Course Report: A Brief History of Timekeeping 02

I reported on the start of this class last week, and sinc ethen, we’ve had three more class meetings. Since this whole thing is an experiment, I’ll keep reporting on it from time to time (heh). First, though, a quick answer to a request from comments:

I’d like to hear more about your class on time and timekeeping. How well do you think students learn the big ideas about how science works from these classes, as apposed to a more traditional general physics class? How much transfer do you see in students’ understanding of the content of this course to understanding of science in general?

The answer to this is really short and simple: I have no idea. This is the first time I’m teaching this class, and I’m making it up as I go. I’ll know more in March, maybe.

So, what have we been doing for the past week?

As mentioned in the last report, last Friday’s class involved a look at neolithic timekeeping, in the form of the Newgrange passage tomb, and looked at a bad argument in the form of an Ancient Aliens clip talking about Newgrange. Here are the lecture slides in PDF format, for those who care. The students did a good job of picking up on the flaws that I wanted them to spot, so that was good.

Monday’s class was on the history of calendar systems (lecture slides (PDF)), and was necessarily a little more lecture-y than I’m shooting for in this class. I did ask them to suggest systems of combining lunar and solar cycles, and got all the major examples without needing to put up the slides. there’s not a great deal of depth in those slides, but part of the idea here is to provide hooks for potential student research papers/projects to cap off the class. So, there are a lot of little teaser mentions of things that students can chase down and study in more detail.

Wednesday’s class was devoted to the Mayan calendar, largely because it’s gotten a lot of attention lately, but also because it’s so very strange, almost completely unlike anything else. The class slides are here, and formatted in a way that was intended to encourage discussion. The first half-dozen slides are a quick summary of the details of the Mayan system (which is very confusing to read about, a confusion that is enhanced by most of the people who write about it being either New Age whack jobs or cultural anthropologists). The rest are questions posed to the class, followed by pictures of important calendar-related material, some of it from the assigned reading (a chapter from Aveni’s Empires of Time), some of it images of objects and artworks referred to in the reading.

This was OK, but didn’t go quite as well as I hoped. I suspect this was largely due to students’ eyes glazing over while trying to read Aveni’s discussions of astronomy. They got the more culturally based aspects of things, but missed a lot of the astronomical elements relating to the questions I was asking. As a result, it took a little longer to get through than I hoped, so we didn’t have time to get to the bad argument for the class, which was this compendium of reasons something dramatic will happen in 2012, which is practically a Grand Unified Theory of Crazy. The point being that it’s relatively easy to make superficially impressive arguments by just concatenating lots of sources without looking critically at any of them, but if you want to actually convince anybody, you need to dig a little deeper.

I also gave them a homework assignment this weekend, based on all this archeoastronomy stuff, which was to define a “Unionhenge” in analogy to Tyson’s Manhattanhenge: find some dates and times when the rising or setting sun aligns with landmarks on Union’s campus. This was made relatively simple by the existence of SunCalc, which gives you the position of the sun at arbitrary dates and times as an overlay on a google map of the campus. Those were due today, and I got some good stuff (I half expected all of them to use the same two buildings and dates, but they spread around campus and the calendar pretty well). I need to find a good way to compile and present them. In my copious free time.

Next week is going to be devoted to How to Read a Scientific Paper, using this paper about the physics of an hourglass as an example of a measurement article, and a review article by Aveni as an example of that class of paper (which, again, provides some possible starting points for student projects). Today’s class will be at the library, learning about the resources they have available, which I’m kind of looking forward to, as my knowledge of documentary research is kind of haphazard and outdated.

And that’s where things stand with the class. They’re supposed to be working on measurements of their own devising as well, and I’ve heard from a couple of them about this, but I don’t have a very solid idea of how that’s going. I’ll do a more detailed check next week, to make sure all is well.

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