Physics and Astronomy


In the "Name" of Science

by Ed Meyer

If I walk into any high school science class in the United States and ask the students, “Why do things fall?” A lot of hands will shoot up. Virtually all of them will proudly proclaim that gravity makes things fall. If I ask the same question of a group of PhD physicists, no one will know the answer. Why is this?

The correct answer to the question, “Why do things fall?” is, “nobody knows.” This is one of the biggest mysteries in science today. There is a Nobel Prize waiting for someone who figures it out. The current “Standard Model of the Universe” has a space reserved for the graviton with the remark “not yet observed”. When we drop something, how does it “know” the Earth is there? How is the gravitational force “communicated?” What is the carrier of the gravitational force? These are unanswered questions.

Many may think that this difference is trivial or simply one of semantics. I would disagree. The two different answers demonstrate the difference between science and scientific terminology. If the teacher wants to elicit a response of “gravity” from the students, she should ask something like, “What is the name of the attractive force between objects with mass?” The answer to this question is gravity – in English speaking countries. In Germany, students would respond, “schverkraft." In Mexico, it would be "la gravidad" and in Finland it's "paino vorina." The question, “Why do things fall?” is a fundamental question of science, not of scientific terminology. Knowing the word to respond when prompted with the question “Why do things fall?” is very different from knowing why things fall. The former is vocabulary and the latter is science.

I believe it is important for science teachers to understand the difference between the two. It is easy for a young scientist to be turned off by science class when it consists of memorizing the names for: the parts of a cell, the three types of rock, the parts of a tree, the seven ranks in biological classification, et cetera.

Science class should consist of investigation, experiments and discovery. It should be fun and exciting. Memorizing names for things is not fun and exciting – especially for a young scientist.

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