Thursday, 24 November 2011





5000 WORDS

Biology – GCSE level.

The creation-evolution controversy, particularly its place in the classroom, is undoubtedly a hot topic du jour. Contemporary reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution was in many ways less critical than that of today. A post-First World War surge of opposition to the idea of evolution, culminating in the Scopes monkey trial, has led to creationism (latterly in the guise of intelligent design) being taught for decades in US schools. The level of scientific support for evolution is overwhelming, but still the debate rages.

The idea that humans evolved from monkeys (or monkeys from fish) is a common misconception of Darwin’s theory, which actually proposes that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor that lived about 40 million years ago. It is also wrong to state that Darwin believed that humans evolved from monkeys via Glen (presumably the ‘missing link’ so beloved of creationists). A number of transitional fossils have been found to support the hominid evolutionary record, including Lucy (Australopithecus afarensi) and Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), but as yet there is no Glen. Such a discovery would surely only weaken the creationists’ standpoint.

The decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to allow the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution was challenged by concerned citizen Bobby Henderson, who called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, his belief in a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs, to also be allotted equal time in science classrooms. The idea of a parody religion is not new – Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot is the most famous argument that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon those who make unfalsifiable claims, not on those who reject them. Calls have also been made for physics teachers, alongside Newton’s law of universal gravitation, to teach intelligent falling. President Bush endorsed the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution, stating, "I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught … so people can understand what the debate is about.” This is apt when he is perhaps the closest thing to a missing link yet found.

If creationism is to be taught in schools, then it should not be in the science classroom, but as a separate subject of politics of science and religion. And it should certainly be more balanced than simply calling Darwin a crackpot. Charles Darwin is one of the most influential figures in human history, and has the ultimate accolade of appearing on the back of an English banknote. What next: Elizabeth Fry = wally? Boulton and Watt = bozos? Adam Smith = nincompoop? (His name has been appropriated by the Adam Smith Institute, responsible for recommending the privatisation of British Rail and the introduction of the Poll Tax, so maybe the jury should stay out on that one.)

A ‘WO’ has been inserted in front of ‘MAN’, pointing out that the gender-neutral ‘human’ should perhaps have been used (despite the original use of ‘man’ as being a gender-neutral indefinite pronoun). Whilst this kind of direct linguistic rejection of a patriarchal hegemony might seem a little ‘bra-burning wimmin’ now, it provides a welcome relief to all the other conservative, reactionary nonsense.

A 5000 word essay by what is presumably this Friday is a tall order, but if God made the world in six days then it should be doable.

0/10 See me.

(Many thanks to Wayne for sending this picture in.)

Thursday, 10 November 2011



X| | 
 | |O

Lessons in Life – universal
Computer Science – A-level/undergraduate level

There can be few better exhortations to students than this. Working hard and doing one’s best will always produce the finest possible results, either in the classroom or on the playing field. After any exam or sporting challenge there is no failure if one can say afterwards “I did my best”. (England footballers please take note.)

A game of noughts and crosses is underway on the blackboard. If this has been done by a student then it should have been rubbed off immediately (see post #9 re Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows theory). But if this is actually part of the lesson then a gold star should be awarded as noughts and crosses is a great introduction to many mathematical and computer science concepts from combinations and symmetry to artificial intelligence.

A first question to pose to the class would be how many games of noughts and crosses are possible (the game tree size)? A naive answer would be 9! = 362,880 (assuming X always goes first). However, many games will be over before all the squares are filled, and many more are simply rotations and reflections of others (in effect there are not nine, but only three starting places: corner, centre and edge). Taking these into account gives an answer of 26,830.

Devising an algorithm to produce perfect play is also a favourite challenge, exploring ideas such as backwards reasoning and recursion. These can then be applied to other, more complex games such as Connect 4 and draughts, through to unsolved games such as Reversi, chess and Go (with its game tree complexity of 10360).

However, if this is an attempt to teach the strategy of perfect play then one must hope that the teacher has picked a very poorly-played game to illustrate what not to do. Assuming that X’s first move was in the corner (always the best start: of the then 73 possible games, assuming perfect play on X’s part, 71 result in victory and two in a draw), then O has immediately blundered by playing the far edge instead of the centre (where his/her only hope of a draw can come from), resulting in what should be certain victory for X. X could then force a win by playing the centre, but has him/herself blundered by playing middle bottom. O can now snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat by playing centre or top right, leaving X to harp on about how the Wags should have been allowed to stay in the team hotel.

Despites its pedagogical pedigree, noughts and crosses quickly becomes futile when both players can easily force a draw. This was well-illustrated in WarGames, when the military supercomputer, equating the game to global thermonuclear war, evaluated all possible outcomes and remarked, “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” Failing that, just work hard and do your best.

8/10 An inspired choice of teaching material.