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March 2007
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June 2007

Bringing Learning into Facebook via Wikipedia

I'm pushing Facebook as a tool for our students. It provides them with pretty much everything they want: connectivity, e-mail, blogging, photos and media linking.

The real challenge is to then bring learning and creative endeavour into Facebook.

So I read with interest this suggestion from Nicholas Carr:

Facebook should capitalize on Wikipedia's open license and create an in-network edition of the encyclopedia.

It would be a cinch: Suck in Wikipedia's contents, incorporate a Wikipedia search engine into Facebook (Wikipedia's own search engine stinks, so it should be easy to build a better one), serve up Wikipedia's pages in a new, better-designed Facebook format, and, yes, incorporate some advertising.

There may also be some social-networking tools that could be added for blending Wikipedia content with Facebook content.

Watch that space...

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Hard Science

Mother Nature is extraordinary.

She used 3 Billion years of evolution to endow Homo Sapiens with the smartest mind in the known universe, and then added a streak of idleness which means that we would prefer not to think unless it is absolutely necessary.

Thus it is that people run their lives on "hunches", "suspicions" and "gut feelings". Herein lies the success of slimming pills and conspiracy theorists. Even when the Truth is Out There the vast majority of people would rather sit in by the fire and read a good novel. They might even write a brief review of the book - an opinion - a critique, if you will. Something for the Arts programme.

Now there are those who will tell you that the Arts are simply Sciences waiting to happen. That all subjects move from the Arts to the Science if only you are prepared to hang around long enough. Indeed a significant number of subjects have travelled this road already: Biology has moved from Nature drawing to metabolic pathways; Geography has moved from coloured maps to Geomorphology; even something as unlikely as Cooking has transformed itself first into Food Science and, more recently, into Molecular Gastronomy - which isn't quite full-blown Chemistry, but does at least allow you to use a bunsen burner when making Creme Brulee.

In practice, almost any area of academic endeavour can subject itself to the Scientific Method if its protagonists are prepared to work hard enough; an art is just a science with too many unknowns. Thus it is that one of the most successful History books of recent times - Guns, Germs and Steel - was written by Jared Diamond, whose Cambridge-based PhD is rooted in membrane biophysics.

But most people don't enjoying juggling such a plethora of variables. Because Science is hard. Particularly if you are stupid. Anyone can hold a view on Shakespeare, however ill-judged or ill-informed. But it's rather harder to calculate the residual stress in polymer-bonded carbon fibre, because it isn't obvious how to construct the question - let alone answer it.

And we know that Science is hard because some kind academics at Durham University have proved as much. They've shown that the average candidate will clock lower grades at Physics or Chemistry than at any other A Level subject of their choosing.

Note carefully, I said "the average candidate"; because it turns out that the "smart candidate" will almost certainly do better at these subjects, for the very reason that they do understand the questions and they can do the maths and, well, it isn't very hard really and, honestly, you can scream through prep in 20 mins flat and then play football. Smart people do Science precisely because it isn't that hard to them. Indeed, smart scientists are often extraordinarily lazy: Einstein is a good example; Tim Berners-Lee (who invented the World Wide Web) is another; I could go on (but I'm not sure I can be bothered).

OK. So let me summarise our findings so far: most people find science hard.

There, that wasn't too painful.

So, for the many, many people out there who think that weight and mass are pretty much the same thing and that Ohm's law is really, really hard - well, Global Warming is going to be a tough one.

Because Global Warming has LOTS of variables. Just tonnes of them. Honestly.

And so given the choice of either: reading a hefty academic tome, signed off by some 2000 leading scientists, and endorsed by the UN - or: watching a Channel 4 expose and then chatting to a mate at the pub; you can be pretty damn certain that the average citizen will plump for option 2, and then head home in a gas-guzzling SUV whilst muttering about the curious nature of hosepipe bans.

Which would be fine by me were it not for the curious nature of democracy. "Curious" because no-one seriously thinks that we should take popular opinion into account when it comes to doing sums; no-one punches numbers into their calculator and then argues about the result. But those same people who shrink at the thought of data analysis will happily offer their view on Global Warming - and expect me to care about their opinion.

Amazing. Quite amazing.

And don't even get me started on organic foods.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston