, go read it, already!

Sunday Thoughts on Religion

Brownson. Lose the glasses, throw on a tunic, and you’d have an instant Old Testament prophet.

Whiled away an hour yesterday talking with a couple Jehovah’s Witnesses. This brings to mind a quote from Orestes Brownson (whose works I must read soon):

Convict [your opponent] from tradition, and he appeals to the Bible; convict him from the Bible, and he appeals to reason; convict him from rea­son, and he appeals to private sentiment; convict him from private sentiment, and he appeals to skepticism, or flies back to reason, to Scripture, or tradition, and alternately from one to the other, never scrupling to affirm, one moment, what he denied the moment before, nor blushing to be found maintaining, that, of contraries, both may be true. He is indifferent as to what he asserts or denies, if able for the moment to obtain an apparent covert from his pursuers.

If only these guys were that sophisticated. While the missionaries were quite willing to pretend to listen, they would not address my objections ever. Which can be summed up: you guys are just making stuff up. Then, the leader took the strategy of claiming that radical pacifism was irrefutably essential to True Religion, and since Catholics engage in war, Catholicism could not be of God. Or something. I said: you just pick a piece of Scripture you like, and use it to beat down the parts of Scripture you don’t like. Didn’t go any where. Oh, well.

A heard-learned lesson from a lifetime of dealing with people: crazy has a lot of experience being crazy, and tends to be pretty good at it. No off-hand comment of a moment has any chance to crack the facade. So I tried to be (almost) as sweet and patient right back at ’em. May God have mercy on us all.

Middle-School History – So, How’d It Go?

Large Clovis point from Washington state.
Clovis point from Washington state. One does not hunt rabbits with this thing.

Yesterday was Day 1 in the American History Class at Diablo Valley School.

It was fun.

Since this was an extremely busy week at work (thus the lack of posts), I was scrambling to get the materials together an hour before class. 25 minutes before class, I had it all together – just had to send a few sets to the printer. I was at work, and get to use our printers, so I sent to the nice color one that does collating and produces these nice packets, ‘natch.

After a couple minutes of nothing, I ask an IT guy – Oh, that printer is broken. I’m 10 minutes away from school – OK, which one works? The B&W one in the receptionist’s area. Resend to that printer, which will (it is assumed) just produce one big one-sided pile of materials. I got time, but it’s getting close.

Click print, trot over to the printer – sloooowly, one set of 11 pages comes out. OK, where are the other 9? Run back, print again, but the Word default has set itself back to the broken color printer. So, nothing happens. Print again, to the B&W printer – one more set comes out – with a nice note from the printer about how it can’t complete the job because buffers are full yada yada.

Now, I’m getting late. So, why not email the file to the school, and ask them to produce a few copies? They can do that while I drive over, I’ll get there on time, it’s all good! This brilliant solution occurred to me about 5 minutes into my drive over, after having wasted more time with the printers and getting even later.

So, I get there 10 minutes late, setting a great precedent for my students at the very first class. One of the staff grabs one of my copies and goes to make copies. Later, returns with photocopies of B&W print-out of material that was in color: maps are basically smudgy gray scale Rorschach tests.

Here I am, model of adult preparation and responsibility.

Anyway, about 8 kids and one of the staff showed up. Ran through the topics pretty much as outlined in the previous post. Spent a lot of time explaining how growing grain (and developing tea or wine/beer rituals) are all but essential to having cities. Pointed out how prehistory is and always will be uncertain – that some things we can be pretty sure of, such as the approximate dates of the Clovis culture, and that they used those big stone points to take down big animals, while others, such as how and when and how many different time, exactly, people first got to America will always remain speculative to a high degree.  Talked about ice ages, sea level, migration, how glaciers were a pretty effective barrier to hunter/gatherers.  Had a nice drawing someone did of San Francisco Bay 18,000 years ago, when the sea level drop made everything from the coast to the Farallon Islands a big rolling plain, with the islands as coastal mountains – thought it would bring the point home in a way Beringia would not.

Finished up talking about corn, how it’s this tropical grass, and how, in order for the Aztec corn-based culture to make it to America, they’d have needed corn that could grow in the desert, more or less. So, unlike cultures based on wheat and other near-east grasses which could easily spread east and west, Aztec culture was up against some pretty difficult food supply issues to move north. But – corn is such a good grain that, somehow (via trade?) it did eventually make its way as a crop to New Mexico, and then out into the plains.

Cue the Mound Builder cultures. Wanted the kids to know that there were in fact many fairly high civilizations in what is now the US. This lead to a discussion of disease and how a population drop can wipe out a civilization.

Finished up by pointing out that, by the time Europeans started showing up in any numbers, maize – and beans and melons and squashes – had made it up to New England, that tribes of American Indians built civilizations around a small set of tropical plants in a place with a decidedly non-tropical climate.

So, for next week: a brief discussion of Vikings and others, followed by Zuan Chabotto, followed by Pilgrims and one of the most incredible and fascinating people in all of American history – Squanto. Then, all that boring colonial stuff.