Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Tale

This is a true story that took place a few years ago. There is no mention of "Christmas" in it, but I think it can be seen as appropriate to the Christmas atmosphere. A time in which we tell stories and we rethink about what we are and what we do. 

I have volunteered as a teacher to support disadvantaged children and I am here, helping boys and girls in junior high school who have fallen behind in their studies. Most of them are from poor families of immigrants. I have been teaching them science, history, literature, more or less everything in the curriculum.

Today, I have in front of me a boy of around 12, Ahmed. Earlier on, he told me that his family came from Algeria and his father is a cook in a restaurant. Tall, dark-haired, with a light brown skin, he speaks perfect Italian. A nice boy, friendly and smiling.

I am supposed to help Ahmed with biology. So, we open the textbook on the page he has to study. We read the text together, "eukaryotes have a nucleus and organelles, prokaryotes do not."

I look at him, he looks at me. Clearly, this sentence makes no sense to him. And I can understand why: the authors of the book, really, have no idea of what they are talking about. Prokaryotes and eukaryotes are described as curious little critters in the same vein as one could describe the animals of a zoo: "giraffes have long necks, zebras do not."

It is not the first time in my life that I feel like the last centurion of the Empire, defending a world that is ceasing to exist. I am supposed to defend science, but what's happened to the science I know? It seems to have faded away with the legions of a disappearing empire.

There is nothing in this biology book that describes the intricacy of the molecular mechanisms of life, nothing of the immense timespan of billions of years that led to life moving from bacteria and archaea to eukarya, and then to multicellular organisms. Nothing about the infinite complexity of ecosystems. Nothing about the amazing scientific journey that led us to understand how life evolved and changed. Nothing that could interest a 12-year old boy.

This book is totally flat: plenty of illustrations but as exciting as a painting supplies catalog. I looked at several of these books. They are all the same: slick commercial books designed to convince teachers to push their pupils to buy them. But they are all like this: flat.

Ahmed repeats the sentence as it is written, "eukaryotes have a nucleus and organelles, prokaryotes do not." He could as well be telling me that the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo.

I nod at him, he smiles at me. I have in mind to ask him, "do you understand what that means?" But I don't.

I ask him, "do you like studying biology?" He says, "yes". Then he realizes that I understand that he spoke out of courtesy toward me. He adds, "but I prefer to study other things."

"What do you like to study?"

"The Holy Koran," he says. He seems to understand my perplexity, so he adds, "my sister and I are studying the Holy Koran. My sister is older than me. She can already recite some suras by heart."

The feeling of being the last centurion defending the empire is becoming even stronger. I see myself as standing on one of the few surviving ramparts of the ruined walls of the capital city. Behind me, the city is almost deserted; the temples and the buildings half ruined, infested with weed and mice, the emperors forever gone.

I say, "is it interesting to study the Koran?"

He looks at me, perplexed. For him, the answer is so obvious that he can't even understand my question. But he does his best. He says, "My father says that reading the Koran makes you a better person."

That's not an answer, it is an invitation. In no time, I have been turned from teacher to pupil. I try to answer the best I can, "I studied a little Arabic."

"It is good that you did that."

"It is not very easy."

He smiles. "You can learn." He says.

I nod, smiling at him. "I try to do my best," I say. We go back to the biology textbook.

Note: I was prompted to write this story now by the recent news appearing in Italian newspapers of a Science textbook for high school that described how astronauts fly weightless when in orbit because "they are so far away from Earth that gravity is not felt anymore." It took a real astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, to debunk this idiocy. But the poor quality of high school textbooks is well known; Feinman said that "But that's the way all the books were: They said things that were useless, mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don't know, because it's not science".  I think we have here  one of the many symptoms of the decline of our civilization  


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)