Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Multiverse Learning

Tomorrow, I have the good fortune to get 15-20 minutes of time to talk with the participants at the Teacher-Librarian Day (TLD) sponsored by Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) at Metro State in Denver (or whatever the current name of that university is). TLD2012. Thank you, Peggy O'Neill-Jones and TPS staff!

I'm using this post to see whether my ideas are sufficiently composed to pass muster with the TLD participants.

Credits and information about the
images available in my GoogleDoc.
My topic is Multiverse Learning. [I've created a Prezi that (I hope) illuminates my talking points. Follow along, if you'd like. This is where I show Slide 1.]

I'm going to tell a gripping story of learning. In this case of how physicists and astronomers have come to rethink some of the most basic ideas of existence. Not just human existence. Not just the existence of life, as we know it (or don't). Not just the formation of stars and the basic... stuff... of our 13.7-billion-year-old universe. (fn 1)

To put the Multiverse story in context -- well, in a context that interests me -- I first need to go to a favorite topic of mine: New Knowledge (Since Circa 1970). Great game for parties; I'm sure it'll be an app soon. The object of the game is to think of ideas, information, and things that have been... discovered... created... since sometime around 1970. (The use of 1970 as the starting point is somewhat arbitrary. It's  close to the time I was in high school; I won't say how close -- if I even remember. So it invokes, for me, that ineffable quality of certainty that goes with K12 curriculum: This is a fact. That is the formula. Here is how you do it.)

Take a look at the Wordle I created [Prezi Slide 2], displaying a jumble of labels for knowledge obtained by humans since around 1970. It's from a list I've generated, emphasizing particular areas of knowledge that are particularly intriguing, or strange, to me. It's meant to be expressive rather than exhaustive; I'm sure you'll think of something huge that I've completely overlooked. (BTW, if you do, please send me a note or make a comment here. I really enjoy thinking about new knowledge.) But take a look... See what intrigues you, or makes you go, "Oh, yeah, that..." or "Oh, that is so postmodern!" (a concept, btw, that didn't exist before about 1980).

What jumps out at you? Why?

Some of my favorites are hybrid engines, endorphins, the demotion of Pluto to planetoid (Poor Pluto!... Think of the parties he no longer gets to attend.), Velcro, Sticky Notes, Yuppies,.... And how about these particles that go faster than the speed of light? Please.

Last year, TLD 2011, I talked about Fractals (a mathematical language invented in the 1970s by Benoit Mandelbrot). [Slide 3] Didn't exist before he just made it up. Fractal math describes, and models, irregular but recurring shapes -- like seashells, clouds, galaxies, broccoli,... coastlines. (Mandelbrot's first paper on fractals raised the problem of measuring the distance around the coast of England. A precise measurement requires one first to say how closely one is looking, because the closer you get -- whether, say, 5,000 feet above the ground or kneeling in the water to look at the sand with a magnifying glass -- the more irregular -- and larger -- the dimensions become. I think fractal shapes are created by running recursive formulas involving imaginary numbers. (Imaginary numbers, as some of you may recall from school, are not like imaginary friends. They're numbers which, when squared, yield a negative number rather than a positive one. i times i equals -1, that sorta thing.) Check out the Fractals on; it's surprisingly easy math to understand. And amazing.

I also talked about Chaos, a science principle I understand only as metaphor but love to consider. Chaos in science is not, as we think in a mere linguistic sense, unbounded disorder. It's more about a dynamic, fluxuating nature of order in complex systems -- like weather, or crowds, or economies. Chaos theory demonstrates that infinitesimal changes in any part of a system's inputs can lead to astonishingly dramatic changes in that system's outputs. The classic example is the butterfly flapping its wings over Colorado and causing a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. Or something like that. (fn 2)

Anyway. Today, the New Knowledge in my story goes all the way back to the formation of our universe -- of everything we know to exist. To the Big Bang itself. And, in a more human dimension, it goes back to scientific discoveries and theories that percolated between about 1970 and 2000.

Once [Slide 4], so the story goes (at least according to the excellent article I read last December in Harper's Magazine, entitled "The Accidental Universe"), physicists thought they pretty much had the universe figured out. Big Bang, quarks, black holes,... They were very close to declaring what they modestly called The Theory of Everything, based on bringing together the four basic forces of the universe (gravity; electromagnetism; radioactivity; and nuclear bonding) in a single grand "vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood." Just "a couple dozen parameters corresponding to the masses of the elementary particles, and another half dozen or so parameters corresponding to the strengths of the fundamental forces in terms of a single fundamental force" remaining. (fn 3)

But... More mythically, And then, scientific certainty started to fall apart.

One complication is Inflation Theory [Slide 5], an amendment to the Big Bang proposed about 1970. This theory explains measurements from NASA satellites which indicate that in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second into the Big Bang, the exploding universe suddenly began to expand faster -- so, not just go from nothing to something but, the teeniest part of a microsecond into becoming something, it started being something more quickly. (The timeline of the universe, according to science, is kinda fascinating, all on its own. First about 500 million years of randomly exploding cosmos. Then stars and galaxies start to form. Our solar system doesn't even come into the picture until a mere 5 billion [give or take .7] years ago. And we humans have been around, what, mebbe 200,000 years? We've been writing for about 5,000 years? Longer if you count pictures on walls.) So, Inflation Theory proposes that some additional form of energy caused the extra bang (mebbe like the extra explosion in those aerial fireworks.... Y'know, shhhuuuhhhhhh.... Boom!.... whissshhhh.... those things.) It explains a lot of difficult problems in measuring the Big Bang. But it introduces some new problems, like where did this energy come from?

Another complication is String Theory [Slide 6], a nice irony, because it was initially heralded (in the 1970s) as the foundation for the immanent Theory of Everything. According to ST (as the cognescenti refer to it), "the smallest constituents of matter are not subatomic particles like the electron but extremely tiny one-dimensional 'strings' of energy. The elemental strings can vibrate at different frequencies, like the strings of a violin, and the different modes of vibration correspond to different fundamental particles and forces." One cool aspect of ST is that it requires seven dimensions of space (instead of the mundane 3 we understand). But not to worry; the additional four are compacted to such teensy dimensions that we never experience them. (fn 4) But the problem with ST is that it predicts an almost infinite number of universes. Not just the one we know. Y'know, the one that contains everything. The UNIverse.

But wait... there's more... In the late 1990s, astronomers discovered Dark Energy [Slide 7]. The Big Bang Theory predicted that the expansion of the universe slows as it ages -- with gravity attempting to pull everything back together. And for awhile, like the first ten billion years or so, that seemed to be true. But then, in 1998, new satellite measurements indicated that the expansion of the universe is speeding up! Based on the rate of acceleration, scientists are saying that a vast quantity of invisible stuff... dark energy... not only exists but, in fact, comprises most of the stuff in the universe. NASA estimates about 72-73% (maybe 72.7%). This discovery, on its own, is pretty amazing: Most of what makes up our universe is stuff we didn't even know existed until about 10 years ago? Please. But ST theory also "practically demands" the existence of more than one universe to explain it. In fact, an almost infinite number of universes.

So [Slide 8] for the past decade, physicists and astronomers have been saying that the best explanation for the various phenomena I've attempted to describe (along with many others, I'm sure) is that there are multiple universes, and that of these many universes, ours is just one. We're not talking about multiple planets like earth, or multiple stars like the sun, or even trillions of galaxies like the Milky Way. We're talking about an almost infinite number of existences akin to the one existence that we have, for the past 200,000 years or so, been calling The Universe.

Now, if this isn't mind-boggling, then a mind can't be boggled.


So, at this point, you might be thinking [Slide 9], Yes, that's all very interesting, Stevan. But... What's you point? I'm so glad you asked.

My point is learning [Slide 10]. It occurs to me that if the very nature of existence (not human existence, all existence) can quite abruptly be understood in a profoundly different way (with good evidence to support the new understanding), then maybe we need to reconsider what it means to know something.

Here's my Theory of Knowledge [Slide 11]:
Knowledge is an energy field, not an object.
An energy field: Vibrating. Shifting. Chaotic. Flowing. Dynamic....
Not a thing that we grasp and hold, like a block or a set of content standards.
We don't grab hold of chunks of knowledge. We are forever engaged in a swirling process of knowing.

If that makes any sense at all, then, methinks, it suggests that we need to rethink fundamentally what it means to learn... and to teach.

Cognitive scientists [Slide 12] say that the best explanation of how we learn is that we construct new knowledge -- new information, ideas, skills, whatever -- by connecting it to the networks of knowledge that already exist in our brains. I like to talk about this a lot, and I apologize to those who've had to listen to my rants. But this is such a departure from the school-based notion that one can put knowledge into someone else. We school people are forever confusing teaching with learning. Sometimes we think that what we're teaching is what they're actually learning. In fact, they learn both a whole lot less and a whole lot more than that. But I'll hold off on the rant at this point because the really interesting part about this construction business is that it isn't, as we probably imagine it, like bricklaying. This chunk of knowledge, laid on top of that chunk, sealed with some mortar, creating bigger chunks, walls, chambers, etc, until we have a vast storehouse of knowledge. Instead, what we do -- what each of us is doing right now -- is make tiny connections (pathways; nets) which link some of the vast and continuous waves of incoming information to the infinitely complex and pulsating neural networks that already exist in our brains. We're surfing. We're weaving. We're filtering and tangling. Making a ceaselessly vibrating, ever-changing, and increasingly complex network of knowing.

The Energy Field Theory of Knowledge suggests some corollaries.

If knowledge is energy, then learning is a continual process of exploration [Slide 13]. Learning is like the Hero's Journey, which Joseph Campbell described in his famous formulation of the human "monomyth;" learning never reaches an endpoint. OK, you answer The Call; you sally forth, often fearfully but always courageously, to seek Knowledge. After you confer with allies, fight the dragon, find the treasure, hear the gods... after you triumphantly return to glory and abundance,... then you get called again. And off you go on the next journey.

If knowledge is energy, then learning is a dance [Slide 14]. A fluid and dynamic exchange between you and one, or many, partners -- fueled by rhythm, by the moment, by the music of the spheres and the resonance in your surround.

If knowledge is energy [Slide 15], then learning is Flow. Probably you know about the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced Mee'-hi Cheek'-sent-meh-hy'-ee), which demonstrates that we experience Flow when we are fully immersed in an activity -- with energized focus on the process and a thrumming sense of success in our doing whatever it is. Like an athlete in peak performance, or a dancer becoming the choreography, or some spiritual practices... or, frequently, the experience that gamers acquire as they move through the challenge levels. Csíkszentmihályi's experiments indicate that essential elements of flow include relaxed alertness, intrinsic reward in the activity, a sense of control, and complete absorption. He also demonstrates that flow requires a fine balance between skill and challenge. Too much challenge (relative to the skill), and we get anxiety and frustration. Too much skill (relative to the challenge), and we get bored. Hence, continual escalation of both skill and challenge are necessary to continually experience flow. There's no Flow Paradise, no endpoint.

These, then, are my Learning standards [Slide 16]: Construct; Explore; Dance; Flow. Acquire the skills, habits, and values related to these standards, and we'll... thrive... in the multiverse of learning.

fn 1 - Ya gotta like that ".7". It's a really nice touch. "Hey, we're not just guessing here! We've MEASured the age of the Universe, f'rgawdsake! It's 13... and 7/10ths... billion years old."

fn 2 - FYI, it's not that I'm a science guy or a math guy. I struggle a lot in both areas. I'm more a Big Idea guy. "Whoa! What a notion!" kind of ideas. Like fractals and chaos. Plus, an advantage of talking about subjects like these is that not many people are likely to go, "Wait a minute! You've got that all wrong!" People typically allow you a lot of fuzzy space.

fn 3 - The quoted text is from Alan Lightman, in "The Accidental Universe." I'd link to Harper's, but they require you to have a subscriber's login to access more than the article's intro. That kind of annoys me. Preservation of property rights in the Information Age.

fn 4 - Or do we?...

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