“Little Soldiers”: American Schools and Chinese Schools

Much has been written about the growing disparity between the test scores of Chinese and American students – especially in science and math. Yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News carried a preview of a new book titled Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I naturally checked Amazon for the book. I was pleased to find that the book became available that very day. Based on the impressive newspaper review of the book and the author’s obvious writing ability, I ordered a copy and look forward to reading it, soon.

Why am I so interested in the general subject of students and their education? For two reasons: First, I was fortunate to be the first in my entire family tree to attend and graduate from college – many years ago (B.S. Electrical Engineering, Stanford University, 1963). Second, my wife and two grown daughters all taught/teach school. Accordingly, I have a great appreciation of the benefits from a good education as well as the difficulties teachers, today, encounter in school classrooms.

What are those difficulties in American schools? The core of the problems centers on poor student attitudes toward school and learning and too much leeway given to students, their parents, and school administrators – at the expense of teachers, classroom discipline, and effective education. I offer a concrete example.

My oldest daughter teaches in grades 1-3 in the public schools. In each of her classes for the last three years, she has been saddled with a different and singularly difficult student, one who sapped much of her time and energy each day in class and after class. Each of these youngsters would, in past years, have been cited as special education students – students with significant learning/attention/ behavior disabilities. Today’s educational philosophies embrace the policies of “mainstreaming,” or “inclusion” whereby such challenged students are placed in regular classes as opposed to special education classes where small classes of special needs students are capably handled by trained special-ed teachers. The thinking behind this recent policy of inclusion? Immersion in a regular class will benefit the disadvantaged student by minimizing stigma while conditioning the other students’ understanding and empathy toward those with problems.

The reality? A regular classroom which accommodates a special needs student with significant learning/attention/behavior problems is often a nightmare for the teacher and a detriment to the learning environment for the other students. One such student my daughter has encountered continually disrupted the class with unprovoked behaviors such as screaming, throwing objects at the other students (and the teacher), kicking other students and sometimes bolting from the classroom. Heeding directives from the teacher seemed void of priority.

The moral of that story: One child who should not be in a “regular” classroom, is accommodated by today’s educational system in America at the expense of all the other capable students in the classroom who suffer from continual distractions and lost teaching time during the school day. Even a full-time aide who can whisk the child from the classroom when that student “loses it” cannot prevent repeated and significant learning distractions for the rest of the class. The best hope for the teacher: After many weeks have passed and a bureaucratic battery of tests on the student indicates obvious severe learning/behavioral problems, the child might be removed from the classroom. In China, the teacher with such a behavior problem would have full discretion to immediately and permanently remove that student from class – no testing, no bureaucracy, no parental approval required. The teacher in China knows what is best for the class as a whole, and that is what counts in China. This is the “Chinese way” of education philosophy. It brings to mind an old Japanese proverb which states that “the nail that protrudes, gets hammered down.” Needless to say, that approach is a 180 degree departure from the current American way which would admonish that “the protruding nail be protected at all costs.”

The author of Little Soldiers, Lenora Chu is the American mother of two young boys whose family is residing in Shanghai, China; she experienced, first hand, the highly reported, high-achieving school system in Shanghai when one of her sons attended school, there. One experience she relates in the book supports the contentions I raise in this post concerning the authority vested in China’s schoolteachers. Ms. Chu’s son was struggling with winter asthma attacks which necessitated a rescue inhaler to deal with his attacks. When teacher Chen was approached by Ms. Chu who asked where her son could keep his inhaler in the classroom, the teacher responded that the inhaler and its use in class would create unwelcome distractions for the class and thus was not allowed. When Ms. Chu asked what she and her son’s options were, the teacher informed her that she could leave the school if not satisfied. Imagine that in America! Ms. Chu realized that “going to the principal” would not change matters given the authority the system grants to classroom teachers in China. Fortunately, the boy’s asthma problem was resolved thanks to a home-administered preventative steroid inhaler.

Here are my conclusions regarding the discussion so far:

-American schools have suffered greatly from the growing lack of teacher authority in the classroom. Most of us retired folks recall our parents going into requested teacher/parent conferences ready and willing to relegate top priority to the teacher’s remarks and to their side of the story. Today, too many parents enter into discussions prepared to defend their student’s version of events despite what the teacher has to say: The “Johnny can do no wrong” syndrome is alive and well in America, but certainly not in China.

-American schools must reverse the trend and put the interests of the majority of students ahead of those individual students who require special help. I am all for funding special education classes and teachers who can help those students with severe problems, but does it make any sense to try to “include” them in regular classrooms when, by definition, they will not be able to keep pace there and will detract from the learning experience of students ready, able, and willing to learn? In that respect, the Chinese have their priorities straight.

-My family’s combined educational experiences, here, in California’s tech-savvy “Silicon Valley,” have shown that Asian and Indian students tend to display greater focus and discipline in their approach to school and education than do other students. I believe this is the by-product of cultural influences which emphasize a respect for learning and knowledge. It is an attitude formed primarily by parental and peer example and it influences students positively, especially at an early age.

-My two granddaughters are currently students in high school and junior high. They are excellent students who work hard and spend many long hours on homework assignments each week. I know that for a fact. They attend good schools which have excellent achievement records. They DO experience self-imposed and peer-imposed pressure to do well in their studies, but even their experiences likely pale in comparison to those students in Shanghai, China who face extreme pressure from home and from society to excel in school.

-I favor taking the best of both worlds which define American and Chinese education. I believe teachers in America should have much more authority in their classrooms and more respect from students, parents, and administrators. Accordingly, better pay and greater prestige for teachers should serve to attract the best and brightest to the profession. Students should come to class with a “learning attitude” which can best be nurtured at home; often in America, this is not the case.

-The Chinese system is too demanding and disciplined, overall. The fallout rate (failure rate for life, essentially) of students is unacceptable. Regrettably, the extreme discipline and enforced learning of the Chinese system can easily strangle student curiosity and creative thought, and the presence of those two key factors is the real key to an optimal educational experience for students.

I have only begun to touch upon the issues important in any discussion of students, schools, and education. So much of successful learning by students emanates not from the schools and teachers, but from parents/guardians and the home environment. Unbridled curiosity is the key catalyst for success in school. My book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning explores that concept in detail. As Albert Einstein once insisted, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” And he was.
My book is not only for parents whose students are underperforming in school, but also for new and prospective parents who wish to instill a “learning attitude” in their children. And, yes, for you parents who are wondering, I write at length about the student distractions of today – namely cell phones and social media!

Click on the link below to find my book on Amazon:

Alan’s book at Amazon

A Lasting Presence Amid a Sea of Constant Change

Is it not a comfort to find something in this life of constant and rapid change that bucks the tide? For me, it most certainly is – but why is that?

The cloistered, open-air sandstone hallways of Stanford University contain a number of interesting things, but one unlikely candidate has left an indelible impression upon my sensibilities.

This finely-tiled drinking fountain was a gift of Stanford’s class of 1926. For almost ninety-one years, tucked away from view in a corner of the arched hallways which surround the school’s “inner quadrangle,” this little jewel has rebuffed the onslaught of efficient, modern, stainless steel replacement plumbing…and I am so glad for it. And it is still functional, reliably delivering a sprightly stream of cool drinking water upon command – despite its advanced age.

Linda and I had visited the nearby Stanford Museum (now known as the Cantor Arts Center) last week. As we walked from there to the campus bookstore, we cut through the inner quad, the focal point of the university campus. I took this picture as we turned into the surrounding hallway, and, as has been the case since 1960 when I first enrolled as a student, the fountain was still there, unchanged and right where it was supposed to be. The experience for me is akin to happily greeting an old, dear friend once again who is defying age and still doing fine – looking good despite the many years.

We First “Met” in 1960

I retain a somewhat fuzzy yet stubbornly persistent recollection of first encountering that colorful old fountain and pausing for a drink during my first week as a student in the fall of 1960. As I recall that Saturday afternoon, I was crossing campus on my way to the women’s dorm to pick up a girl named Virginia, my Saturday afternoon date to my first Stanford football game as a student. The University of Wisconsin was the opponent that day in the contest held in 90,000 seat Stanford Stadium, a half-mile walk across campus.

I remember pausing for a drink of water and subsequently encountering and greeting a recent acquaintance of mine who was passing by. As I turned to continue my journey to the women’s dorm, I cast a backward glance at the unusual, tiled fountain which had just satisfied my thirst. At that point – for whatever reason – I bookmarked the moment in the deeper recesses of my memory bank, and it has remained there ever since. Perhaps the euphoria of being a newly-arrived student on the Stanford campus on a football Saturday was the catalyst.

For sure, the memory of that moment and that location (the fountain) is still subject to immediate recall after, lo, these many years. I have always been intrigued by events of the past – the power of time and place in our lives, and that incident and that place have somehow stood the test of time – fifty-seven years, to be exact.

Hopefully, I can still manage to amble past that very spot on Stanford’s inner quad twenty years from now and renew my acquaintance, yet again, with that same unassuming, yet satisfying campus landmark. I hope it will remain just as it was and is in 1926, and 1960, and 2017, immune to the ravages of time and change, even though I surely will not be so fortunate.

Inclusion, Not Diversity: Martin Luther King’s Most Enduring Quote and Legacy

There is a new trend afoot in America’s racial/ethnic relationships which draws from the message inherent in my favorite quote of Martin Luther King Jr.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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The new catchword in America today is “inclusion” as opposed to “diversity.” On one level, diversity in America is a good thing; on another level, it is not. King’s quote for the ages has been widely interpreted by liberals and conservatives, alike, often in support of their own viewpoints and agendas. I feel I can best express the point of this post by stating my own personal attitude re: King’s expressed hope.

For me, categorizing whole groups of people according to impressions or statistical norms is not where I am or where I want to be. Although that is not to say that well-documented ethnic socio/economic realities have no validity or value as remedies for social issues, statistical generalizations should carry no weight when it comes to one-on-one interpersonal relationships across racial/ethnic lines. Whether friend, associate, customer, salesperson, handyman, or casual acquaintance, my governing impression of another person centers first and foremost on their perceived character. Color of skin, accent, clothing, etc. have no effect on my relationship with that person once a level of mutual respect, good will, and trust has been established. Dr. King’s “content of character” phrase resonates loudly and clearly.

That approach, to me, is the very kernel of the meaning of “inclusion.” First and foremost, inclusion implies membership in the fraternity of all human beings possessing good character and a willingness to better themselves through hard work. Demonstrating those qualities should be – no, must be – sufficient to guarantee acceptance by all quarters of American society regardless of one’s race, or cultural background. Inclusion in that sense seeks to blur lines of division among us whereas diversity tends to emphasize or at least retain them.

The extent to which America can embrace Dr. King’s character-based vision or not will determine the future of race relations in this country. King’s criteria for judging people imposes a significant mandate on minorities as well as on mainstream, white America. While being other than white should never impose societal barriers nor foster discrimination, neither should it provide a convenient umbrella for sheltering those who would not measure up using Dr. King’s “content of character” yardstick.

I believe that a diverse America makes for a more interesting and dynamic society than does population homogeneity and that the historical roles of the Native-American, the African-American, and the great immigrations from Ireland, Italy, Poland, etc. should be an integral part of our country’s history. In that vein, such diversity should increasingly become more a facet of purely historical interest and significance and less a political wedge than is currently the case. And America must learn the valuable lessons inherent in that history.

The societal problems of America will not be solved by top-down governmental policies coming from Washington; lasting solutions can emerge only from a grass-roots, person-to-person embrace of Martin Luther King’s entreaty, that all our peoples will “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Trumping even the central message of Dr. King’s great “I have a dream” speech is the (hopefully) governing tenet of all organized religion which beseeches us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

hr-icrcm-stools1In contrast to the social distinctions highlighted by focusing on diversity, a true national unity based on the spirit of brotherhood and the pursuit of common goals is necessary to carry the day. That is the message of “inclusion” as opposed to that of “diversity” which too often emphasizes our divisions.

Opposite: The original lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina where, on February 1, 1960, four black college students took their seats and demanded service at the then-segregated counter. More recently, the store has been a museum celebrating the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement which took place there.

The Coming Decline of College and Professional Football; The Resurgence of Track and Field

The decline of college and professional football as we know it is now underway and fast gaining momentum. The reality is undeniable – virtually a “no-brainer.” Here are the key reasons for the trend:

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Football, especially at the college and professional levels, is a dangerous sport. In the professional ranks, football played over a career lasting more than seven years often exacts severe penalties in the form of lifelong disabilities, minor and major. Listen carefully and heed the testimonials of many professional players who retire in their thirties and live the rest of their long lives enduring disability and pain from the injuries and general wear-and-tear suffered during their football careers.

The most recent data regarding the cognitive effects of concussions and repeated head trauma is the most damaging of all to the future of the game. “Better helmet design” is not a viable solution to this problem. One might be tempted to rationalize the problem by invoking the arguments that not all players suffer cognitive issues later in life, and there will always be professional athletes willing to trade the risks for a lucrative career. One might argue that embracing football’s risks is one of the grown-up choices one makes in life – let the athletes decide! But football’s dilemma is not that simple.

Here is what will happen – is already happening – that portends the decline of the sport: Parents will increasingly be unwilling to expose their young students, at the high school level and earlier, to the risks football entails.

Without active high school programs to function as a junior farm system for the colleges and universities, the pool of talented college athletes will diminish. Without enough good athletes participating in high-visibility college/university programs, the professional level will suffer. Simply put, the current popularity and “success” of football at the college and professional levels cannot survive a crumbling foundation at the high school level, and that is precisely the current trend as parents and students weigh the risks and order their life-priorities. The turn-out for high school football has notably declined in the past two years since concussion data has been made public.

MONEY: Yes, the root of much if not all evil! When is the last time you have attended a major college football game? Was it a great experience, well worth the individual ticket price of $40 to $90 for mediocre seats? As a life-long college football fan following, among others, my alma mater, Stanford University, here is a summation of my experiences with the college game:

-Very high ticket prices today even for mediocre seats, most all of which are now “reserved.” Gone are the general admission end-zone seats which were, until recently, readily available on game day for a family-friendly price of $15.

-Want to bring your youngsters to a college game despite the high cost? Gone also are the sun-drenched Saturday afternoon game days at places like Stanford Stadium, the setting for so many of my football memories involving great players and big games. Today, you and your children will more likely than not be filing into a college stadium for a 7 pm game on a cool fall evening – bed-times for your children be damned. For the first several decades of its existence, the old Stanford Stadium seating 80,000 did not even have lights!

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Stadium-goers can thank television, the sports networks, and big money for relegating the truest and most faithful fans to second-class status. Games today are scheduled exclusively for television and the big money the networks bring to the athletic conferences and schools.

-Oh, and speaking of television: For fans attending the game, expect, in addition to exorbitant parking fees these days, lots of dead-time throughout the game in order to parade the line-up of lengthy television commercials. Games today are drawn-out affairs because of this. Not so very long ago, the infrequent sight of television vans outside Stanford Stadium was exciting, indicative of national attention on a particularly important game to be played that afternoon. Today, PAC 12 conference games are routinely televised; no longer is that a plus for the fans in attendance. Rather, it is bad news for the reasons just cited. Bottom line: Too many games on television, too much exposure, too much money in the sport…just TOO much!

-The last, but certainly not the least of issues: The charade of college football as a sport played by “student-athletes” simply cannot be ignored even by the most die-hard of fans. The reality today is that many college/university football programs are more representative of an NFL farm system for aspiring professional athletes than a legitimate student-athlete endeavor. Graduation rates for football and basketball players are pitifully poor for many colleges and universities – even some “elite” ones. I am pleased that Stanford University is not one of those whose athletes are “in school” to play ball. Stanford runs an exemplary athletic program despite being caught in the cross-currents of today’s money/sports realities.

The Money

-A sure indicator of the excesses inherent in today’s system is the fact that the highest paid employee at the big football schools is…the head football coach! Salaries in the millions of dollars are becoming common. Neither the presidents of those same universities nor renowned Nobel laureate professors on the faculty come close to earning as much as the head coach at the big football factories. Success on the football field translates into big bucks for the school from influential alumni donors who live vicariously vis-à-vis football success on game-day, ethics be-damned. The whole situation is really quite pathetic and hypocritical! Click on the two links at the end of this post to previous blog posts of mine which cover the corrosive effects of money on football today in more detail.

Take Care of Your Body, Especially the Brain and Knees!

A00680F01[1]Have you ever sat in a doctor’s exam room waiting for his/her arrival and noticed the anatomy charts which are often present on the walls? Inevitably I am amazed at the miraculous intricacies that reside within the eye, the inner ear, and even the knee. The knee: A remarkable example of bio-engineering, is it not? Whenever I see the “knee picture,” I cannot help but shudder in revulsion at the thought of the damage a bad football hit can and very frequently does inflict on such a remarkable natural creation. Were I the parent of young boys, I would discourage them from playing tackle football for the sake of their knees alone. I am the grandfather of two young boys, quite certain that their parents will not support football as a sporting activity for either of them. What are the alternatives?

The Resurgence of Track and Field for Youngsters

I heard a news report the other day that high-school enrollments in track and field now exceed declining football enrollments for the very first time. Nothing could please me more as a former high-school hurdler on the San Mateo High track team…way back in 1958! The present trend reflects both the new concerns with football and a re-discovery of the virtues inherent in the sport of track and field. Youth soccer has already made great inroads as an alternative to football, but I see track and field as the long-ignored venue that offers even more variety and opportunity to young athletes. I was dismayed while watching the Rio Olympics that so many track events were run to less than capacity crowds. That never was the case in my day and probably would not have occurred in a European Olympic venue. Track has been off the radar screen for a long time in the USA, but all good things have a habit of returning to favor. I believe that track and field’s time has come again as a great alternative to youth football.

When I was in high school, track and field had an avid following in this country. In 1962, my father and I attended the two-day track meet held in Palo Alto, California between the USA and the Soviet Union. The competition engendered huge national/international interest and filled the old Stanford Stadium to its 80,000 seat capacity for both days. I was thrilled to witness the Russian star, Valery Brumel, set the then-world record in the high-jump at seven feet, five inches.

500c3ff4d4f90.image[1]I was recently surprised when my eldest granddaughter, Megan, announced she was attending track camp this past summer. She has just entered high school this fall and plans to run track, possibly the hurdles – like Grandpa! Megan worked hard all summer on conditioning at track camp, and I was impressed by her dedication and the fact that other of her friends were also going out for track. I suspect Megan and her friends are fashionably riding the cusp of a new wave – the coming resurgence of track and field as a great sport for youngsters – boys and girls. Nothing would please me more.

My Favorite Track Event: The High Hurdles

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Me – Burlingame High Track, 1958                              Liu Xiang – Athens, 2004

 

Click on the links, below, to go to the post archives on my Home page for these pertinent posts:

-College Football Today: Running Toward the Wrong Goal (9/1/13)

-Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students? (11/1/14)

-Life-Lessons Learned from Playing Sports (2/2/14)

Marking the Passage of Time: The Elusive Nature of the Concept

Nature presents us with few mysteries more tantalizing than the concept of “time.” Youngsters, today, might not think the subject worthy of much rumination: After all, one’s personal iPhone can conveniently provide the exact time at any location on our planet.

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Human beings have long struggled with two fundamental questions regarding time:

  1. What are the fundamental units in nature used to express time? More simply, what constitutes one second of time? How is one second determined?
  2. How can we “accurately” measure time using the units chosen to express it?

The simple answers for those so inclined might be: We measure time in units of seconds, minutes, hours, and days, etc., and we have designed carefully constructed and calibrated clocks to measure time! That was easy, wasn’t it?

The bad news: Dealing with the concept of time is not quite that simple.
The good news: The fascinating surprises and insights gained from taking a closer, yet still cursory, look at “time” are well worth the effort to do so. To do the subject justice requires far more than a simple blog post – scholarly books, in fact – but my intent, here, is to illustrate how fascinating the concept of time truly is.

Webster’s dictionary defines time as “a period or interval…the period between two events or during which ‘something’ exists, happens, or acts.”

For us humans the rising and setting of the sun – the cycle of day and night is a “something” that happens, repeats itself, and profoundly effects our existence. It is that very cycle which formed our first concept of time. The time required for the earth to make one full revolution on its axis is but one of many repeating natural phenomena, and it was, from the beginning of man’s existence, uniquely qualified to serve as the arbitrary definition of time measurement. Other repeatable natural phenomena could have anchored our definition of time: For instance, the almost constant period of the earth’s rotation around the sun (our year) or certain electron- jump vibrations at the atomic level could have been chosen except that such technology was unknown and unthinkable to ancient man. In fact, today’s universally accepted time standard utilizes a second defined by the extraordinarily stable and repeatable electron jumps within Cesium 133 atoms – the so-called atomic clock which has replaced the daily rotation of the earth as the prime determinant of the second.

Why use atomic clocks instead of the earth’s rotation period to define the second? Because the earth’s rotational period varies from month to month due to the shape of our planet’s orbit around the sun. Its period also changes over many centuries as the earth’s axis “precesses” (a slowly rotating change of direction) relative to the starry firmament, all around. By contrast, atomic clocks are extremely regular in their behavior.

Timekeepers on My Desk: From Drizzling Sand to Atomic Clocks!

I have on my desk two time-keepers which illustrate the startling improvement in time-keeping over the centuries. One is the venerable hour-glass: Tip it over and the sand takes roughly thirty minutes (in mine) to drizzle from top chamber to bottom. The other timekeeper is one of the first radio-controlled clocks readily available – the German-built Junghans Mega which I purchased in 1999. It features an analog display (clock-hands, not digital display) based on a very accurate internal quartz electronic heartbeat: The oscillations of its tiny quartz-crystal resonator. Even the quartz oscillator may stray from absolute accuracy by as much as 0.3 seconds per day in contrast to the incredible regularity of the cesium atomic clocks which now define the international second as 9,192,631,770 atomic “vibrations” of cesium 133 atoms – an incredibly stable natural phenomena. The Junghans Mega uses its internal radio capability to automatically tune in every evening at 11 pm to the atomic clocks operating in Fort Collins, Colorado. Precise time-sync signals broadcast from there are utilized to “reset” the Mega to the precise time each evening at eleven.

I love this beautifully rendered German clock which operates all year on one tiny AA battery and requires almost nothing from the operator in return for continuously accurate time and date information. Change the battery once each year and its hands will spin to 12:00 and sit there until the next radio query to Colorado. At that point, the hands will spin to the exact second of time for your world time zone, and off it goes….so beautiful!

Is Having Accurate Time So Important?
You Bet Your Life…and Many Did!

Yes, keeping accurate time is far more important than not arriving late for your doctor’s appointment! The fleets of navies and the world of seagoing commerce require accurate time…on so many different levels. In 1714, the British Admiralty offered the then-huge sum of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could concoct a practical way to measure longitude at sea. That so-called Longitude Act was inspired by a great national tragedy involving the Royal Navy. On October 22, 1707, a fleet of ships was returning home after a sojourn at sea. Despite intense fog, the flagship’s navigators assured Admiral Sir Cloudisley Shovell that the fleet was well clear of the treacherous Scilly Islands, some twenty miles off the southwest coast of England. Such was not the case, however, and the admiral’s flagship, Association, struck the shoals first, quickly sinking followed by three other vessels. Two thousand lives were lost in the churning waters that day. Of those who went down, only two managed to wash ashore alive. One was Sir Cloudesley Shovell. As an interesting aside, the story has it that a woman combing the beach happened across the barely alive admiral, noticed the huge emerald ring on his finger, and promptly lifted it, finishing him off in the process. She confessed the deed some thirty years later, offering the ring as proof.

The inability of seafarers to navigate safely by determining their exact location at sea was of great concern to sea powers like England who had a great investment in both their fleet of fighting ships and their commerce shipping. A ship’s latitude could be quite accurately determined on clear days by “shooting” the height of the sun above the horizon using a sextant, but its longitude position was only an educated guess. The solution to the problem of determining longitude-at-sea materialized in the form of an extremely accurate timepiece carried aboard ship and commonly known ever since as a “chronometer.” Using such a steady, accurate time-keeper, longitude could be calculated.

For the details, I recommend Dava Sobel’s book titled “Longitude.” The later, well-illustrated version is the one to read. In her book, the author relates the wonderfully improbable story of an English country carpenter who parlayed his initial efforts building large wooden clocks into developing the world’s first chronometer timepiece accurate enough to solve the “longitude problem.” After frustrating decades of dedicated effort pursuing both the technical challenge and the still-to-be-claimed prize money, John Harrison was finally able to collect the 20,000 pound admiralty award.

Why Mention Cuckoo Clocks? Enter Galileo and Huygens

Although the traditional cuckoo clock from the Black Forest of Germany does not quite qualify as a maritime chronometer, its pendulum principle plays an historical role in the overall story of time and time-keeping. With a cuckoo clock or any pendulum clock, the ticking rate is dependent only on the effective length of the pendulum, and not its weight or construction. If a cuckoo clock runs too fast, one must lower the typical wood-carved leaf cluster on the pendulum shaft to increase the pendulum period and slow the clock-rate.

No less illustrious a name than Galileo Galilei was the first to propose the possibilities of the pendulum clock in the early 1600’s. Indeed, Galileo was the first to understand pendulum motion and, with an assistant late in life, produced a sketch of a possible pendulum clock. A few decades later, in 1658, the great French scientist, Christian Huygens, wrote his milestone book of science and mathematics, Horologium Oscillatorium, in which he presented a detailed mathematical treatment of pendulum motion-physics. By 1673, Huygens had constructed the first pendulum clock following the principles set forth in his book.

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In 1669, a very notable scientific paper appeared in the seminal English journal of science, The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. That paper was the first English translation of a treatise originally published by Christian Huygens in 1665. In his paper, Huygens presents “Instructions concerning the use of pendulum-watches for finding the longitude at sea, together with a journal of a method for such watches.” The paper outlines a timekeeping method using the “equation of time” (which quantifies the monthly variations of the earth’s rotational period) and capitalizes on the potential accuracy of his proposed pendulum timekeeper. The year 1669 in which Huygens’ paper on finding the longitude-at-sea appeared in The Philosophical Transactions preceded by thirty-eight years the disastrous navigational tragedy of the British fleet and Sir Cloudesley Shovell in 1707.

As mentioned earlier, John Harrison was the first to design and construct marine chronometers having the accuracy necessary to determine the longitude-at-sea. After many years of utilizing large balanced pendulums in his bulky designs, Harrison’s ultimate success came decades later in the form of a large “watch” design which utilized the oscillating balance-wheel mechanism, so familiar today, rather than the pendulum principle. Harrison’s chronometer taxed his considerable ingenuity and perseverance to the max. The device had to keep accurate time at sea – under the worst conditions imaginable ranging from temperature and humidity extremes to the rolling/heaving motion of a ship at sea

The Longitude Act of 1714 specified that less than two minutes of deviation from true time is required over a six-week sea voyage to permit a longitude determination to within one-half degree of true longitude (35 miles at the equator). Lost time, revenue, and human lives were the price to be paid for excessive timekeeper inaccuracies.

Einstein and Special Relativity: Speeding Clocks that Run Slow

Albert Einstein revolutionized physics in 1905 with his special theory of relativity. Contrary to the assumptions of Isaac Newton, relativity dictates that there is no absolute flow of time in the universe – no master clock, as it were. An experiment will demonstrate what this implies: Two identical cesium 133 atomic clocks (the time-standard which defines the “second”) will run in virtual synchronization when sitting side by side in a lab. We would expect that to be true. If we take one of the two and launch it in an orbital space vehicle which then circles the earth at 18,000 miles per hour, from our vantage point on earth, we would observe that the orbiting clock now runs slightly slower than its identical twin still residing in our lab, here on earth. Indeed, upon returning to earth and the lab after some period of time spent in orbit, the elapsed time registered by the returning clock will be less than that of its twin which stayed put on earth even though its run-rate again matches its stationary twin! In case you are wondering, this experiment has indeed been tried many times. Unerringly, the results of such tests support Einstein’s contention that clocks moving with respect to an observer “at rest” will always run slower (as recorded by the observer) than they would were they not moving relative to the observer. Since the constant speed of light is 186,000 miles per second based on the dictates of relativity, the tiny time dilation which an orbital speed of 18,000 miles per hour would produce could only be observed using such an incredibly stable, high resolution time-source as an atomic clock. If two identical clocks passed each other traveling at one-third the speed of light, the “other” clock would seem to have slowed by 4.6%. At one-tenth the speed of light, the “other” clock slows by only 0.5%. This phenomena of slowing clocks applies to any timekeeper – from atomic clocks to hourglasses. Accordingly, the effect is not related to any construction aspects of timekeepers, only to our limitation “to observe” imposed by the non-infinite, constant speed of light dictated by relativity.

For most practical systems that we deal with, here on earth, relative velocities between systems are peanuts compared to the speed of light and the relativistic effects, although always present, are so small as to be insignificant, usually undetectable. There are important exceptions, however, and one of the most important involves the GPS (Global Positioning System). Another exception involves particle accelerators used by physicists. The GPS system uses earth-orbiting satellites traveling at a tiny fraction of the speed of light relative to the earth’s surface. In a curious demonstration of mathematical déjà vu when recalling the problem of finding the longitude-at-sea, even tiny variations in the timing signals sent between the satellites and earth can cause our position information here on earth to off by many miles. With such precise GPS timing requirements, the relativistic effect of time dilation on orbiting clocks – we are talking tiny fractions of a second! – would be enough to cause position location errors of many miles! For this reason, relativity IS and must be taken into account in order for the GPS system to be of any practical use whatsoever!

Is it not ironic that, as in the longitude-at-sea problem three centuries ago, accurate time plays such a crucial role in today’s satellite-based GPS location systems?

I hope this post has succeeded in my attempt to convey to you, the reader, the wonderful mysteries and importance of that elusive notion that we call time.

Finally, as we have all experienced throughout our lives, time is short and….

TIME AND TIDE WAIT FOR NO MAN

 

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey: Chasing the Heisman Trophy…and Barry Sanders

Every now and then, a particularly exceptional player surfaces in the ranks of college football. Such a player was the great running back, Barry Sanders, who won college football’s coveted Heisman trophy back in 1988. Sanders was a running back at Oklahoma State University with speed and exceptional quickness, qualities which made him almost impossible to corral on the football field. His reputation was cemented by a stellar career with the NFL’s Detroit Lions; Sanders is regarded as one of the very best ever to play the game…. at any level.

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford University’s nationally-ranked football team has a player cast from the same mold as Sanders – sophomore Christian McCaffrey – running back, pass receiver, and punt/kickoff returner par-excellence. Linda and I were at Stanford Stadium last Friday evening to see young McCaffrey set a Stanford single-game school record for total all-purpose yards – 389 yards which included 192 yards rushing on 29 carries. In addition, the young phenom snaked his way through the entire University of California defense for a 49 yard touchdown off a screen pass followed by a 98 yard kickoff return for another score. That first touchdown showcased the Sanders-like balance, elusiveness, and anticipation that made Barry Sanders so unique. The second score highlighted McCaffrey’s flat-out speed as he glimpsed daylight and hit the afterburner, leaving all pursuers in the dust.

Rumors Last Season

There were rumors last season about young McCaffrey who, as an incoming freshman, deeply impressed the entire coaching staff and the other players not only with his ability, but with his mature attitude and work-ethic. Those rumors of something special surfaced early, emanating from spring football camp last year. Stanford head coach David Shaw occasionally played McCaffrey last season as a true freshman, but only in spot situations, preferring wisely not to overwhelm a young, budding talent with Stanford’s complicated offensive schemes. Whenever young Christian did trot out for a play or two, it was invariably with good results. In fact, I recall that on his very first play in the game we saw, he reeled off a long gainer.

As an alum and a long-time follower of Stanford football (since 1960), I have seen them come and seen them go, including some truly great players like Plunkett (Stanford’s only Heisman winner – 1970), Elway, Stenstrom, Luck, Hogan, Gerhart, Nelson, Hill, and Lofton. Sometimes, though, the early program hype does not fully materialize during the ensuing four years.

I wondered about young McCaffrey last year who still had a boyish-look about him, and, yes, talent and good speed….but why did Coach Shaw not utilize him more if he was that good? As this season opened, Stanford lost unexpectedly to Northwestern, and the entire team played poorly. Stanford has since decisively beaten all opponents except for a close loss to Oregon, late on the schedule.

Since the disastrous Northwestern opener, I have been surprised and impressed by two things about this Stanford team beside the fact that they are good:

First: The maturation of McCaffrey as a physical player since last year. He worked hard in the weight room during the off-season to bulk-up, adding an additional thirty pounds of mainly muscle – extra baggage which makes breaking tackles easier, but tends invariably to temper a player’s quickness. Now, as a sophomore, he is very physical going through the line yet more elusive than ever with greater quickness and flat-out speed than last year. In that respect, alone, he is an anomaly. There are few players around with the flat-out speed to catch him on his way to the end-zone. Very impressive, and it has been a long time since Stanford had a back who, like O.J. Simpson at USC, long ago, will not be caught from behind!

Second: I noticed Stanford’s team demeanor throughout televised games when the cameras routinely scanned the sidelines. I saw unmistakable signs of great team chemistry on display. McCaffrey is partly responsible for that, I am certain. It is a rare “star” player who is truly likable and revered by his teammates without reservation. In that vein, today’s local sports page highlighted some pertinent comments made by Coach Shaw:

-After Friday’s Cal game: “I haven’t seen anybody in America like this kid.”

-“Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker – the kid’s just truly special. And our guys know that, and they take a lot of pride blocking for him.”

-Earlier in the year, Shaw commented in a half-time TV interview that his team had a good first half because they were playing hard and they were playing for each other. I believe the last part of Shaw’s comment fully explains the team chemistry – a credit to the individuals on the roster and a reflection on their young Heisman candidate, Christian McCaffrey.

A quick vignette to illustrate the point: Barry Sanders, Jr. – the son of the great Barry Sanders who holds the collegiate season record for all-purpose yards – ironically is a reserve running back to the man who is chasing his father’s long-standing record as well as the Heisman – young McCaffrey.

The junior Sanders is a talented back, but not in the same unique mold as his father. Earlier in the season, when young Sanders came in to spell McCaffrey and scored on a long run from scrimmage, he was mobbed by his teammates. The sincerity of their joy for young Sanders was evident. The season has been that way all along, and I credit McCaffrey’s presence and the coaching staff for nurturing the elusive team chemistry that is the mark of champions.

Out of curiosity, last night, I googled some of young McCaffrey’s recruiting film clips from his stellar high school career at Valor Christian High in Colorado. What I saw on film was the prelude to greatness which is currently unfolding at Stanford Stadium. One of young McCaffrey’s high school kickoff touchdown returns looked like a carbon-copy of what we saw last Friday night against the Cal Bears.

Reel after reel of great football plays and McCaffrey’s matter-of-fact reaction to his own success were the dominant themes. After a score, he politely hands the ball to the officials, modestly accepts inevitable congratulations from his teammates, and heads for the sidelines. I never once saw the “number 1” finger in the air, chest thumping, or strutting of any kind – and that self-effacing style is also evident at Stanford. How refreshing is that, in this age of self-promotion on the football field? I fully understand why McCaffrey’s teammates consider it a privilege to be blocking for him – all game long. Barring injury, he is on his way to becoming a truly great player as well as a fine example of what collegiate football should be all about!

Football Moxie and a Sprinter’s Speed:
A Rare Combination and a Great McCaffrey Story

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To understand how a Christian McCaffrey “happens along,” it helps to know something of his fascinating lineage:

His maternal grandfather is David Sime – silver medalist at 100 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and former world record holder in the 100 and 220 yard sprints. David Sime was the world’s fastest human in the time-frame of 1954/56.

Sime’s personal story is fascinating in itself, but suffice it to say he graduated from Duke University medical school as an ophthalmologist after missing the gold medal in the 100 meters by a hair to the German “Thief of Starts,” Armin Hary. He fathered several children, one of whom is Lisa Sime McCaffrey who graduated from Stanford after starring there on the women’s soccer team. While at Stanford, she met and subsequently married a 6-foot-five, lanky, sure-handed pass receiver on Stanford’s football team named Ed McCaffrey – Christian’s father. The senior McCaffrey was an All-American at Stanford and enjoyed a notable career in the NFL as a Denver Bronco. Ed McCaffrey is the owner of three Super Bowl rings.

Hearing the McCaffrey name (often) last Friday night at Stanford Stadium rekindled still-vibrant memories of sunny, Saturday afternoons at Stanford Stadium in the late 1980’s. I still hear the echoes of long-time stadium announcer Ed McCauley’s play-call floating above the crowd’s roar: “….the pass complete to Ed McCaffrey for 24 yards and a Stanford first down….”

Never forgot the sights, never forgot the sounds, never forgot the great ones.
Never will. Good luck to Christian McCaffrey…and GO STANFORD!

Back-to-School Time: Have You Nurtured Your Student’s Curiosity Lately?

96497_Kubitz_cvr.inddYes, it is back-to-school time for many of the world’s youngsters. In America, late August and early September is when students return to school to meet new teachers who will be entrusted by parents to help educate their children.

Have you, as parents, guardians, or mentors nurtured your student’s curiosity this summer? My book on education, learning, and mentoring suggests that successful learning and top student performance stem from a healthy curiosity – the desire to know and understand the world around us. Such a “learning attitude” (or lack thereof) is influenced primarily by the home environment and the adults at home – not by the students’ school and teachers. Equipped with a good “learning attitude” acquired in the home, students prosper at school; without a proper attitude, many disinterested youngsters flounder in class while being easily distracted by social media and the associated electronic connectedness so prevalent today.

Sadly, many of these children will, in the course of their schooling, waste the most precious opportunity that society will ever offer them – a good education and a pathway to lifelong learning. It need not be that way, however.

My book is a hands-on, how-to manual for parenting/mentoring with the end goal of insuring school success for students – especially in science and mathematics.

Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning, is available from Amazon for $14.95. This link will take you directly to Amazon and the book.

www.amazon.com/