Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Month: April, 2012

Telling the Story of Science

I came to a realization yesterday: I love reading history books, even though I hated history class.  I love reading the stories of historical figures.  Let’s face it; the people who made history mostly did so because they led extraordinary lives.  It doesn’t mean that everyone in the history books is fascinating, but it’s generally possible to find an historical figure or period that has fascinating stories. Usually several figures or periods.  And the reason I hated history class?  It seemed like it was more about memorization of dates and events than the study of the stories of an era.

Science education and writing can be a lot like this.  Most non-physicists hate science class because they feel like they just have to memorize a lot of formulas.  As a teaching assistant, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that I could not convince students that all the specific formulas they were trying to memorize could be derived from one master equation or law — e.g.,  the ideal gas law, or PV=nRT, for thermodynamics.  For those who thought like scientists, the derivation of a specific case from a general law was like the story behind what others simply memorized.

In a different vein, I had a quantum mechanics professor who inserted little stories about various famous physicists into his lectures about the origins of quantum mechanics.  On our final, one of the questions asked us to identify this man:

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That was the only problem I was absolutely certain I had gotten correct after finishing the exam, certainly because it was the only one that had a simple, black-and-white, correct answer, but also because I had really listened during those stories about famous physicists.  I found the context of physics almost as interesting as the actual physical concepts themselves.

While people like to think of science and math as pure fields, outside the influence of zeitgeist or prejudice, this simply isn’t true.  Learning the context of scientific discovery unveils a new level of understanding of the field itself.  When the laser was first invented, it was seen as a useless novelty; now they are ubiquitous in many fields of physics.  Some fields of physics stalled because the prejudice of the times simply wouldn’t allow for the strange new thought.

Popular science books do a good job of marrying history with technical detail to give a full contextual picture of a scientific discovery, and it is often something that science reporters must do.  Those writing about the supposed observation of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light brought the story back to Einstein and how he might have felt about being “proven wrong.”  These historical tidbits give a sense of importance of an event to someone who is not an expert in the field in which the event has the most meaning, thereby broadening the impact of discovery.  In a similar way, adding historical context to classroom education about science might be a way to bring different kinds of students into a love of scientific discovery.  By mating the love of historical discovery with science in the student’s mind, it might be possible to bring different kinds of interest to the sciences.

What do readers think?  Do you think that historical background could be interjected into the middle school or high school classroom to pique the interest of those students who haven’t already decided they want to be scientists or engineers?  How does the historical story of a scientific discovery relate cognitively to the scientific “story” told by a derivation?


Kids Are Smarter Than You Think

In a conversation with a colleague about teaching evolution in schools, an interesting point came up.  He brought up that teaching kids that “evolution is just a theory” and that other ideas have equal merit will confuse them and make them think that other ideas about the origins of the world have been explored scientifically when they have not.  My argument is that, while kids may not understand the political ramifications of a particular teaching, they will understand the difference between “Here’s this guy who came up with a theory and tested it in this way,” versus “This is what the Bible tells us.”

Children are, in general, a lot more perceptive than a lot of people give them credit for.  They tend to have a natural inquisitiveness and lack the predefined notions and biases that hold a lot of adults back.  If you are able to frame an idea in terms of something they already understand, it’s pretty easy to get them to grasp what you’re saying, especially if they haven’t already been taught that a certain topic is difficult or intimidating.  They may be bored, but they rarely are just too dumb to get it.

When I was doing a summer internship in the DC area several years ago, as a college student, my flatmates and I went down to the National Air and Space Museum for a day trip.  One of the exhibits, about the universe, had a lot to do with optical and atomic phenomena.  Each of us found something that pertained to our particular summer research topic and had a blast playing with the demos.  When kids were waiting to use the demo, we’d then engage with them, teaching them more about the demo than the display intended, because we had a good tool to introduce the topic.

This later became important when I was a grad student and volunteered to give demonstrations for my institute at Maryland Day, years later.  Not only did I volunteer to give demos, but I also helped brainstorm for demos that would be both interesting and informative.  We needed something accessible enough that a non-scientist could understand it, but relevant enough that we could connect it to the cutting-edge research that scientists at the institute do everyday.  I chose an emission-lamp demo, where we gave people a diffraction grating and let them look at the light from fluorescing gases.  We could show them that the diffraction grating bent different colors of light different amounts, so that when they looked at the light emitted by the excited gas, they would see a disjointed rainbow of sorts.  This showed that elements emit at only certain energies, instead of across the whole spectrum, and it helped visitors understand how spectroscopy and laser interaction with atoms works.

The trick is to wait until you see the confused look on a child’s face to simplify further.  Plenty of kids are able to understand more than you might think, especially if they’re into the sort of thing you’re explaining.  My first published short was a piece on how a 10-year-old taught me about quantum physics while I was his counselor in drama class.  Scientific knowledge and insight comes in different packages, and it’s important not to pre-judge your audience too harshly.

When Scientists Attack

The scientific method is supposed to be impartial, an objective process by which a researcher can come to a conclusion that is uncolored by personal bias.  In reality, scientists are people with personal views and biases.  The problem occurs when they allow their personal biases to infect their scientific research.  I’ve been reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and one of the most fascinating stories so far had to do with the advent of cell culturing experiments.  The first scientist who claimed to have grown an immortal cell sample, Dr. Alexis Carrel, also turned out to be a eugenicist who praised Hitler’s efforts to purify the human race.  The stigma of these views colored the public perception of cell research for years after.  Other scientists have had scandal due to their personal views, which has damaged their credibility and even affected their field, as the public associates the research in general with the personal views of one scientist.

Dr. James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize along with Francis Crick for discovering the structure of DNA, has been a constant and consistent example of a scientist who cannot seem to keep his opinions to himself, even framing them as valid scientific results.  His views on genetic screening and engineering has led to a public perception that the mapping of the human genome leads the way to genetic discrimination and selective abortion of undesirable traits (such as homosexuality or stupidity, rather than diseases).  His defender at one point, Dr. Richard Dawkins, who proposed a gene-centered view of evolution, is not much better of an example, using his position as a scientist to criticize religion and argue that atheism is the only reasonable belief for a person of science.  Both of these scientists did credible and legitimate research in their chosen fields, but have had their scientific accomplishments eclipsed by their unpopular personal views.

Charles Darwin is another scientist who may have altered the perception of his work by connecting it to his personal views.  One motivation for exploring evolution was the idea that evolutionary processes led to the differentiation of the sexes, making men stronger than women.  He argued that races in which men and women seemed less differentiated were less evolved, and therefore was able to use his theory of evolution to “prove” the superiority of the Caucasian race.  Further offshoots of Darwinism led to the eugenics movement and the ideas of social Darwinism, which are both used as justification for racism and other forms of harmful prejudice.

While all of these scientists contributed to their fields in major ways, airing their personal views has damaged their credibility and, in some cases, the credibility of their research or even the field as a whole.  These examples are ones that I try to keep in mind when I am writing about science, either in a technical way, or for a broader audience, so that I avoid injecting my own biases about certain scientific topics into my writing.  In many ways, science writing is similar to journalism in that it must be interesting rather than dry, but still unbiased.