“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

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.


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

Now Available: My New Book, “Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning”

Today has been a special day! After many months of the gestation process, copies of my new book finally arrived. “Gestation” is an appropriate term for use by any author when referring to the birth of a new book and its long-awaited delivery – not by the stork, but by UPS!


From initial concept to a tangible book-in-the-hand is a long, hard journey – ask any author – but the satisfaction of finally holding and perusing the end result is worth it all.

After publishing my first book on motion physics for the layperson four years ago, I was in no way ready to consider beginning yet another book. However, for both authors and imaginative inventors, a good idea is hard to resist, and the theme of America’s students struggling in science and math relative to students in other countries proved too important and interesting to pass up. More important than national test scores and rankings are the frustrations felt by many parents, guardians, and teachers when their students are underperforming in school.

 Why Do So Many Students Struggle with
Learning – Especially in Science and Math?

NCS Bookmark Front Layout_FinalStudent standardized test scores in science and math are mediocre at best and falling for America’s students relative to many other countries – a rather shocking development. Once I began to seriously reflect upon why so many students are underperforming in school, the reasons quickly became clear to me.

Diagnosing the problem was the easier half of the drill; finding cures for the ailing performance of so many of our students proved more challenging, yet I am confident in my ultimate RX prescription for healing our students’ academic woes. The integrated guide and plan I offer as a remedy for parents, guardians, mentors…and teachers, too, is based on common-sense parenting/mentoring and learning principles – many of which have been lost to recent generations. Today’s ubiquitous technology, while often very helpful and even necessary, is also identified as a significant cause of our problems – but by no means the only one.

As I wrote the book and solicited comments, one that surfaced more than once went like this: “The parents and guardians who, together with their students, most need the guide and plan you offer in the book, are the least likely to buy it.” I sadly agree, to an extent, but remain confident that many struggling parents and guardians will take advantage of my ideas and suggestions.

96497_Kubitz_cvr.indd    96497_Kubitz_cvr.indd

I envision a very viable market for the book with prospective parents and the parents of preschoolers who wish to be proactive in maximizing school success by providing an early, nurturing environment for their youngsters. Not everyone is initially equipped by nature with the insight required for effective parenting/mentoring. Good parenting is like so many other ventures in life: The best way to proceed is by working hard and by working smart. Highlighting that latter part will prove to be how my book offers the greatest value to parent/mentors.

For a closer look at the book and how to order it, click on “My New Book on Science / Math Education” on the blog header or click on the following link:


To go directly to the book’s dedicated website for still more information and to order, click on the following link:


For an excerpt from the book, also see my previous post: “Teaching Children Math…By Example,” in the archives for Sept. 27, 2014. Click the following link:



Teaching Children Math…By Example!

Here, in the United States, achievement test scores in math and science are second-rate and falling with respect to many other countries of the world. Why is this happening? To say that the reasons are several and complex would be a true statement – to a point. A thorough examination of the reasons for America’s declining performance reveals a common-thread: A lack of common-sense in the way we both educate… and raise our children to have a “learning attitude.” A learning attitude and the foundation for success in school comes from home.

96497_Kubitz_cvr.indd     96497_Kubitz_cvr.indd

My upcoming book (available in October), Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning highlights many of the issues at play while offering concrete suggestions to parents, mentors, and even teachers on how to “right the listing ship” of learning at the national level.

My book is not primarily concerned with our national achievement rankings, however; its prime focus is on helping parents and mentors at home partner with the schools to improve their student’s school performance and future prospects. The book addresses all aspects of learning and student motivation while paying special attention to those typically troubling subjects, science and mathematics.

To illustrate one of the many approaches I advocate for parents, mentors, and educators, Chapter 5 in the book presents “The Lottery Prize Choice.”

Beginning of Book Excerpt:

The important point is this: Some facility with mathematics is crucial to an intellectually rich and materially prosperous life … for most of us. The more math you know, the greater the potential rewards in life, monetary and otherwise. It is our task as student mentors to first convince ourselves that this is true. Only then can we proceed to make a convincing case to our students. Perhaps you have tried simply telling your student that “math is important; you need to know it!”…and that got you nowhere!

 I advocate a subtler, common-sense approach, appealing to students’ curiosity and their inexperienced instincts by using real-life examples instead of merely preaching the virtues of mathematics for getting a good job someday, being successful, etc.

To illustrate my point, consider the following example which seems appropriate in this age of mega-million lotteries:

 The Power of Math: The Lottery Prize Choice

Congratulations! You just won the local lottery. You are given the choice of two prize options:

Option 1: $10,000 in cash – paid immediately!

Option 2: One penny in cash – paid immediately! But hold-on, there is the proverbial “fine print” attached to option 2: The town banker has consented to hold your penny in the bank and pay you an interest rate on that penny of 1% compounded and applied daily for a maximum of five years. At that time, or any time sooner upon your request, you will be paid the total accumulated amount in cash.

A Note on how the “compound interest” in option 2 works: The winner gets one penny at the awards ceremony and promptly deposits it in the town bank. The next day, the penny earns 1% interest (one one-hundredth of a penny) which is added to the original penny. Now the prize is worth 1.01 cents (1 plus 1 times 0.01). The next day, the 1.01 cents earns another 1% interest on itself which makes the total holding equal to 1.0201 cents (1.01 plus 1.01 times 0.01). This continues every day for five years.

The $64,000 question: Which option do you choose?

If you choose option 1, you will be sorry! Yes, you will have $10,000 in cash in your pocket – immediately. That can buy a lot of neat stuff like computers, stereos, smart-phones, a trip to Disneyland!

If, on the other hand, you had an understanding of the mathematics of finance – merely basic math in this case coupled with some mathematical reasoning ability, you certainly would choose option 2, wait five years and collect your $770,000 penny-accumulation!

Just imagine what that could buy? How about some Ferrari automobiles, the best college education, a beautiful new home, your future retirement, and/or ….?

Of course, it is unlikely the town banker would ever offer such a deal, but the example emphasizes to anyone, the power of mathematics – even the basic mathematics employed above. The calculation involved in this problem is simple, easily done on any student calculator. The solution to the problem – coming up with the right decision – requires a respect for the power of numbers which one obtains given a minimal dedication to the study of math.

Here, in this example, is a great illustration of the old adage, “knowledge is power,” and, despite the unrealistic premise of the generous banker presented in option 2, the lesson of this example is not far removed from the many problems recent home-buyers faced due to their poor understanding of mortgage finance and interest rates.

We have focused on mathematics in our discussion so far in this chapter and in the above example for no other reason than its importance to science and to a complete education. The lottery prize problem is but one example of a real-world, hands-on, approach which can be effective at generating student curiosity and interest in the possibilities of mathematics. This book will often emphasize the close relationship between science and mathematics while continuing to stress, as well, the importance of math alone in finance, statistics, and everyday life.

 End of Book Excerpt!

Appendix 1 in the book illustrates the simple math involved in the problem for the benefit of parents and mentors.

Two overriding messages are presented and developed within my book:

– We often look in all the wrong places for ultimate solutions to math, science, and learning problems: “Better” schools, “better” teachers, more class time, and more technology in the classroom are not the ultimate answers.

– A “learning attitude” begins at home: Nurturing a real curiosity and interest within students about the wonderful world which surrounds them demands some common-sense insights and practices from parents and mentors. Such an approach is the true key to success. As Albert Einstein once insisted, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” And he was.

On Ants and Humans

Ants – a subject I know little about, but one which fascinates me. I know I am not alone in this. Have you ever watched ants go about their daily activities for any extended period of time? I have and found it fascinating, but I am a rank amateur ant-watcher compared to some folks.

Humans – a subject more familiar to me, but one which I still do not claim to understand that well. People-watching is as intriguing as ant-watching, and, indeed, there seem to be many similarities between the two species and their behaviors.


I think about ants on the relatively rare occasions when they invade our kitchen, usually on days which are unusually cold, hot, or wet. A few well-placed spray-lines of RAID near outside entry points always takes care of the problem for at least a few months. I know that other people are not quite so fortunate in halting ant invasions. I also know that ants are out there, underground in our backyard, in very great numbers. At our house, my wife and I and the ants outside seem to have reached a mutual understanding of and a tolerance for each another.

An interesting phenomenon I have observed many times is their habit of periodically “venting” their underground tunnel networks. Our brick patio will, virtually overnight, sprout several little debris mounds emanating from tiny holes in the brick mortar. This usually happens during hot weather, hence my assumption that they are attempting to air-out their habitat. Except when they are doing the work on these vents, no parades of ants can be seen coming and going from these holes. Apparently their front and back doors are elsewhere in our backyard. If I sweep away one of these debris mounds, partially plugging the hole in the process, it is literally only a matter of hours before a new mound has formed.


One of recent history’s most intriguing and widely-read scientists, Richard Feynman, was interested in most everything else in addition to atomic physics and quantum theory. Among the many entrancing anecdotes contained in Richard Feynman’s best-selling book from the mid-eighties, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is a section describing his encounters with ants.


In his book, he relates an incident while a physics student at Princeton University: “In my room at Princeton I had a bay window with a U-shaped windowsill. One day some ants came out on the windowsill and wandered around a little bit. I got curious as to how they found things. I wondered, how do they know where to go? Can they tell each other where food is, like bees can? Do they have any sense of geometry? This is all amateurish; everybody knows the answer, but I didn’t know the answer so…..”

He goes on to describe several simple, but clever observational experiments he conducted to get his answers – just the sort of attitude one would expect from a brilliant future Nobel Prize Laureate in physics. In fairly short order, he learned quite a lot about ants by asking simple questions and conducting clever investigations  – a formula reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s approach when pondering great problems in physics. Feynman, whose reputation for out-of-the-box thinking placed him in some very elite physics circles, rubbed elbows with Einstein throughout his career.

But, back to ants! Feynman concluded from his observations that ants have no sense of direction, but they do lay down a “trail” when they travel. That probably explains why ants are continually bumping into each other when they are going in opposite directions while following an established trail. One fascinating conclusion he reached involves the second of two ants who each randomly stumble upon a distant sugar cube after coming down separate trails from a common starting point (let us call it the “nest”). The first ant locates the sugar cube, turns around and follows his original trail back to the nest – with good news to relate. When the second ant quite accidentally also discovers the sugar cube in his path after traveling along a different trail from the nest, it always follows the trail of the first ant back to the nest – not his own original trail. Feynman concluded that the first ant typically heads back to the nest along his original trail to the sugar – its only choice of established trails – but in retracing his steps back to the starting point, it laid down a different scent or a stronger scent during the return trip – one that indicates….FOOD. That would explain why the second ant follows the trail of the first ant back to the nest, and not his own. Seemingly, that ingrained behavior is how a large number of ants quickly congregates along a common pathway to and from a food source. It is all quite fascinating. Are there any of us out there who have not experienced the outcome of this “ant strategy” in the form of long columns of ants on the kitchen counter?

Feynman also relates in his book how ants “partner” with aphids in the garden by transporting them bodily from plants which are dying (due to being ravaged by aphids) to healthy plants. The ants are literally caretakers of aphids. Why? Because the ants harvest partially digested aphid juice called “honeydew” directly from the aphid’s stomach in a miniature stomach-pumping operation. Feynman describes how he once directly observed this behavior under a microscope.

Is there any doubt that fact is stranger and more wonderful than fiction – especially in the hands of mother-nature? I love the way Feynman is sucked-in by his wide-ranging curiosity about all things, and I love the way he relates the subsequent experiences in his books. The subtitle of “Surely You’re Joking…”  is: Adventures of a Curious Character. Curiosity is the wellspring of eventual knowledge and understanding. I can cite no better examples than Feynman and Einstein. In Feynman’s case, “Curious Character” comes complete with double-entendre.

Feynman’s most famous/important writings (excluding his pioneering physics papers), can be found in the familiar set of The Feynman Lectures On Physics. These three volumes resulted from Cal-Tech’s attempt to liven its undergraduate physics program in the early nineteen-sixties. Feynman, then on the faculty and heavily involved exclusively with advanced graduate students in physics, was recruited to devise a set of lectures and personally deliver them in his own inimitable style to first-year undergraduates in physics. His fresh, intuitive, yet thorough way of presenting physics produced standing-room only attendance at those courses, and, ultimately, this compendium of lectures which are legendary, today.


 Ant Societies and Human Beings

When I watch ants moving about, and I consider what little I actually know about them and their societies, I nevertheless cannot help drawing parallels between them and human beings. In human society, it is difficult enough to stand-out – to be noticed. It strikes me that much of the popularity of social media today is based on our human need to be recognized (and remembered) as individuals. Why else would today’s teens routinely report to each other what they are having for lunch at a particular moment, or that they just got out of the shower, or that the sky seems to be falling – well, that last one, I can understand! Except for the sky falling, does anyone really care about routine personal events? I think that frequent  text-ers are responding to the human urge to be visible to others – as much as possible. Yes, even us bloggers are at least partially motivated by the need to be recognized, to be noticed – it’s true!

It seems that the ants must have it much worse than humans in an individual sense given that ant societies only appear interested in the collective good and survival of the colony. Personal anonymity is perhaps not so painful to the ant as it is to the human; it all depends on the nature of our hard-wiring! The only ant which is deservedly doted upon as special is the queen – for good reason!

I have watched swarms of ants and long-crowded trails of ants and noted the semi-haphazard way they make their way through the crowd. Yes, they do have a plan, a motivation behind all that activity, but in getting where they are going, they continuously bump into one another and crawl over one another, without so much as a “pardon me!” Such a picture reminds me of the morning commute, here in Silicon Valley, California. Long trails of cars streaming down ribbon “trails” of concrete, a blizzard of cars at intersections, trying to make their way across, sometimes aggressively and with honking horns. Fortunately, head-on collisions are relatively rare along the trails traveled in human society compared to the world of ants, yet there are still too many of them.

The programmed rituals of both societies seem to me eerily similar. There is a difference, however. Ants and their societies are primarily “hard-wired” via instinct – at least it seems. We humans also have sections of our brain hard-wired by mother-nature, but we can make conscious decisions which change our immediate behaviors and situations. For example: Many come to this California valley for its weather and its opportunity, but many also leave here, disillusioned and uncomfortable with the growing personal anonymity which necessarily comes with numerical density. An individual, here, can decide to move to Bend, Oregon for its scenic beauty, and a less hectic and more personal lifestyle. I cannot imagine a parallel of that sort in an ant society.

Short of long-term evolutionary impacts, ant societies have gone through the exact same motions for many thousands of years, with little to show for it except for survival and a role in the earth’s ecology. Humans have much to show for their societies’ efforts – mostly due to scientific discovery and technological creativity. In that regard, the change in the human landscape has been absolutely phenomenal over just the last four hundred years.

And yet, the most fascinating conclusion of all: While our technological capability has grown so dramatically, basic human nature (our hard-wired behavioral instincts) have changed very little over many thousands of years!

When I think of ants and I think of humans, I conclude that mother-nature still fundamentally rules – even human societies with all their “progress.” We do technology, and ants do not, but the real question is, “What will we do with it all?”

On my bookshelves is a little book which I bought a couple of years ago – one of those which you know you should read and will read….someday! The more I think about ants, the more likely I will take it down soon and start reading.


Adventures in Padua; on the Trail of Galileo Galilei

Near the top of any listing of the greatest names in science is that of Galileo, Galilei. He is often referred to as the first “modern scientist.” Another richly-deserved title would be “most colorful scientific personality.” He was both of these. Much of my reading and study of science history has involved Galileo …and for good reason: He was that important and interesting a person.

In 2005, my wife and I took a wonderful vacation to Italy. Along with the must-see sights in Rome, Venice, and Florence, was an extended afternoon rail-stopover in the town of Padua – on our way to Venice. We planned to visit the famous Scrovegni Chapel with its artistically important frescoes by Giotto, and we set our sights on the University of Padua, where Galileo taught mathematics from 1592 to 1610. The University of Padua is among the oldest in existence, founded in 1222.

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               The Scrovegni Chapel                         Galileo Galilei by Sustermans

Despite having a fine, large map of Padua, we got totally lost – twice! The first incident, unlike the second, has nothing to do with Galileo, but like our Galileo adventure, it took place in Padua, Italy, on the same afternoon.

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First Stop, the Scrovegni Chapel

The Scrovegni Family Chapel in Padua is renowned for Giotto’s extensive frescoes which adorn its walls and date back to the early fourteenth century. Giotto’s depictions of events in the lives of Mary and Jesus marked a revolutionary departure from the earlier, stark Byzantine style to a more natural approach, one which conveyed depth in the renderings and human emotion in the subjects depicted. Art historians consider Giotto a key figure in the evolution of pre-renaissance art.

We initially had difficulty finding the chapel location, even using the usually effective directions from Rick Steve’s travel advisories. We were soon to discover that this was but the harbinger of trouble in Padua. Once on the chapel grounds, we saw no signs, but a small, outlying reception building some distance from the chapel, itself, looked like the obvious place to start. We sat down among a small group of people outside who looked as if they might be on the same 2:00 tour for which we had reservations. I went inside to get our tour tickets, and “verified” with the desk person where we should wait. With a general sweep of his arm, and very little English, he indicated, “Over there.” I surmised that “over there” was approximately where Linda was sitting outside with the small knot of touristy-looking folks. We were plenty early for the tour despite our initial misadventures in finding the chapel grounds, so I asked an obvious staff member who was visible, where the restrooms were. Again, a general sweep of the arm indicated “over there.” My fifty yard stroll around the corner of a distant building to “over there” was a wild-goose chase, sure enough, but I finally located the restroom much closer to where I had just been given “directions.”

As our 2:00 tour time got closer and closer, we noticed that the knot of people with whom we were sitting was gradually getting smaller, but there seemed to be no tour-guide in sight and no general direction of departure on the part of the “crowd.” There certainly were no signs posted. Sensing that something was terribly amiss, we went inside to inquire once more when and where the tour would begin. To our horror, we realized that the tour was already underway from some other location on the grounds. We hustled over to the chapel itself and could see a very small group inside a diminutive, glass-framed sun-room adjacent to the back of the chapel. The glass door was locked, but the tour guide inside could see us frantically waving our arms and finally came over to let us in, a disgruntled frown upon his face – but no match, I am certain, for the frown on mine.

We saw some beautiful and historically important art in the chapel, but at great cost to our equanimity and enjoyment. After the tour, we retraced our steps back to the nearby “reception building” looking for the obvious sign-postings we must have missed earlier. There were none in sight. Moving on!

 After a Deep Breath, on to the University of Padua,
Galileo’s Old Academic Stomping Grounds

Fresh-off the chapel misadventure, we resolutely headed-off on foot to the nearby University of Padua for a special glimpse of Galileo and his times. In addition to Galileo, the university is famous for its early programs in medicine and anatomy; its compact, cylindrical “anatomical theatre,” designed for viewing autopsy dissections, is world-famous and dates back to 1594. It was the first such permanent theatre in the world. It has been restored/preserved, in more recent times, to its original condition. Dissections of human cadavers were especially frowned upon by the Catholic Church; Padua provided one of the first opportunities for medical students to advance our knowledge in that respect. Many historic figures studied medicine, there, including the Englishman, William Harvey, who first explained the heart/lung/circulatory system in 1615 – a milestone advance in medicine.

We followed our map to the university’s location, yet caught no glimpse of anything that resembled a college or university campus. We retraced our steps, we went this way and that way to no avail – no signs, no university! Finally, feeling quite frustrated, we asked for help. We learned, despite the language barrier, that we were looking for “Palazzo del Bo” which is central to the university. Palazzo del Bo? Maybe we misunderstood and it was Piazza del Bo? At any rate, there was no palace and no open-area piazza anywhere to be seen! We asked once again for assistance. To our dismay, we realized we were standing literally right alongside our quarry. It was now clear that we had walked right past the University of Padua at least twice – without “seeing” it! How is that possible?

Italy 2005 021 The University of Padua – as seen from the street.

In hindsight, it is easy to understand how Americans can blunder. There is no “campus” as we visualize it. There are no visibly imposing buildings, no green lawns, student unions, or landscaping. What is visible from the street looks much like any other old building along the way, sandwiched in between other old buildings. Immediately upon entering the front archway/door, one encounters a compact, stone-paved quadrangle surrounded on all four sides by a double loggia, (Italian terraces) which surrounds the quadrangle. This is what we were looking for all along, but not at all what we were expecting! This is Palazzo del Bo.

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It was worth all the trouble! Galileo once walked this small quadrangle, the surrounding loggia, and, likely, taught mathematics in classrooms just off these very terraces. All along the elevated loggia were hung large family coats-of-arms, centuries-old and fashioned largely of terra-cotta – reminders of the university rectors and their staff who served, here, centuries ago.

It was a thrill for me to be here, up-close-and-personal with one of the greatest minds in the history of science. Linda enjoyed the historical ambience of the place, as well. We certainly marveled at the way we were deluded by our unfounded expectations of university campus grandeur, all-the-while chuckling over the whole incident. I suppose the two of us would appropriately relate to that book title of Mark Twain’s: “Innocents Abroad!”

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An excited “Innocent Abroad”
Galileo might have stood right here!

Alas, so much time was wasted being lost in Padua that we were not able to tour the university’s anatomical theatre – a big disappointment. Fortunately, we did find our way back to the rail station without incident in time to hop aboard for our next stop, Venice. For our views on Venice and the movie, Summertime, see my post of March 23, 2014, Summertime in Magical Venice available in my blog archives.