Mario Valle Web

A scientist’s look to the “God who has no hands” cosmic tale

Mario Valle — February 12, 2015

Published in German with the title:
Ansichten eines Wissenschaftlers zu Maria Montessoris Erzählung von Gott, der keine Hände hat

In the book:
Ela Eckert, Malve Fehrer (Hg.), Kosmische Erzählungen in der Montessori-Pädagogik, LIT Verlag (2015)
Bd. 14, 3. überarbeitete und ergänzte Auflage, 320 S., ISBN 978-3-643-13207-9

Edited on behalf of the German Montessori Society.

Creative Commons License

This translation is licensed under Creative Commons License Attribution, Non Commercial, Share Alike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Please, always cite the source. And I will appreciate your comments.

La traduzione italiana di questo articolo è disponibile qui.

 

Mario Montessori shared this story, as he remembered his mother telling it, in the December 1958 issue of the AMI publication Communications. He described it as a “cosmic tale” that she told to the children to give them the exact feel of the wonderful mysteries of nature, created by God, and to introduce them gradually to the study of all the materials that constitute the cultural heritage necessary to the formation of man.

To transmit this treasure, Maria Montessori urges teachers to “Leave a room, a class to go to the outside world that encompasses everything” (From childhood to adolescence, ch. 5). Sadly, there are things outside there that cannot be reached, like the stars or our past, so the teacher should appeal to the child’s imagination and broaden his horizons by providing not mere facts, but great stories, because “What he learns must be interesting, must fascinate him. You have to offer him great things: to begin with, let us offer him the World” (From childhood to adolescence, ch. 5). This is exactly what these “Cosmic Tales”, “Cosmic Fables” or “Great Lessons”, as they are interchangeably called, provide.

To begin with, we must realize that these “Great Lessons” are not really lessons, but stories or fables, which allow the child to explore and understand our culture and achieve a global vision of cosmic events. Therefore, these fables contain a blend of mystery, unknown and truths, where the lofty language appeals to the imagination and intelligence of the child of the second plane. We call them impressionistic aids because they give to children the whole, from which all parts stem, instead of the details, since, as Maria Montessori pointed out, “Here is an essential principle: to teach details is to bring confusion. Establish the relationship between things, means to bring knowledge.” Summing up, these lessons are not another “educational material” that helps the teacher transmit information; they are, like the other materials, a development aid for children’s growth.

Henceforth I will focus on the first story, “God who has no hands” that offers not only the World to children, but also the whole Universe. Given this goal, I cannot simply judge it as a scientist and dismiss it as a fable written by someone well versed in children’s literature. At its core, this story is the adaptation of scientific ideas to a development project conceived by a woman that, through her whole lifetime, was very interested in the new discoveries in the scientist’s world. An attitude that is clearly visible if we look at the period in which this story was supposedly conceived.

Mario Montessori said this story had seen light in India, that is, in the first years of 1940. However, I guess it has been conceived around ten years before. At that time Georges Lemaître first noted — and was the 1927 — that an expanding universe might be traced back in time to an originating single point or “primitive atom” as he described it, and Edwin Hubble, two years later, confirmed this idea with his observations of galaxy recession. A similar timing could be conjectured for the ideas regarding the Earth formation, because it is around 1930 when, finally, the order of magnitude of the age of the Earth was determined and the stages that concurred to form our planet were clarified.

As a scientist, I am certainly impressed by how Dr. Montessori used the latest scientific knowledge of her time to create an engaging story. Nevertheless, I am equally aware of the inescapable errors and scientific anachronisms that it contains.

It is a matter of fact that, since the story was written, our knowledge has increased exponentially. To cite just two relevant examples, the fossil echo of the Big Bang, the faint, almost homogeneous cosmic background radiation that pervades the whole Universe, was only discovered in 1964 and firmly established the Big Bang theory as an explanation of its origin. The second example is the Plate Tectonics theory, which illustrates how Earth’s surface evolves, that was only accepted in the late '50.

Therefore, for a scientist it is tempting to rewrite the story from scratch, starting from what he knows today, but I think that incorporating this knowledge should not be a job to carry on alone. He must collaborate at least with someone who knows the particular developmental phase the children are when this story is told; otherwise, the result will be surely precise and correct, but it could miss the goal of being a grow opportunity for children.

Moreover, scientists are used to write for their peers, and easily forget how to write a story that fascinates children. The scientific method requires logical precision and solid references to allow others to reproduce and verify the ideas published, but generating enthusiasm is usually not one of its goals.

To refresh this “Great Lesson”, I can imagine the creation of a two-level story: one to be taught to the children and one to promote and update the teacher’s knowledge. Why? Because children today have much more information sources than a century ago and the risk that the teacher cannot satisfy their curiosity, or cannot drive them to the right books or materials is far greater.

Now, after putting on my scientist’s hat, I can start to analyze the story by noting that it has three major goals: 1) to answer the “who is God?” question; 2) to present the story of the birth of the Universe and our Earth; 3) to recap briefly the most important physical concepts needed to understand the story itself.

Who was the Creator?

The story was conceived by Maria and Mario Montessori during their time spent interned in India, in response to Maria overhearing a child asking, “Who is God?” and “Where is He?” and the mother’s response to these questions.

Answering such questions was surely the main driver for the story, but nowadays the original response could pose various problems, especially if mixed with other scientific and educational goals.

For example, today’s classrooms have often students of very different faiths. Therefore, the story’s distinctly Judeo-Christian perspective could hurt them or could introduce an unnecessary barrier to their understanding. Consequently, some teachers have never presented this story precisely as it is written to respect all these faiths. The simple solution they devised was to replace the word “God” with the word “Life” or “The Force of Life” or “Great Spirit” or “Mother Nature” when telling this story, a solution that does not detract from the lesson’s spirit.

However, for a scientist this is not the main problem. A scientist, without affecting his research work, could personally take fundamental physical laws as given or he can believe that they come from God. The result of his work does not change regardless of the alternative chosen. The main problem is, instead, the recourse to a supernatural cause to explain unknown facts. This happened for centuries and prevented the advancement of knowledge through the study of the causes of phenomena. Today this attitude materializes as “Intelligent Design”, and, for our modern sensitivities, this is the distinct flavor that pervades the story. Explaining scientific facts as the result of a celestial design is absolutely not scientific and, I am sure, this is not the way of thinking we want to transmit to children. We want, instead, to nurture inquiring minds.

Closing this section, it is worth mentioning that probably was Mario that had chosen the fable title due to its “sensationalistic” flavor that is more in line with his rather than his mother’s character.

The origin of the Universe

The knowledge that we have gained since the fable was conceived paints a more precise, correct and — I add — more engaging picture of what probably happened.

The history of our Universe began around 13.8 billion years ago when an incredibly hot and dense “primitive atom” — scientists are still scratching their heads to understand what it was — started expanding at an explosive rate in an event aptly called Big Bang.

From where this energetic seed comes? For sure the kids will wonder, but science cannot give an answer here because, contrary to our intuition, the initial seed had not appeared in an existing, empty and dark space coming from somewhere else. There was nothing before the Big Bang. There was no time and there was no space. For science, asking what was before the Big Bang is like asking what lies north of the North Pole. Yes, there are speculative theories, but they are just that until scientists do not devise a way to put them to the test. With a very imprecise image, the appearance of the Universe is like a bubble forming in a boiling pan: before its coming into existence, no empty space exists. I know this is a mind-twisting concept, but it is a clear example of how precision does not foster child’s engagement in the story as an explosion in the dark does. Instead, we can mention here, and this could appeal to the child’s mind, that with sensitive instruments the scientists still “hear” the echo of the Big Bang as a faint radiation that pervades the entire Universe.

Even more difficult to understand is what happened an infinitesimal time after the Big Bang: the Cosmic Inflation. In an unthinkable short blink of time, this process doubled the size of space at least ninety times, making it immense and extremely uniform. After this rush, the space continued expanding at a more relaxed pace. The Cosmic Inflation was a necessary addition to the Big Bang theory to explain, for example, why areas at the two extreme of the Universe had the same temperature and why stars are not clumped together but almost uniformly distributed in space. Had been impossible for Dr. Montessori to incorporate Cosmic Inflation into the fable because this theory had seen light in 1980, but for us its addition can be quite simple and could add a more dramatic twist to the history of the early universe.

Returning to the story, “let there be light” is correct, the initial seed contained everything in the form of energy, and “light” could be interpreted here as pure energy. Nonetheless, physicists tell us that, contrary to our intuition, this “primitive atom” was too hot to shine. This is not the only property that our mind find difficult to comprehend. There are also the energy and temperature levels involved that are besides our imagination. The examples the story gives are pale metaphors that try to compare these levels to known phenomena.

Until now, the story is not far from being correct. Unfortunately, at this point, to simplify the explanation of what happened, there is a very inaccurate statement. The story states that the initial hot cloud contained all the elements needed to give life to stars, planets and living being. On the contrary, the Big Bang produced no significant amounts of any elements besides hydrogen and helium. To be precise, the expanding energetic cloud initially was a “soup” of energy and particles going around, smashing, combining and annihilating each other with light trapped inside this dance. Then, in the first three minutes of this powerful chaos, only hydrogen and helium atoms’ nuclei were formed. However, to have stable gases, we have to wait another 380.000 years. This is a blink on the cosmic scale, but a very long time for us. After this interesting and chaotic phase, when the Universe was around thirteen million years old, it started to be like the universe we know today, except for one detail: this baby-universe had no stars, only darkness filled by immense clouds of cold gas.

Time passes and these clouds started collapsing around the seeds put in place by the Cosmic Inflation, that is, places where the matter was a little denser than its surroundings. Here is gravity and not, as written in the story, the cooling down of the clouds the mechanism that makes them contract. For scientists these germs are still visible as little inhomogeneity in the dim cosmic background radiation.

Around 550 million years later, the collapsed clouds reached concentrations of matter so high that their temperature rose to the level they had a microsecond after the Big Bang. This condition ignited nuclear reactions again and, at last, the first stars shine.

And the other elements? The iron, gold, water, rocks — meaning silica — mentioned in the fable? They were synthesized in the core of stars, where the nuclear reactions feeding them were able to fuse lighter elements together. These stars, after consuming all available gas, exploded as supernovae, returning these newly created elements to the immense clouds of gas from which new stars will be born. Scientists think this process repeated three times in the life of the Universe to produce the variety of materials needed to build our world and us. In a very concrete sense, we are “son of the stars”, we are made of “stardust”. This concept, missing from the original story, could become an iconic image that reminds us our profound connection with the rest of the Universe’s living beings, stars and mountains.

The birth of our Solar System

Now we focus our attention on one of these collapsing clouds that will become, after nine billion years, that is, about four and a half billion years ago, our Solar System. It was composed not only of primeval hydrogen and helium, but also by all elements older stars synthesized, that the cold of the cosmic space condensed into dust and small crystals of ice.

This immense cloud of gas and dust was not static. It rotates and contracts. After about 50 million years, as the contracting nebula rotated faster like an ice-skater that swirls faster as she moves her arms near the body, it began to flatten into a disk. Its center collapsed rapidly and the compression heated it until nuclear fusion began and a hot, dense protostar started shining. With time, this star evolved and become our Sun.

Meanwhile, in the outer part of the flattened nebula, gravity caused matter to condense around density perturbations and dust particles, and the rest of the disk began separating into rings. Here successively larger fragments of dust and debris clumped together coalescing to form ever larger bodies. Hundreds of them may have existed in the early Solar System, but they either merged or were destroyed, leaving a multitude of objects that would become our Earth, the other planets, asteroids, comets, and the mysterious Kuiper belt of icy bodies encircling all of them. This army keeps turning and spinning around the Sun as the originating cloud had done before.

Again is gravity, the physical force that governs the structure of our Universe, which has shaped the Solar System and its individual planets and continues directing their orbits and revolutions. What is really shocking is that only a small part of the gravitational effects in the Universe is due to visible matter. The rest is caused by a hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes, but accounts for most of the existing mass. The astronomers call it dark matter and it is one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics.

At this point, there is a very “Cosmic Plane” idea worth pass to the children. On the Web there are amazing astronomical images showing these dust disks around stars and planetary systems just forming from them. While watching these images, children will be delighted to experience a live and dynamic Universe and to realize that we are not special and unique, but share our fate with plenty of similar “Solar Systems”.

To explain the hotter Sun and the melted primordial Earth, the story takes a shortcut, posing the same mechanism, the primordial, extremely hot cloud, as the cause of Sun and Earth temperatures. Aside from the fact that the primordial cloud was extremely cold, it is necessary to distinguish what gives energy to the Sun and what initially melted the planetary bodies. The stars are energized by nuclear reactions that “burn” hydrogen’s atoms, fusing them together to create new elements and releasing energy; instead, the planetary bodies are heated by compression. It is like speaking of the car engine, which is hot because it produces its own energy, and the bicycle pump that becomes warm as we compress the air inside. The parallel is not entirely correct, but it could transmit the essential difference between the origin of the Sun and planets internal energies.

The dawn of the Earth

As we have seen, the Earth formed together with the Solar System and is a few million years younger than the Sun. Earth and Sun have not formed from two drops as the story goes, but from only one immense cloud at different times.

Geologists call Hadean the eon that covers the first half billion years of the Earth’s life. This name comes from Hades, the ancient Greek god of the underworld, in reference to the hellish conditions on Earth at the time: the planet had just formed and was still very hot with a partially molten surface and was subject to frequent collisions with other Solar System bodies. One very large collision at the beginning of this epoch is thought to have been responsible for tilting the Earth’s axis at an angle and forming the Moon.

At this time, the Earth was like an immense boiling pan vigorously mixing constituent elements, more than a glass with separating oil and water as the story recite. If this were the exclusive mechanism, the Earth’s surface would have been composed nowadays only by light elements, like lithium, with no trace of lead and uranium. Nevertheless, the story here is partially correct because iron and nickel have actually sunk to the Earth’s core donating to our planet a magnetic field.

Over the course of the next 160 million years, the planet exterior cooled, forming a solid crust, like the skin that forms on milk when it is boiled and left to cool. The story correctly points to the heat dissipation in the outer, cold space and the evaporation of the primordial rain as the mechanisms that cooled the Earth’s surface. What is missing is that these mechanisms were blocked until now by the enormous amount of carbon dioxide that enveloped the Earth shielding it from outer space and thus contributing to its scorching temperature. Now the newly formed oceans started sequestering this gas as limestone thus permitting heat to be dispersed in outer space as the story says.

This crust floated — and still floats today — over an internal sea of molten rocks. Inside the crust, plumes of hot material found a way to reach the surface leading to extreme volcanism. Besides magma, these volcanoes released gases that probably created the primordial atmosphere, but it contained almost no oxygen and would have been toxic to humans and most modern life. Volcanism also enriched the atmosphere with water vapor that later condensed and created the first rain.

As happens to the surface of a frozen lake, this crust broke into plates that move, collide and leave creases between them. These movements modeled the Earth’s surface, creating mountain ranges where plates collided and oceans where they separated. In my opinion, the picture this mechanism paints is much more dynamic and interesting than stating that the Earth was like an “apple that has been left in a cupboard”. Over the eons, the surface of the Earth was modeled by the plate tectonics, but also the rocks’ erosion due to early rains and running water contributed to create the landscapes we know today.

There are plenty of details that can be added to the story of the early Earth to ignite children’s enthusiasm. For example, we can describe how the continents as we know today were merged into one super-continent, called Pangea, around 180 million years ago. This fact can be shown by taking South America and Africa from a puzzle map and approximately matching the edges of the two continents.

At this point in time, the Earth was able to support life. The first living entities appeared between 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago, but that is another (great) story.

Physical laws

The story covers not only the origin of the Earth and Universe, but also other important physical concepts. The first of them is the concept of physical law that is depicted as a mandate that cannot be ignored or circumvented.

The story, with its refrain “I obey”, transmits the importance of these laws as foundation of everything in the Universe and correctly states that, if we reduce everything that happens around us, like the butterfly hovering a flower, to its very essential mechanisms, we find some form of physical law. The scientists call it a “reductionist” approach because it reduces every physical phenomenon to its first principles to explain it.

It is a way of thinking that works, but we should also be aware that more often than not, “more is different”, as a famous paper of the Nobel medalist Philip Anderson titled in 1972. That is, not always we can explain things by returning them to first laws when complexity increases. For example, if we take 46 Kg of oxygen, 13 Kg of carbon, 7 Kg of hydrogen, two of nitrogen and two of other elements we cannot form again an adult that weights 70 Kg. There is something more here. It is the organization and interconnection of elements that gives them an entirely different structure as size increase. Note that, we do not need help from non-scientific hypothesis or external entities to explain the birth of complexity in the Universe.

Together with these auto-organization effects, we should not forget that what happens depends also on chance, that is, random and unplanned events. The story covers this in passing when mentions chaos and slightly contradicts itself when states, “there was no detail He had not planned”. A clarifying example of the role of chance is the distribution of galaxies in the universe that depends on the random small concentration of matter that remains after Cosmic Inflation had homogenized its primordial, chaotic distribution.

States of matter and chemistry

The story paints a realistic and correct picture of the matter’s structure, with its constituent atoms, of the chemistry of compounds, with the reference to elements that like or dislike each other, and of the various states of matter with their dependency on temperature.

If we want to be precise, we have to add “plasma” as the fourth state of matter; a state that is found inside electric sparks, lightning and stars, but this knowledge is not useful for the children’s understanding. Instead, what is worth clarifying here is that, besides the simplistic examples given in the story, there are liquids that flow so slowly that seems solid (like glass or tar), solids that floats above liquids (like pumice) and gas so dense that settle on the floor (as the deadly carbon monoxide does).

Inside this fundamentally correct coverage, there is unfortunately a confusing concept. The story identifies “weight” of materials with their “specific weight” or “density”. This is wrong because I can have a very heavy block of light packing foam and a light, tiny piece of dense lead, but if I take the same volume of both, I feel the difference. A very simple correction takes care of it: in this part of the story where it is written “weight”, put “weight of the same amount”.

The story’s supporting materials

There are five impressionistic charts and various demonstrations that, even they are not properly part of the story, have been added over time by teachers to help them presenting this “Cosmic Fable”.

Impressionistic charts appeal to the imagination of the children and give them the impression of processes that cannot be seen. They are shown at the relevant moment in the story exposition and the teacher leaves them for the children to examine later, but does not give explanations at this stage because it is their imagination that should speak.

The impressionistic charts are:

  1. The Sun and the Earth
  2. The dance of elements
  3. The time of the volcanoes
  4. The final arrangement of rocks and waters
  5. The family of the Sun (to be presented later)

Besides chart number two, with its angels going up and down, the rest are scientifically accurate. The debate instead is on the needed level of adherence to reality of the images that support the story. Nowadays there are plenty of movies, graphical simulation results, artistic reconstructions and space images that illustrate the birth of the Universe, stars, galaxies and the Earth. For example, “The Millennium Simulation Project” of the Max Planck Institut shows with much detail the foamy aspect of the whole universe, but leaves not much space to the imagination.

Returning to the second chart, we could adjust it simply by using the correct terminology: speaking of “photons” and “water molecules” instead of “angels” is equally fascinating without detracting from the scientific correctness.

Charts one and five have a second goal: to help children develop a mental image of the relative size of the Sun and Earth and of the relative distances between Solar System’s planets. This is another very important point, in my opinion. Children should acquire an idea of the quantities mentioned in the story, otherwise these remain abstract words without meaning. For example, the original text only mentions the speed of light, a fact that presented alone will surely be ignored by the audience.

At this point, how could a child form a mental image of a light-year, the usual distance unit used by astronomers? Moreover, how can he conceive the cosmic timescales? A year is a lot for children, so how can they conceive a million or a billion years? There is an estimate of one followed by 29 zeroes stars in the visible universe; how could children imagine this astonishing high number? To solve this problem, in some variants of this fable found on the Web, a sizable number of examples are added to transmit to the children the feeling of these quantities by connecting them to something the children known, like cars traveling on a highway connecting the Earth and Sun.

Together with the story there are six demonstrations related to its content:

  1. Solid, liquid and gas (states of matter)
  2. Likes and dislikes (forces of attractions)
  3. Movement of liquids (model of a liquid)
  4. Different solids and their reaction to heat (states of matter and heat)
  5. Light and heavy liquids (liquids settle according to density)
  6. The volcano (imaginative simulation)

There are also two demonstrations to be presented later:

  1. Cold (relative temperature)
  2. Centrifugal forces (swirling water bucket)

All demonstrations are interesting and surely attract child’s interest. The fifth demonstration, although interesting in itself, supports a piece of the story that we have seen it is not entirely true. The second demonstration could be made more attractive by using small magnets that can show attraction and repulsion, the electrostatic attraction of a balloon rubbed on wool or simply the merging of small drops of oil on the surface of water. It is interesting to note that the volcano simulation requires specific reagents to produce not only the “lava” flow, but also the sulfur smell of a real volcano.

Other demonstrations could be added if needed, but I think that their number must not detract from the story’s exposition, otherwise child’s imagination cannot work due to the frequent distractions. Anyway, two interesting additions are the one about continent’s border matching to show plate movements, and another one that, by pushing one against the other two kitchen sponges, show how mountains raise where Earth’s crust plates collide.

Summing up, we can say that the impressionistic charts support the story’s appeal to the imagination, the examples try to make story’s abstract concepts real connecting them to the child’s world, and the demonstrations fascinate children igniting their interest in the story.

Closing this section, we should remember that the effect on the imagination of these supporting materials is amplified if the story is presented in a theatrical way with dim lights, voice emphasis and by blending images and demonstrations with the text.

Conclusion

The goal of this “Great Lesson” is to present the origin of the Universe and Earth as a necessary step in preparing the stage for the humankind’s appearance. The story conveys this epic by appealing to the imagination of the child and by offering him fascinating, great ideas and visions.

The fable structure and flavor is perfect for children 5-6 years old because they are fascinated by mysteries and mythology, so they do not care much about explanations that are not completely scientific. Instead, after age 6, they want scientific facts, and require a realistic coverage of this period in the life of the Universe.

Given this background and goals, the original story could not have been different, but nowadays a refresh is in order. First, due to the new knowledge we have, we must update and correct few errors and anachronisms in the original story. This gives the opportunity also to add few fascinating, modern discoveries. Second, today’s children have much more information sources than seventy years ago, so the story should not upset them by presenting incorrect facts. Third, because now there are other sensitivities and constrains that require more neutral supernatural actors, although this betrays the original motivation of the story. Last, because we have the opportunity to help children acquire a sense of the scale of the various physical quantities involved. This was not a goal of the original story, but would be a shame to waste this favorable circumstance to help the child’s mathematical mind.

However, the rewritten story must not sacrifice few indisputable points. First, the new story should continue to be a fable and not a scientific textbook full of details. Second, it should continue to appeal to the child’s imagination by giving him an overall view of the Universe’s early history.

Of course, these constrains extend also to the supporting materials that should continue to balance realism and details maintaining their role as triggers for the child’s imagination.

From an operational point of view, we can imagine one or more scientists working together with Montessori experts that know the children’s development process. Together with the story, these experts should also produce a short scientific summary, completed eventually with a list of iconographic and textual resources, of the history of the Universe until life appeared on Earth. Last, minor updates should be done also to the supporting materials as detailed in the previous section.

Summing up, in analyzing and refreshing this cosmic fable it is a good thing to strive for scientific accuracy, but without forgetting that “What he learns must be interesting, must fascinate him.” I, as a scientist, find natural to give the child the great things I always find in science. That is, “You have to offer him great things: to begin with, let us offer him the World.” And the Universe too.