“Why Is This Important?”
By Linda Shore
Today I taught the monks about the planets in our solar system and taught them ways to help their students conceptualize relative sizes and distances. I showed them a sequence of some of my favorite activities. You use a hole punch to create a hole in some blue paper and then take the tiny disc of blue paper that is punched out and declare that this is a scale model of the earth. Since the Earth’s diameter is about 8000 miles across and the Sun’s diameter is about 800,000 miles – you “only” need to punch out 100 hole punch-outs end to end to get the diameter of the circle you will need to make to represent the Sun. Or there is the short cut – lay 10 hole punch earths end to end, measure the length of this line of tiny paper discs, and multiply by ten.
This was followed by an activity where I took the Monk’s outside and hung the large paper sun on a wall of the courtyard outside a temple. The paper sun was about 60cm in diameter. The Monks were then told to move away from the paper sun until the model sun took up 0.5° of their sky – an angular size equivalent to half the diameter of the nail of their pinkie finger held out at arms length.
The activity went great! When we were about 60 meters from the paper sun, we had the scaled distance between the paper sun and hole punch earth. One of the Monks gave me a little rock, the same size of the hole punch – reminding all of us that we are just a tiny rock floating in empty space. Another Monk found an even smaller rock to represent the Moon. It was a very powerful activity for them. Well, it was a meaningful experience for all but one of the Monks.
We returned to the classroom and I asked the Monks if they had any comments or questions. One Monk immediately raised his hand. He spoke in his native language and then the translator translated his question in English for me. What emerged came the Great Philosophical Question that has been uttered by millions of science students before him and will be uttered by millions of students after him:
“Why do we have to know this?”
“Great question,” I said. But I always say that. I added: “You certainly can live a long and happy life never knowing about the planets, the Sun, or their relative size and distance.” Then I did what every good science teacher does. I turned the question back to the class and asked: “Can anyone answer his question? Why is it important to learn about the size and scale of the solar system?”
When I have turned the question back to students in the past, I have gotten some interesting responses. There was the undergraduate that said, “Well, this isn’t important at all, but you need to know it to graduate from college.” There was the student that said, “If we ever travel to other planets for a vacation, you’ll need to know how long the trip will take so you can pack enough clothes.” But fortunately, the Monks have a much deeper understanding of why they are learning about astronomy. One raised his hand and answered:
“We are charged with understanding the universe and it’s origins and we need to be able to teach modern cosmology to others. But first our students need to understand their own neighborhood – the objects in the sky they are most familiar with – before they can really grasp the entire universe beyond.” I couldn’t imagine a better answer.
By David Barker
“Today,” I addressed the Monks, “we will reflect on mirrors.” (A couple of chortles but mostly groans…)
I showed them a piece of white paper, saying that this was a mirror, only a really bad one. It was reflecting all the light shining on it, but its rough surface diffused the light. Then a shiny mirror, which worked much better.
I had Tap Plastics cut me up 30 pieces of mirrored plex, and handed it out to the monks for our first experiment. We all looked at ourselves in the mirrors…I said, “Oooo, we look good!” One monk retorted, “Now I’m discouraged.”
Before I could say another word, I noticed they were off and running, trying facial symmetry, looking with the mirror over their heads, at different angles, putting two or more mirrors together. They were doing inquiry.
We went through some mirror basics: virtual images, angle of reflection, ray tracing diagrams. Then we put two mirrors together and investigated corner reflectors. After that, Look Into Infinity, and Mirrorly a Window. Once again, the fundamental theme of the past week arose: Does Reality exist in the external world, in the mind, or both, and if so, how?. It was clear that a virtual image reflection in a mirror looks exactly like a real image.
Geshe Lhakdor explained to me that there are three conditions in Buddhist perception: The Objective condition, which is the object being observed, the Dominant condition, concerning the visual eye-brain network, and the Pre-Existing condition, which refers to our previous experiences with objects, people, circumstances. I thought, “Pretty consistent with our Western approach.”