Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Want to know something cool?


If Isaac Newton had kept his mouth shut, nobody would have known that he chopped down that cherry tree. In fact, nobody was in the forest when the tree fell, so it barely made a sound.

Most kids of Newton’s day would have scarfed the cherries, hacked the tree into kindling, and sold it for the local witch trials. But not little Isaac. He just wanted his kite back, because it had his house key tied to it, and he needed to get in and finish inventing the electric cotton gin (a risky proposition in the era of prohibition, even if it was a boon to Peruvian quinine farmers).


Lucky for us, Newton was inspired when the tree fell. In fact, as any fourth-grader will tell you, Newton “invented” gravity, and gave rise to timeless theories like South Beach, Atkins, and Weight Watchers.

What if Newton had been more inclined to the biosciences? Would he have codified the ripening cycle of tree-borne fruit; bred a new genus of apple or fruit worm? If he’d been susceptible to more abstruse thoughts at the time, would he have wondered why that particular apple chose that particular moment to fall on his particular head? If he’d been raised a certain way, he would have wondered what he’d ever done to deserve being bonked on the crown in the first place.

Where others saw fruit, or fate, or fortune, Newton saw force. Voila: gravity! His mind noticed, questioned, and reasoned the motion of the apple, the might which overcame adhesion, which converted potential energy to kinetic.

Surprisingly, it took humankind tens of thousands of years to examine and explain one of the fundamental elements of our very existence. Sure, there had been transient theories before Newton’s time, ranging from the theological to the comical. Before we could grasp the groundwork of gravity, our species had first to navigate the prerequisite waypoints that led to Newton’s apple. Geometry, logic, and basic biology had to set the stage for the advent of physics; and the circumstantial forces required to put Newton’s brain in the right place and time are mind-boggling.

“Surely,” you venture, “if it hadn’t been Newton, it would have been someone else.” And that’s probably so; the quest for understanding is hard-wired in the human brain. Inevitable as it may have been, though, consider the improbability of Newtonian physics.
First, you needed a tree. We also needed the man himself to be there. Think of it: he could have taken the bus that day and might never have met his Tree Of Destiny. He might have had a heartier breakfast, and felt in fine fettle, and thus not sought respite beneath her branches. Had he been ten minutes ahead of schedule, he’d have passed the tree in blissful ignorance and missed the event entirely. Construction traffic on the Cambridge Causeway might have changed the course of humanity in the universe.

At the instant of epiphany, it could just as easily have been the vicar or the baker or the barber passing by; recipes for penitence, pie, or fruit-scented conditioner could have been born that fateful day. Newton could have been in foul temper, moved to simply curse his luck and chunk his apple toward the nearest window or mangy dog.

More significantly, what of Newton’s education? What if he were a stranger to the scientific method? If he’d never tasted Euclid or Kepler or Ayn Rand? Would his mind have been open to nature’s demonstration? He might have been inclined to examine probability rather than gravity. What if he’d forsaken his training in favor of macramé and moved to Scottsdale?
Happily, Sir Isaac was in the right place, at the right time, in the right frame of mind. He had the right skills, the requisite knowledge, and the native curiosity to ask the right questions. Everything aligned—call it fortune, or fate, or providence divine—and the world was forever changed.

Often we think we’re doing one thing, when in fact we’re doing another. There will be seminal days in our future when other Newtons will wander past their own providential apple trees, and pause to examine their surroundings, and question their understanding. It is then that our own labors bear fruit, for only when the lessons are applied can the blossom of knowledge bear the fruit of wisdom.

We may be those Newtons. Or we may plant the tree, or the tree that sprouts the apple that bears the seed that germinates the tree. We may teach the next Newton her letters or his manners. We may never know him, but might instead teach his teachers or tutor her friends, who will invite her on a walk one day that takes a turn beneath an apple tree.

We may teach Business or Accounting or Personal Finance to our students. More importantly, we teach them how to think. We teach facts and theories, along with methods and habits. It’s important to know what a balance sheet is, or who invented gravity … but it’s just as important to know how to collect and tabulate and assess information. Someone has to teach them how to ask why.

Thus when the apple bestows its’ fateful kiss, our students, or their students, or their students’ children, are ready. We are, all of us, facilitators of whatever discovery comes next.

Cool, huh?

For great news, views, and resources for educators, check out
The Balance Sheet at
http://balancesheet.swlearning.com
Published by South-Western, a Thomson company.

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