Sunday, November 20, 2011

Science for all

    As Toby Murcott, a writer and former science correspondent for the BBC World Service, wrote in an article published in Nature, for science to be successful and understood by the masses, people “need to be able to see how a new finding fits into the field, know when something new is significant, and have the knowledge and the confidence to ask searching questions.” He states that with his “PhD in biochemistry and three years postdoctoral research” he can make a “reasonable attempt” to understand the significance of something within his field, but that is not true of all science journalists, many of whom “resort to doing the bare minimum” because proper research takes time. The lay public needs to be aware of what goes on in the sciences, and what breakthroughs are being made, and a passive interaction with the sciences just doesn’t cut it.
    Surprisingly, although there is little disagreement that, in itself, understanding is a good thing, there is evidence to suggest that people will deliberately choose ignorance under some social conditions. Gregory and Miller, in the book Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility (New York: Plenum Trade, 1998), for example, discuss the case where nuclear workers would, rather than attempt to understand the health risks of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation themselves, trust their colleagues to provide a safe work environment. It is important to note that understanding is not a binary condition, something that you have or you don’t. Rather, it is an understanding that is built up over time, a developing comprehension, if you will.
    Therefore, I believe that even if people study the humanities they can, and must, still be curious as to what is happening in the scientific world. Whether that interest and subsequent education happens in a formal or informal setting is up to an individual’s discretion. In that vein, I have to recommend five trade books with a scientific focus that stand out to be as being enjoyable even by those with little or no scientific background:

Brian Greene, “The Elegant Universe.” Introduces the superstring theory that attempts to unite general relativity and quantum mechanics. Even with an amateur interest in physics this book has such clear explanations that the reader stays engaged till the very end. The author is also a renowned professor, teaching at Columbia University.

Mary Roach, “Packing For Mars.” A fascinating book on the ways humans adapt to space travel. Being an astronaut is not all glamor the reader find out as topics such as hygiene, radiation, and food in space are all discussed. Plus, I met the author and she's a fellow science-for-the-masses enthusiast.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Death By Black Hole.” Tyson compiles his favorite essays across a myriad of cosmic topics. Guided through some of the mysteries of the cosmos with clarity and enthusiasm, the reader does indeed find out what happens if someone “falls” into a black hole. The author is an award winning astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History.

Sean B. Carroll, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful.” The author looks at embryology and then tries to relate it to the evolution of organisms. In particular, he follows the developments of individual organisms: butterflies getting spots, zebras getting stripes and humans getting brains. Carroll is a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The Pluto Files.” Tyson took plenty of flak for his perceived role in eclipsing Pluto, and in this novel he explains why he initially “demoted” Pluto, and why Americans took such offense at the idea. It's an interesting read, and helps you understand why Pluto is no longer a planet.

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