Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dominant Narratives in History and the Natural Sciences

"...our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design." -Morris Bishop

To what extent is this true in history and one other area of knowledge?

When investigating both history and and the natural sciences, they often seem as if they are collections of numerous bits of information that come together to create a picture. In history different events and stories are built together to describe what happened; in the natural sciences different theories are built from hypotheses, which eventually build the scientific laws by which people live. These pictures that are made from the different stories or theories are known by historians like Dr. Molly McCullers as dominant narratives. A dominant narrative is exactly what the above quote describes, "...a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design..."(Bishop). This narrative does not always take all the information into account, usually leaving out the unsavory bits in order to spare the reputation of a certain country of group of people. This was exactly the case for the people of Kenya, specifically those known as the Mau Mau. 

Mau Mau
In the podcast titled Mau Mau by Matty Kielty and Janice York at RadioLab, they tell two different stories about the time during Britain's colonization of Kenya: the dominant narrative of the Mau Mau, and the truth about them. The dominant narrative is that the Mau Mau were murderous rebels who ruthlessly killed others. However, when older women who were alive during this time were interviewed, they gave a different story. According to them, almost everyone, including themselves, considered themselves Mau Mau. The claim that the Mau Mau were these terrible people was false. This discovery led to further research, and eventually to a place called Hanslope Park. A building in this Hanslope Park is now known to house the most extensive collection of secret archives any nation has seen. These secret archives contained information pertaining to the numerous British colonies, including Kenya and the Mau Mau. Within these archives, information was discovered that described the terrible tortures the British had used on the Kenyan people. To hide these tragedies, the British government blamed the Mau Mau. They made them the monsters, hiding or burning all evidence proving otherwise. They had the power, therefore they had the ability to create the dominant narrative they desired.

History is not the only area of knowledge that contains dominant narratives; the natural sciences do as well. Think about the dominant narrative as a puzzle. Scientists gather different pieces of information and fit them together to form the puzzles of different scientific theories and laws. The cell theory is a great example of this. It began with the discovery of the cell by Robert Hooke, which promoted future research that lead to more discoveries regarding cells. This research all came together to create The Cell Theory that students are taught in Biology classes. Before the Robert Hooke discovered that these tiny cells existed, the dominant narrative did not include any mention of cells. However, this discovery completely altered that narrative. It's as if while working out one puzzle you suddenly find a piece that does not fit anywhere, and so you have to start a new puzzle and start finding those new pieces and fitting them together. These new discoveries helped build our current dominant narrative of the cell, which makes up organelles, then organs, then organ systems, until finally creating an animal. Other theories may still remain, but they are no longer dominant.

Alexander Fleming discovering Penicillin
Another example of dominant narratives in the natural sciences are with medical advancements. Before Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin and its use, illnesses such as meningitis, gonorrhea, and syphilis were terminal. Once Penicillin was discovered, the way those illnesses were perceived changed drastically, and today they are almost never life-threatening. The dominant narrative where those illnesses ended with a body count has changed to one where Penicillin helps patients with these diseases get better. The same can be said for all scientific discoveries in the medical field and every other field. These scientific theories seem to feel both fragile and stable at the same time: fragile because they can be shattered with a single discovery, and stable because they have hard scientific
evidence behind them.

When thinking about both History and the Natural Sciences, it often helps to look at them as narratives. They are stories that not only describe our world, but also transform it. No matter what dominant narrative there is, in either history or science, new information can completely alter the story. This can sometimes mean the rewriting of a countries history, or can lead to completely new scientific ideas. Every belief we hold could possibly be the dominant narrative, so people must always be prepared for the possibility of new information to change the story.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Final Response

The memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard takes place during Dillard's year long stay near Tinker Creek. During the year that Dillard lived near the creek, she has many experiences, some beautiful and some tragic, and she talks about God's role in each of her experiences. For the first half of the novel, Dillard takes a via positiva look at God and his role in nature. At one point in the first half of the memoir, Dillard is describing a mockingbird as it free falls before taking flight and she says, "The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do it try to be there"(Dillard 9). Dillard is claiming that the beautiful parts of the world are not just beautiful for us to see and experience them, they are beautiful because they just are. This reminds me of the common riddle that asks if a tree falls in the woods, does it
make a sound. It begs the question of whether things can actually be beautiful without a person being
there to perceive it that way.

During the second half of Dillard's memoir, she takes a more via negativa look at life. She spends a lot of time talking about some of the more grotesque parts of nature: birth, death, and bugs. She begins Chapter Ten by explaining a nightmare she had where fish hatched from moth eggs, and this began her obsession with the birth of different creatures. However, she does not only mention the reproduction of animals, she also talks about plants. At one point she said "Fecundity is an ugly word for an ugly subject. It is ugly, at least, in the eggy animal world. I don't think it is for plants"(Dillard 185). Closer to the end of this chapter, Dillard talks about how so many eggs are laid, but only so many of each species survive. She sees the cruelty in this and says "Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me. This is easy to write, easy to read, and hard to believe"(Dillard 201). Dillard sees many other cruel aspects of the world in this chapter and further questions God and his role in the grotesque parts.

As the memoir is coming to a close, Dillard seems to take a more neutral stance, accepting both the negative and positive parts of God. She starts to find more admiration for the corruption in the world while she tried to find the beauty in the grotesque. She says "I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I've come to care for whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are by dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down"(Dillard 278). This passage is talking about the world and comparing it to a wreck that is littered with imperfections, but that is beautiful in spite of all the imperfections. The world is like that in many ways, because even though there is death and destruction and war, we still have hope and faith that
Moth Eggs
get us through the hard times. That is the true beauty of the world.

In conclusion, Dillard uses her memoir to search for God in nature and she find him in many different ways. She sees the beautiful parts, such as the flowing creek and the bird, and she sees the grotesque parts, full of death and bugs. And finally, she sees the world as a whole, where the beautiful and grotesque live side by side. This is the world that God created, and there is beauty in everything.

Monday, March 6, 2017

How does knowledge teach us about who we are?

"Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are." To what extent is this true in the human sciences and one other area of knowledge?"

Knowledge is important to humans, not only because it helps us become more advanced, but also because it can help expand our understanding of who we are. First, it is important to understand what knowledge is. Knowledge is information that is known to be true, and this knowledge can be gained through experiences and investigations.

The quote "knowledge gives us a sense of who we are", is especially important when investigating the human sciences and history. The human sciences, specifically psychology, helps humans study how their brains work and why we behave in specific ways. History shows the past behaviors of humans, including how we reacted to different events. With the use of the human sciences to study the behaviors of humans and history to study the past of humans, we can gain more knowledge that can aid us while we try discover who we are as humans.

This topic uses the human sciences as a very broad term, but there are many different branches of the human sciences. One that specifically applies is psychology. Psychology is defined as "the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context." By studying psychology and gaining more knowledge of the human mind, one can try to understand why they do what they do. Psychology can also help us learn about our emotions. Emotions are extremely important for humans, because they can play a very large role in how we make decisions. The way we feel about a certain choice will greatly affect our lives. Intuition also plays a large role in psychology. Intuition is "an ability to understand or know something without needing to think about it or use reason to discover it." So a human's initial reaction to something is their intuition, and this can be studied with the use of psychology. This makes the phrase "knowledge gives us a sense of who we are" very true because, by learning about how our minds work, humans can understand more about how we function with emotions and intuition, and this can give us a better sense of who we are.

Another area of knowledge that supports the quote "knowledge gives us a sense of who we are" is history. History is the study of the past and the events that took place then. The past that humans are mostly concerned with is that of human affairs. This is the history that is taught in classrooms, where students learn the who, what, when, and how of the years prior to now. By studying history, we can form patterns of how people reacted to certain events and the actions they took. The knowledge of these patterns inform us of the ways we usually act and help us see what worked and what did not. As George Santayana said, "those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it." History helps us understand what mistakes we have made and allows us to learn from those mistakes.

Together, psychology and history can teach people a great deal about who they are. By applying psychology to an analysis of the past, we can not only determine what mistakes we made, but also why we may have made those mistakes. Think of when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Thanks to history, we know this event took place and we know that it caused more states to secede and eventually led to a four year long war. By looking at this cessation through a psychological lens, people can try to understand why South Caroline decided to leave the Union. People can look at the emotions that may have been felt by the leaders of South Carolina and the intuition that led them to secede. By learning about these, we can try determine what caused South Caroline and the states that followed to secede. This can then help us learn about who we are in times where we feel trapped and angry and can help us prevent drastic measures similar to the ones taken by South Carolina.

However helpful these areas of knowledge may sometimes be, they are not always accurate. Psychology is largely based on uncertainty, because the research conducted cannot give people a definite conclusion. It can only give evidence, which can be used to create ideas of how people act. However, none of it is for certain. History also has some limitations. History is largely based on memory, perception, and language, and each of these can cause it to be highly conflicting. Memory is not always reliable and can be under or over exaggerated with time. This can lead to events being much different than they actually were. The way a person perceives something can also largely affect the history that they describe. Different accounts of the same historical events are often extremely different. Language also plays a large factor because it is how we record our history. Before written word existed, people recorded history orally. This was a problem because those stories evolved over time and are now either lost or completely different. Due to this, people do not know much of the history that took place before written word. There are even some problems with the written histories. There is no guarantee that what is written is true. Just like psychology, there is no certainty, only
evidence that supports it.

By using the human sciences to study the behaviors of humans and history to study the past of humans, we can try to gain more knowledge that can help us while we try discover who we are as humans. Psychology helps us realize the behaviors of humans and history informs us of the patterns of the past, and by combining the two we can try to understand why we have taken the actions we have and what that says about who humans are.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Cultural Synthesis in Central Asia

To what extent does the geography of Central Asian countries contribute to the cultural synthesis that took place there?

Central Asia map
This past Friday, the TOK class was fortunate enough to have a guest speaker. The visiting professor was a sociologist from the University of West Georgia and he spent a large portion of his life in Central Asia. Central Asia consists of the countries Kazakistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The guest speaker spent the majority of his time in Uzbekistan with a host family in the capital, Tashkent. Throughout the guest speaker's presentation, the idea of cultural synthesis stood out to me the most. Cultural synthesis occurs when different cultures are brought together and, over time, begin to merge together until they have created an entirely different culture.

One way that cultural synthesis is seen in Central Asia is the language. In the language of Uzbek, which is classified as a Turkic language, there are influences from many other languages around this region. Some of these influences come from languages such as Farsi, Arabic, and Russian. Due to the geographical placement of this country, it has developed a language influenced by all of the surrounding countries. Also, in Tajikistan, the people speak primarily in the Persian language, Farsi. This may have occurred because Tajikistan is closer to the Persian countries than to the Turkish countries.

Central Asian culture does not only consist of Persian and Turkish influences, it is also greatly influenced by Russia. This area was part of the Soviet Union, and the Russian culture was synthesized into the mix of Persian and Turkic cultures. One specific example the guest speaker gave was the extensive consumption of Vodka in this region. This is unusual because of the large Muslim population because, typically, Muslims do not drink. However, the people of Uzbek consume Russian Vodka on an almost daily basis, showing the way Russian culture influenced Muslim culture.

It is very interesting to see the way the Persian, Turkic, and Russian cultures have merged to create the cultures of Central Asia and it begs the question: what led to this? I believe that the extent of this cultural synthesis is largely due to the geographical placement of this region. As we have learned from many of the Human Science presentations we have seen so far, geography is extremely important. Geography is one of the most defining factors for cultures and also for religions, which we learned during the Psychology presentation Pate and Chase gave. They informed us about the different versions of hell; depending on the weather in a particular region, the hell of a religion would either be hot, as seen in the Christian hell, or cold, as seen in the Nordic hell.

In order to determine what caused the culture synthesis of Central Asia, we must look at its geographical placement. Central Asia is directly in the middle of three prominent past empires: the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Union. During the prime of each of these empires, the region of Central Asia was consumed by them. Because this region was always a part of an empire, they never got the opportunity to develop cultures that were uniquely their own, they simply adopted other cultures. Through the years of being passed between the different ruling empires, certain aspects of each culture remained, but some diminished. This eventually created the cultures of the different countries in Central Asia.

In conclusion, the geographical placement of Central Asia largely affected the culture of this region. The different languages and ideas that influenced the central asian countries came from all of the surrounding regions. Without those surrounding regions and their role in Central Asia, the culture there would have been profoundly different.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

TOK IRL #3 - The Black Swan Theory and Other Scientific Concerns

The Black Swan theory was one idea that we briefly discussed in class that really caught my attention. This theory, which was devised by a man named Nassim Nicholas Taleb, comes from a saying that was popular in 16th century London. The saying goes "You would sooner see a black swan than..." and would be followed by something that was highly improbable. This is very similar to the saying heard in America "when pigs fly", which refers to the fact that something will never happen until the impossible happens. However, as the theory points out, the impossible can sometimes become the possible.
Black Swan

This may never be true in the sense that pigs will fly, but the belief that all swans are white has already been disproved. Black swans were discovered in Australia, which shifted many people's ideas of the impossible into the possible.

Some examples of the Black Swan Theory are the invention of the computer, World War 1, and the Attacks on 9/11. These were all events that nobody could have predicted and, when they occurred,
all caused drastic changes throughout the globe. According to this video one of the most important examples of the Black Swan Theory took place was with the discovery of fire. It is highly unlikely that an early human understood the concept of fire, much less how to create it; so we assume that the discovery of fire occurred completely by chance. However, this random chance was crucial in the development of civilizations and societies.

Another aspect of the Black Swan Theory is that each event was always somehow rationalized through the use of hindsight despite the fact that they were all entirely non-rational events. As humans, we find it necessary to come up with reasons for everything, which is why we have science.

This theory does not only concern theories about the colors of birds, it also includes many of the scientific theories that we base our knowledge on today. These ideas we believe in can all be disproved with single pieces of information, causing entire theories to come crumbling down.

Black Swans have been seen in science many times, some examples being the ideas of the theories of relativity and of quantum mechanics against the ideas of classical physics and the discovery of dark matter and dark energy. In both of these instances, something new was discovered that caused the already set ideas to shift. This is an important part of science, but it is also slightly terrifying. To know that all the scientific knowledge we have could be dispelled so easily leads to many more questions. But as they say, good scientists set out to prove themselves wrong.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

TOK IRL #2 - Math and how it affects the world

"Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it."

Math is found in practically every aspect of the world. Every time someone drops something they experience the equation of gravity directly in front of their eyes and every step we take we are experiencing many other forces. 

One question that fits well with the quote is whether or not math was discovered or invented. After thinking it over, I decided that math must have been discovered. Math is seen in so many aspects of our world that it seems very unlikely that mankind may have invented it.
Fibonacci Sequence in Nature

Math can be seen in nature through patterns found in the seeds of certain flowers and the swirls of certain seashells. In these objects, the pattern seen is known as the Fibonacci sequence, which is a sequence of numbers that create the swirl patterns seen in both the seeds and the seashells. Math is also seen through many different equations such as the one for gravity and the many other forces that take place in the universe. Because of this math must be discovered. Gravity existed long before the apple fell onto Isaac Newton's head and so did every other force that we experience. 

Due to these ideas of math being discovered rather than invented, I must also say that in this aspect the knowledge of math is used to describe the world rather than to transform it. The lengthy equations that go along with each different force occurring in our universe help us to try to better our understanding of the world. Through these equations we have been able to better describe the way our universe and our world work.

However, in other ways the knowledge of math can be used to transform the world. One way we discussed is computer programming. Through computer programming, we have seen many different inventions such as the smart phones and laptops we have today. These things have drastically changed our world in many ways such as how we communicate with each other and how we complete certain tasks. None of these inventions would have been possible without the use of math and in this way math was used to transform the world.

Machine learning is another way that math is transforming the world. Machine learning is a part of computer programming that "gives computers the ability to learn without being illicitly programmed"(Arthur Samuel). Although this sounds scary, it is also being used to change the world as we know it, allowing computers the ability to do more jobs. 

In conclusion, the knowledge of math both describes and transforms the world we live in. Without math we would not have the advanced technologies of today's generation and we would never be able to describe why the apple falls from the tree and hits the ground. Through the discoveries and transformations that math has given us we have built the world we live in today.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

TOK IRL #1: Math and Music

Music Theory
Throughout the entire lesson on math as an Area Of Knowledge, the topic that I was the most intrigued by was how math is found in music. Of course I could point out the basic way math is seen in music, such as the time signatures used to help keep time while playing, but when I was asked why some notes sound good together and others do not, I hesitated.

My first attempt at answering this question was that it had to do with the sound waves and whether they combined or clashed when they hit each other, and after some research I discovered I was not too far off. The sound that two different notes create when they hit each other has to do with the frequency, which is how many times the waves hit our ears per second, and the pitch, which is either high or low depending on the number of waves that hit per second. The defining factor on whether or not the pitch sounds pleasing is how often the frequencies match up. For two notes that do not go together, or are dissonant, the frequencies almost never meet up, so they clash. However, for two notes that sound good together, or are consonant, the frequencies match up together at regular intervals, such as how the second wave of middle C always matches with the third wave of the G above it. It works the same way with chords, but every note must match up at certain intervals. In reality the intervals between different pitches are not all perfect intervals as they appear to be. They are actually slightly off, but because people wanted to make it easier and have equal sized intervals, they compromised by creating the scales we know today.

In literature, we have been talking about Western thought and how people have grown to see it as the only way, when in fact there are multiple different ways to look at ideas. Sadly, this is something that all people do and I made the mistake of doing it as well. I had always held the believe that music was universal, especially scales which seem to be the most fundamental part of music, but that is not true. For Western music theory, there are six types of scales: Diatonic with seven notes, Melodic and Harmonic Minor with seven notes, Chromatic with twelve notes, Whole Tone with five notes, and Octatonic or Diminished with eight notes. It seems almost impossible to imagine that there are more ways to write scales, but Eastern musicians did.

In Eastern music there are other scales known as Phrygian dominant scales, Arabic scales, Hungarian scales, Byzantine music scales, and Persian scales. Each of these uses the basic knowledge of frequency and pitch to place notes into different orders. This determines some differences in the way traditional western music sounds compared to traditional eastern music.

After realizing this, it makes sense to me, but at first I was shocked. Music is something that all people share and I always imagined that it was the same fundamental type of music, but that is not accurate. Music theory is different across the globe.

This is all high level music theory and is difficult for even me to understand. This brings me to another topic that was mentioned in class: math and beauty. The way beauty can be measured by numbers leaves me feeling very unsettled, because for me music is one of the most beautiful things. I find it hard to think about music theory, because I feel like I am tearing away the mysterious layers of the beauty of music one by one. Music is no longer emotion, it is a string of numbers that create beauty. If music is nothing but numbers, why does it make me feel so much emotion?