I’m a science educator. I often think, nay obsess, on how I can do my part to help bring more scientific literacy into everybody’s daily life. In a recent blog post entitled The Myth of Scientific Literacy, worthy of a read, Dr. Alice Bell opines that if we (scientists, educators, politicians) are going to plead the case for increased science literacy, then we should do a better job of defining just what we mean by “science literacy.” She says:
Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:
- Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
- Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
- Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured
On the first point, I do think that there are some basic science facts which should be required fodder in K-12 education. From my field alone, people should not only know that Earth orbits the sun, they should know that our year is based upon the time takes Earth to complete the journey. Don’t laugh. On my last birthday, when I told folks that I’d completed another orbit of the Sun, a distressing number of them did not understand the implication and, upon further questioning, didn’t know that Earth’s orbital period was the basis of one year. K-12 students should know that the Moon orbits Earth, why it goes through phases, and given it’s significance (in particular for several religious holidays), that our month is based upon that orbital period. Finally, everybody should know why we have seasons.
My teachers in grade school always said knowledge was power, but who knew they were being literal, if perhaps imprecise. Knowledge, it turns out, is energy, and it converts at a rate of 28 percent, according to Shoichi Toyabe, of Chuo University, and Masaki Sano, of the University of Tokyo.
Their experiment has its origins back in 1871, when James Maxwell proposed a thought experiment: A demon controls the only door in a wall separating two sealed chambers filled with gas molecules. The demon allows only fast moving particles to enter one room, and only slow moving particles to enter the other room. After a while, one room has only fast moving particles, and the other has only slow moving particles. The system has lost entropy, but without expending any energy, creating a seeming violation of the second law of thermodynamics.
Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, offered a key insight into Maxwell’s paradox in 1929: The demon had to expend energy measuring the speed of the molecules, thus the overall system of demon plus gas actually required work and the expenditure of energy. The demon used energy to take a measurement, creating information, preserving the second law, and establishing the idea that information could be converted to energy, and vice versa.
Proving that idea in the lab took another eight decades.
It’s understatement to say that Nikola Tesla was one of America’s greatest inveltors. The man had a gift for creativity, physical intuition, and inventiveness that was truly otherworldly. Among other things, Tesla is responsible for the AC power we currently enjoy; his contemporary Thomas Edison was a stauch proponent of DC.
In the early 1930′s, Tesla claimed that he had invented a death ray that would benefit the military in battle—one capable of destroying up to 10,000 enemy aircraft at distances of up to 250 miles. It was so lethal that it would end the spectacle of war.
Tesla died before he could build this death ray, and he had no documentation hinting at its design in his personal effects. Nobody (not even the FBI) knows what happens to the death ray plans, if any existed.
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
This post necessarily has spoilers, so most of the text is below the jump. But those who have seen Inception will recall the character Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, had to solve a moderately interesting physics problem to resolve a part of the plot. His solution struck me as…exotic. Some alternative proposals after the jump.
Sure scientists enjoy the first Iron Man movie. They’re human beings after all, and that was a pretty decent movie. But I would never have expected scientists to love it for…well, for its approach to science.
“Our favorite part was the testing,” he said at the panel. “You know the part where he tries out the rocket boots, and he turns them on at like 10% and gets thrown onto the roof of car? We cracked up because that’s exactly what happens.”
Obviously, Street was joking, but his point was that Iron Man was one of the few movies to offer a smatter of realism in how science gets done: Have an idea, test it, have it not work right, try again.
“In Pt. I, all you did was snark about TV and films that, you feel, didn’t depict gravity assist, something that you admit is a difficult concept, correctly.”
Well, every science educator has their “pet” topics–things they really like to convey to receptive minds. This is one of mine (tides are another and we’ll be visiting that topic soon).
“So how IS it done, Mr. Smarty Pants?”
“You haven’t seen Sunshine? What kind of self-respecting sci-fi geek are you?” With those words my friend Shelby persuaded, nay cajoled, me into watching the moving Sunshine. I already had the movie on DVD, so I would have gotten around to it… eventually. (Now we’re talking the 2007 movie about a mission to “restart” our dying Sun, not the 1999 movie about three generations of a Hungarian family in the early 20th Century—though the latter featured Ralph Fiennes playing a triple role and was really very good.)
I will admit up front that I found Sunshine quite enjoyable, so put any of my nit-picking in that context. In the DVD commentary director Danny Boyle pointed out that, traditionally, in horror films the monsters attack from out of the darkness. His vision was to create a threat that attacks from out of the light instead. Very clever. At the same time, the movie was far from perfect. Having served as the Science Advisor on a TV series (or two), and having made the mistake of reading too many online fan comments about the shows on which I worked, it’s clear that people, in particular those with science backgrounds, tend to be particularly chagrined when they feel that it is their science that is being maligned or given improper respect. In this sense, apparently I’m no different.
So to Susan Schneider, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, sci-fi seemed a logical way to illustrate some of the existential conundrums of philosophers over the ages, from Plato to René Descartes to David Chalmers.
“Science fiction fires the imagination and can get across conceptual ideas and thought experiments, or scenarios, that test philosophical theories,” she says. “Consider Isaac Asimov and his stories about robots and what happens if they become conscious. What does that tell us about the notion of a person?”