The Science Teacher's Joke

by Michael Rossman

For Keiji Nakazawa,
in witness Gen


        Today, it finally happens: science steps down from the ivory tower into the classroom in the world. Or trips and falls, ha-ha, like a bomb.

        For months, I've been doing machines with the sixth graders -- starting with lever and pulley, these basic ways of multiplying our might, and going on, as their main teacher Lee takes them through the Industrial Revolution and its social changes, to explore in hands-on operation the steam engine, the telegraph, these ways of harnessing inanimate energy to our mechanisms, that gave us power over space and the material world.

        This week I should go into the birth of modern chemical industry. But I haven't found a quick right way to show them how to make a plastic, it's just too far from mechanics. So my mind is empty as I face them, seated chatting with the customary disdain that greets me each time I come without an experiment. I look for Rachel, hoping she's brought back the books I lent her weeks ago. She's absent. My irritation shows. Quick to pick up, they ask why. "I want my books back."

        It is Siobhan -- sweet shy Siobhan, who understands almost nothing even faintly technical, but who loves me and attends raptly to everything I offer -- who asks, "Can I borrow them when she brings them back?"

        I hide my surprise but not my pleasure. Rachel's my main tease, and was quick to pick up on the books when I brought them in, scenting incendiary material. I had hoped interest would run further in the class. But to find it now surfacing in Siobhan! I have hardly told her, "Of course, if you'll tell me what you think of them afterwards," when Ken chimes in positively, "I'm next after Siobhan" and two more stake subsequent claims.

         I'm a bit frightened by their interest. So I warn them of what they're getting into, with this 500 page comicbook-novel apt to give an adult nightmares. "Barefoot Gen is about a boy who was ten when the first atomic bomb was dropped on his home in Hiroshima. It was written by a grownup boy who was seven when the atomic bomb destroyed his home in Hiroshima. It's a terrible story in many ways. But it's also wonderful because it shows how people's spirits can spring forth fresh and learning even in the midst of terrible things," I say, still raw with the book's impact, hoping their spirits will spring so in their time.

        "So what does it have to do with science?" Eve chides me, responding to the evident charge in the air. And she has pierced me right to the center with her casual jibe -- me, the subject, the situation, all three -- as children are apt to. For I find myself drawn into the well of unguarded honesty to answer her, and it opens a long way and deep.

        It seems only a second to them, as I paw my head muttering, "Well it does, it does," turn to find the magic talisman of the chalk, and turn back. But in that second as I gape to answer Eve some  fusion, the very engine of a pedagogy that connects things in the deeper order, happens within my unforeclosed openness. Her question sends me spinning down the history of science and technology, seeking what they can grasp from what they know, weighted with all the weight of Gen and the live fears of this very season -- to emerge with an answer extending our lessons about the Industrial Revolution and the idea that ideas developed in mind can be put to use in the world, in technologies that transform our lives.

        "I'm going to tell you a scientific joke," I begin. "It's pretty funny, and pretty sad too. Remember the balloon, how it goes?" I draw its outline, air whooshing from the open mouth. "The air gets pushed out this way, so the balloon goes ... ?"

        "The other way," Tom supplies, in bored competence.



         I applaud, and draw within the balloon's outline a flame boiling a pan of water. "And here?"

        Steam puffs from this little engine's throat as they tell me dutifully, "It pushes the steam out, so it goes the other way. But not very fast, with just a candle!"

        "It'd go faster if we burned something inside that made a lot of gas fast, right? What could we use?" As they settle on gunpowder, and decide that it might not explode if the container had a hole to let the pressure out, eraser and chalk are at work, filling the balloon's inside with a solid charge burning, gas jetting out the end, and redrawing its outline. "And faster if we streamline it?" They agree. "So what have we got?"

        Even Siobhan can see it's a rocket. But nobody knows when rockets were invented. As I reach back to begin, an odd intimacy settles over us, as if I am telling a story of our own lives -- as indeed I am. For through their play with the primitive steam-engine we made and their own participation in this line of thought they have become, with me, Technological Man, wondering how we got where we are today; and even Wendy looks up from her knitting to follow the tale, as I list key chapters on the board.

        China, ancient. Gunpowder invented. "They used it to make sparkles and bangs, things that flew wonderfully through the air and went whizz. Not to mine, not to kill." I may be mistaken, as some accounts say Chinese firearms existed long before and were abandoned. But it's true enough that the first rocket was a toy to gladden the heart.

        Europe, 14th century. Traders introduce gunpowder from China. By 1600, firearms have transformed the art of war, and the machinery used to make them has produced the lenses through which Galileo watches awed as a point of moving light reveals itself as a moon-circled world like our own adrift in the void.

        As this expansion of our universe sinks in, the dream arises: to go and see. At first it is sheer fantasy. The children laugh appreciatively as I tell them of the author who sent his characters off to the Moon in a boat drawn with ribbons by gossamer swans. "And why wouldn't it work?"

        "There's no air in between!" several chorus.

        "Right. It took a century or two more as the Industrial Revolution's science developed to figure that one out, and how one might really get from here to there. Then the idea that it might be possible really came together, and the dream spread." I chalk up 1865 -- Jules Verne. "Know who he was?" Most have been around the world in 80 days with him, or beneath the sea. They're tickled to know that he went up too, as I sketch the simple premise of From the Earth to the Moon: the great cannon buried in the earth, the charge of powder, the cushioned capsule. "It orbited the Moon, got in trouble, and splashed down in the ocean, just like an Apollo flight. He was right on target -- except for one little detail."

        They think it through. Finally Ken ventures, "Wouldn't you squish if you got shot up like that?"

        "Like a jelly," I confirm, "if the whole push comes in a split second. You have to spread it out over at least six minutes if you don't want to squish. So you can't use a cannon. You've got to carry the push along with you. Which means ...?"

        "A rocket!" they cry, pleased with the logic.

        "That's right. On full-moon nights the ancient Chinese used to shoot their toy rockets off with messages to the spirits of the moon, long before we dreamed there were worlds we might send men and women to." It may be myth I spin here; but even a science teacher may fudge to reveal a larger truth. And isn't the whole real story of science I tell today equally a myth, grand and terrible, that we inhabit, that inhabits our lives?

        "It wasn't till my father was your age, just before the first World War, that the dream grew up from a story and became a plan. Tsiolkovsky was a Russian," I say, chalking his name and 1910? on the board.

        "He wrote music!" Meadow interjects.

        "No, that was Tschaikovsky. Tsiolkovsky was an engineer, who read Verne and grew up to design the first practical rockets and plot the mathematics of interplanetary flight. But we didn't know enough yet about fuels or how to make a rocket's throat stand the terrible heat. The plan had to wait for our technology to catch up. It wasn't till I was born that we grew able to make a rocket that could lift a big load for a long distance."

        I write Werner von Braun -- l940 beneath the other milestones. "And look how the dream skips around, from China to England to France to Russia, now to Germany, where von Braun worked with his crew of engineers. No one owned the dream; people held it and it grew, as we grew more able to make it real. By the time I was your age, in 1950, even children were learning the dream here when the first big science-fiction film came out, Destination Moon. And we got there for the first time when you were born. It all might have been dandy, except for the joke."

        I write it on the board in slow graceful letters: "He aimed for the stars ...", pausing with weariness before the punchline, "... and hit London." And then turn back like a glad comic, as if to ask, "get it?" If none of them say anything, it's not because they don't get it. However innocent of the historical detail, they know its drive, the myth turning dreadful. And they wait for me to tell them why, to make some sense and meaning of it all. But all I can tell them is how, for I don't know why myself, and must leave them to read the myth's evidences alone today

        "The trouble was, there wasn't ever much support for the dream itself. Tsiolkovsky  just scraped along with his experiments, and von Braun had to go to the German military to get what he needed. But the military had a different reason to be interested in rockets. Who remembers when the first airplanes flew?"

        Lee has taken them beyond this, so the answer is at hand: 1903. In science that week we did simple experiments to show how the reduced pressure of air flowing over a curved surface tends to lift it, and flew an elegant model plane. Now I connect their experience. "So that was when the science of air-dynamics became a technology, right before the first world war. And of course they used the technology in the war -- but in a funny, quaint way. Does anyone know how?"

        Images of Snoopy and the Red Baron flit through everyone's mind, but surely this isn't what I'm looking for. "Spotter planes?" asks Siobhan, as apt to think the technical funny as not.

        "That's right. Reconnaissance, from the French, to recognize. They flew over to recognize what was going on behind the battle-lines, and sometimes shot each other down and sometimes even shot at troops on the ground. But the funny thing was what they didn't do. Can anyone see?"

        If the difference takes a while to dawn, it's because we have all been conditioned by our media to accept as natural what only a short time of civilization before was recognized as bestial.

        "No bombs?"

        "No bombs," I agree. "Think of that! We still had a certain sense of decency then, we still believed that nations should fight wars simply by having armies fight each other -- with terrible weapons maybe, like the poison gasses chemical science developed then. But only armies against each other. Not to bomb whole cities full of helpless civilians from the air!"

        Lee's teaching has not quite caught up with this modern aspect of the Industrial Revolution, the mass-production of civilian death -- so it's news to the children that this custom had a definite beginning, in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. I think of Guernica, of Picasso’s art recording the instant when humanity's eyes first turned terrified to the skies, and tell them briefly of how Spain lay torn in civil war and how the Fascists in Germany and Italy used the body of the Spanish people to experiment with new sciences of war, rehearsing for the next great conflict. "Madrid, Bilbao, Guernica. I'll bring you Picasso's picture, it's one of the great works of art of our time, commemorating a terrible change." Science, geography, history, art: how they do merge and mingle in so many ways if one strays beyond the texts. And where and how to draw the line, save sometimes to let oneself be drawn without restraint along lines that come from the heart?

        "So it was clear that bombing was effective, and the most industrialized nations started racing to build the first great fleets of bomber planes, and fleets of fighters to guard and attack them and each other. The trouble was, if you lost a plane you lost a big investment and all the crew too. So a simpler way to deliver bombs was wanted -- but only Germany had a group of dreamers already working on rockets. They offered to support von Braun's work, and he was happy to get a chance to develop his rockets further."

        V-2 rocket -- 1944 goes on the board. "BZZZZZ! is how it sounded, coming down at you. It was still basically just a can filled with solid propellant, with a primitive steering mechanism.The V-2 still couldn't go very far, not to the stars, not even from here to Los Angeles. It could carry only a few hundred pounds of explosive, barely enough to blow up our school and the building across the street, and it seldom hit within two miles of its target. But it could get through the fighter plane defenses. So they just aimed it at London, and let fly."

        My chalk sketches Europe, across the narrow Channel. BZZZZZ!  Death from the sky, without warning or defense. But too little, too late in the war. "They only sent over a few hundred V-2s, and the damage was still mostly just terror, compared to what bombing could do if it broke through fighter cover. London was too well protected, but Dresden lay undefended near the war's end: hundreds of our bombers, 10,000 bombs, 300,000 dead in one firestorm night. Bombers were the tools that won the war; the rocket was still just a terrifying toy."

        Chalk arrows close on Germany from West and East, a rippling line tears it in two."When Germany lost, the Russians got this half," I say, "and we got this one, with the prize: Von Braun and his rocket. The dreamers were booty, precious spoils of war, just as captured warlocks and magicians were in ancient times. So we brought them back and put them to work for us. I don't know whether they thought they had no choice, or were just glad to keep working on a rocket that could reach the stars.

        "Meanwhile our own magicians of physics had been learning to put atoms together and tear them apart, as chemists had done earlier with molecules. But atomic energies were thousands of times more powerful than chemical energies. We had barely begun to learn how to control them, and all we really knew how to do with them was to make a big bang. First we tested the bang in the desert. Then we tested it on the Japanese."

        I open my arms halfway, reach high. "The first atomic bomb was only this big. The uranium in it weighed less than you do, the whole bomb was just a machine to jam two pieces together at the right time. They dropped it on unguarded Hiroshima when I was five, when Gen was your age. It leveled most of the town in a flash and fire, 80,000 died. You'll find the rest in Gen, if you really want to know." And I pause, the story brought almost round.

        It is overload, something about it all is so numbing that all one can grasp to talk about is numb-ers, and they fall to this as readily as I, asking, "How big was Hiroshima?" and "How much stronger than a regular bomb?" We calculate carefully, still new at handling such large numbers: 20,000 tons of dynamite makes 80,000 quarter-ton regular bombs. That makes two apiece for every household in our town. But then Berkeley is just about half the size Hiroshima was, so it all checks out. Gone in a flash.

        "It was just a little bomb, as nuclear ones go. Soon we and the Russians learned how to use the energy from exploding atoms to fuse atoms together and release much greater energies. One fusion bomb was rated at 40 megatons of TNT." We calculate again: that's 2,000 Hiroshima bombs. What would it do here? "We think it might take out the whole Bay Area, fifty miles, 3,000,000 people. No one really knows."

        "How big was it?" asks Meadow?

        "Not much bigger than the little bomb. It fits on the end of a rocket, a missile." I chalk up ICBM -- 1950 on. " By then both sides were developing better rockets that could go 7,000 miles and land almost on target, even launched from submarines. Soon each side aimed hundreds at the other, at military targets and at cities too, and waited and planned afraid for something to happen.

        "When I was your age," I say, realizing suddenly that they've hardly even known a fire-drill in our benign little school, “we played a war game in school. Once a month they rang an alarm, and we had to hide under our desks and cover our eyes from the flash and broken glass. We called it ..."

        "Duck-and-cover," several sing out, familiar with the tale at home.

        "Right. Know why they stopped making kids play the game?"

        "It didn't do any good?" suggests Eve, the natural pessimist.

        "Nope. And it gave a lot of them nightmares. But mostly they stopped this and the disaster drills for grownups because it made people so aware that they were in danger and left them feeling so helpless, and sometimes angry too."

        "What can you do to protect yourself?" Wendy asks.

        "Some people think you can hide in a hole in the ground if it's deep enough. Some think the only protection is to have enough rockets and bombs to destroy all the other side's before they can do too much damage, or even before they're launched, striking first. But no one knows whether this is possible without getting destroyed anyway. Others think the only protection is to find a way to really make peace. But no one knows whether this is possible either. I can't really get into this today. Why don't you ask your parents what they think? I just think you should know how far we've gotten."

        "We got to the moon," says Wendy, still anxious for something positive, whether dream or joke.

        "Indeed. A missile that could cross the ocean could rise high enough to leave a satellite in orbit, and a bigger one could reach the moon. Russia put the first satellite up in 1956, America made the first moonshot in 1969. Between us we've put up several thousand satellites, mostly wonderful eyes in the sky, like the one that sends the weather-picture on the news. Though most of them are military satellites, so we don't see what they see. As with the airplane, their first military use is for ...?"

        "Reconaissance," respond these neophytes of military science, with a certain pride, marveling that some spy eyes can read a license plate, or the faint warmth from a missile idling in a silo. "Do they also carry bombs?"

        "Some could. I don't think they do yet. But they're experimenting with laser satellites to shoot down other satellites and missiles, so their use may go on evolving as the airplane's and rocket's did. So far we've sent about 150 rockets away from our planet to explore the universe. We've used about 3,000 to put up satellites, several big enough to live in, and we have nearly 5,000 more armed with nuclear bombs pointed at each other. Many of them have ten or twenty smaller rockets on top with bombs, like a complicated fireworks.

        "It's all like Star Wars!" Alyssa and others cry, with some delight, drowning out Fena's timid attempt to ask a question; for like the boys, they have all shared its thrills.

        "Uh-huh," is all I can say, wondering where the sweet innocence of Destination Moon went. Wondering how to teach them why we adults stopped torturing ourselves too with disaster drills, pushed consciousness of danger more out of mind as it grew, and left our children to learn from media to believe that the militarization of space, of the universe, is as natural and inevitable as the next world war. "Very much like Star Wars. What were you trying to ask, Fena?"

        "How many nuclear bombs are there?"

        "We think 50,000 or so, some huge, some small enough to shoot through a gun. If the average bomb is like the first, worth 20,000 tons of TNT, what's the whole pile worth?" We trace the massive figures through, and divide by the 4,500,000,000 people on Earth. Kate is the first to announce the result: that makes over 400 lbs. of TNT, a big conventional bomb for each person's share.

        I don't go into the peculiar character of radioactivity and its biological damages today. Instead I say simply, "That seems about right. Some figure we have enough stockpiled by now to kill everyone on Earth three times over. Though of course we could never set all of them off, or kill absolutely everybody, at least not right away. Some people think a first strike or short war might only kill ten or twenty million.”

        "Only!" exclaims Alyssa, to a general nervous titter. But I am too narrowly set on the lesson, on leading them to grasp whatever can be said about all this from science's perspective -- the cold facts, the scientific reasonings, the technological history, the numbers -- to take up this invitation to explore their feelings here, or my own. Instead I wrap the narrowest role of science teacher about me like a lab coat, neutral, protective, as I check their technical comprehensions, follow the logics through.

        It is all I can manage, I don't know how else to face them here through the dreadful flare of anguish that Gen illuminates, without opening all the fear, grief, and anger that I too spend so much energy sealing myself off from. Instead I tell them science, slip them Gen on the side, hope someone else can help them explore what they feel, what it means, what to do. Maybe Lee can squeeze a session in; maybe their parents should. All I know is that they are old enough to understand the science, each essential element, and the anguish too; and that they deserve to know.

        "Have they ever set another one off?" asks Siobhan innocently.

        We clarify the question. I find few know that we used to set hundreds off, many in the open air, and that the cycle of development-and-testing is still going on."But never another one in war yet, since the first two in l945. Though some people have wanted to use them in every war since, and sometimes in between." I chalk up some of the dates to make them real: 1948, 1950, 1962, 1972, ...

        As the stab of memory slips through the armor of control, my heart lurches and I blurt out how it felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis of l962 when we waited here for the flash three days, with the wide eyes of a terrified child. Then I wrap the lab coat back around the wound as best I can, to complete the taxonomy of possible explosion.

        "There can also be just mistakes, since the missile-detection systems are very complicated and delicate. And since rockets travel so fast, there isn't much time to decide whether to fire back or not. It happens every two years or so. Usually it's kept secret because it scares people. so we don't learn about it till long after, Once they came within nine minutes of starting a nuclear war because they mistook a flight of migrating geese for missiles. Imagine that!"

        They are relieved to chuckle with me, to have their joking science-teacher back again after that wide-eyed slip. "And do you know the funniest thing about it? If the bombs had gone off, the geese wouldn't have known which way to fly, because the magnetic waves from the blasts would have confused their own detection systems! Now go detect your lunches, I'll see you next week. We'll take apart a telephone."

        It's over. I'm as eager as they are to flee this explosion of information, run wriggling with life away to play at noon. But I walk away dazed. No planned lesson, this burst through me. Why now? Was it reading Gen, or the urgency of the budget news, or a new baby in the house? How could I have taught science for years, without ever having spoken of this before? And where do we go from here?

        It was easier for me to begin, perhaps, because I do not teach from a state curriculum plan that specifies what should be covered in each session and has no place for the topic of nuclear arms. Yet the time is always now, the place to begin is always here -- for the issue stands beside each teacher in each classroom every day, as it stands beside us in our private lives, waiting only the choice to address it as such.

        Too complex to grasp whole, the issue fits nowhere, obtrudes everywhere, lies naturally to hand as a rich, monstrous example -- not only in physics but wherever we teach and learn about health, history, biology, politics, media, consumer awareness, the economy, chemistry, current events, wherever we prepare the young and ourselves to be citizens of technological society. So large it is visible from almost any angle, unless one turn away, there is always a way to begin again to do what little one can to address it, knowing how much more is necessary, knowing that we do not save our children from danger by saving ourselves or them from being aware, and believing that even what a child learns may help us all in time.

        If cigarette smoking is on the slow decline now, after a century's rise, it is in large part because we told the children at last, taught them in school the truth that their parents were courting death by the habit. No one measured the result, ten million confrontations with children over stolen packs in the trash, anguished pleas in the kitchen, the intimate guilts and sanities provoked among the parents. But I know the impact was considerable. What would the children say to us, how would we respond, if they really understood what we are courting now by our military habit for ourselves and them, if the joking science-teacher taught them it was indeed only a statistical danger, just like getting lung cancer, or like being here in the first place?





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