Sunday, June 1, 2008

Brian Greene On Science

[Our ever more detailed and ever more fantastic view of the nature of matter, as illustrated by The Elegant Universe.]

Physicist Brian Greene, perhaps best known for his PBS series on String Theory, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times today. In it, he examines the way science is taught in this country, and the resulting attitudes that people have toward science:

It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.

If science isn’t your strong suit — and for many it’s not — this side of science is something you may have rarely if ever experienced. I’ve spoken with so many people over the years whose encounters with science in school left them thinking of it as cold, distant and intimidating. They happily use the innovations that science makes possible, but feel that the science itself is just not relevant to their lives. What a shame.

Put A Little Science In Your Life

It's also a very shortsighted attitude. As an engineer, I'm a consumer of science. Without it, we'd know far less about how to construct buildings, design machinery, and support those efforts. Things like electronics, and integrated circuits in particular, might not have been possible at all. Only the disciplined search for knowledge that is the foundation of science made such inventions possible. In The Demon Haunted World, planetary scientist Carl Sagan once observed that if James Maxwell and others hadn't spent all that time playing with rods and bits of gold paper, and then carefully analyzing what they observed, we wouldn't have radio and television today:

Sagan devotes one chapter, "Maxwell and the Nerds," to telling the story of how the seemingly pointless wonderings of one young man paved the way for technologies that had previously seemed inconceivable. He also makes a case for education as the way out of poverty, and asks what we're doing wrong to cause the excitetment for learning seen in kindergarden disappear in the majority of students by high school.

Carl Sagan, promoter of skepticism and wonder

Sagan was a renowned scientist who produced one of the PBS series I'll never forget - Cosmos. It was a series so full of wonder and awe-inspiring stories that you have to wonder why it isn't shown more often. It certainly needs to be.

Medical doctors are also consumers of science. Where would modern medicine be without the study of microbiology and even the more "macro" forms of biology? Maybe we'd have some of the vaccines we have, but I think it's safe to say that things like immunology and even studies of nutrition would be nowhere near as effective.

Just recently, in my local Borders bookstore, I compared the size of the science, metaphysics, and religion sections. Of the three, religion's was by far the largest, and the other two of roughly equal size. Not only are we woefully ignorant of science in this country, it seems to be getting worse. So I can understand why Greene is troubled:

As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it’s a profound loss.

A great many studies have focused on this problem, identifying important opportunities for improving science education. Recommendations have ranged from increasing the level of training for science teachers to curriculum reforms.

But most of these studies (and their suggestions) avoid an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.

In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”

Put A Little Science In Your Life

Indeed, we seem to be less connected to the world than ever. As Greene explains though, that's not the fault of science:

As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don’t have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up as I’ve told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I’ve spoken with high school dropouts who’ve stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we’re all a part.

Put A Little Science In Your Life

People keep trying to tell me that their religions help to get them in touch with all the wonder in the universe. I have no idea what they're talking about. Greene elaborates:

It’s one thing to go outside on a crisp, clear night and marvel at a sky full of stars. It’s another to marvel not only at the spectacle but to recognize that those stars are the result of exceedingly ordered conditions 13.7 billion years ago at the moment of the Big Bang. It’s another still to understand how those stars act as nuclear furnaces that supply the universe with carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the raw material of life as we know it.

And it’s yet another level of experience to realize that those stars account for less than 4 percent of what’s out there — the rest being of an unknown composition, so-called dark matter and energy, which researchers are now vigorously trying to divine.

Put A Little Science In Your Life

If you need religion in order to appreciate the world around you, I suspect you have no idea what you're looking at.

Yet that seems to be the direction we're headed. As I've mentioned before, we seem to be drifting away from examining the reality of our world, and substituting religion and superstition in place of knowledge. These morons certainly aren't helping in that process, nor are these.

I hope that the changes to how science is taught that Dr. Greene is proposing have some effect on this. If it doesn't, I feel I can safely predict that we won't be a superpower for much longer.


One Fly said...

The empire is in decline for sure.
Wish I would have had better science teachers and not attended a Catholic school for two years before entering high school.

Cujo359 said...

I was lucky, One Fly. I went to a public school that, at least at the time, was well above average. It was also still back in the day when they tried to separate people into classes based on learning ability. The smart kids were at least somewhat challenged by the curriculum they were offered. Those who weren't fast learners didn't need to feel frustrated by not being able to keep up. They no longer do that. Apparently, it's not egalitarian enough. Everyone learns at the average pace.

Much as I'd like to blame the Republicans and religious fanatics for what's happened, they're only part of the story.