Friday, June 25, 2010

Culture: The Longest Oral Report

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The recent record tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon, which finished yesterday after 11 hours and 5 minutes of play over three days, prompted me to think back of things of excessive length in my own life. Probably the most epic thing that happened in my high school career was an oral report that "lasted" five calendar days.

Considering the amount of diary-style writing that I did in that era, it is surprising that I could find no previous summary of this event to recycle in this blog post. However, after some digging, I was able to find the outline of what I'm reasonably certain was the oral report in question--it was on Greek Science and Math. My "Humanities II" class taught by Karlene Johnson was doing a unit on the influence of the Greeks on modern culture, and I imagine that I probably lobbied to get the topic of science and math--though maybe nobody else wanted it. The report was supposed to last 25 minutes or less so that we could get through 2-3 reports in each class period.

However, unsurprisingly, I found enough to material on the influence of Greek science and math for the report to run much longer than that. Based on the time stamp on the file, I suspect that I began the report on Thursday, 11-October-1990. I remember discussing doing a longer report with Mrs. Johnson and expecting the report to run a full class period. Whether because of questions or lack of adequate practice timing runs on my part, it wasn't finished in a single class period. Based on the outline I unearthed, the report began with this introduction:
How many of you hate (or hated) memorizing theorems in Geometry? {Hands} You have a Greek mathematician, namely Euclid, to blame for introducing the axiomatic structure. How many of you can't believe that everything is made of atoms which are mostly empty space? {Hands} Once again, you have a Greek scientist, this time Democritus, to blame for being the first to come up with that abstract theory. A large, disproportionate amount of intellectual advancement took place in a relatively short period in the Greek culture, particularly in science and mathematics. Much of this knowledge is still accurate, useful and relevant today, especially their geometry and other forms of math.
From there, I went into a section with background on the state of science and math in other ancient cultures, then focused on math with an emphasis on Thales, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Zeno, Plato, Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius. I next turned to science, moving by topic through physical sciences, astronomy, music, and geography. I then tried wrap it together with a section on how it meshed with contemporary Greek culture, and I suspect I was ready to talk about the end of the "Golden Age" when time ran out on that class period.

The next day, something must have happened in school that required class discussion, as I recall that most of the period was taken up with that discussion and I didn't get in front of the class until the final ten minutes or so. (Since nothing profound seems to have been in the news at the time, I assume it must have been a hot issue in the school that distracted us from the curriculum.) In any event, I didn't finish that period, either, and since it was Friday, that meant the report would have to wait through the weekend.

As I recall, I had a quiz associated with my report, so to be fair with it, I likely reviewed topics that would be on that quiz before finishing the report when I resumed on Monday, 15-October-1990. Then, I gave the quiz, and finally finished with the following conclusion:
Despite the great accomplishments of Greek science and mathematics in general, the entire community became caught up in impossible problems which led to a dormancy in the field of mathematics. Some of today's phyicists, in searching for one unifying force in the beginning of the universe instead of the four tangible around us, are looking at the works of the ancients to build upon for their own ideas. One can hope that they can learn from the downfall of the Greeks and not expend all their effort in their possibly fruitless search.
After five calendar days, and probably at least 90 minutes in front of the class, my oral report was done. If memory serves, I received a good grade. More significantly, though, I had developed a reputation for giving oral reports that lasted forever. As a result, the next school year, my "Humanities III" teacher, Susan LaFollette, would tell me that my first oral report had to be completed in one 53-minute class period or I would fail. If I recall correctly, I finished that one in about 43 minutes, much faster than five-day oral report record.

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