See the World in a…Flea?


From its inception of the principal goals of science education has been to cultivate students’ scientific habits of mind, develop their capability to engage in scientific inquiry, and teach them how to reason in a scientific context.–A Framework for K-12 Science Education

It is possible to mark the date when science became modern science.
The Royal Society in London, in the year 1660. The membership list of the Royal Society reads like a whose who from your science textbooks: Robert Boyle (Boyle’s Law), Robert Hooke (cell theory), Isaac Newton (physics). The motto that the founders chose for the new society was Nullius in Verba, roughly translated as “Take no one’s word.”
“Take no one’s word” is another way of describing both “the scientific habits of mind” as well as the rationale for scientific inquiry.
What does it mean to take no one’s word? Robert Hooke’s 1665 book Micrographia: or Some Physiolgical Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made By Magnifying Glasses, shows how modern science would address the question.
Hooke’s research question is “What happens when we look at ordinary, everyday things in a new way? In Micrographia, the new way is to use the newly available magnifying lens, rigged up by Hooke into a microscope.
In the course of the book, Hooke describes in detail with illustrations a progression of observations beginning with the tip of a steel needle and proceeding through a long list of objects (a razor, silk cloth) and eventually getting to various insects such as a blue fly and the flea illustrated here.
Along the way, Hooke builds the case that in order to understand the world, we need to improve our ability to observe. We can do this by two methods: first, build better instruments and use them, thermometers, hygrometers, telescopes and microscopes. Second, we can do it by developing habits of mind that will make our observations more reliable: be rigorous in deciding what observations to accept, be strict about how we compare the observations made of a natural phenomenon, and finally, to be very slow and deliberate about the conclusions we draw.
Now to the flea. image

Recall that the flea in Hooke’s day was a ubiquitous pest. There was no escaping its bite given the facts that the fleas lived in one’s clothes, including the bed clothes year around.
But under Hooke’s microscope, the flea is transformed. The flea is not a pest but a creature of “strength and beauty…[that] had it no other relation at all to man,would deserve a description.”
The flea is covered with curiously polished armor and its head is decorated with a beautiful eye. Behind the eye is an indentation filled with fluid and inhabited with hairs, “which may serve as [the flea’s] ear.
The microscope not only improves our ability to see smaller objects, it also transforms how we see those objects. The flea is no longer a human nuisance but becomes a strong and beautiful creature worthy of study for its own sake–for example, to understand how it is able to jump so powerfully based on the jointing of its legs.
Making the conscious effort to overcome the limitations of our senses also transforms our point of view. Instead of seeing the world in human terms (“fleas bite”) we try to see it in scientific terms; that is, as a part of nature and that is explicable in its own terms.
As you read Hooke, you can see across the span of time between his and ours, the work is much the same.


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