Student epiphany in the physics lab

In Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), page 159, the renowned astronomer and science popularizer wrote:

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

(as quoted in Today in Science History)

I had that kind of experience in the introductory laboratory I was teaching yesterday. We were using a digital spectrometer to investigate the wavelengths of light that were emitted from various objects like gas discharge tubes and the ceiling lights. The students learned that there was very little red in the ceiling lights, so that’s why red things in the room always look faded, and especially that the red light from the computer monitors looked more vibrant than the light from the paper. One surprised student said to me, “So we can’t even trust our eyes in this experiment?!”

This is the epiphany that I live for in the classroom – that the world we perceive is not always the world as it is, and we can use tools and science to help remove some of our biases.

This, to me, is beautiful.

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