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Thoreau's deductive reasoning

Walden pond survey

"While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless," wrote Thoreau.  Then he spent the remainder of chapter 16 telling how he surveyed the bottom of Walden pond.

Not only did Thoreau determine that the body of water did indeed have a bottom (and no "vast holes 'into which a load of hay might be driven'"), the chapter also walked us through an excellent example of the scientific method.  Thoreau started by using keen observation to develop a hypothesis:

"Having noticed that the number indicating the greatest depth was apparently in the center of the map, I laid a rule on the map lengthwise, and then breadthwise, and found, to my surprise, that the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest breadth exactly at the point of greatest depth...."

Step two of the scientific method was using this observation to come up with a hypothesis --- in this case, that the deepest spot in any pond can be pinpointed using the method above.  Next, Thoreau set up an experiment to test his hypothesis.  He used a map to estimate where he thought the deepest point in another pond should lie, then surveyed that pond and found his estimate close to the mark.

Of course, Thoreau would have needed to survey quite a few more ponds to thoroughly test his hypothesis.  But it's handy to be reminded that deductive reasoning is a very important skill to have, especially if you're a homesteader trying to partner with the natural world.  Why are the bean beetles so much worse than they've been in previous years?  Is your neighbors' advice spot on or is it an old wives' tale?  If I were building a curriculum for homesteaders to be, deductive reasoning would be presented in week one.

Weekend HomesteaderIf you're new to the book club, you might want to check out the thought-provoking comments on chapter 1, chapter 2, chapters 3 and 4, chapters 5 and 6, chapters 7 and 8, chapters 9 and 10, chapters 11 and 12, and chapters 13 and 14.  We'll be discussing the last two chapters of Walden next week, and will then be taking a week off before diving into The Dirty Life.  Don't forget to start hunting down a copy of the next book (which is a much lighter read, I promise) ASAP.

The Weekend Homesteader is full of fun and easy projects that let you fit self-sufficiency into your limited free time.

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I have so enjoyed reading the pond-surveying ch. today, with memories of 4th of July times past at College Pond! I wanted to comment thru the blog, but will here, instead, because, maybe due to imminent thunderstorm, I can't get the comment page to pop up! [Editor's note: Mom emailed this to me, so I put it up for her.]

First, I have to say that, tho I was happy to refresh my knowledge of deductive reasoning, if Thoreau were online right now, what I would say to him is: "Didn't you learn at all about the glacial ponds of Massachusetts? I did, in 7th grade, from a 20-30-yr old geology science book written for Boston schools! (I wonder when the knowledge of the glacial age's causing all the Massachusetts spring-fed ponds began to be used in the Boston schools? Probably after Dewey reformed how children are taught...)" So, I have now that wish (or seed of a "back-to-the future" novel, of testing Thoreau's ability to learn new truths...) And it's fun to realize that I could compare Thoreau to Melville, who writes so factually, in Moby Dick!

I have 2 tales from my own family of going out on the ice, which you know, Anna: One, of my father skating across the Charles River to MIT, as the quickest way for him to get there. The other, of my grandfather Tirrell, maybe that same very cold winter, sometime between 1919 and 1922, driving his car across the ice on College Pond, into which he later sank to its final rest on of the sailboats he'd made. CP, about 1/2 mile wide, was deep enough even in very dry years, not to show the remains of that boat. We were scared to dive too deep to try to find it! I remember so well the cold places we found, swimming, which were supposed to be evidences of springs. I wish Thoreau had wwritten of such discoveries--or maybe I missed that?

Comment by Adrianne Wed Jul 4 16:02:54 2012
Mom --- I was thinking a similar thing, about how Thoreau should have been able to find out a lot about the local ponds by reading a book or two. But I really don't know what they knew about the local geology back then. After all, we hadn't even figured out plate tectonics when Thoreau wrote Walden.
Comment by anna Wed Jul 4 17:37:40 2012
I've googled a bit, and have discovered that Thoreau did refer to the Glacial Age when he wrote of Mt. Monadnock, but, more fascinating: he actually worked for Louis Agassiz, who was 10 yrs older than he was, while he lived at Walden Pond! At that time, supposedly, Agassiz was formulating his theory of the glacial kettles (ponds) in Mass. but Thoreau probably didn't want to pin down his own musings to that hypothesis...maybe because it wasn't really proven yet?? Sorry I still haven't learned "cut and paste" so I can refer to some of the info on "the web"--One essay says that Walden is the deepest pond in Massachusetts...if so, this is probably because its surroundings are less peaty and swampy than around other ponds in Eastern Mass. at least? The sense of wonder and mystery connected to ponds I learned from my father's explaining their origin (I now find this was generally taught in Massachusetts about 20 yrs before he was in school). But my real memory of exploring College Pond is first from swimming, and feeling the scary coldest depths at parts out over my head, when I could feel the cold coming up from maybe 30 feet below...
Comment by adrianne Wed Jul 4 19:28:19 2012
Mom --- Thanks for doing the legwork on that! Interesting that he worked for Louis Agassiz....
Comment by anna Thu Jul 5 11:01:28 2012

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