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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 6

Readers Respond to “Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields"

Letters to the editor from the December 2013 issue of Scientific American
August 2013 Cover



Scientific American

QUANTUM REALITY

As Meinard Kuhlmann points out in “Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields—or Something Else Entirely” particles and fields are not real but are analogies developed to describe another realm of reality, one that is not accessible to our senses but inferred from observation, measurement, mathematics and theory. An electromagnetic wave is not really like a wave on the ocean, but it is in many ways analogous to such a wave, and through such an analogy, it seems more comprehensible. We must remember that such representations do not describe the true, alien reality of the quantum-mechanical world. We are like fish studying the stars.

John Ball
Huntsville, Ala.


DIGITAL EDUCATION

The articles in the special report Learning in the Digital Age neglect two crucial aspects of teaching. The first is motivation. The digital-learning methods espoused by many of the articles may work well for the highly motivated students highlighted, but most of their peers are not well motivated.

When I read that massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other computer-based learning systems rely on lectures by “good” teachers, I wonder if the definition of “good” is producing students who score well on standardized tests. Good teachers first motivate their students, and motivation does not come from a computer screen but from when students see their instructors deeply involved in learning.

The second aspect is developing critical thinking skills. A few years after I began teaching a general education science course, it became obvious my students weren't learning anything from a template of information-based lectures and multiple-choice tests. I changed my testing format to essay-type questions that required understanding and instituted an optional “review” session outside of regular class hours, which was two hours of intensive interaction with my students, designed to help develop their critical thinking skills. Almost every student dramatically improved in this area by the semester's end.

The facts and knowledge learned in any course will become obsolete well before you retire. The ability to think critically is a skill that will last a lifetime.

Kenneth C. Young
Retired associate professor
University of Arizona


As a high school student, I am excited by the great potential of personalized education technology as described in “How Big Data Is Taking Teachers Out of the Lecturing Business,” by Seth Fletcher, but a couple of things concern me.

First, in my experience, school boards aren't very good at choosing effective technologies, and students are often forced to use frustrating and buggy applications. Second, I fear adaptive software would force all students to plod through poorly executed videos and explanations. The promise of “adaptivity” is that every student could work at her or his own pace. I have doubts, however, that educational companies would make effectively different sets of material for students of different ability levels instead of providing the same one-size-fits-all content in a more high-tech, high-cost format.

Kaylene Stocking
Seattle


ANALYZING TERRORISM

In “The 5 Myths of Terrorism—Including That It Works” [Skeptic], Michael Shermer claims that the ideas that terrorism is deadly and that “it works” are a “fiction.” Shermer expresses a lack of concern over a mere 33 deaths since 9/11 (conveniently subtracting the thousands on 9/11). But how many is too many? Maybe one if you knew and loved that person.

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