Splitting the Atom

Have you ever split an atom? No, me neither – there are few who have. But many people know that Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) is credited with doing this first. How do we “know” this? This could be for any number of reasons:

  1. We were there when he did it in Manchester, in 1919, according to most websites I’ve looked at (e.g. the official Nobel Prize site), or possibly 1917, according to Wikipedia.
  2. A teacher told us at school or university
  3. A self-appointed “authority” figure, e.g. politician, judge, priest, rabbi, imam told us
  4. We read it in a book, magazine or newspaper article
  5. A parent or friend told us
  6. A “bloke down the pub” told us
  7. We saw it on the BBC / Fox News / CNN / Al Jazeera, etc.
  8. We saw it on the internet (Google lists around 223,000 matches to choose from if you type “Rutherford split atom”)
  9. We dreamt it (but it was such a vivid dream!)
  10. And so on…

It’s a safe bet there’s no one left alive in category 1. So we all “know” that Rutherford was first to split the atom from someone else, either by word of mouth or via some technology, print or electronic. The problem is, what conscious or subconscious process did we go through to decide whether we believe what we heard, read or saw? For example, there are still some conspiracy theorists who don’t believe we landed a man on the moon in 1969: it was all faked in a television studio.

As we grow older, there’s an increasing danger that we learn things from an ever narrower range of sources, whether it be the friends we choose, our choice of daily newspaper, TV or radio news channels or trusted websites. The odds are that we choose those sources run by people who share similar views to our own. Despite our protestations, we all like a bit of “I told you so”, even when we’re only thinking it for ourselves. New “facts” which fit our preconceptions are instantly added to the pile of the things we “know”, those that don’t fit are either rejected or consigned to the “I remain to be convinced” pile.

Who Do You Believe?

Life’s too short to learn everything by personal experience – and some just too plain dangerous: you would not jump in front of a train just to be sure it’s not good for your health! So, obviously, most of what we “know” we learn from others. But who do we trust to tell us the truth and how do we make that judgement? A 2005 MORI poll gives some, slightly dated, insights. In these days of instant access to information via the internet and other electronic media, we are in danger of overload and it’s a challenge to find the time to process it into something meaningful.

There have been times in recent years when education reforms appeared to be taking us back to a 1950s world where rote learning of selected “facts” and the ability to regurgitate them was to be the basis of assessing students’ performance. Beyond key skills such as literacy and numeracy, this makes no sense in the 21st century. We must equip the adults of the future with two skills fit for the information age:

  1. Prioritising and selecting from an excess of data and processing this into digestible and meaningful knowledge
  2. Assessing the reliability and accuracy of information, based upon an informed awareness of the motives and agenda of the person or organisation giving it.

This must surely be the prime moral responsibility of education to our children and future generations.


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