"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

"The Canon" and Scientific Literacy

"The Canon" by Natalie Angier

I'm always behind in my science reading, though that's still no excuse for waiting 'til now to read Natalie Angier's 2007 volume, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science," especially since I'm very much a fan of Angier's writing. I've become a bit jaded about books that try to skim across all manner of science for the layman (there have been several), so skipped over this particular work. We live in a day of specialization, that almost makes these across-the-board volumes seem a bit anachronistic, harkening back to a day when one really could meaningfully study all or most of the sciences at once. But now that basic "science literacy" has become a hot-button issue in many quarters, it seems especially appropriate to re-visit and publicize Angier's book (finding it for $4 on a table at Borders sorta helped too!).

Angier is a master at using imagery and metaphor to communicate ideas in science, and at injecting enthusiasm and delight into her subjects. The writing, as usual, is excellent. Angier probably does as good a job as anyone can of conveying science's basics to the masses, but still I thought this volume just a bit flat, possibly only because my expectations of Angier are so high (it did receive many good reviews when it appeared). I fear she isn't reaching the masses here, but rather preaching to the choir --- those already interested in science may read and enjoy this volume, in many instances as a refresher course of sorts. But those who really NEED to read this book, and who I think she is trying to reach, will simply avoid it, as not their cup of tea, and not engaging enough for their attention-span. For one thing there are no pictures(!) and a book on science with no pictures is not going to attract those who are already phobic of, or little-familiar with, science and who most need to read it. For another, the quality of writing is so good it is primarily going to attract an already-literate audience that will appreciate the composition, and not those who may need a yet simpler approach.

Chapter headings for the book are "Probabilities," "Calibration," "Physics," "Chemistry," "Evolutionary biology," "Molecular biology," "Geology," and "Astronomy." ...A "whirligig tour" indeed (I probably like her "Molecular biology" chapter the best, even though my interest runs more toward physics). Someone truly interested in any one of these topics can no doubt find better treatments of them in other volumes specifically devoted to them. With Angier what you're getting is less depth and thoroughness, but a very readable sort of Cliffs-note version. Nothing at all wrong with that (and truthfully she's much better than Cliff notes); I'm just not sure how wide the audience for it is (hard-core scientists may want more than what we have here, and non-scientists may not want as much as is here). I rate the volume a slightly reluctant "B+;" reluctant, only because I'd like to give it a tad higher, Angier is such a gem of a writer/expositor. Somehow though, the material still has a bit of the feel of a mini-text to study, rather than a presentation to be savored. But it is probably as good an effort in this genre (of introductory multi-science) as is out there.

All of this brings us to what has been a hot topic of late: scientific literacy in America. One book currently making the rounds (which I haven't read yet), apparently argues in part that scientists themselves need to communicate better and more directly to the lay public. Many of us think this is mistaken; scientists often are not good communicators to lay audiences (of course there are exceptions), but even if they were (and had the time to do it), where is that audience??? There were a couple generations post 'sputnik' that seemed to lap up science in this country, but I don't believe that is true of more recent generations, and it simply seems too late (unfortunately) to gain their attention now. As much as I hate saying it, most American adults, who are not already scientifically literate, are likely a lost cause at this point; they are as locked into their boredom, fear, or distaste of science as others are locked into views on abortion or animal rights, where there's little point in discussion because both sides are deaf to the other sides' views. One sign of all this is the tremendous number of high-level science/medical/technology positions in this country now being filled by foreigners/immigrants, as there aren't enough native-born Americans with the requisite skills needed to meet the demand.

If everyone would read and absorb Angier's book, science illiteracy in the country could pretty much be dashed... but in a land of romance novels, Harry Potter, Tom Clancy, and vampire novels (not to mention much religious indoctrination) etc. etc. that ain't gonna happen. At any given time, the source material is out there for the masses to attain scientific literacy, but in the end they must want it; it can't be forced on them, and more scientists preaching the gospels of empiricism to them could even be counter-productive.

The only solution it seems to me is to reach the youngest (still pliable) people coming up through the education system (and, as Angier and others have pointed out, they ought be taught physics first, then chemistry, and then biology, rather than the other way around as is routine --- proceed from the most basic and reductionist, to the most complex); re-instill the wonder, beauty, and magic of science that some of us growing up in the 50's and 60's felt. It is a difficult task, requiring excellent, passionate science teachers (and lots of them) and excellent materials, and we may not be up to it. Heaven help us, though, if we are not. At least Natalie Angier has done her part.

A NY Times review of "The Canon" here:

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