Wednesday, 28 December 2011

If we could answer all her questions...

“…if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.” – Carl Sagan
When I was young my inquisitive nature occasionally got me into trouble. Often in fiction, the child whose only aim is to annoy is portrayed as firing off a string of high pitched "why"s; it is easy to see how a secondary school teacher could be driven to madness when - with the constraints of an academic year, a period length, and an externally dictated curriculum - they are confronted with an incessant desire to know the reasons why.
Amongst all my report card comments, mostly telling me to be quiet in class, two contrasting comments stick with me to this day. The comments that I most clearly remember were both made by Physics teachers; one when I was in year 8 (1999) and one when I was in year 12 (2005):

"I am not here to answer Margarida's questions."

This did not, however, deter me.

"If I knew the answers to all of Margarida's questions, I'd be a very famous physicist."

I have to say that the latter teacher did far more for me, and us as a class, to ensure that we understood what we could about science and physics, than the first teacher ever did. The good teacher embraced the limitations of his ability to answer as part of the beauty of science and its ever-expanding body of knowledge. The bad teacher took it as a personal insult that I had the audacity to ask him questions to which he could not provide an answer, and seemed to think that it was my way of making him look bad, or ignorant, to the class. Only years later and with the benefit of hindsight and maturity do I understand that as the origin of his hostility towards me.


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