Earned Knowledge, L13, P4

The Passion of The Discoverer

Science, these days, has been institutionalized. It looks very clean, regimented and reserved. And so the most public faces of “science” like to appear elevated and authoritative. The practice of science itself, however, and especially the process of discovering new things, is a passionate process.

To discover truly new things, a scientist has to disregard authority and tradition. He or she must take on the risk of displeasing people in positions of power. An element of defiance is often required.

In fact, there’s a well-known joke about this:

Q: How does science move forward?

A: One funeral at a time.

Such a dark joke would only be funny if it were frequently true. The practice of science shouldn’t be like this, but these days it often is.

To make the point on passionate discoverers, here is a passage from Johannes Kepler, who defined the fundamental laws of planetary motion between 1609 and 1619. This discovery led directly to Isaac Newton’s many discoveries and to those of others. As he was putting his discoveries into the world, and knowing that he’d be upsetting existing ideas and their holders, Kepler wrote this:

I saw the dawn eighteen months ago, the bright day three months ago, and several days ago, the brightest sun of a most wonderful vision. Now, nothing can restrain me. I let myself go in divine rage. I defy human beings with contempt in this. I have stolen the golden vessels of the Egyptians to create from them a sacred place for my God, far from the borders of Egypt. If you are angry with me I shall bear it, the die is cast. I write for my contemporaries, or, it does not matter, for the future. Perhaps my book will not find readers for a hundred years, but God himself has waited six thousand years for someone to gaze upon his creation with understanding.



As always, go slowly and be sure the students understand the lesson as completely as possible.

This lesson provides abundant material for spin-offs. I suggest that you take the directions that most interest your students, and put together a separate science class based upon them And please don’t feel inadequate to the job if you don’t understand much more than they do: the best learning is very often when you sit down and say, “Okay, let’s figure this out.”

When teaching science, two things are of utmost importance:

  1. Be sure that the student grasps not just the name of something or a mere conclusion about it. Rather, be sure that they grasp how (and if possible why) the thing actually does what it does. This way is slower, and harder for you, but it makes an enormous difference within the student.
  2. Make sure that you wait, silently, for at least ten seconds after making each critical point. This may seem very odd, but humans require than much time to truly absorb a new concept. So, once you find a crucial point and see the “lights going on,” please just wait in silence (perhaps repeate the core statement slowly) so the concepts can stick within them. Odd or not, it works, and continuing without the pause does not.

And just to support our first point above, here’s a passage from Richard Feynman:

My father taught me to notice things, and one day I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it that children pull around. It had a ball in it, and when I pulled the wagon I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pops, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I’m pulling it along and suddenly stop, it rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?”

That,” he said, “nobody knows. The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving, and that things that are standing still tend to stand still until you push on them hard. This tendency is called ‘inertia,’ but nobody knows why it’s true.”

Now that’s a deep understanding: he didn’t just give me a name. He knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

I suggest you take time to illustrate the example of the truck going from pavement to mud and back to pavement. You can push the back of a toy truck through mud or anything else that works. At the least, spend some time with the photo we included to make the point. We want the kids to really grasp these things, not just to remember answers.

Likewise spend time on how telescopes and microscopes let us see distant and small things so well. “Filling your retina” is the key phrase. We are unable to see things very distant or small precisely because our retinas get far too little light from them to work with. By “pulling the image up to us,” and filling our retinas with it, we can see those thigs quite well.

You may wish to add that Newton realized that we see colors because substances reflect those colors of light, while absorbing all the others. But please do this as a time when the students are not overwhelmed with previous information.

You can create your own “camera obscura” with an outside window, some cardboard and tape. You’ll have no difficulty finding examples online. The image produced will be upside down, which is easy to explain with a hand-drawn diagram.

And you can do prism experiments with the same window, cardboard and tape.

Spend time doing some electrical experiments; they’re easy and teach children far better than words in a book. With just some iron filings, a bar magnet and a piece of stiff white paper, you can illustate magnetic lines of force. And let the kids play with it for a while, trying multiple magnets and seeing how the filings are different with the magnets attract or repel.

And as mentioned in the text, you can make a simple electrical motor with common and affordable parts. You can also turn a simple nail (use a large one) into a magnet with some building wire and a battery. And show them that more turns of wire on the nail makes the magnet stronger.

Spend a bit of time of the factory belt system shown in the photo. Sketch out such a system and point out the details in the photo, expecially the small belts running down to the machines.

Galileo’s wooden ramp (an included plane with a slot for balls) was used to work out the accelleration of gravity. Little bells were used (you can see them in the photo) to time this. Bell #1 rang was adjusted to ring at one second, #2 at two seconds and so on. Then the measurements were used to define the accelleration of falling objects.

Work out the formula for gravitational force. Use simple numbers (like, perhaps, 4, 6 and 8) to make it easy to grasp. We don’t want to the math to distract from the physics.

Please explain methane’s chemical formula CH4… one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. Likewise explain H20.

I’ve noted the country of residece for several of the scientists in this lesson. I did this to demonstrate that communication (usually through the Royal Society’s publications) allowed people in distant places to build upon each other’s work. This significantly accellerated progress.

Again I’ve italicized new and significant words. You may want to spend time on these with your students:

Rays of light. Light doesn’t exactly travel in rays, but it’s close enough.



Micro-organisms (microorganisms).




Air pressure.



Heavenly bodies.

Cutaway drawing.




The square. Any number, multiplied by itself. The square of 8, then, is 8×8, or 64.


The Feynman passage is from The Feynman Lectures On Physics, Lecture 1.

The Kepler passage is from Harmonices Mundi. (The Harmony of The World.)



Paul Rosenberg