Sunday, January 07, 2007

Shakespeare and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

"I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question -- such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? -- not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had."

-- C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution

The above quote was mentioned by a speaker, Jay M. Pasachoff, during the conference I've been at the last two days. A large part of our meeting was devoted to discussing not only science, but the role of the scientist in educating the public about it.

I have not read the whole of C. P. Snow's essay, but I find the above excerpt provocative. I will not try and discuss what little I know of the controversy behind the essay, nor can I agree with the points made in this excerpt, but I can say there is a valid point to be made.

Modern society claims to value science. After all, science has brought us medications that have extended our lives and technologies that have improved the quality of life. Yet much of the public understands very little about scientific fundamentals. Most of the people in this country cannot correctly explain why the Earth has seasons, what DNA is, or what determines whether an atom is gold or uranium, or the difference between an organic and an inorganic compound. Yet these concepts are not details, they are fundamentals. Yet most people could tell the difference between prose and poetry, and most people have a rough idea how our government works, and most people know the difference between music and sculpture. If we couldn't do these last three things, much of society would be very worried. Yet if we can't talk about the basics of science, most of society is not worried.

A lack of science knowledge hurts people. Misunderstandings about medical research result in people getting scammed out of billions of dollars with the latest miracle cure. In the winter, people are hurt in needless automobile accidents because of freezing rain, because the drivers don't realize that liquid rain can freeze when the temperature is below freezing. People are killed when they mix bleach with ammonia-based household cleaners. Many of these could be avoided with a minimal knowledge of science.

So, why does society tolerate ignorance of science? I don't know. I can make some guesses. A lot of the details of science require understanding and ability in abstract concepts and mathematics. But this doesn't mean that you need to be able to do multi-variate calculus to get some scientific concepts. Calculating how fast fish accumulate man-made toxins is a difficult scientific endeavor, but a little bit of scientific knowledge lets most people realize that dumping leftover pesticide in the stream that leads to your favorite fishing hole is not a smart idea.

At any rate, I don't want to preach. You who are reading this blog are already making an effort to cross this societal divide, and I will make the effort to reach out the other direction. You can rest easy that I will never ask you to tell me how long it takes a neutron star to be disrupted by a rapidly-rotating black hole. That would be like me asking you for proof that "The Magic Flute" and "The Marriage of Figaro" were both composed by the same person. We'll leave those details to the specialists. But I hope that I can help to enhance your knowledge of science and astronomy in ways that help to integrate science into society instead of widening the chasm.

1 comment:

  1. Hello there,
    A google search for Shakespeare and the 2nd Law brought me to your blog.
    How the chasm between humanities and science might be bridged is indeed a good question.
    I wonder if or how your work as a scientist has helped you find meaning in your everyday life? If you have written any posts on this subject, where can I find them?
    Best regards,
    Mike Cross