“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

Sir Isaac Newton: “I Can Calculate the Motions of the Planets, but I Cannot Calculate the Madness of Men”

Isaac Newton, the most incisive mind in the history of science, reportedly uttered that sentiment about human nature. Why would he infer such negativity about his fellow humans? Newton’s scientific greatness stemmed from his ability to see well beyond human horizons. His brilliance was amply demonstrated in his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he logically constructed his “system of the world,” using mathematics. The book’s title translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, often shortened to “the Principia” for convenience.

The Principia is the greatest scientific book ever published. Its enduring fame reflects Newton’s ground-breaking application of mathematics, including aspects of his then-fledgling calculus, to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of explaining motion physics. An overwhelming challenge for the best mathematicians and “natural philosophers” (scientists) in the year 1684 was to demonstrate mathematically that the planets in our solar system should revolve around the sun in elliptically shaped orbits as opposed to circles or some other geometric path. The fact that they do move in elliptical paths was carefully observed by Johann Kepler and noted in his 1609 masterwork, Astronomia Nova.

In 1687, Newton’s Principia was published after three intense years of effort by the young, relatively unknown Cambridge professor of mathematics. Using mathematics and his revolutionary new concept of universal gravitation, Newton provided precise justification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in the Principia. In the process, he revolutionized motion physics and our understanding of how and why bodies of mass, big and small (planets, cannonballs, etc.), move the way they do. Newton did, indeed, as he stated, show us in the Principia how to calculate the motion of heavenly bodies.

In his personal relationships, Newton found dealing with people and human nature to be even more challenging than the formidable problems of motion physics. As one might suspect, Newton did not easily tolerate fools and pretenders in the fields of science and mathematics – “little smatterers in mathematicks,” he called them. Nor did he tolerate much of basic human nature and its shortcomings.

 In the Year 1720, Newton Came Face-to-Face with
His Own Human Vulnerability… in the “Stock Market!”

 In 1720, Newton’s own human fallibility was clearly laid bare as he invested foolishly and lost a small fortune in one of investing’s all-time market collapses. Within our own recent history, we have had suffered through the stock market crash of 1929 and the housing market bubble of 2008/2009. In these more recent “adventures,” society and government had allowed human nature and its greed propensity to over-inflate Wall Street to a ridiculous extent, so much so that a collapse was quite inevitable to any sensible person…and still it continued.

Have you ever heard of the great South Sea Bubble in England? Investing in the South Sea Trading Company – a government sponsored banking endeavor out of London – became a favorite past-time of influential Londoners in the early eighteenth century. Can you guess who found himself caught-up in the glitter of potential investment returns only to end up losing a very large sum? Yes, Isaac Newton was that individual along with thousands of others.

It was this experience that occasioned the remark about his own inability to calculate the madness of men (including himself)!

Indeed, he should have known better than to re-enter the government sponsored South Sea enterprise after initially making a tidy profit from an earlier investment in the stock. As can be seen from the graph below, Newton re-invested (with a lot!) in the South Sea offering for the second time as the bubble neared its peak and just prior to its complete collapse. Newton lost 20,000 English pounds (three million dollars in today’s valuations) when the bubble suddenly burst.

Clearly, Newton’s comment, which is the theme of this post, reflects his view that human nature is vulnerable to fits of emotion (like greed, envy, ambition) which in turn provoke foolish, illogical behaviors. When Newton looked in the mirror after his ill-advised financial misadventure, he saw staring back at him the very madness of men which he then proceeded to rail against! Knowing Newton through the many accounts of his life that I have studied, I can well imagine that his financial fiasco must have been a very tough pill for him to swallow. Many are the times in his life that Newton “railed” to vent his anger against something or someone; his comment concerning the “madness of men” is typical of his outbursts. Certainly, he could disapprove of his fellow man for fueling such an obvious investment bubble. In the end, and most painful for him, was his realization that he paid a stiff price for foolishly ignoring the bloody obvious. For anyone who has risked and lost on the market of Wall Street, the mix of feelings is well understood. Even the great Newton had his human vulnerabilities – in spades, and greed was one of them. One might suspect that Newton, the absorbed scientist, was merely naïve when it came to money matters.

That would be a very erroneous assumption. Sir Isaac Newton held the top-level government position of Master of the Mint in England, during those later years of his scientific retirement – in charge of the entire coinage of the realm!


For more on Isaac Newton and the birth of the Principia click on the link: https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/the-most-important-scientific-book-ever-written-conceived-in-a-london-coffee-house/

Relativity and the Birth of Quantum Physics: Two Major Problems for Physics in the Year 1900

Max-Planck-[1]In the year 1900, two critical questions haunted physicists, and both involved that elusive entity, light. The ultimate answers to these troublesome questions materialized during the dawn of the twentieth century and resulted in the most recent two of the four major upheavals in the history of physics. Albert Einstein was responsible for the third of those four upheavals in the form of his theory of special relativity which he published in 1905. Einstein’s revolutionary theory was his response to one of those two critical questions facing physics in the year 1900. A German scientist named Max Planck addressed the second critical question while igniting the fourth great upheaval in the history of physics. Max Planck began his Nobel Prize-winning investigation into the nature of heat/light radiation in the year 1894. His later discovery of the quantized nature of such radiation gave birth to the new realm of quantum physics which, in turn, led to a new picture of the atom and its behavior. Planck’s work directly addressed the second critical question nagging science in 1900. The aftermath of his findings ultimately changed physics and man’s view of physical reality, forever.

What were the two nagging problems in physics in 1900?

The nature of light and its behavior had long challenged the best minds in physics. For example: Is light composed of “particles,” or does it manifest itself as “waves” travelling through space? By the eighteenth century, two of science’s greatest names had voiced their opinions. Isaac Newton said that light is “particle” in nature. His brilliant French contemporary, Christian Huygens, claimed that light is comprised of “waves.”

Newton_Kneller_ 1702_1         huygens[1]

                  Isaac Newton                                                      Christian Huygens

By 1865, the great Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, had deduced that light, indeed, acted as an electromagnetic wave traveling at a speed of roughly 186,000 miles per second! Maxwell’s groundbreaking establishment of an all-encompassing electromagnetic theory represents the second of the four major historical revolutions in physics of which we speak. Ironically, this second great advance in the history of physics with its theoretically established speed of light led directly to the first of the two nagging issues facing physics in 1900. To understand that dilemma, a bit of easily digestible background is in order!

Maxwell began by determining that visible light is merely a small slice of the greater electromagnetic wave frequency spectrum which, today, includes radio waves at the low frequency end and x-rays at the high frequency end. Although the speed of light (thus all electromagnetic waves) had been determined fairly accurately by experiments made by others prior to 1865, Maxwell’s ability to theoretically predict the speed of light through space using the mathematics of his new science of electrodynamics was a tribute to his supreme command of physics and mathematics. The existence of Maxwell’s purely theoretical (at that time) electromagnetic waves was verified in 1887 via laboratory experiment conducted by the German scientist, Heinrich Hertz.

The first of the two quandaries on physicist’s minds in 1900 had been brewing during the latter part of the nineteenth century as physicists struggled to define the “medium” through which Maxwell’s electromagnetic waves of light propagated across seemingly empty space. Visualize a small pebble dropped into a still pond: Its entry into the water causes waves, or ripples, to propagate circularly from the point of disturbance. These “waves” of water represent mechanical energy being propagated across the water. Light is also a wave, but it propagates through space and carries electromagnetic energy.

Here is the key question which arose from Maxwell’s work and so roiled physics: What is the nature of the medium in presumably “empty space” which supports electromagnetic wave propagation…and can we detect it? Water is the obvious medium for transmitting the mechanical energy waves created by a pebble dropped into it. Air is the medium which is necessary to propagate mechanical sound-pressure waves to our ears – no air, no sound! Yet light waves travel readily through “empty space” and vacuums!

Lacking any evidence concerning the nature of a medium suitable for electromagnetic wave propagation, physicists nevertheless came up with a name for it….the “ether,” and pressed on to learn more about its presumed reality. Clever but futile attempts were made to detect the “ether sea” through which light appears to propagate. The famous Michelson-Morley experiments of 1881 and 1887 conclusively failed to detect ether’s existence. Science was forced to conclude that there is no detectable/describable medium! Rather, the cross-coupled waves of Maxwell’s electric and magnetic fields which comprise light (and all electromagnetic waves) “condition” the empty space of a perfect vacuum in such a manner as to allow the waves to propagate through that space. In expressing the seeming lack of an identifiable transmission medium and what to do about it, the best advice to physicists seemed: “It is what it is….deal with it!”

“Dealing with it” was easier said than done, because one huge problem remained. Maxwell and his four famous “Maxwell’s equations” which form the framework for all electromagnetic phenomena calculate one and only ONE value for the speed of light – everywhere, for all observers in the universe. One single value for the speed of light would have worked for describing its propagation speed relative to an “ether sea,” but there is no detectable ether sea!

The Great “Ether Conundrum” – Addressed by Einstein’s Relativity

In the absence of an ether sea through which to measure the speed of light as derived by Maxwell, here is the problem which results, as illustrated by two distant observers, A and B, who are rapidly traveling toward each other at half the speed of light: How can a single, consistent value for the speed of light apply both to the light measured by observer A as it leaves his flashlight (pointed directly at observer B) and observer B who will measure the incoming speed of the very same light beam as he receives it? Maxwell’s equations imply that each observer must measure the same beam of light at 186,000 miles per second, measured with respect to themselves and their surroundings – no matter what the relative speed between the two observers. This made no sense and represented a very big problem for physicists!

The Solution and Third Great Revolution in Physics:
 Einstein’s Relativity Theories

As already mentioned, the solution to this “ether dilemma” involving the speed of light was provided by Albert Einstein in his 1905 theory of special relativity – the third great revolution in physics. Special relativity completely revamped the widely accepted but untenable notions of absolute space and absolute time – holdovers from Newtonian physics – and time and space are the underpinnings of any notion/definition of “speed.” Einstein showed that a strange universe of slowing clocks and shrinking yardsticks is required to accommodate the constant speed of light for all observers regardless of their relative motion to each other. Einstein declared the constant speed of light for all observers to be a new, inviolable law of physics. Furthermore, he proved that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

The constant speed of light for all observers coupled with Einstein’s insistence that there is no way to measure one’s position or speed/velocity through empty space are the two notions which anchor special relativity and all its startling ramifications.

 The Year is 1900: Enter Max Planck and Quantum Physics –
The Fourth Great Revolution in Physics

The second nagging question facing the physics community in 1900 involved the spectral nature of radiation emanating from a so-called black-body radiator as it is heated to higher and higher temperatures. Objects that are increasingly made hotter emanate light whose colors change from predominately red to orange to white to a bluish color as the temperature rises. A big problem in 1900 was this: There is little experimental evidence indicating large levels of ultraviolet radiation produced at high temperatures – a situation completely contrary to the theoretical predictions of physics based on our scientific knowledge in the year 1900. Physics at that time predicted a so-called “ultraviolet catastrophe” at high temperatures generating huge levels of ultraviolet radiation – enough to damage the eyes with any significant exposure. The fact that there was no evidence of such levels of ultraviolet radiation was, in itself, a catastrophe for physics because it called into serious question our knowledge and assumptions of the atomic/molecular realm.

The German physicist, Max Planck, began tackling the so-called “ultraviolet catastrophe” disconnect as early as 1894. Using the experimental data available to him, Planck attempted to discern a new theory of spectral radiation for heated bodies which would match the observed results. Planck worked diligently on the problem but could not find a solution by working along conventional lines.

Finally, he explored an extremely radical approach – a technique which reflected his desperation. The resulting new theory matched the empirical results perfectly!

When Planck had completed formulation of his new theory in 1900, he called his son into his study and stated that he had just made a discovery which would change science forever – a rather startling proclamation for a conservative, methodical scientist. Planck’s new theory ultimately proved as revolutionary to physics as was Einstein’s theory of relativity which would come a mere five years later.

Max Planck declared that the radiation energy emanating from heated bodies is not continuous in nature; that is, the energy radiates in “bundles” which he referred to as “quanta.” Furthermore, Planck formulated the precise numerical values of these bundles through his famous equation which states:

 E = h times Frequency

where “h” is his newly-declared “Planck’s constant” and “Frequency” is the spectral frequency of the radiation being considered. Here is a helpful analogy: The radiation energy from heated bodies was always considered to be continuous – like water flowing through a garden hose. Planck’s new assertion maintained that radiation comes in bundles whose “size” is proportional to the frequency of radiation being considered. Visualize water emanating from a garden hose in distinct bursts rather than a continuous flow! Planck’s new theory of the energy “quanta” was the only way he saw fit to resolve the existing dilemma between theory and experiment.

The following chart reveals the empirical spectral nature of black-body radiation at different temperatures. Included is a curve which illustrates the “ultraviolet catastrophe” at 5000 degrees Kelvin predicted by (1900) classical physics. The catastrophe is represented by off-the-chart values of radiation in the “UV” range of short wavelength (high frequency).

Black_body copy

This chart plots radiated energy (vertical axis) versus radiation wavelength (horizontal axis) plotted for each of three temperatures in degrees K (degrees Kelvin). The wavelength of radiation is inversely proportional to the frequency of radiation. Higher frequency ultraviolet radiation (beyond the purple side of the visible spectrum) is thus portrayed at the left side of the graph (shorter wavelengths).

Note the part of the radiation spectrum which consists of frequencies in the visible light range. The purple curve for 5000 degrees Kelvin has a peak radiation “value” in the middle of the visible spectrum and proceeds to zero at higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths). This experimental purple curve is consistent with Planck’s new theory and is drastically different from the black curve on the plot which shows the predicted radiation at 5000 degrees Kelvin using the scientific theories in place prior to 1900 and Planck’s revolutionary findings. Clearly, the high frequency (short wavelength) portion of that curve heads toward infinite radiation energy in the ultraviolet range – a non-plausible possibility. Planck’s simple but revolutionary new radiation law expressed by E = h times Frequency served to perfectly match theory with experiment.

Why Max Planck Won the 1918 Nobel Prize
in Physics for His Discovery of the Energy Quanta

One might be tempted to ask why the work of Max Planck is rated so highly relative to Einstein’s theories of relativity which restructured no less than all of our assumptions regarding space and time! Here is the reason in a nutshell: Planck’s discovery led quickly to the subsequent work of Neils Bohr, Rutherford, De Broglie, Schrodinger, Pauli, Heisenberg, Dirac, and others who followed the clues inherent in Planck’s most unusual discovery and built the superstructure of atomic physics as we know it today. Our knowledge of the atom and its constituent particles stems directly from that subsequent work which was born of Planck and his discovery. The puzzling non-presence of the “ultraviolet catastrophe” predicted by pre-1900 physics was duly answered by the ultimate disclosure that the atom itself radiates in discrete manners thus preventing the high ultraviolet content of heated body radiation as predicted by the old, classical theories of physics.

Albert Einstein in 1905: The Photoelectric Effect –
Light and its Particle Nature

Published in the same 1905 volume of the German scientific journal, Annalen Der Physik, as Einstein’s revolutionary theory of special relativity, was his paper on the photoelectric effect. In that paper, Einstein described light’s seeming particle behavior. Electrons were knocked free of their atoms in metal targets by bombarding the targets with light in the form of energy bundles called “photons.” These photons were determined by Einstein to represent light energy at its most basic level – as discrete bundles of light energy. The governing effect which proved revolutionary was the fact that the intensity of light (the number of photons) impinging on the metal target was not the determining factor in their ability to knock electrons free of the target: The frequency of the light source was the governing factor. Increasing the intensity of light had no effect on the liberation of electrons from their metal atoms: The frequency of the light source had a direct and obvious effect. Einstein proved that these photons, these bundles of light energy which acted like bullets for displacing electrons from their metal targets, have discrete energies whose values depend only on the frequency of the light itself. The higher the frequency of the light, the greater is the energy of the photons emitted. As with Planck’s characterization of heat radiation from heated bodies, photon energies involve Planck’s constant and frequency. Einstein’s findings went beyond the quanta energy conceptualizations of Planck by establishing the physical reality of light photons. Planck interpreted his findings on energy quanta as atomic reactions to stimulation as opposed to discrete realities. Einstein’s findings earned him the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics for his paper on the photoelectric effect….and not for his work on relativity!

Deja Vu All Over Again: Is Light a Particle or a Wave?

My EinsteinAlong with Planck, Einstein is considered to be “the father of quantum physics.” The subsequent development by others of quantum mechanics (the methods of dealing with quantum physics) left Einstein sharply skeptical. For one, quantum physics and its principle of particle/wave duality dictates that light behaves both as particle and wave – depending on the experiment conducted. That, in itself, would trouble a physicist like Einstein for whom deterministic (cause and effect) physics was paramount, but there were other, startling ramifications of quantum mechanics which repulsed Einstein. The notion that events in the sub-atomic world could be statistical in nature rather than cause-and-effect left Einstein cold. “God does not play dice with the universe,” was Einstein’s opinion. Others, like the father of atomic theory, Neils Bohr, believed the evidence undeniable that nature is governed at some level by chance.

In one of the great ironies of physics, Einstein, one of the two fathers of quantum physics, felt compelled to abandon his brain-child because of philosophical/scientific conflicts within his own psyche. He never completely came to terms with the new science of quantum physics – a situation which left him somewhat outside the greater mainstream of physics in his later years.

Like Einstein’s relativity theories, quantum physics has stood the test of time. Quantum mechanics works, and no experiments have ever been conducted to prove the method wrong. Despite the truly mysterious realm of the energy quanta and quantum physics, the science works beautifully. Perhaps Einstein was right: Quantum mechanics, as currently formulated, may work just fine, but it is not the final, complete picture of the sub-atomic world. No one could appreciate that possibility in the pursuit of physics more than Einstein. After all, it was his general theory of relativity in 1916 which replaced Isaac Newton’s long-held and supremely useful force-at-a-distance theory of gravity with the more complete and definitive concept of four-dimensional, curved space-time.

By the way, and in conclusion, it is Newton’s mathematics-based science of dynamics (the science of force and motion) that defines the very first major upheaval in the history of physics – as recorded in his masterwork book from 1687, the Principia – the greatest scientific book ever written. Stay tuned.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium: A Wondrous, Humbling Experience!

It was every bit akin to visiting another universe – our experience at the fabulous Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California. The notion of fanciful space-aliens has nothing over the truly bizarre denizens of the world’s oceans! Evolution’s underwater handiwork with its seemingly endless variety is staggering.

 IMG_2524 A Sea-Nettle at the Aquarium

Our granddaughters were visiting from Southern California this past week, and we decided to treat them to their first visit to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. It had been some years since Linda and I had visited, so we all eagerly anticipated the outing.

At seventy-four years of age, I have seen and done a lot, but I was unexpectedly surprised by the personal impact of this, my most recent visit to the aquarium. There were two overwhelming reactions: First, the verification that fact is, indeed, stranger than fiction; second, that the scope and grandeur of nature easily swamp the significance of us individual humans and our little personal problems.

I have always taken some comfort in the implication that we, as individuals, have little significance in nature’s vast scheme. This may not be welcome news for many who believe in a “personal” creator, but it works for me as the conclusive evidence of a higher power! These emotions were especially stirred by the exhibits featuring swarming schools of seemingly identical silver anchovies and Pacific sardines swimming relentlessly in circles around the perimeters of large cylindrical tanks. Their behaviors seem somehow so symbolic of the human condition whereby we swim for all we are worth, all the while oblivious to the greater ocean of truth which surrounds us.

The smaller, gleaming silver anchovies exhibit the following interesting behavior: At any given moment, ten percent of them have their mouths (very) wide open for several seconds as they siphon up tiny micro-organisms in the water – for food. In human parlance, that is called “eating on the run!”


Compared to the startling diversity in the oceans, our land-based animal life seems rather quaint and limited – even when comparing elephants to leopards. The pictures illustrate the point, but they are no substitute for a visit to the aquarium to see for yourself.



Sea Otters: More Fun than Any Other Creature

We witnessed the sea otter feeding/training demonstration. What fun those animals have in the water, and how agile they are. We humans look positively clumsy on land compared to otters in their natural habitat – water. Using the shellfish food which they crave, the “handlers” put their assigned otter through various exercises – like voluntarily entering a land crate when given a hand signal. That behavior comes very much in handy at times when otters must be moved within the facility. Given the chance to return to this world as an animal in the distant future, the life of a sea otter appears most attractive. I cannot think of any animal who seemingly has more continuous fun in their environment that the ever-playful sea otter.

 IMG_4721Otter Lunchtime!

IMG_4737The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a world-class facility for oceanographic research and wildlife study. For even the most casual visitor, it becomes quickly obvious just how much high-level expertise it takes to staff and operate a facility like this. Thanks to such places, our knowledge of the oceans and the life they contain grows steadily with each passing year.


IMG_2548 PS

Time for College Admission Letters to Arrive….or Not!

This is the time of year when high school students and their parents anxiously sort the daily mail looking for college acceptance letters.

College Admissions_1Crop

This past weekend, Linda and I were in Santa Barbara (California) to celebrate her mother’s ninety-sixth birthday. Ruth still lives alone, cooks, bakes, gardens, and maintains a sharp mind – amazing lady! Among the family members present were Linda’s brother Ken and his son, Owen, who has a key position on the admissions staff of Pitzer College – one of the well-known “Claremont Colleges,” in Southern California.

I love talking with Owen, a young man with an out-reach personality which is perfectly suited to his role as a college admissions officer. In addition, he can answer any question on the college admissions process.

In the course of our conversations last Saturday, he mentioned that the current acceptance rate for college applicants is 5% for my alma mater, Stanford University, which makes it the most selective school in the country – even more so than Harvard and Princeton. “Good thing I attended Stanford in the early sixties,” I mused to myself. I certainly would not be admitted today!

When mulling over my “college conversations” with Owen this weekend, some of my earlier blog posts came to mind: Specifically those having to do with the pressures students face today with the prospect of college and the admissions process. I have provided links to these posts at the end of this piece.

The Pathway to Success in School (Including College)
is Paved with Curiosity and a Love of Learning


When I reflect on the grade pressures weighing on today’s students, I recall my experiences tutoring high-achieving, high school students in science and math, here, in Silicon Valley, California. I  will summarize those experiences using an excerpt from my recently published parental guide to science/math education: Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning. This is from Chapter 12 of my book (on the role of outside tutoring).

Beginning of excerpt:

Early in my retirement, I tutored in math and physics at a center which catered to fairly up-scale, high-achieving families in the area. Most of my work was with high school students. I found it to be challenging initially, requiring considerable up-front refreshing of my nitty-gritty problem-solving skills in pure math and physics. I put in considerable hours of outside study even though I have been a life-long learner in the subjects. I also found today’s student textbook formats, presentation framework, and newer nomenclature to be quite a departure from older texts. Once past the initial adjustment period, I enjoyed working with high school students and helping them to “see the light.”

I learned one lesson early in my tutoring experience: Most students who came to the tutoring center had little time for – or interest in – anything having to do with the more sublime, fascinating aspects of physics and mathematics. There seemed to be no sense of historical context and no nascent curiosity about the subject matter itself – not even a sense of excitement over finally “getting it” as problems were solved during the sessions.

Most of these kids were figuratively “under the gun” to just solve the problems, get the answers, and run to their next activity.

Since most of my tutorees were high school kids enrolled in high-achievement schools, the ultimate axe over their heads was one poor course grade in physics or math which would tarnish their transcript and cripple their chance for admission to a prestige college or university. Students today are under considerable pressure to “succeed” with little time or energy to contemplate and fully absorb the richness of the material they cram or to establish a larger perspective.

It became clear to me that professional tutoring, for the most part, has little to do with the concept of academic enrichment. It is much more akin to an “educational emergency room” for students who have experienced course-induced trauma. If you recall from chapter two of this book, the desire to “get the answer and run” is reminiscent of my help-sessions in math with my daughter, Ginny.

Here is the point: Parents and students generally resort to outside tutoring, especially in science and math, primarily with an eye to solving homework/exam problems and getting good grades. The main issue with an excessive dependence on that approach, in the absence of true student motivation, is the following: As the material increases in difficulty at each grade level, the curiosity, background and interest requisite for sustaining the motivation required to apply oneself in advanced science/math and to learn the material cannot keep pace with the increasing task difficulty.

Soon, this attitude becomes all about merely getting good grades accompanied by the lament, “Why do I need to know this stuff?” At a young age (including high school students) and without sufficient background and perspective to provide the answer to the question they pose, it is not surprising that those students become robotized, learning only the “how to” of the course work while oblivious as to the “why” and the significance of the subject in the larger picture.

End of excerpt

So, What is the “Take-Away” Message, Here?

For prospective parents and parent/mentors of young children already in school or in preschool: Realize that your child’s education and “learning attitude” begin at home, and the earlier, the better. This is especially true for those most problematic of subjects, science and mathematics. The parent/mentor’s role in preparing young students for the future challenges of the college admissions process and the rigors of technical or other demanding careers cannot be over-stated. I suggest to parent/mentors that preschool is the optimum time to begin engagement with your student in order to nurture genuine curiosity and a “learning attitude.” Some parents, even here, in Silicon Valley, are not capable of directly tutoring science and math to their students; I understand that, but all parents must learn how to nurture curiosity and a love of learning in their students – at an early age.

My newly published book is a common-sense, how-to guide for parents, guardians, mentors….and teachers, too, for instilling effective student attitudes toward school and learning. Click the following link for more information on my book and where to buy it – including Amazon and Barnes and Noble:

Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning: How Does a Fart Go Through Your Clothes?

There is one sure way for your student to succeed in school and someday qualify for admission to an upper-tier college or university. The potent factor present in all success stories is….. “curiosity,” that frame of mind which makes learning a delight rather than a chore. Those who travel the “curious” pathway will encounter, along the way, not only learning success, but also the “joy” of knowledge. That is the main theme of my book. Resorting to parental/mentor pressure or threats to limit privileges in order to motivate today’s distracted students just does not work!

After reading still more articles and Facebook posts on the all-out competition for grades in the Palo Alto (CA) school system – some of which are literally pleas from students who are overwhelmed – I encourage parent/mentors in this and similar regions of over-achievers to reflect on their definition of  “success,” and whether or not that interpretation is realistic and appropriate for their student. Perhaps not.

Links to other posts of mine which relate to students, colleges, and education:

What’s Gone Wrong at Our Schools? It’s Not What You Might Think! July 7, 2013

Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student  Jan. 26, 2014

Teaching Children Math…By Example!  Sept. 27, 2014

Why Go to College? Is it Worth It?  Oct. 11, 2014

Now Available: My New Book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning  Nov. 22, 2015

Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters 
Jan. 31, 2015

Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters

Yesterday, on Facebook, I learned of yet another student suicide at one of our local public high schools, Gunn High School in nearby Palo Alto, California. I am very familiar with Gunn and its outstanding academic reputation thanks to faculty contacts. There have been several suicides by Gunn students over the past few years. The school and the school district have been very proactive with new student-help programs, as a result. As evidenced by one Palo Alto student’s open letter to parents, published yesterday in the Huffington Post, high expectations and parental pressures are often part of the problem. More on that letter, in a bit.

School Seals_1

How does one make sense of a (usually) promising young man or woman who is so distraught as to take such a drastic, final step?

I have no degree in psychology, but I am a retired electrical engineer who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for many years. I do know something about the culture and attitudes, here. Although each suicide and every distraught student has a unique personal profile behind his or her problems, there are some common denominators which become apparent to those of us who have lived here, worked here, and raised children in this valley.

I have alluded to the culture of this place numerous times in past blog posts. For the uninitiated, Palo Alto is the focal point of the phenomenon known as “Silicon Valley,” and it is also home to Stanford University. There is little argument over the contention that this valley is the technology capital of the world…yes, I do mean the WORLD! I emphasize this because few such statements can survive the test of scrutiny and counter-claims – this one does. Why is that important? Because this region is different; Silicon Valley and its denizens are immersed in a lifestyle which can rightly be called driven and success-oriented. At stake for many of the adult parents who live here are huge financial rewards and ego-gratifications which are available nowhere else to this degree in the world of technology.

People here are high achievers in their fields. You do not hold a “significant” (the term subject to definition and scrutiny) job, here, for long if you are not motivated and capable, and this can be a source of considerable angst for children of such parents. Not surprisingly, youngsters feel academic/parental pressure to “succeed,” here. At the same time, quality time with very busy (often two-income) parents is in short supply. “Quality time” between parents and student is often limited to frequent chauffeuring between various sports and activity venues.

In discussing the growing desperation of today’s students, there are no absolutes – no “always the case” scenarios, but there are trends, and identifying these is key to understanding the problem of distraught students.

Here is my list of “givens” as I see them:

-Student suicide is related to many factors – for example: Inherent mental illness, lack of love and attention at home, disturbing relationships with fellow students, bullying, and possibly school policies which stress students with excessive homework, etc. Each student’s situation is unique.

-Attending school with classmates who are uniformly gifted and driven is bound to be a source of added pressure. It is not about getting decent grades, here in this valley; it is about getting top marks – good enough to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or UC Berkeley.

-Parents who desperately want their child to reach the highest pinnacles of success (starting with admission to a prestige college or university, as an example) can have diverse motivations – from those who are genuinely motivated to help their student reach what seems their inherent potential, to those who relish living vicariously through their student and their student’s achievements.

-Even parents genuinely concerned for all the right reasons about their student’s future prospects have different motivations based on the parents’ personal concept of “success” in life. If that concept minimizes the importance of a student’s emotional well-being and happiness during the formative years in favor of  emphasizing efforts to gain all the advantages and trappings of  “success,” there will be problems.

-Students who strive for top grades primarily to please (or appease) their parents are the most vulnerable to severe discontent or worse. Wanting to please one’s parents is an admirable trait and a healthy motivator as long as parental love and affection do not hinge on the student achieving “success”… as defined by the parents.

-The fortunate students are those whose parents demonstrate unconditional love for them at all times, despite the inevitably necessary “motivational discussions” regarding attention to studies and homework.

-The most fortunate of youngsters are those whose curiosity and hunger to learn about and “know” our amazing universe drive them to work hard in pursuit of their passions. Parents of such students have typically instilled these “learning attitudes” in their youngsters at a very early age. These are parents who truly value education (not merely grades) and respect the power of knowledge – prime attributes of a happy, mature, and well-adjusted person…and the youngsters follow their lead.

It is true that no matter how dedicated and genuine the efforts of parents may be during this process of raising and educating children, things can still go wrong in young lives. I do think that parents in a success-oriented region like Silicon Valley are well advised to sincerely evaluate their own priorities and value judgments concerning education and “success” in life. These parental priorities will have a direct influence on their student’s attitudes and well-being.

As for “success,” money is no guarantee of happiness, and money is but a marginal indicator of  meaningful success. As a parent with genuine motives, one can only ask of students that they truly try their best at school – with knowledge and wisdom as goals rather than letter grades.

The aforementioned open letter to parents from a Palo Alto student which was published in the Huffington Post on January 27, 2015 stressed the generalized concerns of students:

-“It is our relentless schedules, a large range of social issues, personal horrors I can’t think to relate, and our terribly unforgiving parents. Good God, the things you put us through. It’s AP classes, it’s SAT prep from day 1, it’s punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly. So many students, if not the majority, are the embodiment of pure stress.”

-“We are always in this loop of what-if’s, worrying we will disappoint our unsupportive parents who, quite frankly, deserve no part in our future, “successful” or otherwise.”

-“Suicide continues while our parents value wealth and success over our lives. We cannot wait for change. We need it now.”

These are powerful messages.

It is so important for parents to pay close attention to the emotional needs of their students as well as to their “success” track in school.

I can speak from experience to the fact that there is too much emphasis, especially in Silicon Valley, on the near-perfect grades necessary to gain admittance to prestige colleges and universities. A strong “B average” at Gunn High will not get you into Stanford or even into UC Berkeley, and I say, “So what?” It will gain entrance to many other fine state universities and private colleges, where a good education is awaiting those willing to grasp it. I would much rather see a student commit themselves to serious study in high school because they are genuinely curious about the world in which we live as opposed to striving for a GPA which will gain them entrance into top-tier schools. It is truly what you learn and what you know that will count down the road, and that is not necessarily reflected in a student’s “A” course grade or a degree from a prestige school. There are many fine schools to choose from which offer excellent educations and which rarely demand “perfect” academic records.

School Seals_2

The comforting truth for both parents and students is that future employers (beyond the first) will be far more interested in your past employment record and your job interview than what school you attended. That should be cause for all parents to relax a bit about the occasional “A” grade that got away in high school; it is not the end of the world.

Postscript: I have written several germane blog posts on education, colleges and universities, and student learning. These can be found in my blog archives (go to the “Home” page of my blog and click on “Categories”/ “Science/Math Education” in the right-hand column). Also see my newly published book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning which deals with many aspects of the above discussion – especially parenting skills.

Leland and Jane Stanford: Beyond Their Wildest Dreams

Today, as I write this, Linda and I visited the local Los Altos History Museum to see an exhibit titled “Silicon Valley: The Lure and the Legends.” The theme of the exhibit centered on the technology explosion which has taken place over the last one hundred years in this former valley of orchards. As a retired electrical engineer involved in and intrigued by this colorful history, I know the stories well – the people and the technology companies, many of which have come and gone and changed our lives forever. The institution most responsible for all of this is still here and thriving like never before: The Leland Stanford Junior University.

Stanford Campus_1

Founded in 1891 by Leland and Jane Stanford as a memorial to Leland Stanford Junior, their only child who died suddenly and early at the age of sixteen years, the university in nearby Palo Alto, California, was the seed-stock from which Silicon Valley took root. It continues to influence the region in a major way, to this day.

MrandMrsLelandStanford1850[1]The eastern academics who the Stanfords initially consulted ridiculed their proposal to erect a first-tier university out in the “intellectual wastelands” of frontier California, but the Stanfords had the foresight, the will, and the money to brush aside discouraging nay-sayers and proceed with their dream. The echoes of Horace Greeley’s well-publicized advice to “Go west, young man, go west!” must have resonated with them. The Leland Stanford Junior University was to be a memorial to their only child… and a gift to the “children of California.”

Seldom in history has a personal vision played-out so well. The university not only fulfilled its original, stated purposes, it has played a major role in transforming life as we know it through the technology companies it has spawned over the last several decades. Besides educating generations of engineers, like myself, the school provided the impetus for its graduates to stay in California and start new companies to pioneer new technologies. Prior to the nineteen-thirties, newly-minted engineers from west of the Mississippi would head to the east coast where companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and IBM were the established industrial players….with ready jobs.

Stanford soon had something else besides fine weather and elbow-room that none of the old, established schools in the east, including the Ivies, could match – and that was professor Frederick Terman in the electrical engineering department – later longtime Dean of Engineering at Stanford.

Like Leland and Jane Stanford, Fred Terman foresaw the potential of the young university and its western environs. It was Terman who, as early as the nineteen-thirties when orchards still covered the land around here, envisioned Stanford University as a technology center surrounded by vast numbers of research and development companies which derived their mother’s milk from Stanford’s presence. Fred Terman was dead-center with his vision, and what he visualized is precisely what we have today in Silicon Valley – thanks largely to his efforts.

To ponder the changes in this valley over the last sixty years as the result of Stanford University’s  influence is to marvel at the enormous gamble of Leland and  Jane Stanford in the eighteen-eighties and how marvelously prescient they were!

Leland_Stanford_p1070023[1]As perhaps one of the earliest examples of the university’s role in this valley, I am able to show you an early founder’s stock certificate dated 1910 from the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company located in Palo Alto, near the campus. It is for over one million shares of the company, assigned to the president and founder of the company, Cyril Elwell. Elwell was a 1907 engineering graduate of Stanford whose company pioneered early wireless (radio) in the area and quickly became the Federal Telegraph Company. To initially finance his company, Elwell borrowed $500 from 4.0.4David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president. Additional funding came from other faculty members thus heralding the beginning of the huge venture capital tradition which has always played a key role in this valley’s dynamic growth.



The scope of Stanford’s influence is not confined to just the local region, or even to California; the university and its influence have significantly determined the way many of us live our lives, today. I can cite many specific reasons for the truth of that statement, but that would not be appropriate, here. Suffice it to say that technology has changed the world, and Stanford has played a major role in its pervasiveness within society. The companies spawned by Stanford and the research which takes place on campus have revolutionized all aspects of human existence – from our understanding of nuclear physics to state-of-the-art cancer research at the Stanford Medical Center.

For those young students interested in studying the liberal arts, business, the law, or medicine, Stanford also offers a top-tier education that is second to none. My advice to young students: Keep those grades up; you’ll find it very tough to be admitted. If you don’t make it here, try the Ivy League schools!

A visit to Wikipedia on the internet will yield many of the pertinent facts about Stanford which support the above contentions. The school’s large array of Nobel laureates is but one indicator of Stanford’s world-role.

Yes, I knew all of this before, but I had to pause and reflect on it all yet again after seeing the Silicon Valley exhibit and film, today. Periodically refreshing one’s perspective (I love that word!) is so important. The story of Stanford University and its role in Silicon Valley is unique; what a fine gift to the “children of California,” and what a timeless memorial to young Leland Stanford Junior.