Interview to Dr physical and musician Alberto Rojo. Science, art, teaching and evaluation. Educational News Bulletin N. 52
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In this April bulletin we carried out an interview to the Argentinian Doctor in Physics and musician Alberto Rojo. We had the opportunity to discuss different issues such as the prejudice about science teaching, the relation between science and everyday events, and between science, art, teaching and evaluation methods, among other topics.
The interview took place a few weeks before his speech at the International Conference of Teachers during the Feria del Libro 2014 (Book Fair) on Saturday 26th April.
BA and PhD in Physics (Instituto Balseiro). Musician and writer. Professor of Physics (Oakland University, Michigan, EE.UU.) He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago and assistant professor at the University of Michigan. CONICET fellow and visiting professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has published almost 90 physics works in international magazines. He co-authored with Anthony James Leggett (Physics Nobel Prize, 2003.) He wrote La física en la vida cotidiana, El azar en la vida cotidiana (Siglo XXI) and Borges and Quantum Physics. He created and hosted the series Artistas de la ciencia, broadcasted by Encuentro channel.
-Gabriel Latorre:- In your work, it seems that you want to get rid of preconceptions about teaching science. Working in the classroom, do you believe some preconceptions can be taken apart by using information and communications technologies (ICT)?
-Alberto Rojo:- Communications technologies can help teach science because they allow you to show an experience, update it, for example, in 3D. It also applies to information access. But having more access to digital technologies does not imply better teaching. For example, as regards PISA (which employs a method that does not deeply show the categories it presents), the US, where schools have great technology available, ranked 24th on the list.
Some countries such as Poland carry out very interesting experiences and do not have many computers per student. In that sense, working with experiences related to everyday life is a way of getting rid of prejudice about science being something complicated and distant. It has to do with the contact between people, with being able to communicate and transmit passion for what you do.
-GL:-So one way is to transmit the feelings you experience at the time you are communicating what you know to teach someone else.
In my particular case, science improved my mind and changed my life.
-AR:- The goal of teaching, and in particular of science, is to communicate that curiosity to know more, to learn things on our own. It can only be achieved if you are passionate about what you feel and transmit that idea. Thus, the student becomes an eternal student. I do not mean someone who pursues a professional scientific career, but someone who is permanently interested and curious about scientific concepts. At the same time, he is aware this is going to improve his life not only practically, but spiritually. That knowledge enriches your daily experience. The aim of teaching passionately is to make the student a self-taught person. Deep inside we are all self-taught. Everything we learn outside happiness is useless. We have to like what we learn so we can really learn it. That is the main thesis I believe I follow when I teach.
-GL:-As regards joy and passion for learning and teaching, you experience two worlds that are connected through your thoughts and feelings: music and science. Taking this particular condition into account, what do you think about the possibility of connecting art and science with fun learning and teaching?
-AR:- There is still prejudice about art and science being opposite alternatives in the search for truth. That is to say, on one hand there is art related to passion and emotions, and on the other hand there is science, which is reason. Actually, if you research and zoom in the concepts you realize it is not completely like that. There is much dialogue between both of them and a common territory. There is esthetics in science and scientific rigor in art. In fact, in the case of science, in broad terms, much progress made in the field of physics is not achieved by means of an unexplained experiment. Progress follows a horizon of theoretical simplicity, symmetry, elegance, plainness. Notions, such as beauty itself related to the appreciation of a theory, are subjective. At many crossroads in the history of physics, when scientists had to choose between different options, they chose the simplest one. The one that seemed more beautiful ended up being the true one. This opens the door to a philosophical debate. On one hand, why what is beautiful is true? On the other hand, there is a more pragmatic approach. As a pedagogical tool, there are many examples you can use in the classroom. Works of art can help your teach optics, geometry, perspective. Perspective, which is an art method, is used in astronomy. There have even been times in history, such as the Middle Ages, in which perspective was a military resource to estimate the angles in some castles by means of drawing. You can use it in class. For example, photography started as a scientific experiment and then it became an artistic expression. As regards acoustics, music is closely tied to mathematics, arithmetic and physics. It can be a counterargument in the art-science dichotomy. I use it as an example in my physics classes. I teach acoustic phenomena by means of musical instruments.
People are better predisposed to receive scientific concepts presented within an artistic context. I believe taking art and science to the classroom has a twofold purpose: demystifying they serve rival deities (the philosophical aspect) and using art as a facilitator to teach science (the pragmatic aspect.) 
-GL:- This approach enables a playful and experiential stage and develops the sensitivity of the participants.
-AR:- Yes. Playfulness is fundamental. Mathematics is like a mental chess game which can be curiously applied to the physical world. In fact, it is a mystery that the laws of physics can be expressed in mathematical language. They are logical games. Proving a theorem is like playing a more complex Sudoku, right? The more complex the game, the harder it is. But playing it becomes more enjoyable. I think it is interesting to transmit this concept. But it is not easy. When I write big equations, which I believe to be beautiful, my students say “oh, that’s awful!” it is like saying “I don’t understand”. When you do not understand what is being said that may seem ugly. Sometimes students, who may find it difficult, think it is ugly. At his point we go back to the beginning of the interview, when we talked about overcoming prejudices about science and its teaching.
-GL:- In your case, how do you deal with that difficulty in a specific situation in the classroom?
-AR:- I tell the students: “Well. Do you think this equation is ugly? Let’s look carefully and try to find an explanation, or try to formally describe the origin of light.”
Of course teaching someone to like something is very difficult and that is the challenge. Passion is the key. How do I teach you to like caviar? Caviar is an acquired taste. If you give it to a 7-year-old kid he will think it tastes horrible. However, taste can be developed. I am not saying it is the same. Caviar has no useful purpose. But I think there is great pleasure waiting if you can overcome that challenge of scientific learning. I try to communicate them that. I believe the great coherence of mathematics is beautiful and I try to transmit it, though I do not always succeed.
There is also a craft part in which you have to solve certain problems. It is like working out, like doing push-ups. Playing any sport is great, but maybe you do not like doing abs, even if they are necessary. It is also good to learn musical scales when you play an instrument because you can play it much better. Doing math exercises is not an empty practice. It is part of a great unit. That is what i try to transmit in my classes.
-GL:- As regards the evaluation stage, what changes should be made as regards its conception and implementation? Analyze it from your role as a teacher at Oakland University but also as a student who went to high school and the Instituto Balseiro.
-AR:- I believe we cannot only evaluate with a final exam, which is method many universities use here in the US.
I try to replicate the evaluation method we had in Balseiro. To the extent it has been implemented, it is one of the best. It has to do with the teachers’ follow up of each one of the students during the year. This implies continuous evaluation. Of course this is possible in small classes of 20 to 25 students.
I like to know how each student is doing and the degree of understanding in the course. If you evaluate based on what they study two or three days before the exam, you are actually evaluating something that will not last in the future. I believe not only mid-term exams are important, but also the understanding and evolution the student develops.
Many students are good doing exams and others are not because they assimilate things at a different pace, they get nervous or find it hard to communicate what they know in an exam situation.
-GL:- Your method is to accompany a learning process, as if you kept a logbook of each student.
-AR:- Yes. I agree with the idea of supporting a process. The ideal situation would be to evaluate how much they have progressed since the first day in the topics dealt in class.
-GL:- In your books you mention a little bit how you teach, that pedagogy in which you articulate daily life with scientific concepts. How do you face this relation in class?
-AR:- Science, physics in particular, pretends to offer a unified description of nature’s regularities. Our daily life is part of nature. Each experiment we do in a lab is a physics experiment, but we also experiment constantly in our daily lives, and actually they are all scientific experiments.
When you do an experiment, you are asking a question to the universe. These questions not only can be made in the press conference of the lab, but also in the daily dialogue we have with nature. There is a lot of physics in the kitchen, in the variation of water in the pot, in the temperature, in the light coming in through the window. Many things can be decrypted with that key. Many physics discoveries were made with few instruments. Until the XIX century there were not big instruments. Galileo, with a short range telescope, was able to dismiss the theory that the Earth was the center of the universe.
Looking at the visible with great attention you can understand the invisible.
It is essential that the teacher learn to look carefully and observe that the great scientific problems are present in everyday situations. That is what I try to show in my writing.
-GL:- It seems that with this approach you are trying to get rid of popular prejudices about the difficulty of teaching science.
-AR:- Yes, of course. There is a fundamental issue that is essential in teaching science: trying to understand the scientific method. That is why I encourage, students and readers, to experiment, to try to see if the idea we taught them is verifiable doing an experience. In that sense, it is good to incorporate the scientific method to our lives to avoid being victims of pseudo-scientific ideas that show up and spread virally. It is necessary to have a good education of the scientific method, even when you are not a professional scientist. The method proposes a group of concepts and a scheme in which you can ask questions in such a way that you can get answers. Having that knowledge allows you to identify which questions have an answer within this method and which do not. If we are told homeopathy cures, let’s try to understand if this statement can be contrasted and verified, and if it is backed up by evidence.
One interesting thing about teaching science is trying to communicate the idea of the scientific method.
-GL:- Why is it useful for students to know the scientific method?
-AR:- From a cultural perspective, science is the most important achievement of the human being. Thanks to the scientific understanding of the world we have improved our lives. It can be argued that some damage and negative agents come from the side of science. But the scientific basis has definitively made us freer and cured many evils. From a pragmatic point of view, knowing how to solve problems is good and science, physics in particular, trains you to solve a problem logically, to categorize it, to identify causal relations, to find where cause-effect relations seemed to be, but were actually like a smokescreen. It helps you understand and learn to think. Logical training improves your mind and prepares you for any other race in which problem solving is a useful tool.
-GL:- It is a thinking proposal…
-AR:- Yes. In fact, if we go a little bit further, the creative process in general is the combination of problem resolution based on tools you have acquired during a lifetime. The almost divine inspiration coming to the creator does not exist. There is discipline and a better problem solving capacity. Science trains you for that. Scientific knowledge can even make you a better artist. The adventure towards new artistic or even business territories has to do with the ability to solve problems. That is where scientific logic can provide important tools.
-GL:- We could argue that this science teaching approach can be applied to other fields as regards: posing a problem, analyzing it, solving it, comparing and contrasting how to solve it.
-AR:- Absolutely. Physics and mathematics provide great mental training to pose and categorize an enigma. I can provide an example based on my experience. When I was a postdoctoral researcher in Chicago there were five postdocs in physics. Four of them left to work in consulting firms or banks. I was the only one who continued in the academic activity. Why did business consultants look for scientists to solve problems? When I met my partners, when they were already employees in these companies, they told me about the problems they solved. For example, they were taken to factories and told “this factory has lowered its productivity and we do not really know why.” The scientist’s mentality was useful to analyze it from a different angle. Physics prepares you to doubt pre-established concepts and consider things on your own. The history of physics shows you how certain paradigms of thought move towards new ways of thinking. Seeing how this history develops and understanding how underlying concepts transform – concepts of movement, temperature, entropy, electricity, and magnetism – allows you to translate them to other worlds that may seem completely disconnected from physics, such as a company or a bank.
-GL:- As regards art, how do you live that translation of a way of thinking to the resolution of a problem, for example, of a composition?
-AR:- I cannot account for great works in my creative process. But I see there are two moments in the creative process: first you propose a work, and then there is a problem in that work. Jorge Luis Borges says: “I have a beginning and an end and then I have to find out what happened in the middle.” Finding out what happened in the middle is the solving of a problem. That is the second moment.
A musical piece, even without lyrics, has a narrative. That is why I gave Borges’ example. You have to organize the story, the different paragraphs, and the various characters. Deep inside, there are melodic characters, talking to each other that you articulate with the harmonic drama. That is to say: there is a great component in the resolution of a problem because you have an outline and then you have to solve it. There is one question: which way should I go?
There is also an instance in which we do not know how the mind works. Neuroscience partially tells us how the creative process works. But I believe there are random components of elements you have incorporated during a lifetime to make certain decisions against others when you are composing. All the incorporated tools participate there. They are made up by the influences, the studies of harmony, melody and counterpoint. They combine with your tradition and your logical troubleshooting ability. Though they may not identify it, many musicians have incorporated the scientific method. In literature I can see this in Borges. He was not a scientist, but he created his literature rigorously. Sometimes he seems more like a scientist than an artist in the conventional sense.
-GL:- Some of your themes have a complexity, both musically as well as in relation to the topics you present.
-AR:- Sometimes I let myself be carried away to places where I do not have a rational command. But I can say that in many cases I decide where to go.
-GL:- As regards the relation between thinking and feeling, we can observable in many cases how science is separated from sensitivity, as a prior instance to feeling, in order to work rationally with self-destructive effects.
-AR:- What you state is aligned with a good scientific teaching practice. Education in general, and in particular a good scientific education, will increase a sense of ethics, an understanding of how tiny we are in time and space, because we occupy an infinitesimal time in the history of the universe. That sense of ethics comes with respect to nature, the planet and preservation for the future. That is another vertex of the virtues of scientific education.
Taking into account that we analyzed this development from the perspective of an ethical conception, what would be the basic knowledge in the teaching of science thinking about children?
-AR:- There is a comprehensive concept that the universe has a huge complexity which is more subtle and rich than what has been considered for centuries. There is also awareness of the huge complexity of the world. Such complexity can be condensed within a small number of laws. That is a kind of mystery: the mystery that we can understand, or at least describe, regularities about how nature works. I am daily amazed by the fact that the world around us is at least partly comprehended by the mind of the human being. In that sense, I would highlight again the virtue of science which increases our sense of ethics. It is also important that the public in general identifies the main laws of nature: movement, entropy as an apparent paradox that life is an increase in the complexity of order, while the law of increasing entropy states we tend to “disorder”. Then there is another group of concepts scientific education should aim at. These are the concepts that the public in general misunderstands and in many cases, because they misunderstand them, they take the wrong decisions. For example: the concept of randomness. In secondary education, there should be a part of a subject, or at least a module, to explain a little the concept of randomness, which is extremely complex. But when misunderstood, meaning is attributed to some phenomena that do not have meaning because they are just the result of chance. Such is the case of coincidences, for example. When I run into someone I had not seen for six months and then I run into him again at the supermarket I interpret that as a “sign”. Is it a sign? It is not a sign. If you analyze the calculation of probabilities you will observe that those probabilities result in a series of conditions which make that coincidence more likely to happen. There are many cases in which understanding some basic laws could provide information to take certain decisions.
The theory of evolution is also essential to develop the level of understanding as regards the emergence of the complexity of the world. For example: the other day I was listening on the radio that tree leaves change their color in winter to warn insects that cold is coming. That is actually wrong from the scientific point of view, because a tree does not say anything to an insect. However, from the evolutionary point of view, if insects are alerted by color, and that alert helps them to survive, it means, from the scientific point of view, that there is a correlation between the color of the leaves and the insects’ survival. Why? Because insects that can see the color will tend to survive against those that do not see or distinguish it. That cause and effect inversion, which is very common in reasoning, deserves to be communicated.
-GL:- There is an almost poetic image in the example of the tree warning the insects through the color of its leaves that winter is coming. The statement implies a convergence of a sort of poetic image that may be part of an artistic expression, carrying a scientific explanation behind.
-AR:- I am currently working in a proposal for the metaphoric use of scientific language. Many of the great metaphors in literature belong to scientists. Scientific language is full of poetic images. There is a big connection between poetry and science. If we say, for example, that the atmosphere is an ocean of air and we live in the bottom, then we have an image that helps us think about ourselves. Those metaphors, and much deeper ones, can be used in the classroom to explain phenomena. At the same time, they portray that convergence between poetic and scientific language. This enables reconciliation between art and science.
-GL:- In your classes, do you relate music to science?
-AR:- I teach a lot with the connection between both of them, a connection that has thousands of years. Pythagoras identifies that the consonance of sounds has to do with the numeric quotient between the lengths of the strings. If you have a set of strings with the same tension and play two strings separated by an octave simultaneously, one open string and the other one half the length, the ear perceives them as pleasant. We do not know why, but there is a 2 to 1 quotient associated to consonance. If that becomes 3 to 2, that is to say if a string is one and a half times larger than the other one, and they sound at the same time with the same tension, they sound as a nice interval. That is the interval we now know as a fifth interval. Three to two, two to one, that is how numeric quotients appear showing that musical grammar is expressed in numbers. That is to say, what sounds pleasant has an arithmetic language behind. Harmonious sequences, modulations, chord changes in popular and classical music have temporary patterns that are in some degree of disagreement. Like squared spatial patterns, you can put one inside the other. If you put a squared one on top of another one which is twice as big, they both fit in the other’s place. If you translate that to the relation of time, that fitting lasts for a specific period of time until moving to another one. That provides a sort of soft transition between two harmonious sectors.
Furthermore, there is some symmetry in music scales. The fact that there are seven notes in the octave division is a numeric coincidence that gave us a clue in the Middle Ages that there may be a musical connection between earthly laws and the movement of stars. The movement of bodies is a concept developed based on the conscience that there are seven notes in the scale and there were seven planets (the Moon was considered a planet at that time.) Although now we know that is not true, it was the first step towards a rational understanding of the cosmos. The first sign to think that there is logic in the movement of space bodies was musical. If you keep moving forward in the history of science to the theories of unification of gravity and quantum physics, I think about the superstring theory. I can see it is an almost musical theory because they are super microscopic chords that vibrate. The super elemental particles that make up those strings are vibrations of those same chords. That means there is a huge relation between physics, mathematics and music, between arts and science. That relation can be used in class with many exemplifications.
-GL:- It would be a way of relating the teaching of concepts appealing to the sensibility of students through aesthetic experiences.
-AR:- Yes. The happiness of the joy of understanding a problem is as big as experimenting a work of art. Borges says in one of his stories: “Oh bliss of understanding, greater than the bliss of feeling…”
Scientific education, together with artistic education, gives us a sense of greater connection with nature and others. A more detailed understanding of phenomena implies the development of a deeper bond with nature. That is why there is an almost religious attitude in science.
 As regards the use of literary examples in science teaching, on September 15th we will post in our video library the conference that Alberto Rojo gave on April 26th 2014 at the International Conference of Teachers in Argentina during the Book Fair. That video will include a didactic guide for practical applications in the classroom. To keep yourself updated, we suggest you subscribe to our infolúminis bulletin through this form.