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Scientific daydream

July 23, 2008

It’s a hot Saturday, and young Holly Hypothetical is playing inside while her father Harold is sitting on the back porch, sipping sweet tea.  Flies buzz outside the screen.  In the distance he can hear birds, traffic, a train, a jet.  The Adirondack chair, for being made of wood, is surprisingly comfortable.  He dozes off.

In his Department Of Education-approved daydream, he sees his child sitting at a neat little table with a chrome lamp, doing her “science homework”.  A textbook is open, and her face shows a look of concentration and purpose. She seems strangely unaware of him as he walks behind her to look over her shoulder at the pages of the book. 

Her lamp glares on the shiny pages.  What he can make out of the text seems dry, carefully vetted by bureaucrats who have made a personal mission of stripping every last bit of revolutionary, disruptive excitement from the greatest discoveries of humanity. The child’s attention begins to drift.  Her phone vibrates and she eagerly snatches it up, texting her friend about something that happened at school.

Are the contents of that inferior textbook the only science she will ever be expected to learn?  Will that equip her as a citizen of a technological society, or as a human being in an amazing universe? 

Harold wakes with a start, knocking his tea off the armrest, drenching the cat, who bolts through the cat door to the yard.  He sits perspiring, eyes wide; Is that really how it is? How can Holly become an adult who goes further in scientific understanding?  Will she ever get beyond that horrid textbook?…

Recently I’ve had a few adults tell me they didn’t learn much about science in school.  I’m tempted to get lost in observations about school district leadership, but that isn’t going to change.  And federal education policy… well let’s just not hold our breath waiting on that one, OK? 

I’m not exactly sure what started it for me. I spent my childhood digging fossils out of a rock quarry in Iowa City, peering into an old microscope at pond water, and building galvanometers and induction coils.  My teen years were happily spent on the geology of central Washington and East Tennessee. Even today I always have a magnifying glass with me. So this post is for parents, kids, teachers, and anyone else who wants to fill in the gaps.  It’s not a universal prescription, just a few bright pebbles I’ve found along the way.  Pebbles I can’t stop looking at, turning over in my hands, hefting, studying, pelting the other kids in the class…

Most of what I’ve read about scientific literacy education goes something like this:

  • Here’s why science is important and you should study it

  • Here’s some fundamental concepts in science
  • Here’s some supporting information to those concepts

An interested person will learn a lot from that approach. But the important point is “interested person”.  The resistance that lack of interest places in the path of learning is almost impossible to overcome.  The propulsion that fascination and wonder give to learning is almost impossible to restrain.  As Dorothy Parker said; “There is no cure for curiosity”.  But how to start the fire?

Somehow it got through to me that science can be personal.  It’s the study of this table, that bird, the air I breathe, my body, this frog, that fly, those stars.  Because, while it is true that not everyone can (or would want to) work on protein folding projects or find the Higgs boson, in some respects everyone can do science.  Everyone can look at the world around them – not something from a textbook, but the actual world they can see and touch – in the context of complex spatial and temporal enormity. It’s so stunningly different from the traditional way, or the advertising way, that it’s as if the sun just came up for the first time.

Scientific literacy includes factual knowledge, yes, but it also requires understanding of how that knowledge is established. The attempt to carve out permanent boundaries around a set of ‘science facts’ is a misrepresentation. Science is a working model, not a finished sculpture to the ages.  This bothers some people who want a final answer.  They want to put it on the shelf and turn their back on it and have it be the same in their grandchildren’s time.  They want science to act like traditional knowledge, which stays put – and is reliable only in the same sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day.

One really important science idea is that if you look at any phenomenon closely enough, you can figure it out or somebody eventually will.  It may seem mysterious but it’s a lock to be picked, not a trick of the gods. “Looking closely” is not easy; it involves logically careful methods, accurate instrumentation, data collection, analysis and documentation.  When you’re done, and others have checked your work through a brutal process called “peer review”, you’ve got a bit of reality in your pocket, on which you and others can build.

Those bits of reality are hard-won, but they get no protection.  And that’s another important idea in science: that if somebody comes up with a better explanation, and they can demonstrate it in a way that holds up under attack, their explanation becomes the accepted one.  The old explanation, the one you worked so hard for, is tossed aside. While that may sound like a harsh rule, it means that our explanations and predictions steadily improve. 

Scientific Literacy is not the same thing as scientific expertise, however.  And this is where even scientists go wrong sometimes. That ever-growing and ever-solidifying understanding of the real world means most scientists are specialists in some particular field.  When you see a mathematician going on about how evolution isn’t logical, or a chemist dabbling in climatology, they’re out of their field and mistaking literacy for expertise.  And as soon as they do that, a religious organization or an oil company or a tobacco company will step right up to make sure they have a forum – usually not peer-reviewed, so no one’s checking their work – to broadcast their mistake directly to the public.

Which leads to another important point: the popular media is full of reporters who are working on deadline.  There’s nothing they love better than a pre-packaged story from a think tank, and if it gets them home earlier, they might not look very closely at how the story was funded.  And this should be motivationally important to young Holly Hypothetical at the study table.

Some children need nothing more than to hold a fossil in their hands, or to see Saturn through a telescope, to ignite a lifelong fascination in science.  But not every child will be motivated by geeky fun.  Luckily even nonscientists can find lots of practical uses for science, and here’s one.  There are a lot of people who have reasons to lie to us: corporations, used car salesmen, politicians, preachers and hucksters of every kind, and their lies can hurt us badly.  Kids need to know that science gives them a powerful baloney detector they can use in self-defense against liars of all kinds. 

So… wow!  Awesome mysteries of the universe explained, technological empowerment, and a super-powered lie detector!  Bring on the scientific literacy! 

If you can get someone interested in something, they will learn about it. But school systems are under tremendous pressure to cram facts into our children’s heads, like so many Styrofoam peanuts into a box. For an uninterested child, that’s like trying to push a rope uphill.  There is little time for the motivational magic of fascination and wonder, even though teachers do try to wedge it in where they can.  So it’s up to us:

Adults should model the behavior they want in their kids. Start reading the science section of your newspaper.  Subscribe to National Geographic, and maybe a science magazine like New Scientist or Scientific American.  Pin this month’s Geographic map on the kitchen wall.  Make more science-oriented TV viewing choices.

Wrap your observations in a larger context:  Notice the birds in your yard and mark up a map with their migratory routes. If you see unusual wildlife (like a fox in the city) or for that matter any wildlife, mark it on your calendar. Find out what they eat, and what eats them.

And there are some – what to call them? – scientific stories that can really throw open the gates.  Here’s an example of one that deeply affected me:

I was stunned by a Scientific American Libraries’ book, Powers Of Ten .  It was based on this video;

(I would love to see this 1968 film updated with better narration and music. There’s even an excellent Simpson’s parody, but it seems to have been pulled from YouTube.)

After reading the book I started thinking how narrow the traditional view of our existence really is.  Despite all the talk of God and eternity and infinity, somehow it was even more mind-blowing to ponder the fact that we can actually measure the dimensions of atoms and of galaxies.  All it took was to start looking at the universe with the confidence that eventually, we could figure it out piece by piece.

OK, “we” in the same sense that “we” win the Bulls’ basketball games.  But still; the universe is present in a cell in your hand, not in some vague philosophical way but in the continuity of scale.  The same chemistry applies in your hand as in the Pleiades.  The atoms in the cell are star stuff, forged from smaller particles in a dying sun billions of years before you drew your first breath.  That’s what I mean by temporal and spatial enormity, and our place in it.

Go outside and try some of the science activities listed below the fold.  Read a particularly exciting National Geographic article to your children.  Watch Scientific American Frontiers.  Read the biography of Marie Curie.  Watch the NOVA video Einstein’s Big Idea together as a family.  (It’s an exciting story spanning several centuries, full of discovery, intrigue, death, and even sex)

Teachers today have their jobs defined for them in terms of standardized tests but if a teacher accomplished nothing more than instilling an insatiable love of learning, it would be a job well done.  There’s no way to pursue wonder, awe, and excitement directly; this is only a little of the disorganized approach by which it came to me.  Below the fold are some suggested books, videos, resources and activities to get the ball rolling.  There’s definitely enough here to get started…


  • Go to a science museum in your area.
  • Mark up a map with migratory routes of birds you see in your yard
  • Perform science experiments with your kids (no, not on your kids)
  • Put a big office calendar on the fridge and ask everyone to write the most interesting thing they saw that day on it.  Record weather and animal life, too.
  • Give each of your children a magnifying glass. Ask them to see how many different kinds of ants they can spot climbing a single tree. Check out fossils, bugs, small rocks.
  • Give your kids 10X jeweller’s magnifiers.  Kids love to look at things really, really closely.  Have them look at a computer screen, a leaf, at woven fabric.
  • Go to public astronomical club events in your community
  • Learn about the geology of your area and take your kids to areas where it can be observed and collected. (Bring magnifying glasses!)

Video (most are available at your public library):

Carl Sagan
Cosmos DVD set – watch with your family, 1 episode/week
David Attenborough
almost any of his extraordinary video documentaries. Start with the “Life” series.

Books – some in print, some not.  (Most available at the public library, and Amazon often has used copies)

Carl Sagan
Varieties Of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science
Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Richard Feynman
Why Do You Care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman – adventures of a curious character
Phil Plait
Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”
Asimov, Isaac
Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
Asimov’s guide to Earth and Space – still in print
Occasionally you can find Asimov’s nonfiction works on Amazon.  He wrote hundreds of books in his lifetime, and while he is best known for science fiction, many are engagingly clear introductions to physics, organic chemistry, algebra, and other scientific topics.  Most are out of print today, but available used.  I would love to see them all for sale as ‘publish-on-demand’ – with today’s technology, there’s really no excuse for them being hard to find.
Philip Morrison, Phylis Morrison, and Office of Charles and Ray Eames
Powers Of Ten: A Book About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero
Reference books
700 Science Experiments for Everyone – An outstanding classic full of practical experiments, still in print after 50 years
Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil: Science Matters: achieving scientific literacy.  (Disclaimer: I have not read it, but it has good reviews on Amazon).

Also consider reading the fiction of authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne, and HG Wells.  Even in made-up stories, the love of scientific discovery and achievement is infectious!

Free Web resources:

Feeling political? Here are some institutional efforts to promote science literacy

  • There’s a new foundation with some impressive names on their board of directors, but they’re at the ‘bootstrap’ phase.

  • The Federation of American Scientists has an excellent Public Interest Report.
  • The National Academies’ Press has a book of National Science Education Standards
    The Standards offers a coherent vision of what it means to be scientifically literate, describing what all students should understand and be able to do in science. The volume reflects the principles that learning science is an inquiry-based process, that science in schools should reflect the intellectual traditions of contemporary science, and that all Americans have a role in science education reform.

Man, I’m tuckered out… I’ll add more links to this post as they occur to me.  In a future post I’ll talk about more books and experiences that were personally meaningful to me.  Hope you found something good in all this.

Categories: Education
  1. July 24, 2008 at 08:08 | #1

    I spend a lot of time thinking about the dire state of education, and its results—kids who can’t read, don’t care about learning, etc., etc. It all seems to boil down to an attitude: why bother? Why bother to go to schools that are boring and useless (it’s only the law that manages to keep classrooms as full as they are), why bother to learn anything when there are more interesting things to do, why bother to put out any effort when the world is too complicated to understand and when we have no control over what happens?

    Relevance was once the favorite buzzword of educators, but it never amounted to much more than a buzzword. But relevance is actually important. Give kids good reasons for learning, reasons that can be important to them, work to re-awaken their curiosity, and we might see some real education going on. Of course, it will be self-education, because the schools are unlikely to change.

    Thanks for a onderful blog post.

  2. July 25, 2008 at 06:28 | #2

    Right on!

    I sometimes wish I had gone into a scientific field. I am instatiably curious about things scientific, largely in the world of physics and cosmology.

    I also am tired of scientists who know a lot about a particular fungus on Georgia peaches appearing in the media to tell me their views about everything else—things they know nothing about as “experts.”

  3. Avocet
    July 26, 2008 at 17:14 | #3

    When I was a kid, Julian May’s “Adventures in…” books got me fired up about science.  Atomic energy, chemistry…  I remember walking to the local hardware store and asking if they had “radium paint,” so I could try an experiment from Adventures in Atomic Energy.

    As an adult, I found Asimov’s nonfiction books thoroughly compelling.  That man could make anything interesting!

  4. July 26, 2008 at 17:17 | #4

    I think the most significant point is the difference between facts (data points) and scientific knowledge and understanding.  And I paricularly liked the subtle reference to “think tanks” (aka petroleum lobby groups) that exploit the former without any influence of the latter.  I would have been far less kind.  But you knew that.  ;)

  5. July 27, 2008 at 02:57 | #5

    Thank you for a clear and insightful post.  I’m one of those who caught ” ‘satiable curtiosity”* at an early age.  My parents fed it, but I was the ‘host organism.’  Your suggestions are right on the money.  More power to you!

    Hugs from Asia,
    ~ Sil

    *Rudyard Kipling, “The Elephant’s Child”

  6. July 28, 2008 at 13:49 | #6

    Awesome. I’m a homeschooling mom and I’m always looking for great science stuff to interest the kids (I stay away from most homeschool science curriculum. It’s either boring or creationist/ID).

    You’ve got great suggestions and I’ve just got a few more:
    - start a garden.
    - take regular walks and notice the change in the natural world.
    - fill the bookshelves with good quality guide books.
    - http://www.thegreatstory.org/stardust-kids.html A curriculum that starts out with explaining a kid’s ‘cosmic’ age by virtue of the hydrogen in their bodies.
    - messy unregimented experiments. Lab reports can wait. Fun and wonder can’t.

  7. August 3, 2008 at 19:16 | #7

    George – this was outstanding!

    In fact, I do believe I’ll make a point of sending it to all of the parents I know.  They need this.  Their children need it.  Our future demands it.

  8. August 4, 2008 at 08:51 | #8

    Great post!  As an educator, I salute you.  Thank you for your thoughts.

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