RSS

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Editorial


KU academics are amid the pressure of internal evaluation and preparation for end-semester examinations. Thus this issue of KUFIT has had fewer posts. But our commitment for bringing out quality writings continues. As the fourth month ensues, we feel to have grown, with a substantial collection of thoughtful writings. We are working to mature — with a rich interdisciplinary archive in a year, and still ahead.

We invite genuine feedback and contributions from our colleagues. And we repeatedly say: Let us promote the culture of professional sharing. It only takes our willingness to communicate. It only takes the readiness to communicate more and more.

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 21, 2011 in Editorial

 

Science and Pseudoscience

– Pushpa Raj Adhikary
Natural philosophy in early days was the study to find unanswered questions about nature. The equivalent of natural philosophy now is science. As the answers about the nature were found, these gradually became part of what is now called science. We, now, know that science is divided into various branches of study, namely, the study of living beings known as biology, botany, zoology, genetics, molecular biology, and physical science known as physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology and astronomy.
Biology is more complex than physics and chemistry because it involves not only matters but living matters.  But in some schools biology is taught before physics and chemistry because biology consists  mainly of classifying plants and animals. Scientifically, biology is much more complicated than physics and chemistry . But almost all the high school students consider biology far easier than the most fundamental of all sciences, the physics.
Where does mathematics fit into this picture of science? Is mathematics a branch of science? Of course, mathematics is a branch of science with its well established foundations and very powerful methods of studying mathematical objects. Mathematics can also be regarded as art because creativity of highest order can be displayed in mathematics. Mathematics is also a language of science. We want to express scientific ideas as precisely as possible and in unambiguous language. Ordinary language will not help scientists to express their ideas correctly. For example, consider the following expression,
2 / [3 + ( 5 / 3 ) x 6 – 2 + 3 ( 6 + 8 ) / 3 { 5 – 9 / 3 + 2 } x 5 ]
If you try to write down the instructions as how to simplify this expression in plain language, it will create more confusion than clarity. But for those who understand the meanings of symbols involved in the expression, it is quite clear how to simplify it. Mathematical language is very clear and offers an unambiguous way of expressing scientific ideas mainly in physics. So, sound knowledge of mathematics is required to study science.
As in ordinary language, scientific language also uses the term ‘facts’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘law’, ‘theory’, ‘concept’ and ‘prediction’. These terms often mean different in science. A fact means something absolute in ordinary language but in science facts evolve. People do understand that the meaning of hypothesis is speculation. But for a scientist, it is an educated guess about nature or model of nature that seems to explain its laws. Hypothesis and theory may  seem to mean the same in ordinary language but in science a theory is an accumulation of ideas and equations of well -tested hypothesis and laws.
A law in science describes how nature behaves. A law of nature is a statement expressing what has been seen always to happen in certain conditions. A law is a scientific principle. The principle which governs how a stone falls to the ground from the height is the law of falling bodies. Newton’s law of motion  explains the motion of bodies on earth and also the movement of celestial bodies.
A scientific theory is a reasonable or scientifically acceptable explanation for a fact or event, which may not have been proved to be true. A scientific theory consists of rules or principles, theorems, etc. belonging to the subject. For example, set theory deals with the behavior of groups of mathematical elements known as sets. A useful theory in science is able to predict how nature behaves in connection with some unknown phenomenon, or how things or events may turn out in some specific conditions.
The explanation for a fact or event made by a scientific theory is tested for its validity by experiment(s). A hypothesis explained by a scientific theory and confirmed by an experiment becomes a scientific principle or law.
Often, we speak of scientific method of learning. Scientists make discoveries by this method. The work of Galileo in the sixteenth century established the scientific method of gaining, organizing, and applying new knowledge. A scientific problem generally recognizes a problem, thereby making an educated guess or hypothesis for the cause of the problem. Then we predict the consequences of the hypothesis and perform experiments to test the validity of our predictions. Based on hypothesis, prediction, and outcomes of the experiment, we formulate a principle or a rule. But great discoveries made by scientists not always follow these rules. Often these discoveries were made by trial and error or accidental cases.
A hypothesis in science must be testable. The chance that a hypothesis can be proved wrong is also as likely as it can be proved right. A scientist accepts the wrongness of a hypothesis as easily as he/she accepts its correctness. Actually instead of asking “Am I right?” scientists want to know “Why am I not wrong?” The emphasis on finding the wrongness in all cases distinguishes science from non-science. If there isn’t a test to determine whether a hypothesis is wrong or not, it cannot be a scientific hypothesis.
Consider, for example, that the planets affect our destiny. Neither we can prove that it does,  nor  have we proof that it does not. Till we can prove or disprove it, it cannot be a scientific hypothesis. In the same way, whether there is the existence of god or whether god created this world cannot be proved or disproved. Thus, such subjects are not within the realm of science and there are no scientific answers to such questions.
Theories of science are not fixed. They undergo change. When our understanding of our surroundings or nature increases, accordingly the theories of science also become more and more perfect.  Newton’s law of gravitation helped us to understand the motion of planets, and based on this law, humankind could land on moon, but it cannot explain the formation of black holes. So, we need more perfect theory of gravitation to explain what happens in a black hole than that of Newton’s. The more we understand about nature,  the more perfect theory of science will be.
Science does not subjugate nature, but goes along with natural laws. But we know of some acts that try to subjugate or force nature to act in some strange ways, by some kind of magic or so-called supernatural powers. Even with the advancement of 21st century science, we are still unable to dispel the so-called magic which persists in societies, beginning from the primitive to modern day societies. Such ‘magic’ which does not stand to be tested for right or wrong is pseudoscience. We talk of mysticism but quite a few may even believe it  to be nothing but pseudoscience. Likewise, astrology, which is considered science by its practitioners, is also a pseudoscience. The practitioners of pseudoscience are misguiding the society. Occasionally such practitioners do get success and are able to fool people but their success is nothing but mere coincidence. We have come a long way in comprehending nature and liberating ourselves from ignorance but, still, it is not sufficient to free ourselves from performing some mystic experiments for more wealth and power, to believe in astrology and occult phenomenon. Daily newspapers hardly report on the progress of science and new discoveries, but never forget to publish a column of horoscope. So, more human effort is required to fight against this inclination for pseudoscience.
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 21, 2011 in Science

 

Why I Am Teaching

 – Ekku Pun

Teaching just fell into my lap and I took it up as a profession some nineteen years ago. Whether I had natural flair for it or not, whether I needed to take training for it or not, whether I could be a good or/and successful teacher never crossed my mind. So, when my colleague Hem Raj Kafle requested me to write something on teaching experience, my initial reaction (to be honest) was of total loss. My head crowded with questions like: What to write? Can I produce a piece worth reading? Do I have something inspirational or beneficial to share with a large audience?

As I started to grope for answers, I was bound to retrospect the years that had slipped without my realizing what they made me. I simply wanted to judge myself as a teacher. I had never done this before and it was a daunting task.  What I have realized after such retrospection is this: I have managed to come so far without even once thinking seriously of changing the profession; I don’t recall any noteworthy complaint from the students and my administrators about my teaching (If any which I am unaware of, then let me continue to be in bliss of ignorance!); so, I can regard myself as a fairly successful teacher.

I am not an exceptional teacher to stand out in the teaching community, exceptional in the sense that some students would pick me up as the type ‘who changed my life’. I go about my job quietly. I perform my responsibilities as sincerely as possible. I believe in simplicity, so I try to keep things plain and accessible. Common and basic values of punctuality, regularity, honesty figure in my conduct of class and treatment for students.

However, now at least two episodes keep flashing across my mind like films clips. The first concerns the beginning stage of my career. It was during the lunch-break in a conference. I was with some of my old classmates and professors. We were zealously narrating our experiences of being teachers, pointing out our students’ general apathy towards studies and their failure to meet our expectations. Hearing our ‘hue and cry,’ one of our gurus remarked, “Fresh out of the university, filled with all the isms of great philosophers and scholars, you young lot are too idealistic. Do not expect things to come perfect as in the books. There is a vast gap between the world of books, university classrooms and the real world outside.” I was a little taken aback to hear this. I thought: “Is it wrong to expect perfection, expect the students to do exactly what I want them to, and how I want them to? I know whatever I am imparting to them is right and useful to be competent and successful in life. I do so because I have only the best interest for them in my heart.”

The second episode relates a student. I came to know about this through a colleague during a gossip about our past students. At one point he casually told me that ‘this student’ had said I was little too unfair with him. He had said I used to pick on him even for a small mistake all the time; I had sent him out or humiliated him by making him stand in the class throughout the period, etc. etc. It made me uncomfortable. I kept quiet in acceptance of what the student had complained. I wished I had known this while I was still teaching him.

These episodes, I accept even now, led to the change in my approach and attitude towards teaching and dealing with students as my journey progressed. Growing up under the strong influence of a strict and disciplinarian soldier father, I sometimes tend to show streak of sternness and demand discipline from students. This is what I realize now, but take these qualities as the gifts from a parent. I may have demanded discipline and perfection in my pupils, but, I am sure, these qualities are prerequisites for addressing the demands of genuine learners.

Furthermore, these two episodes have made me realize these: first, to be idealist and to seek perfection is desirable but not practical. One has to firmly plant the feet in reality and accept it, desirable or not. If the effort you put in to make the reality desirable yields otherwise results, the effort is more meaningful. What we read and find in the books are the products of  the best minds. They are developed in supposition of ideal conditions where all the pieces fit with one another in harmony.

Second, as a teacher, your aim has to be to motivate students towards finding their own voice, their potentiality for creativity and self-exploration. By this, they will find what they are good at and will feel good about themselves. They will realize their worth, which will provide a solid foundation for their growth and success in life. To achieve this goal the teacher has to less emphasize on rules, discipline (mind you not to forget them altogether). And, sometimes you should reasonably bend the rules if it helps. You should allow them to feel free to be themselves to work constructively. They need to feel respected for their effort and contribution. Then the instructions, textual knowledge, and good results will follow suit.

I do not know how far I am successful in implementing what I have realized. We all know preaching is easy compared to practicing what one preaches. I love to remain ignorant about how much impact I have made in this profession. I just want to value being able to help young people grow, and continue the profession with the best of my sensibility and diligence.

[Courtesy:  Nelta Choutari]

 

 

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 20, 2011 in EXPRESSIONS, Reflections

 

Perspectives of Mathematics

Kanhaiya Jha
Distinguished scientist and former Indian president Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam summarizes the significance of science to the mankind thus: “Science, more science and still more science is needed to lay the foundations for the development and growth of an individual, a society, a nation and world.” Science has made invaluable contributions in the progress of different civilizations of the world. Math-e-matics has been defined as the science of numbers and the structure and measurement of shapes, including algebra, geometry and arithmetic. It is Ganita which means the science of calculation. Mathematics is a vast system of organized thinking of an analytic and synthetic nature developed since the golden ages of Greece and the earlier Babylonian civilization. Mathematics in ancient India was one of the most advanced and practical sciences amongst all the early civilizations of the world. Ancient Indian mathematicians were popular because they had a clear concept of numerical quantities with nine digits and a zero. Indian mathematicians have always given remarkable contributions to the world mathematics. The great Indian mathematicians like Aryabhatta (5th century AD), Bhaskara (12th century AD), Brahmagupta and Chinese mathematicians like Sun-Tsu, Lin Hui, Wang H’siao-T’ung, Ch’in Chiu-Shao made various discoveries, which were unknown to the rest of the world, during the same period. There are evidences of some connection between Greek mathematics and Indian mathematics and of an intimate connection between Indian mathematics and Chinese mathematics. Nepalese mathematicians like Gopal Pande, Nay Raj Pant have also made some contributions in the history of Nepalese mathematics. 
Mathematics, as an expression of human mind, reflects the active will, the contemplative reason and desire for aesthetic perfection. Its basic elements are logic and intuition, analysis and construction, generally and individually. The term “mathematics (maths)” has been interpreted and explained in various ways. It is the facts and relationships between them. It explains that this science is a bi-product of our empirical knowledge. That is why famous mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) defined maths as the “Queen of Science”. Much of the same sentiment is expressed in an ancient Sanskrit verses: 
“Yatha Sikha Mayuranaam, Naganam Manayo Yatha/
Thatha Vedanga Shastranam, Ganitham Murdhani Sthitham //”
This means: “Like the combs of the peacocks, and the crest jewels of the serpents, the love of jyotisa (Ganita or computation) stands as the head of all the loves forming the auxiliaries of the Vedas.”
Almost all results in maths are developed through the process of reasoning (inductive as well as deductive). Now, some familiarity with maths has been regarded as an indispensable part of the intellectual equipment of every cultured person. Regarding the role of maths, famous English biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) wrote: “Every new body of discovery is mathematical in form, because there is no other guidance we can have.”
Mathematics as a whole can be divided into three main branches, each of which has its own history: (i) geometry, astronomy and chronology; (ii) algebra and (iii) analysis. Clearly, it is found that these three branches often overlap. Also, modern maths has been classified into pure and applied mathematics. Pure maths deals with the fundamental concepts and is abstract in nature. Applied maths is the application of continuous forms of maths (calculus) as an insight into or solution for “real word” problems. Applied maths reflects the belief that basic order and harmony exist in the physical words, which may be described by the logical structures of maths. Famous mathematician P.R Halmous has said: “Applied maths cannot get along without pure, as an anteater cannot get along without ants, but not necessarily the reverse.” Whenever we try to compare maths with the other branches of science, then due to its exactness, maths always dominates the other sciences. Since each experiment or research work carries some sorts of calculations, other branches cannot be independent of maths. Till the present day, maths has helped to develop different fields. In order to solve a real life problem, we need the interaction between physical, mathematical & life sciences in a meaningful way. Life sciences present many challenging problems for physical and mathematical sciences. In connection with physical sciences, maths has been used in physics, chemistry, biology and engineering; and in connection with social sciences, it has been used in economics, statistics, psychology, logic and fine arts in many forms.
A mathematical system is an abstract deductive theory that can be applied in other mathematical situations when the axioms can be verified. The success of application in other fields of knowledge depends on how well the mathematical system describes the situation at hand. Also the power of maths rests on the discovery that it was possible to represent abstract concepts such as those of numbers and shape by means of concrete symbols; and through the physical arrangement of these symbols with respect to each other to express relations between these concepts. Thus, permissible rules for the changing of the arrangement of the symbols reflected permissible steps in expressing logical relations between the original concepts.
Everywhere in the world, maths is considered to be a difficult subject. If we search the Internet using the keyword ‘hate’, mathematics is likely to be the term most associated with the term. Now maths is one of the subjects you cannot simply ignore. As Glenn Mason-Richeborough pointed out, “Maths is important from the view of the individual as well as of the society.” Maths is the most objective among all the sciences, yet the act of realizing maths in our world creates subjectivity. We all respond differently while learning it. These facts reveal that the real fault lies not in maths but in the way the subject is taught. Both teaching and learning maths have been greatly influenced by the recent development in Information Technology. But the ancient mathematical approaches provide us the best techniques in our understanding of maths. That’s why school students in many developed countries are still afraid of solving decimal problems with hands. In maths interest is relatively difficult to sustain in comparison to other subjects. A problem may be solved in a number of ways. Once the students understand the fundamentals, the actual solving becomes a simple task. And once students start getting answers right, confidence builds up and mathematics becomes more of fun. Certainly everybody cannot learn maths except only a meager part of it. Unless one is endowed with certain qualities, one cannot learn maths. The qualities are (i) Mental alertness (ii) Venturesomeness (iii) Tenacity and (iv) Diligence.
 …..
[To be continued in the upcoming issue]
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 20, 2011 in Science

 

Reading for Assimilation

Hem Raj Kafle
I have been teaching “Four Levels of Interacting with a Text” (Literal Comprehension, Interpretation, Critical Thinking and Assimilation) for ten years. It is a part of the course in English communication skills for Kathmandu University’s science and engineering freshmen. We English teachers sometimes share what each of us has been teaching in addition to following the guidelines from Adventures in English (now replaced by Flax-golden Tales). We make passing remarks about such cases that students copy readymade ‘levels’ from guide books, or mistake one level for another, or write the same thing for all levels.
I have tried hard from the beginning to give my freshmen the correct sense of the aspects of reading and writing about a text. The success still is scanty regarding student presentations during the in- and end-semester exams. The one reason, which all of us may readily accept, is that teaching of these skills starts long before students have learned to own texts and got sense of the value of serious reading. In my opinion, one who hasn’t learned to read with purpose and passion hasn’t learned to own a text, or vice versa.
With this conviction as a guiding principle, from last year I decided to modify my earlier approach which was to make students read guidelines from the text, see the editors’ sample on “Yudhisthira’s Wisdom,” lecture on the texts, and ask students to produce their versions. The modification involves four important components. First, I assign students to ask questions in emails on any of the four levels, and answer them with examples and explanations. These emails are forwarded to all the class members so that everyone gets my version of the reading/writing. I also make a point that my version need not be final and that they can still work on it. Second, I familiarize students with diverse kinds of short texts and check their level of comprehension in each, especially the level of internalization, skills in summarizing or retelling, and critiquing.
Third, I tell them real stories of how people own texts and reading. This occasionally draws my own passions and prejudices for certain writers, books, texts including those in the syllabus. I emphasize that personalization of texts and reading culminates in better understanding and critical thinking. Fourth, I ask students to create a complete “text profile” of the texts,  which they are required to put in their journals. The profile contains all the fundamental elements of a text:  title, author, genre, setting, tone, main themes/arguments, main characters, main events/actions/scenes, important paragraphs/lines, important excerpts, and a brief summary. A complete profile functions as a rich resource for writing the four levels.
I hope my reading classes now fare better than two years ago. I have kept myself alert to check the outcomes.
Of the Four Levels, I find assimilation the most pertinent and interesting. To me assimilation means personalization of reading. But how does one personalize it? How do you know someone has done this? So, in the past, I always looked for samples of assimilation so that I would understand it myself and teach students more substantially. I did not realize my own experiences with certain books could prove a sample. I might be waiting for a chance or a coincidence or an exposure to realize this. And I did not get it until June 2008.
Early in the morning on June 28, I joined a queue in front of the counter of Northwest Airlines at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok. It was my first transit point towards Japan on my way to University of Florida, Gainesville, USA. I was nervously waiting for the agent’s queries and boarding passes when I noticed a book in the hand of a white man standing in front of me.  It was not unusual to find a European or an American with a book in an airport. But what really caught my eyes was the title: Lies My Teacher Told Me. I thought it was some sort of memoir of someone who grew up to know that one of his teachers had told certain lies. It was no time and place to talk about books, standing in a fast moving queue, and right before the book-owner reached the agent and started his business. He got his work done in a few minutes and hastened away tugging a large suitcase. I caught last glimpse of the book and presented myself to the agent for my transit clearance.
I forgot the book for about a fortnight. On July 13, we were taken to a book store, (Books and Books) in Corel Gables, Miami. I vainly searched for some serious books on diaspora or communication, whereas some of  my companions got hold of a couple or more of different stuffs.  I was going to look either a miser or a philistine without a purchase. But I suddenly remembered the book and inquired the manager if they had it handy.  He was not sure but promised to check. And he had a last copy. I did not check the price. Enthralled by this find, I picked up half a dozen other curious titles just before our director beckoned us for leaving the store. In addition to Lies, at least two of the other books happened to be great: The Book that Changed My Life and The Bitch in the House.
Lies… by James W. Loewen turned out to be a different work from what I had imagined it to be. It was the rewriting of some of the major facets/facts of American history which, according to the writer, were distorted in history textbooks. This revelation sufficed to keep me glued to the book almost all the night. But, I read the preface and jumped to the most familiar title “The Land of Opportunity” (Chapter 7). The following quote at the beginning of this chapter made my further reading meaningful:
Ten men in our country could buy the whole world and ten million can’t buy enough to eat.  [Will Rogers, 1931]
I began to see America differently from the following day despite my awareness that looking at it in the light of the 1931 statement would be anachronistic. At one point the director asked me of my impression of Miami. I said, with my eyes on a beggar to the other side of the street, “Looks much like an Indian city.” She did not ask any other question, nor demanded explication for my terse analogy. I knew she did not like it at all. The sight of the beggar had induced me to allude to Will Rogers’s ten million.
Later, I marked the presence of the “homeless” in the streets of New York and Washington DC, and willingly gave one dollar bill to whoever accosted me for it. Some friends teased me for this appearance of generosity. I explained, “It’s their money and their people. And it is big for a Nepali chap to be giving a buck each to some of Uncle Sam’s poor nephews in Washington DC.”
The Book that Changed My Life has stories of seventy one “remarkable” writers, who “celebrate the books that matter most to them.” The book presents intimate accounts of how reading helped these writers find directions in life. Sounds curious, right? I love this book so much. The Bitch in the House can prove yet another milestone for a reader to see American society in a new way, especially in the light of how contemporary feminist writers define their roles as lovers, wives and professionals in the changing times. 
These stories may suffice to create some awareness in my students that books help us redefine our view of the world and its people. And there lies the value of personalizing books, making them a part of our lives.

[Courtesy: Yatree’s Ruminations]

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 20, 2011 in Reflections