Organising curiosity

| November 12, 2021

“Science is simply the word we use to describte a method of organising our curiosity” – Tim Minchin

I have always had an interest in science, mainly physics, astronomy and geology. When computers first came to Australia, I followed their increasing abilities with great pleasure and when the first private enterprise one came to Melbourne, applied to operate it. From there I went on to become a programmer and systems analyst.

For that reason I felt adequately qualified to join the University of the Third Age as an instructor. My first task was to teach Microsoft Word to a group of elderly students who were trying to come to grips with using their new desk-tops or lap-top machines. Some said that they had been using Word for some years and just wanted a bit of polishing, some had never opened a file before.

It wasn’t long before I found that even the most advanced students had very little knowledge of the program – they may have been using it for some years, but had only used a fraction of the power available.

The first term went well but towards the end of the second term the questions began to get a bit more detailed and complex to the extent that I had to resort more and more to the massive instruction book put out by the company and in so doing, learned a lot more myself.

I found later that to fully understand Word (part of a much larger suite of programs), Microsoft conducted  six month course. This came as a complete surprise to me who treated it as a mere communications tool.

“Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.” – Nicholas Negroponte

Later, I was asked to deliver a course on image and photograph manipulation, using a program similar to Photoshop but a lot cheaper so that the students could buy it for themselves. We worked on the principle that if a students didn’t use the knowledge gained them he/she would soon loose the  ability to use it properly.

I jokingly called the course ‘Forgery for Beginners’ and it became quite popular. The notes I produced came to nearly 100 foolscap pages and covered most of what the students wanted to achieve.

Problems arose in the second term when we started studying the makeup of the ideal photo, matching colours, shadows and eye colouring. As the questions became more complex I found I had to contact the local photographers club more often and also the manufacturers of the program we were using – a Canadian company based in Singapore. They were very obliging, even sending a representative out to a club I was in to give detailed information to us – the others were mainly printers and graphic artists.

What all of this has shown me is that even when we think we know a lot about a particular subject, unless we can communicate that knowledge to other people of different backgrounds, then we are fooling ourselves. I learned a lot more teaching fairly simple programs to others of my own age than I learned at night school and on the job.

“The education of young people in science is at least as important, maybe more so, than the research itself.” – Glenn T. Seaborg.

Lecturers at Melbourne and Monash Universities all complain that their students are not able to adequately really learn what is being taught because their knowledge of their own language is so poor that they cannot communicate to others and hence put that knowledge to a proper use. It is only by communicating what you know that you can successfully organise your knowledge in your own mind.

For this reason I take my hat off to those who are encouraging scientists of all disciplines to tell others what it is that fascinates them so much that they are willing to spend their lives doing it.

The ABC produces an “Occam’s Razor” podcast on science each week which is always interesting, and a book is produced annually called Best Australian Science Writing which also is well worth purchasing. These, along with many other initiatives are helping our bright young thinkers organise their ideas and knowledge for the betterment of all.