Saturday, May 22, 2010

Finding Darwin's God

Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (P.S.)Evolution, Creationism, Microevolution, Intelligent Design, Materialism, Science and Religion...where does one begin to understand what all controversy is about?  Start with Kenneth Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God.

Kenneth Miller is a Catholic cell biologist that clearly explains all of these subjects.  He begins by taking us through the volumes of evidence supporting Evolution, including the scientific meaning of "theory" that is often misused by opponents of Evolution.  He then gives the details of Creationism, Microevolution-only, and Intelligent Design, describing not only where these proposals are wrong based on the scientific evidence, but also where they are philosophically insufficient to explain God's relationship to His creation.

After showing the fallacies in these common challenges to Evolution, he continues on to a very important section detailing how scientists also misuse Evolution as a basis for a philosophy of religion in that it somehow proves that God does not exist.  He points out that scientists' vicious religious attacks are some of the reasons why Evolution has such passionate opponents. (He did not continue on with how a twisted interpretation of Evolution became the foundation of the horrid philosophy of Eugenics.)  He points out the hypocrisy in demeaning those who try to discount Evolution by distorting the science while giving a pass to those who also distort the science to apply it to philosophy and society.

Finally, he takes his readers through the scientific basis as to why Evolution does not mean that our lives, our choices, our futures are determined and predicted by our genetics.  He explains that, at the very core of all the ordered universe, we have found quantum chaos that impacts even how mutations occur. In other words, God has a role to play in our lives.

My sense is that Miller wrote this book for scientists and people like me--Catholics who understand the Unity of Truth and have no qualms with Evolution, but strongly reject Evolutionism.  He demonstrates that being a serious scientist and a serious Catholic is not a conflict.  He does not, however, get into any of the theology about where Evolution fits into God's plan; he does not discuss why there is something instead of nothing, and, frankly, that is much too big a question to address in this book.

In taking this approach, he sometimes oversimplifies an argument to the point where he puts it on theologically shaky ground.  For example, he says that evolution eventually created what God was looking for--creature that could know and love Him--undermining an All-Knowing God.  He also discusses free will by saying that it is impossible to create people with the option to sin that would never do so.  Technically, using a logic argument, it is highly unlikely that no one would sin ever but not impossible.

While the book is an excellent overview of this controversial topic, it does not discuss Evolution in light of Catholic religious philosophy or theology.  Finishing this book left me looking for a good follow up to fill in these areas.

I particularly took interest in the tale of Fr. Murphy, who told a very young Miller that a flower is a work of God, just like we are, because scientists don't know why they form.  This was, indeed, a botanical mystery until a much older Miller saw the discovery of genes that cause leaves to modify into flowers.

If we teach our children a God-of-the-Gaps--that God must exist because science cannot explain certain natural phenomena--then we are setting them up to lose that belief as science progresses, especially if they become scientists.  Teach them that we must have a regular, predictable world in order to recognize miracles; that we live in a natural as well as a supernatural world; and that God is the answer to the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?"

You can read a different review of this book at

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cloud Study Week 2

The second week's activity was for the students to research and create a cloud classification system.  It was meant to be done as a Problem Based Learning exercise, but our kids did not do well with this approach at all.  The difficulty was that none of them were adept at extracting information from their book sources, so that only led to confusion when trying to pull things together as a group.  Ultimately I gave them each books to take home so that next week they could all bring back information they learn.

I have been looking for online resources for the kids to look at, too.  One of the best sites I have found is Windows to the Universe, which has a wealth of information for all fields of science. Their teacher resource section for Atmosphere and Weather has several activities relating to clouds.  It also has this nifty cloud viewer to print and use for classification.  We have decided to continue our co-op until the end of June so I can find some extension activities here if we finish the NASA packet.  The student page about clouds has a lot of great information for the kids to read.

Another site I got from Library of Books, Links and More: Crazy About Clouds was NOAA's JetStream--Online School for Weather section about clouds.  They have two interactive cloud charts (main page and classification page,) a pdf cloud observation log, and a cloud identification wheel to cut out and use.

Finally, I found a neat article about Luke Howard, the man who named the clouds.  It's from The Weather Notebook, a great resource from the Mt. Washington Observatory that is still available though stopped posting new material in 2005.

A site a just recently came across is NASA Virtual Skies.  This has all things aviation, from math, to physics, to weather, to technology.  It includes teacher resources as well.  I found great information on clouds including a chart of cloud map symbols.

Hopefully the kids will do a little better with the group dynamics once they all have some information under their belts.  I am going to read more about PBL from a teaching perspective to find some tips to encourage my students.

We Found Them All!

I just thought I'd mention that we found all 10 of the Mystery Classes! The kids were very excited to see the posting on the web site and to see the locations displayed on the animated globe.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review of Newton and Me

With the release of Newton and Me I was hoping to find an elementary science book written as an engaging story but, unfortunately, I was disappointed. The book is about a boy and his dog, Newton, discovering various forces in their daily lives, forces first described by Isaac Newton.

The difficulty I have with this book is that the reading and concept levels do not match. I very much promote and encourage introducing science concepts at a young age; however, the basic story and rhyming text, appealing to preschool through first grade, does not introduce any concepts they do not readily realize naturally, and yet this same age group would have a hard time understanding the concepts presented in the "For Creative Minds" section, like friction, or pushing something "twice as hard." (This is available as a free download from Sylvan Dell.)

The colorful yet simple illustrations are well matched to the text and theme. Some of the concepts presented are things like: a ball rolls easier on a sidewalk than on the grass; when it is thrown into the air always comes down; a toy truck stays stationary on level ground yet rolls on a hill, and others. Many of the activities in the "For Creative Minds" section are cross-curricular relating mostly to language development.

Sylvan Dell has long struggled to publish non-nature science story books for elementary-aged children.  Based on how few titles actually fit that description from any publisher, it must be a tough genre. I am still holding out hope that they will publish better offerings in this area.

 This review is also available on

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cloud Investigation Day 1

We began our first day of our cloud study.  I described the scenario from the booklet and read the first section of the prerequisite knowledge.  Here they are in two groups doing the first activity: brainstorming.

The two kids in the foreground are the 5th graders while the other group has two 3rd graders and a 4th grader in it.  Even though the packet is designed for grades 5 through 8, the younger group is enjoying the process and understanding the material.

I then had all 10 kids in the kitchen for second activity--the cloud in a bottle demonstration.  The picture is from the night before when I was trying it out at home.  I should have taken a video so you could see how the cloud disappears when you squeeze the bottle (high pressure) and then reappears when you release it.

The next activity is three days of observations for cloud classification.