WAYS OF KNOWING: SENSE PERCEPTION

The class activities in this unit of inquiry are deceptively simple; but the intention is quite bold. The activities themselves are limited to three online interactive explorations and some whole class discussion based on three PowerPoint-like slideshows.  

By the end of the unit, students should have a good sense of how technological advances have moved us beyond the biological limitations of our sensory range to explore some 41 orders of magnitude! "Awesome" in its deepest, non-colloquial sense, is the word that quickly comes to mind; not least when seeing, especially if for the first time, the intersection of neuroscience, gaming and art that is the Glass Brain Project. 

The Promethean aspects of technology, and also how innovations in digital technology can be viewed as extensions of the brain, are certainly glimpsed. They will be addressed soon enough in Ethics as an Area of Knowledge, and in Memory as a Way of Knowing respectively; but they are not the main emphasis here. 
 

Without the instruments and accumulated knowledge of the natural sciences... humans are trapped in a cognitive prison. They are like intelligent fish born in a deep shallowed pool. Wondering and restless, longing to reach out, they think about the world outside. They invent ingenious speculations and myths about the origin of the confining waters, of the sun and the sky and the stars above, and the meaning of their own existence. But they are wrong, always wrong because the world is too remote from ordinary experience to be merely imagined.
— — Wilson, E. O. (1999: 76-77) Consilience. Random House New York.
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CLASS ACTIVITY i: POWERS OF 10

Begin by showing the whole class the iconic the 1977 short film, Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. The film explores the relative size of things from the microscopic to the cosmic. The aerial view of a man enjoying a picnic in a Chicago park pans away to the outer limits of the universe. After it zooms back down into the microscopic world contained in the skin of the man's hand.

Next in collaborative pairs, students should go online to explore the Nikon's interactive Universcale site. Universcale offers a gently unfolding view “from the microworld to the universe,” displaying entities that cannot normally be physically compared against a continuous scale. It is all the better with its ethereal soundtrack turned on. Allow at least 10 minutes. More if students are ensconced.

Screenshot from Nikon's Universcale

Screenshot from Nikon's Universcale

Finally invite students to explore the interactive Size and Scale cartoon visualization from the University of Utah's Genetic Science Learning Center. There is a user-friendly slider tool under the animation. Size and scale has no pretensions of grandeur and is very easy on the eye. It spans just 8 orders of magnitude (from coffee bean to carbon atom) and has the added bonus of helping biology and chemistry students to visualize the relative sizes of some key macromolecules.

Screenshot from Size and Scale, University of Utah

Screenshot from Size and Scale, University of Utah

 

CLASS ACTIVITY II: EXTENDED PHENOTYPE

Students may be familiar with the notion of genotype and phenotype from biology class. Phenotype is simply the physical body of an organism, the result of genotype expression. 

Chimp weapons, birdsong and termite mounds can be viewed as extensions of the animal bodies that made them. Technology has extended the phenotype of man to unprecedented heights. Human technologies differ from animal technologies in their inventiveness, multiplicity and sophistication.

Animal Extended Phenotypes also include: bee honeycomb, beaver dams, and bird nests. Photo: unknown

Animal Extended Phenotypes also include: bee honeycomb, beaver dams, and bird nests.
Photo: unknown

Begin the activity by reinforcing the notion of Extended Phenotype. Share the following slideshow with the whole class; inviting clarification questions.

Continue by inviting a student to read aloud this Eames quote which comes from the book version of Powers of 10. 

“Of all our senses it is vision that most informs the mind... It is no great wonder that the instruments of science also favor vision; but they extend it far into new domains of scale, of intensity, and of color... [S]cience has followed into sensory domains beyond any direct biological perception. There, complex instruments assemble partial images of the three-dimensional space in which we dwell, images rich and detailed although at scales outside the physical limits of visible light.”
— From the Introduction to Powers of Ten: A Book about the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero by Philip and Phylis Morrison and The Office of Charles and Ray Eames (1982) Scientific American Library, New York.

IMAGING 41 ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE

Next use this graphic to remind students about the electromagnetic spectrum, and then ask a different student to read out the E. O. Wilson quote at the very beginning of the unit.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum. This diagram spans 15 orders of magnitude. 

The Electromagnetic Spectrum. This diagram spans 15 orders of magnitude. 

At this point you will be ready to move into the 41 orders of magnitude slideshow. The 17 slides range all the way from subatomic interactions to composite visualizations of the very the edge of the known universe. The slideshow will certainly evoke Powers of 10 and Nikon's Nanoscale. Allow plenty of time for some genuine astonishment, the fun of recognition, and free form emergent discussion. The point here is to dwell awhile and for students to assimilate this remarkable scientific achievement. 

A HUBBLE INTERLUDE

It worth pausing a moment to appreciate the significance of the Hubble Space Telescope. Orbiting Earth for 27 years, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has changed our fundamental understanding of the universe. It has made more than a million observations, has generated more than 14,000 scientific papers, and is still at the peak of its scientific capability. Hubble does not travel to stars, planets or galaxies. It takes pictures of them as it whirls around Earth outside the haze of our atmosphere. The Hubble website is worth a visit. Students should be encouraged to do so time permitting.

Assembling the main mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to supersede Hubble in 2018. Photo: NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center. Maryland

Assembling the main mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to supersede Hubble in 2018.

Photo: NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center. Maryland


CLASS ACTIVITY III: THE SPECIAL CASE OF BRAIN IMAGING

One of the great obstacles to understanding our embodied selves is the self referential problem of using our brains to understand how our brains work. We are both the subject and object of our epistemological and ontological quest.

The class activity is nothing more than a public viewing of the following slideshow and a pause to appreciate the Glass Brain project. We are living in the golden age of neuroscience. Ensure that students understand that, prior to brain imaging, much of our knowledge of brain function came from the trickle of evidence gleaned from individual brain-damaged patients. The use of technologies that permit non-intrusive imaging of living brains in action has revolutionized the field. 

GLASS BRAIN PROJECT INTERLUDE

The Glass Brain Project will be of enormous interest to students. The project is concrete real-time intriguing example of the information revolution in action. It represents the intersection of cutting edge neuroscience, gaming, entrepreneurship and high art. The project is one of many of the Neuroscape lab at UCSF medical school in San Francisco. The project founder is Dr Adam Gazzaley. The Neuroscape site is worth a visit and Gazzaley has an interesting TEDx Talk.

 

CAPABLE AND FALLIBLE: PROMETHEAN TECHNOLOGY

The 'Little Boy' atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. 170,000 were killed. 90 percent of the city was destroyed. The subsequent 'black rain' of radioactive particles generated radiation-related diseases among the survivors. 

The 'Little Boy' atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. 170,000 were killed. 90 percent of the city was destroyed. The subsequent 'black rain' of radioactive particles generated radiation-related diseases among the survivors.