Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Science literacy

This week's Science has a special section on science literacy. And more power to them. In the United States we live with a paradox. For the past century we have led the world in doing science. Our education of scientists has been the envy of the world. We have collected more Nobel Prizes in science than any other nation. Yet our general populace is essentially scientifically illiterate. As a people, we have little idea what science is, and little assimilation of what science has learned about the world. As for understanding who (or what) we are and our place in the universe, we might as well be living in the Middle Ages.

During my forty-year teaching career, I gradually transitioned from teaching science to aspiring scientists to teaching science literacy to nonscientists. As a physical scientist, my efforts eventually resolved into two one-semester courses, called The Universe and The Earth.

In The Universe, we began with the Alexandrian Greeks measuring the size of the Earth and the sizes and distances of the Moon and Sun. This offers a beautiful way to illustrate scientific methodology, within a mathematical context any liberal arts student can understand. Suddenly, the world got very much bigger, and part of my challenge was to convey a real appreciation for the sizes and distances.

From there we addressed the distance of the stars, and solved the riddle of what makes them burn. Then on to the discovery of the galaxies, and measuring their distance. The expanding universe. The Big Bang. At every stage we had room-filling photographic images of spectacular beauty. We pushed back the desks and made a spiral galaxy with salt on the floor. We walked into the college quad to set up mind-stretching demonstrations of scale. Every time I gave a what I told a how.

In The Earth, we walked across Britain with Hutton and Lyell, using the biggest geological maps available from the British Geological Survey. We unraveled the riddle of the strata, and stood with Hutton and Playfair at Siccar Point as they glimpsed the abyss of geological time. We pondered the meaning of fossils, passed fossils from hand to hand around the class, and journeyed with Darwin around the world as he too pondered the implications of the creatures in the rocks.

Step by step we watched the unfolding of the theory of plate tectonics, with Maria Tharp's big map of the sea floor dominating the classroom. Once we grasped the theory, I posed geographical puzzles for the students to solve; that theory is best which explains the most with the least. We posited an Ice Age, then tramped our 600-acre campus observing how everything we saw now made perfect sense.

If I had been qualified to do it, I would have offered one more semester to complete a three-part course in science literacy: Life. The (still mysterious) origin of life. Fermentation, respiration and photosynthesis: How these transformed life and the planet. Sex. DNA and protein synthesis. Natural selection. Evo-devo. Ursula Goodenough's book The Scared Depths of Nature, with all the sacred stuff stripped out, would make a good outline. I would have loved to join up with her for Part 3.

Did it work? I don't know. The students would have to say. Maybe one or two are out there reading this.