A few days ago in my computer graphics class at NYU, I was talking about why we can often get away with assuming that light rays are parallel. It’s because we are used to seeing things lit by the Sun, and the Sun is so far away that its rays are extremely close to parallel.
In the spirit of class participation, I introduced the topic by asking the 30 students in the class how far away the Sun is from the Earth. “Can someone tell me?” I asked.
One student volunteered that it takes 8 minutes from the light from the Sun to reach the Earth. To her credit, that was correct. To get the distance to the Sun from that, you would just need to multiply 186,300 miles per second times 60 seconds per minute times 8 minutes. But I was still hoping somebody would give me a direct answer.
Finally, after another minute or so of silence, another student piped up. “Google says about 93 million miles,” she said.
In that moment I became very sad. I tried to explain to the class the enormous difference between factoids and actual operational knowledge.
Now I worry that this is generational. Are we getting a crop of students who are being discouraged from having working operational knowledge? Is Google inadvertently destroying a generation of thinkers and potential innovators?
Frankly I am worried.