Sharing What I Find

Instructional Design and Technology in Education

The Whale and the Supercomputer

by Charles Wohlforth

I read this book with a group of friends who have formed a reading  group. Together we’ve read a variety of books but to date, the books about Alaska, the Yukon or the Arctic and its people have generated the most discussion. This book appealed to  most of the group because it was something of which we could all relate. It also had a direct relationship to some of our professional work.

  • climate change and changing Arctic systems
  • man’s intervention and thus the  cause and effect upon nature
  • culture and ways of accepting and/or dealing with climate change
  • language and culture
  • consequences of access to the northwest passage

Following are some of my take-aways through quotes from the book.

Iñupiaq: Important of Language and Culture

“In the absence of physical reference points, the speaker can position objects and events using movement, the relative locations of speaker and listener, and the directional orientation of the ocean and rivers. For example, pigña indicates that the thing you are talking about is above, has  a length less than three times it width, is visible and stationary, and stands at equal distance between speaker and listener. Pagña contains all the same information, excecpt that the subject’s length is more than three times its width. English has a few such words, such as hither and yonder, but they are largely obsolete and not nearly as useful. Iñupiaq endings also aid coordination by allowing speakers to pass on oral information without losing nuances about the quality of the knowledge and how it was obtained. They cover a gradient roughly ranging from “I saw it myself and it is certain” to “Someone saw it and it might be true.” (page 10)

Maker’s Space / Observation as a way of Learning

“The Iñupiat Heritage Center, a well-equipped cultural center and living museum in Barrow, had a large workshop called the Traditional Room, where whalers, artists, and others involved in cultural activities came to build  or create  things.

In reference to building a new boat for the next whaling season, the captain of the whaling crew, worked along with other skilled men his own age, as equals. The next generation (in their 40s) had their own responsibilities, but asked for opinions of the elders. The younger generation (in their 20s) also did skilled work, but under supervision. “Oliver taught them and they listened carefully. At the bottom rung, teenage boys stood around the edges of the room waiting to be told what to do and holding their tongues.” (page 11)

Cultural Differences

“From the perspective of traditional Iñupiaq norms of behavior most whites were rude: they talked too fast and didn’t give others a chance to say anything, they stared, they spoke too directly, contradicted others, and didn’t listen for meaningful nuances, they couldn’t sit still, and they didn’t reciprocate the gifts of knowledge and hospitality they received. Iñupiaq people spoke slowly, used stories to make points, and always avoided conflict; an elder once expressed a strong disagreement to me by saying, “Different people see things different ways.”” (page 16)

“…how to navigate, how to hunt, how to stay alive. A mentor let you try and fail, broke down your price to instill humility before nature’s power, and put you where you could get a feel for the work and how it works. The teacher as a guide; nature was the real teacher.” (page 181)

Facts and Details vs. Experience

“When scientists wanted to know how old a piece of ice was, Warren [Iñupiat Elder] talked about how fresh it had become, not how many years it had been around. It was the problem of complexity. The physical scientists wanted to know irreducible facts, but Native knowledge  was tied up with experience. You could try to strip away the experience to get at the facts—parsing out a hunting trip to get times, places, and events, for example—but the complexity seemed never to recede.” (page 90)

“…traditional knowledge existed as an organic part of a person living in the environment, a whole world constructed from experience, and couldn’t be extracted and rationalized into data points.” (page 128) Weather vs. Climate “This is the difference between weather and climate. Choosing shorts or long underwear on a particular day is about weather; the ratio of shorts to long underwear in the drawer is about climate. Weather happens in a particular place and time, climate happens in a place through a smudge of time, or a time through a smudge of space, and usually both.” (page 150)

On Syun Akosofu’s thoughts of science “…”what we call truth is not really truth, its just an idea agreed [upon] by a large number of people.” The job of the scientist, he said, was to listen to nature, not other scientists, and to remember that ultimate understanding will never be possible. “A scientific establishment is highly conservative and will attempt to preserve the power of its ruling group against any rebels,” he wrote, he wrote…” (pages 159-160)

Sense of Community, Publishing and  Citation

“Unlike the Iñupiat, climate change scientists lack the ability to share their intuitive insights.They lack even a comprehensible common body of knowledge. The scientific literature exploded to the point that many specialists gave up trying to read everything published even in their own area.” (page 193)

“It also made it difficult to catch up broadly on a line of research.” (pages 193-194)

“Scientists did enjoy mutually  sustaining communities that shared knowledge among people who had worked together and formed a personal bond. But these groups were small.” (page 196)

“Science published an article that found seven inconsistent definitions of the important term thermohaline circulation in the scientific literature. The author concluded that in such cases, “What everyone thinks they understand may in fact be a muddle of mutual misunderstanding.” Wohlforth  points out the  Norbert Untersteiner, in an article in Physics Today, titled “Cite This Letter!” brings up and confirms something that I’ve often wondered. “We must remember that the primary purpose of publishing anything is for the author to be cited, and that the best way to get cited it to cite other people, no matter how trivial their work. …” “…research published a real paper (as opposed to Norbert’s Joke) establishing that many papers cited in scientific literature were never read by the authors who cited them but merely copied from one list of references and pasted into another. Consequently, computer-calculated impact factors, the objective measure of a paper’s worth based on how frequently it was cited, sometimes conferred fame on unimportant work that few had actually read.” (page 194)

Grant Funding Competition

“Competitiveness drives science forward, and science has come a long way sine the United States adopted the proposal system after World War II. But competitiveness has also  left important things by the wayside. Science failed to make the long-term observations that would greatly simplify  the search for a climate change fingerprint today.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions. The author points out several examples who continue(d) to do smaller research projects in the same place with the same processes for years. (page 196)

“But heroism and foresight are rare, so the system got what it paid for: a glut of papers on short-term projects and a lack of coherent community knowledge about the whole Arctic system. (page 196)

Author: Heidi Olson

Heidi enjoys working with content experts in developing eCampus courses to provide alternatives for students. Her other interests include faculty training in best practices for eCampus and researching eCampus tools to help fulfill learning outcomes. Having worked in the distance education arena for over 20 years, she has a wide range of experiences in supporting students and faculty as technology and pedagogy evolve.

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