Close Encounters with Science: Picks
Science as Language by David Gosse
He was an older gentleman and the dishevelled look of a nutty professor fit him well. A retiree, he was not the normal teacher, nor was he one of the substitute teachers that frequented Prince of Wales Collegiate and so, without knowing where the class was in its text book, or what the lesson plan might be, he simply drew a white horizontal line on the chalk board and stated that the line represented the skid marks of a car whose driver had slammed on the brakes. With that image, he captured the attention of even the most mischievous boys, chewing gum in the back of class. I knew at once this old man, fully intended to teach physics as he had himself been taught it, centuries earlier with a slate instead of a scribbler, chalk instead of an HB pencil and every student bringing a birch junk for the one-room school's wood stove. On he droned. “Now, suppose we double the speed of the car and have our driver slam on the brakes at precisely the same point, perhaps, because there was a pretty girl to look at it.”
This engendered reactions in the classroom crossing the spectrum from laughter to disgust. I had been taught algebra at young age by my father, and long division years before that by my grandfather, so I had experience in unorthodox teaching methods, the teachings of non-teachers. He had my interest piqued; I was not alone.
“How far do you think our car will skid now?”
A foolish boy ventured confidently, “twice as far,” and the answer met with general nods of agreement.
“Absolutely not,” stated Einstein to my bewildered class.
A comrade of the deflated boy suggested it depends on the car's tires. “We talking Michelin or Bridgestone?”
The octogenarian who had begun to look like Aristotle shook his head solemnly. “Surely it depends on the speed of the car and not on the brand name of the rubber tires.” He drew a longer white line under the first one, as he informed the class with a hint of incredulity that the car would skid four times further, adding, “now, suppose our fellow has a Coupe de Ville.”
There was laughter. “Make it a Lamborghini.”
'A Lambor-what-now?” replied the puzzled heir to Hawking. “Just suppose the car's speed has tripled when the brakes are jammed. How far does it skid?”
I raised a tentative hand. “Are you going to tell us that it will skid nine times further than it did the first time?”
“Precisely, my boy. The y equals x squared relationship is very common in nature. Perhaps the most common.”
That was the instant when clever notion and virgin neural pathways met hand in merry hand and the neurons connected something more profound than car skids, that the universe itself was ordered. If science was the humankind's best crack at the language of God, than surely it was true, that mathematics was its grammar.
David Gosse is from Ottawa, ON