The 2015 Greater St.Louis Area Home Educators Expo

This is me speaking at my favorite session so far this year.

This is me speaking at my favorite session so far this year.

I spoke at another homeschooling convention this past weekend, and I have to say, it was my favorite one in quite a while! There were a lot of factors that went into making it so special. It was the first convention this year where I got to speak alongside Diana Waring, who is an incredible gift to the homeschooling community. Her wisdom and candor is a blessing, and it’s just plain fun when we do talks together. This time, we did one of our classics, Homeschooling: The Environment for Genius, and a new one, Homeschooling: Things We Wish We’d Known. In addition, I gave talks on Homeschooling: The Solution to our Education Problem, ‘Teaching’ Jr. High and High School Science at Home, Teaching Elementary Science Using History as a Guide, and The Creatures and Biological Structures Evolutionists Don’t Talk About.

However, my favorite session of the year so far wasn’t a talk at all. It was a question/answer session. I will discuss that in a moment, but first, I guess I need to “toot my own horn” for a moment. For whatever reason, I got a lot more feedback than usual from homeschooling parents and students at this convention, and some of it was amazing. It all started with the speaker coordinator for the convention. She said that at a convention about 10 years ago, her son (who was in high school at the time) asked me a question. He wanted to be a medical doctor, but he also loved ballet. Well, he had a choice between participating in an exclusive ballet event or doing a science camp. He asked what he should do. I guess I surprised him with my answer, because I told him that he should definitely participate in the ballet event.

Why would I tell an aspiring doctor to do a ballet event rather than a science camp? There are at least three reasons. First, as I understood it, it was an honor to be asked to participate in the ballet event, while the science camp was something anyone could do. Second, I encourage students to be as well-rounded as possible, and if he really enjoyed ballet, he should make the time for it, despite the fact that it wasn’t directly related to his career. Third, and most important, getting into medical school is incredibly difficult. There are lots and lots of applicants who have done all sorts of science camps. However, there aren’t lots and lots who are accomplished ballet artists. If he continued with ballet and did things like the event he described to me, it would make him stand out as an applicant.

The mother told me that her son happily took my advice. He participated in the ballet event and continued to pursue ballet in college, even though he was a premed major. Not only did he get accepted into medical school on his first attempt (an accomplishment in and of itself), he was awarded a sizable scholarship! She and her son are convinced that those accomplishments were a direct result of taking my advice. I immediately told her that her son’s talent and hard work were the primary reasons for his accomplishments, but I am happy my advice was helpful to him. For any of my readers who are thinking of becoming medical doctors, it’s worth considering this young man’s path to medical school.

I will limit myself to two other examples of the feedback I received. The second came from a homeschooling mother who told me that her daughter had taken┬ámy high-school biology course, Exploring Creation with Biology. She then enrolled in a college biology class while she was still in high school. She ended up getting the highest grade in the class, despite the fact that she was the youngest student there. After that, the department hired her to tutor her fellow students in biology! I have heard some version of this story many times, and it just further confirms how utterly wrong Bill Nye is when he says that children who are taught creationism “…will never feel the joy of discovery that science brings.”

The final example leads me to discuss my favorite conference session so far this year. Like another Missouri convention, this one set up a question/answer session for me. It was listed in the program as “Q & A With Dr. Wile,” and it was meant for the students, even though some parents were there. The convention had mentioned the session on its Facebook page, and lots of good questions came in. However, I wanted to concentrate on “live” questions, so I answered only a few of the Facebook questions. One of the “live” questions came from a high school student. She said she initially didn’t like science all that much, but after taking my chemistry course, she is thinking of majoring in chemistry. I told her how much her statement meant to me, but then she followed up with a great question:

I don’t really like math (although I am okay at it). Should I still major in chemistry?

I told her absolutely yes. As long as she can do math, she will just have to “put up with it” at university and (if she gets an advanced degree) part of grad school. That’s because to be properly qualified as a chemist, you do need to know a little something about most of the disciplines in chemistry, and many of them use a lot of math. So you will have to take 2-3 years of math courses at university, and perhaps a little more in grad school. However, once you have your degree and start pursuing a career in chemistry, you can choose a field like synthetic organic chemistry, in which you use hardly any math. Some of the instruments you use will be doing a lot of math, but you won’t have to deal with it much at all.

Another rather timely question was:

Did Stephen Hawking really say that the Big Bang is wrong?

I said that I didn’t think he did. However, some theorists have recently said that. Essentially, the theorists have tried to include some quantum-mechanical effects in their model of the evolution of the universe. In doing this, they have come to the conclusion that the universe couldn’t have had a beginning, which is an essential part of the Big Bang model. I haven’t read anything from Stephen Hawking about the model, but I would think he wouldn’t agree with it. However, I do know that the model seems to be consistent with what many scientists have claimed throughout history – that the universe didn’t have a beginning. I think that’s a very difficult case to make scientifically, but it is what most scientists who don’t believe in God would love to think.

The last question I will discuss in this already-long post is:

What is your favorite thing that you discovered?

I had to admit that there is a tie on that one. The first one is really nerdy and technical, but my colleagues and I were the first to discover radial-energy scaling in preequilibrium neutron emission during a nuclear reaction. Essentially, we were able to show that the more direct collisions between nuclei produced more high-energy, quickly-emitted neutrons. This disagreed with the predominant models of the day, which made it an exciting discovery.

The other one was really a discovery by a high school student. I have written about it before, but the essential story is that I accidentally discovered a cool effect with hot platinum and alcohol. I showed it to a class of gifted and talented high school students, giving them what I thought was the obvious explanation. One of the students talked with me after class and told me my explanation was impossible based on the calculation she had done. Her calculation was correct, so I asked her to work with me over the summer to find the correct explanation. She did, and we ended up publishing a paper about the effect and its correct explanation.

There were lots more questions, of course, and I had no time to answer any of the other questions from the convention’s Facebook page. However, I still have the list of questions, and I hope to make at least one more blog post answering some of them.

8 Comments

  1. Kendall says:

    Hi Dr. Wile!

    It totally made my year to see you at the convention! I’m so glad you could make it to Missouri this year.

    Thanks for all that you do for the homeschooling community!

    1. jlwile says:

      It was awesome to see you…without the scarf!

  2. Jake says:

    I read your radial-energy scaling paper; are you sure you’re not a physicist? I mean, the paper was even published in PRL…

    Looking at your CV, I think I’d describe what you do as low-energy heavy ion physics (as opposed to quark-gluon plasma stuff, which is higher energy). I guess I don’t understand what nuclear chemistry is, then. (And I’ve probably picked up the “everything is physics” attitude from physics grad school.)

    1. jlwile says:

      Wow, Jake! You have some serious fortitude to read through that paper! There isn’t much of a difference between chemistry and physics at this level. My PhD adviser called nuclear chemistry “unclear physistry.” You are correct that this is low-energy heavy-ion physics, but my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and my PhD was given in the chemistry department. In many departments, I would be classified as a chemical physicist, which is why I have taught both chemistry and physics at the university level.

  3. Dawn says:

    Can’t wait to hear you with Diana Waring in Indy this weekend!

    1. jlwile says:

      Be sure to come say “Hi” at the Berean Builders table, Dawn!

  4. Jake says:

    “Unclear physistry” is pretty good.

    I think you’re giving me a little too much credit – or perhaps not enough to the average grad student in the sciences: It’s basically our job to read papers we don’t really understand, and I’m perpetually working on projects for which I don’t have all the background I feel like I ought to have. Further, my field is theoretical physics, so I know enough about scattering, scaling, and such that I had some idea of what your paper is saying. Though I do think that papers in PRL are among the most difficult to read, since the material has to be fairly condensed to fit in four pages. So, long story short, I only “read” your paper; there were a lot of details I didn’t get.

    Anyway, this leaves me with some questions: First, I feel like grad school has become less focused on giving students a good foundation in the field and more focused on starting us on research as soon as possible. I get the idea – learn what you need faster by encountering the hard problems immediately – but I don’t think it works so well for producing theorists (and in particular I can’t function that way). This is why I say that it’s basically my job to read things I don’t understand. Was grad school like that for you? Looking at your CV I get the feeling that you might have just been so amazing you never had any problems. (You have twice as many papers as Neil deGrasse Tyson, by the way, and he’s like the smartest person in the world…)

    Second, how much quantum field theory and QCD do you use in nuclear chemistry? (These are like my favorite things ever.) Because any mention of scaling makes me think renormalization group. Though maybe you didn’t use QCD; I’m not sure if 400 MeV/nucleon is high enough to use perturbative QCD, since the threshold is around 200 MeV.

    1. jlwile says:

      Hehe, Jake, I understand your description of being a graduate student. Yes, grad school was just like that for me as well. I didn’t know much about what I was doing for the first two years, and then only slowly after that did I get comfortable with my research. I think the most important part of getting a PhD is learning how to delve into things you don’t really understand and finding a way to understand them at a deep level. You can’t do that in class.

      My publication list is fairly puny compared to most serious scientists. Of course, I don’t consider Neil deGrasse Tyson to be a serious scientist!

      We actually don’t use either quantum field theory or QCD in nuclear chemistry. As you suspected, the energies just aren’t high enough for QCD, and as a nuclear chemist, I am less interested in the structure of a single nucleon than in the interactions among the nucleons in a nucleus. We use quantum mechanics a lot, especially tunneling and wave/particle duality. Surprisingly, we do a lot more thermodynamics than quantum mechanics, because we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how the nucleus deals with excess energy, and the interactions among the nucleons are quite rich.