It surprises me that the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and geology) are not a more popular topic. Many people at all educational levels, it seems, are put off by them; some find them cold, others doubt their accuracy, others are just intimidated. Americans are increasingly knowledgeable about basic science, especially if it’s health-related, and yet we think science on the whole is simply too difficult and too boring to engage us, according to a recent survey.
I discuss here and in the next post two broad reasons for this reserve about natural science: its complexities and its tension with religion.
Science has two aspects to it: its method and the knowledge that is produced through that method. Wikipedia sites the distinction:
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In an older and closely related meaning, “science” also refers to a body of knowledge itself, of the type that can be rationally explained and reliably applied.
I think most people are more interested in the knowledge than the method. And yet even when newspapers and television explain a scientific breakthrough in the liveliest terms, the news still often comes across as specialized and impersonal. Part of the problem is that science investigates aspects of nature that people don’t experience directly, such as DNA and sub-atomic particles. And its vocabulary– ”quark,” “genome”–is just as foreign.
What the public at large (students included) needs in order to find science more appealing is more and better translation. We think of translation as involving two languages. But translation commonly takes place within a single language whenever a topic in a specialized field is explained with words familiar to an everyday reader, student, or viewer. Good explanations for a patient about an illness or for a client about the justice system are examples. Such translation when it is skillfully done is not simplistic or dumbed-down; it captures complex concepts and information using everyday words, images, and vocabulary.
Here’s an example by Bill Bryson, whose engaging A Short History of Nearly Everything I’ve written about before.
DNA exists for just one reason–to create more DNA–and you have a lot of it inside you: about six feet of it squeezed into almost every cell. …It [has] just four basic components, called nucleotides, which [is] like having an alphabet of just four letters. How could you possibly write the story of life with such a rudimentary alphabet? (The answer is that you do it in much the way that you create complex messages with the simple dots and dashes of Morse code–by combining them).
Bryson mixes informality (“you”), visualization (“squeezed”), comparison (“Morse code”), and elsewhere plenty of humor to start to convey the structure and function of DNA. We need more science writing and teaching of this caliber. And scientists should recruit more humanists–creative writers and artists–to help produce it.
With the help of creative writers and a little patience, we can all be as curious about DNA as about hieroglyphics, as ready to see beauty in microbes as in flowers, as invited to feel awe in the presence of 3.8 billion years of life as in the star-filled night sky.