Posts Tagged ‘zeno’

The Five Elements

The Five Elements

As I teach chemistry and astronomy again for the first time in several years, I’m having a lot of fun getting back into the physical sciences with all of the lab experiences I’d collected and developed over the years before I started teaching multimedia exclusively. I’ve also added a number of excellent activities that I picked up from my experiences with NASA and from various conferences and presentations. It’s also a lot of fun to start incorporating my expertise in media design and technology in ways I never could before, as well as the materials I collected at Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2009. For example, I just finished teaching a Keynote presentation on Greek matter theories that I put together myself using photos, drawings, illustrations, and 3D animations (mostly my own) and information collected at CHF. I have all the files stored on various hard drives that all hook into my Mac Powerbook (about four terabytes total). Some of the images I pulled off the Internet at school using our wireless router and Airport technology, and once the Keynote was finished, all I had to do was hook my laptop up to a projector and give the presentation (complete with animations and audio clips) using an infrared remote. Here’s the presentation, in Powerpoint format. If you want to use it, be my guest:


To me, all of this seems remarkable, even miraculous. And here I am writing about it on a Blog, publishing my experiences instantaneously where anyone in the world can read them, and even sharing the presentation itself. Yet I feel as if I’m only just scratching the surface of what these new technologies can do. That’s part of why I’ve been working on this Elements Unearthed project for the past several years; there are so many connections between science practitioners and students that can still be made and which I hope to develop, so many innovative methods of teaching that no one’s thought of yet. I’m a digital immigrant; my students are natives. I’m always playing catch up to what they’re already using daily.

Engraving of Democritus

Engraving of Democritus

So far this blog has been written entirely by me (David Black) since it debuted in Oct., 2008. Now that I’m teaching chemistry again I am turning over much of the posting to my students, who will be taking turns once per week adding information about the research project they are pursuing. They have chosen between an element (such as copper), a material (such as cement), a method of generating energy (such as solar power), or a time period from the history of chemistry (such as medieval European alchemy) and are compiling notes into an MS Word document with references.

With each post, they are to include about 500-800 words of writing in their own words culled from all of their research notes and include relevant images or diagrams. They are also producing a nicely laid out document such as a newsletter, poster, or brochure that will be converted to PDF format and linked to this blog for download. It may take a week or two for the first few student posts to contain these linked files, but they will come. My hope is that any chemistry teachers or students out there who are reading this blog will be able to download these linked files and use them in your own classrooms.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle, Detail from The School of Athens by Raphael

During second term, the students will be developing and practicing a hands-on demonstration that involves some property or aspect of their topic. We’ll present these demonstrations to the elementary classes at Walden (I’ve already met with the teachers to plan this out) and the students will also present them to each other for feedback. During third term, we’ll create a more extensive project from their topic: a detailed Powerpoint or Keynote presentation or a three-minute video or a computer game. They’ll present these in class again, then fourth term put all of this together for a back-to-school science night for the public and their parents and siblings. We’ll videotape these presentations and share them with you as well.

I’ve done all of these things before in various multimedia or chemistry classes, but this is the first time that technology and opportunity have combined to allow me to put it all together. I am still looking to build partnerships with local organizations (museums, mining associations, etc.) that will combine my students’ media skills with their content. I’ll still visit mining towns, take tours of museums, and continue to post about how technology can be used in the science classroom. I also plan on writing more grants and professional articles. I’ll continue to create longer format videos to go with the student short videos (the Tintic Mining District is up next after I make some changes to the beryllium videos).

This blog has certainly been successful in what I’ve intended it to be. Last month (September) was the best month so far with over 2700 visitors to the site. I’ve had over 23,500 visitors total, most of them this year. I would love to hear from any science teachers or students that have found this site useful.

I look forward to seeing what my students come up with as they post about their topics. I’m encouraging them to do more than just a list of properties, to dig deeper and talk about the unusual stories and histories of each element or material. And now, I am pleased to introduce my chemistry students’ blog posts . . . .

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This is a somewhat random post on a few things I’ve been working on the past two weeks. Now that the NSF grant is submitted, I can return to editing episodes in preparation for finally setting up an iTunes site. I’ve been working on transcribing Dr. Eric Scerri’s interview so that I can edit it and send him a “good parts” version along with the complete interview. (By the way, I saw Theo Gray’s new book on the elements in Barnes & Noble the other day, and its beautifully photographed and engagingly written. Check it out!) In between, I’m creating some drawings of Greek philosophers for the segments on Greek matter theories. I’ve completed the line art versions of Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, and Plato. They were drawn with pencil, then inked in and scanned, then cleaned up in Adobe Photoshop. I still have to add color. Here are samples:

Drawing of Heraclitus


Heraclitus was the philosopher who said that you can’t step in the same river twice, because both the river and you have changed. Parmenides and Zeno were of the Eleatic school that argued logically that change and motion were impossible. Zeno’s famous Achilles and the Tortoise paradox is still a difficult test for students of logic. And of course we all know about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Each of them affected subsequent matter theories, including Aristotle and Democritus, and therefore influenced modern atomic theory as well.

Zeno drawing

Zeno of Elea

Plato drawing

Plato of Athens

I’ve also gone through all my electronic files scattered over several hard drives just to take inventory and see what’s already done so that I don’t re-create files and duplicate effort. One piece of work I came across was a script for part of an episode of a mini-series that I proposed to the Sloan Foundation and to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting back in 2007-08. Sloan responded negatively without even taking the time to read the proposal. CPB at least looked it over, said the idea had merit, but declined due to having plenty of material related to the elements already in the pipeline. It was at that point that I reinvented this project as a series of podcast episodes; I wouldn’t have to worry about the limited airtimes and economics of scarcity of broadcast channels, but could put the finished material where anyone could access it for free. If you want to learn more about these issues, there are two great books I heartily recommend: First, read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which talks about the flattening of the global economy and many of the issues that have become so huge lately. Then, after you’ve gotten the general background, read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, which discusses the new economics of abundance that the Internet provides. Both books figure heavily in my grant application. I’ve even created animations and graphics to show how their ideas apply to science education.

Boson the Clown

Boson the Clown, the Quantum Quipster

The script I came across was meant to be part of an hour-long segment on the history of atomic theory and was a section on subatomic particles and their interactions, one of the most difficult subjects to teach. Several years ago, while teaching chemistry at Provo Canyon School, we came to the unit on atomic theory and I took my students through the Standard Model of Particles and Interactions, one of the great iconic models of science that ranks up there with the Periodic Table of the Elements. The terminology of that model is rather hard and strange (literally – most people have never heard of strange quarks, but there they are) and so when we finished the unit and it came time for the test, I decided as an extra credit question to have the students come up with some type of pun or joke based on subatomic physics. They wound up spending more time on that question than the rest of the test combined, and the results were pretty good. Here’s an example: “A pion took a trip down under and walked in front of a kangaroo. Do you know what happened? He got lepton!” or an equally bad groaner: “A neutron walks into a bar and asks the bartender, ‘How much for a drink?’ The bartender says, ‘For you, there’s no charge!’ ”

Storyboard of Boson the Clown

Boson the Clown storyboard frame

Yes, I know, they’re bad. But it brought me to an interesting idea that wouldn’t go away. I envisioned a subatomic particle telling these jokes as a stand-up routine, and suddenly the whole thing popped into my head fully formed. The particle’s name is Boson the Clown, and he’s telling these jokes to an audience of electrons in an atom and as he does so, he throws photon balls at them which makes them vibrate and get excited until they jump up to higher balconies of the comedy club – they quantum leap – and that this would make a good illustration (if with a somewhat warped sense of humor) of how bosons work to aid energy interactions between particles. The name of the club is the Atomic Comic Club, and I’ve written an entire script of the scene which I hope to animate in 3D at some point. I’ve done some sample models over the years just to try to visualize what he’d look like, riding a unicycle on a wavy path in a Feynman diagram tossing photon balls at electrons. I’m including the script of the scene here, just in case you’d like to read it and make comments or tell me I’ve finally flipped.


Eventually perhaps the footage that we’ve taken for The Elements Unearthed can be re-edited into a mini-series for PBS as I originally planned (as well as a book, games, on-line materials, lesson plans, posters, etc.) but that will be after we’ve completed the first several phases of the project and have about 100 episodes posted. For now, I’ve got to get back to my editing so that you can finally see what I’ve been talking about all this time.

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