Sisyphus Sings with a Ying
When the second of her two children turned thirteen, my sister decided that it
finally was time to let their membership lapse in two familiar family haunts:
the science museum and the zoo. These were kiddie places, she told me.
Her children now had more mature tastes. They liked refined forms of
entertainment — art museums, the theater, ballet. Isn't that something? My
sister's children's bodies were lengthening, and so were their attention
spans. They could sit for hours at a performance of Macbeth without so much
as checking the seat bottom for fossilized wads of gum. No more of this mad
pinball pinging from one hands-on science exhibit to the next, pounding on
knobs to make artificial earthquakes, or cranking gears to see Newton's laws
in motion, or something like that; who bothers to read the explanatory
placards anyway? And, oops, hmm, hey, Mom, this thing seems to have
stopped working! No more aping the gorillas or arguing over the structural
basis of a polar bear's white coat or wondering about the weird goatee of
drool gathering on the dromedary's chin. Sigh. How winged are the slippers of
time, how immutably forward point their dainty steel-tipped toe boxes. And
how common is this middle-class rite of passage into adulthood: from
mangabeys to Modigliani, T. rex to Oedipus Rex.
The differential acoustics tell the story. Zoos and museums of
science and natural history are loud and bouncy and notably enriched with
the upper registers of the audio scale. Theaters and art museums murmur in
a courteous baritone, and if your cell phone should bleat out a little
Beethoven chime during a performance, and especially should you be so
barbaric as to answer it, other members of the audience have been instructed
to garrote you with a rolled-up Playbill. Science appreciation is for the young,
the restless, the Ritalined. It's the holding-pattern fun you have while your
gonads are busy ripening, and the day that an exhibit of Matisse vs. Picasso
in Paris exerts greater pull than an Omnimax movie about spiders is the
debutante's ball for your brain. Here I am! Come and get me! And don't forget
Naturally enough, I used the occasion of my sister's revelation
about lapsing memberships to scold her. Whaddya talking about, giving up
on science just because your kids have pubesced? Are you saying that's it
for learning about nature? They know everything they need to know about the
universe, the cell, the atom, electromagnetism, geodes, trilobites,
chromosomes, and Foucault pendulums, which even Stephen Jay Gould
once told me he had trouble understanding? How about those shrewdly
coquettish optical illusions that will let you see either a vase or two faces in
profile, but never, ever two faces and a vase, no matter how hard you
concentrate or relax or dart your eyes or squint like Humphrey Bogart or
command your perceptual field to stop being so archaically serial and instead
learn to multitask? Are your kids really ready to leave these great cosmic
challenges and mysteries behind? I demanded. Are you?
My voice hit a shrill note, as it does when I'm being self-righteous,
and my sister is used to this and replied with her usual shrug of common
sense. The membership is expensive, she said, her kids study plenty of
science in school, and one of them has talked of becoming a marine
biologist. As for her own needs, my sister said, there's always PBS. Why
was I taking this so personally?
Because I'm awake, I muttered. Give me a chance, and I'll take
the jet stream personally.
My bristletail notwithstanding, I couldn't fault my sister for
deciding to sever one of the few connections she had to the domain of human
affairs designated Science. Good though the Oregon Museum of Science and
Industry may be, it is undeniably geared toward visitors young enough to
appreciate such offerings as the wildly popular "Grossology" show, a tour
through the wacky world of bodily fluids and functions.
Childhood, then, is the one time of life when all members of an
age cohort are expected to appreciate science. Once junior high school
begins, so too does the great winnowing, the relentless tweezing away of
feather, fur, fun, the hilarity of the digestive tract, until science becomes the
forbidding province of a small priesthood — and a poorly dressed one at that.
A delight in "Grossology" gives way to a dread of grossness. In this country,
adolescent science lovers tend to be fewer in number than they are in tedious
nicknames: they are geeks, nerds, eggheads, pointy-heads, brainiacs, lab
rats, the recently coined aspies (for Asperger's syndrome); and, hell, why
not "peeps" (pocket protectors) or "dogs" (duct tape on glasses) or "losers"
(last ones selected for every sport)? Nonscience teenagers, on the other
hand, are known as "teenagers," except among themselves, in which case,
regardless of gender, they go by an elaboration on "guys" — as in "you
guys," "hey, guys" or "hey, you guys." The you-guys generally have no
trouble distinguishing themselves from geeks bearing beakers; but should
any questions arise, a teenager will hasten to assert his or her unequivocal
guyness, as I learned while walking behind two girls recently who looked to
be about sixteen years old.
Girl A asked Girl B what her mother did for a living.
"Oh, she works in Bethesda, at the NIH," said Girl B, referring to
the National Institutes of Health. "She's a scientist."
"Huh," said Girl A. I waited for her to add something like "Wow,
that's awesome!" or "Sweet!" or "Kewl!" or "Schnitzel with noodles!" and
maybe ask what sort of science this extraordinary mother studied. Instead,
after a moment or two, Girl A said, "I hate science."
"Yeah, well, you can't, like, pick your parents," said Girl B, giving
her beige hair a quick, contemptuous flip. "Anyway, what are you guys doing
As youth flowers into maturity, the barrier between nerd and herd
grows taller and thicker and begins to sprout thorns. Soon it seems nearly
unbreachable. When my hairstylist told me he was planning to visit Puerto
Rico, where I'd been the previous summer, and I recommended that he visit
the Arecibo radio telescope on the northwestern side of the island, he looked
at me as though I'd suggested he stop by a manufacturer of laundry
detergent. "Why on earth would I want to do that?" he asked.
"Because it's one of the biggest telescopes in the world, it's open
to the public, and it's beautiful and fascinating and looks like a giant mirrored
candy dish from the 1960s lodged in the side of a cliff?" I said.
"Huh," he said, taking a rather large snip of hair from my bangs.
"Because it has a great science museum to go with it, and you'll
learn a lot about the cosmos?"
"I'm not one of those techie types, you know," he said. Snip snip
snip snip snip.
"Because it was featured in the movie Contact, with Jodie
Foster?" I groped frantically.
The steel piranhas could not be stilled. "I've never been a big Jodie
Foster fan," he said. "But I'll take it under advisement."
"Hi, honey!" my husband said when I got home. "Where did you
put your hair?"
In truth, I pull it out myself just fine, all the time. How could it be
otherwise? I am a science writer. I've been one for decades, for my entire
career, and I admit it: I love science. I started loving it in childhood, during
trips to the American Museum of Natural History, and then I temporarily
misplaced that love when I went to a tiny high school in New Buffalo,
Michigan, where the faculty was so strapped for money that one person was
expected to teach biology, chemistry, and history before dashing off for his
real job as the football coach. The overstretched fellow never lost his sense of
humor, though. One morning, as I approached his desk to present him with
my biology project, a collection of some two dozen insects pinned to
cardboard, I noticed that the praying mantis, the scarab beetle, and the hawk
moth were not quite dead, were in fact wriggling around desperately on their
stakes. I screamed a girlish stream of obscenities and dropped the whole
thing on the floor. My teacher grinned at me, his eyes merrily bug-eyed, and
said he couldn't wait until it was time for me to dissect the baby pig.
In college I rediscovered my old flame, science, and it was still
blazing Bunsen burner blue. I took many science courses, even as I
continued to think of myself primarily as a writer, and even as my fellow
writers wondered why I bothered with all the physics, calculus, computers,
astronomy, and paleontology. I wondered myself, for I was hardly a natural in
the laboratory. I studied, I hammered, I nattered, I plucked out my hairs, but I
kept at it.
"Well, aren't you a little C. P. Snow White and the Two Cultures,"
said a friend. "What's your point with these intellectual hybridization
"I don't know," I said. "I like science. I trust it. It makes me feel
optimistic. It adds rigor to my life."
He asked why I didn't just become a scientist. I told him I didn't
want to ruin a beautiful affair by getting married. Besides, I wouldn't be a very
good scientist, and I knew it.
So you'll be a professional dilettante, he said.
Close enough. I became a science writer.
So now, at last, I come to the muscle of the matter, or is it the
gristle, or the wishbone, the skin and pope's nose? I have been a science
writer for a quarter of a century, and I love science, but I have also learned
and learned and not forgotten but have nevertheless been forced to relearn
just how unintegrated science is into the rest of human affairs, how
stubbornly apart from the world it remains, and how persistent is the image of
the rare nerd, the idea that an appreciation of science is something to be
outgrown by all but those with, oddly enough, overgrown brains. Here is a line
I have heard many times through the years, whenever I've mentioned to
somebody what I do for a living: "Science writing? I haven't followed
science since I flunked high school chemistry." (Or, a close second, ". . .
since I flunked high school physics.") Jacqueline Barton, a chemistry
professor at the California Institute of Technology, has also heard these lines,
and she has expressed her wry amusement at the staggering numbers of
people who, by their own account, were not merely mediocre chemistry
students, but undiluted failures. Even years of grade inflation cannot dislodge
the F as the modal grade in the nation's chemistry consciousness.
Science writing, too, has remained a kind of literary and
journalistic ghetto, set apart either physically, as it is in the weekly science
section of the New York Times, or situationally, as it is by being ignored in
most places, most of the time, no matter how high the brow. Ignored by
Harper's, ignored by the Atlantic, ignored by, yes, The New Yorker, ignored
by the upscale cyberzines like Salon despite the presumably parageek
nature of their audience. I've seen reader surveys showing that, of all the
weekly pull-out sections in the New York Times, the most popular
is "Science Times, "which runs on Tuesdays. Yet I also know, because I
have been told by kindhearted friends and relations, that many people discard
the whole section up front and unthumbed. Some of those preemptive
ejectors even work for the New York Times. Several years ago, when the
woman who was then the science editor of the New York Times asked the
man who was then the chief editor of the entire paper to please, please, give
the science staff some words of appreciation for all their good work, the chief
editor sent a memo assuring the staff how much he looked forward
to "Science Times" . . . every Wednesday. When I first started writing for the
newspaper, and I introduced myself as a science reporter to the columnist
William Safire, he said, "So I would be likely to read you on Thursdays,
right? " Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, told me I should have
replied, "Sure, Bill, if you read the paper forty-eight hours late."
Oy, it hurts! How could it not? Nobody wants to feel irrelevant or
marginal. Nobody wants to feel that she's failed, unless she's in a high
school chemistry class, in which case everybody does. Yet I'll admit it. I feel
that I've failed any time I hear somebody say, Who cares, or Who knows, or I
just don't get it. When a character on the otherwise richly drawn HBO series
Six Feet Under announces that she's planning to take a course
in "biogenetics" and her boyfriend replies, Bo-o-ring. Why on earth are you
doing that? I take it personally. Wait a minute! Hasn't the guy heard that
we're living in the Golden Age of Biology? Would he have found Periclean
Athens bo-o-ring too? When my father-in-law finishes reading something I've
written about genes and cancer cells and says he found it fascinating but
then asks me, "Which is bigger, a gene or a cell?" I think, Uh-oh, I really blew
it. If I didn't make clear the basic biofact that while cells are certainly very
small, each one is big enough to hold the entire complement of our 25,000 or
so genes — as well as abundant bundles of tagalong genetic sequences, the
function of which remains unknown — then what good am I? And when a
copy editor, in the course of going over a story I've written about whale
genetics, asks me to confirm the suggestions in my text that (a) whales are
mammals and (b) mammals are animals, I think, Uh-oh, but this time in bold,
twenty-six-point, panic-stricken type. Woe, woe, nobody knows anything
about science. Woe, woe, nobody cares.
Am I sounding self-pitying, a sour-grapes-turned-defensive whine?
Of course: a good offense begins with a nasal defensiveness. If I was going to
write a book about the scientific basics, I had to believe that there was a
need for such a book, and I do. If I believed there is a need for a primer, a
guided whirligig through the scientific canon, then obviously I must believe
there to be a large block of unprimed real estate in the world, vast prairies
and deep arroyos of scientific ignorance and scientific illiteracy and
technophobia and eyes glazing over and whales having their nursing
privileges rescinded. In the civic imagination, science is still considered dull,
geeky, hard, abstract, and, conveniently, peripheral, now, perhaps, more than
ever. In a 2005 survey of 950 British students ages thirteen through sixteen,
for example, 51 percent said they thought science classes
were "boring," "confusing," or "difficult" — feelings that intensified with each
year of high school. Only 7 percent thought that people working in science
were "cool," and when asked to pick out the most famous scientist from a list
of names that included Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, many respondents
instead chose Christopher Columbus.
Scientists are quick to claim mea culpas, to acknowledge that
they bear some responsibility for the public allergy toward their profession.
We've failed, they say. We've been terrible at communicating our
work to the masses, and we're pathetic when it comes to educating our
nation's youth. We've been too busy with our own work. We have to publish
papers. We have to write grant proposals. We're punished by "the system,"
the implacable academic track that rewards scientists for focusing on
research to the exclusion of everything else, including teaching or public
outreach or writing popular books that get made into Nova specials. Besides,
very few of us are as tele-elegant as Brian "String King" Greene, are we? All
of which amounts to: guilty as charged. We haven't done our part to enlighten
A fair question to interject here is: Need we do anything at all?
Does it matter if the great majority of people know little or nothing about
science or the scientific mindset? If the average Joe or Sophie doesn't know
the name of the closest star (the sun), or whether tomatoes have genes (they
do), or why your hand can't go through a tabletop (because the electrons in
each repel each other), what difference does it make? Let the specialists
specialize. A heart surgeon knows how to repair an artery, a biologist knows
how to run a gel, a jet pilot knows how to illuminate the fasten seat belt sign
at the exact moment you've decided to get up and go to the bathroom. Why
can't the rest of us clip our coupons and calories in peace?
The arguments for greater scientific awareness and a more
comfortable relationship with scientific reasoning are legion, and many have
been flogged so often they're beginning to wheeze. A favorite thesis has it
that people should know more about science because many of the vital
issues of the day have a scientific component: think global warming,
alternative energy, embryonic stem cell research, missile defense, the tragic
limitations of the dry cleaning industry. Hence, a more scientifically
sophisticated citizenry would be expected to cast comparatively wiser votes
for Socratically wise politicians. They would demand that their elected
representatives know the differences between a blastocyst, a fetus, and an
orthodontist, and that one is a five-day-old, hollow ball of cells from which
coveted stem cells can be extracted and theoretically inveigled to grow into
the body tissue or organ of choice; the next is a developing prenate that has
implanted in the mother's uterus; and the third is never covered by your
company's dental plan.
Others propose that a scientifically astute public would be
relatively shielded against superstitious, wishful thinking, flimflammery, and
fraud. They would realize that the premise behind astrology was ludicrous,
and that the doctor or midwife or taxi driver who helped deliver you exerted a
greater gravitational pull on you at your moment of birth than did the sun,
moon, or any of the planets. They would accept that the fortune in their
cookie at the Chinese restaurant was written either by a computer or a new
hire at the Wonton Food factory in Queens. They would calculate their odds
of winning the lottery, see how ridiculously tiny they were, and decide to stop
buying lottery tickets, at which point the education budgets of at least thirty
of our fifty states would collapse. This last figure, alas, is not a joke,
suggesting that if a pandemic of rational thinking should suddenly grip our
nation, politicians might have to resort to dire measures to replace the
income from state lotteries and state-owned slot machines, including —
bwah-ha-ha! — raising taxes.
Lucy Jones, a seismologist at the California Institute of
Technology, knows too well how resistant people can be to reason, and how
readily they dive down a rabbit hole in search of axioms, conspiracy theories,
the rabbit's fabled foot. A hearty, fiftyish woman with short, peach-colored
hair and a rat-a-tat cadence, Jones serves as the United States Geological
Survey's "scientist-in-charge" for all of Southern California, in which capacity
she promotes the cause of earthquake preparedness. She has also been a
designated USGS punching bag, officiating at media squalls and confronting
public panic whenever the continental plate on which Southern California is
perched gives a nasty shake. Like seismologists everywhere, she is trying to
improve geologists' ability to predict major earthquakes, to spot the early
warning signs in time to evacuate cities or otherwise take steps to protect
people, their domiciles, that treasured set of highball glasses from the 1964
World's Fair. Jones has heard enough earthquake myths to shake a trident
at: that fish in China can sense when a temblor is coming, for instance, or
that earthquakes strike only early in the morning. "People tend to remember
the early morning earthquakes because those are the ones that woke them
up and scared them the most," Jones said. "When you show them the data
indicating that, in fact, an earthquake is as likely to happen at six p.m. as six
a.m., they still insist there must be some truth to the story because their
mothers and grandmothers and great-uncle Milton always said it was true. Or
they will redefine 'early morning' to mean anything from midnight until
lunchtime. And, by gosh, it's true: many earthquakes that occur, occur
between twelve a.m. and twelve p.m. Uncle Milton was right!"
The public also believes that seismologists are much better at
predicting earthquakes than they claim, but that they perversely keep their
prognostications to themselves because they don't want to "stir a panic."
"I got a letter from a woman saying, 'I know you can't tell me when
the next earthquake is going to be,'" Jones said, "'but will you tell me when
your children go to visit out-of-town relatives?' She assumed I'd quietly use
my insider's knowledge on behalf of my own family, while denying it to
everybody else. People would rather believe the authorities were lying to
them than to accept the uncertainty of the science. "With a minimum of
scientific training, Jones said, people would realize that the words "science"
and "uncertainty" deserve linkage in a dictionary and that the only reason she
would send her children to visit out-of-town relatives would be to visit out-of-
Many scientists also argue that members of the laity should have
a better understanding of science so they appreciate how important the
scientific enterprise is to our nation's economic, cultural, medical, and
military future. Our world is fast becoming a technical Amazonia, they say, a
pitiless panhemispheric habitat in which being on a first-name basis with
scientific and technical principles may soon prove essential to one's
socioeconomic survival. "Soon after the Industrial Revolution, we in the West
reached a point where reading was a fundamental process of human
communication," Lucy Jones said. "If you couldn't read, you couldn't
participate in ordinary human discourse, let alone get a decent job.
"We're going through another transformation in expectations right
now," she continued, "where reasoning skills and a grasp of the scientific
process are becoming things that everybody needs."
Scientists are hardly alone in their conviction that America's
scientific eminence is one of our greatest sources of strength. Science and
engineering have given us the integrated circuit, the Internet, protease
inhibitors, statins, spray-on Pam (it works for squeaky hinges, too!), Velcro,
Viagra, glow-in-the-dark slime, a childhood vaccine syllabus that has left
slacker students with no better excuse for not coming to class than
a "persistent Harry Potter headache," computer devices named after fruits or
fruit parts, and advanced weapons systems named after stinging arthropods
or Native American tribes.
Yet the future of our scientific eminence depends not so much on
any cleverness in applied science as on a willingness to support basic
research, the pi-in-the-sky investigations that may take decades to yield
publishable results, marketable goodies, employable graduate students.
Scientists and their boosters propose that if the public were more versed in
the subtleties of science, it would gladly support generous annual increases
in the federal science budget; long-term, open-ended research grants; and
sufficient investment in infrastructure, especially better laboratory snack
machines. They would recognize that the basic researchers of today help
generate the prosperity of tomorrow, not to mention elucidating the mysteries
of life and the universe, and that you can't put a price tag on genius and
serendipity, except to say it's much bigger than Congress's science
allotment for the current fiscal year.
Yes, let's cosset the scientists of today and let's home-grow the
dreamers of tomorrow, the next generation of scientists. For by fostering a
more science-friendly atmosphere, surely we would encourage more young
people to pursue science careers, and keep us in fighting trim against the
ambitious and far more populous upstarts India and China. We need more
scientists! We need more engineers! Yet with each passing year, fewer and
fewer American students opt to study science. As a National Science Board
advisory panel warned Congress in 2004, "We have observed a troubling
decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists
and engineers, "while the number of jobs requiring such training has soared.
At this point, a third or more of the advanced science and engineering
degrees earned each year in the United States are awarded to foreign
students, as are more than half of the postdoctoral slots. And while there is
nothing wrong with the international complexion that prevails in any scientific
institution, foreign students often opt to take their expertise and credentials
back to their grateful nation of origin. "These trends," the Science Board
said, "threaten the economic welfare and security of our country."
Who can blame Americans for shunning science when, for all the
supposed market demand, research jobs remain so poorly paid? After their
decade or more of higher education, postdoctoral fellows can expect to earn
maybe $40,000; and even later in their careers, scientists often remain
stubbornly in the stratum of the five-figure salary. David Baltimore, a Nobel
laureate and the former president of Caltech, who spent much of his early
career at MIT, observed that the classic bakery for an upper-crust life, Phillips
Academy prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, where his daughter was a
student, has an excellent science program, one of the best. "But you never
see Andover graduates at MIT," he said. "Academy alumni with quantitative
skills go on to become stockbrokers. There are damned few patrician
Beyond better pay, science needs more cachet. Science
advocates insist that if science were seen as more glamorous, racier, and
more avant-garde than it is today, it might attract more participants, more
brilliant young minds and nimble young fingers willing to click pipettes for
twenty hours at a stretch. "Things were different while I was growing up," said
Andy Feinberg, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University. "It was the time of
Sputnik, the race into space, and everybody was caught up in science. They
thought it was important. They thought it was exciting. They thought it was
cool. Somehow we must reinvigorate that spirit. The culture of discovery
drives our country forward, and we can't afford to lose it."
These are all important, exciting, spirited arguments for promoting
greater scientific awareness. I'd love to see more young Americans become
scientists, especially the girl who serves as the vessel of my DNA and as a
deduction on my tax return. I'd also be happy to see voters make smarter
and more educated choices in Novembers to come than they have in the past.
And yet. As Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate and professor of
physics at the University of Texas, points out, many issues of a supposedly
scientific slant cannot be decided by science at all. "When it comes to
something like the debate over an antiballistic missile defense system," he
said, "I've been more bothered by the fact that our leaders seem to be the
sort of people who don't read history rather than by the fact that they don't
understand X-ray lasers." Can science really decide an issue like whether we
should extract stem cells from a human blastocyst? All science can tell you
about that blastocyst is, yep, it's human. It has human DNA in it. Science
cannot tell you how much gravitas that blastocyst should be accorded.
Science cannot settle the debate over the relative "right" of a blastocyst to its
cellular integrity and uncertain future — deep freeze for possible implantation
in a willing womb at some later date? or a swift bon voyage down the fertility
clinic drainpipe? — versus the "right" of a patient with a harrowing condition
like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease to know that scientists have
unfettered, federally financed access to stem cells and may someday spin
that access into new therapies against the disease. This is a matter of
conscience, politics, religious conviction, and, when all else fails, name-
In sum, I'm not sure that knowing about science will turn you into
a better citizen, or win you a more challenging job, or prevent the occasional
loss of mental faculties culminating in the unfortunate purchase of a pair of
white leather pants. I'm not a pragmatist, and I can't make practical
arguments of the broccoli and flossing kind. If you're an adult nonscientist,
even the most profound midlife crisis is unlikely to turn you into a practicing
scientist; and unless you're a scientist, you don't need to know about
science. You also don't need to go to museums or listen to Bach or read a
single slyly honied Shakespeare sonnet. You don't need to visit a foreign
country or hike a desert canyon or go out on a cloudless, moonless night
and get drunk on star champagne. How many friends do you need?
In place of civic need, why not neural greed? Of course you should
know about science, as much as you've got the synaptic space to fit.
Science is not just one thing, one line of reasoning or a boxable body of
scholarship, like, say, the history of the Ottoman Empire. Science is huge, a
great ocean of human experience; it's the product and point of having the
most deeply corrugated brain of any species this planet has spawned. If you
never learn to swim, you'll surely regret it; and the sea is so big, it won't let
you forget it.
Of course you should know about science, for the same reason
Dr. Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gack:
These things are fun, and fun is good.
There's a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids
like science. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbang "watch me dip this rose
into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor" fun, although it's that, too.
It's fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of
something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no
further — there's your should.
"I was in college and in a debate with my father," said David
Botstein, a geneticist at Princeton University. "He wanted me to be a doctor.
I wanted to be a scientist. I had made it pretty clear to him that I wasn't going
to medical school, and in fact I was already engaged in some really
interesting research on DNA. One evening, a buddy of my father's, a general
surgeon, cross-examined me about what it was I planned to do. How could
anything be more interesting than human physiology and putting together
broken bones? We were both having a little drink, and I explained to him what
the structure of DNA meant, and its implications. This was back around
1960, when the field of molecular biology was just getting started. At the end
of our conversation, my father's friend looks up, and says, 'You are the
luckiest guy in the world. You are going to get paid to have fun.'"
Peter Galison, a professor of the history of physics at Harvard
University, marvels cheekily at the thoroughness with which the public image
of science has been drained of all joy. "We had to work really hard to
accomplish this spectacular feat, because I've never met a little kid who
didn't think science was really fun and really interesting," he said. "But after
years of writing tedious textbooks with terrible graphics, and of presenting
science as a code you can't crack, of divorcing science from ordinary human
processes that use it daily, guess what: We did it. We persuaded a large
number of people that what they once thought was fascinating, fun, the most
natural thing in the world, is alien to their existence."
Granted, all the scientists I interviewed who attested to the fun of
science are safely and amply granted, are flourishing in their fields and have
personal cause to think the universe is a magical place. Yet I know plenty of
very successful writers who think of themselves, not as the luckiest hey-you-
guys in the world, but as cursed, as miserable, as being in their trade
because they have no choice, no other marketable skills. "A writer is
somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people," the
novelist and essayist Thomas Mann complained. "When I come home for
lunch after writing all morning, my wife says I look like I just came home from
a funeral," said Carl Hiaasen — and he writes comic novels. David Salle, the
artist, moaned to Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker about the miseries of
painting. "I find it extremely difficult. I feel like I'm beating my head against a
brick wall," he said. "I feel that everyone else has figured out a way to do it
that allows him an effortless, charmed ride through life, while I have to stay in
this horrible pit of a room, suffering." For their part, scientists are extremely
bright and driven and — don't let their shorts and T-shirts fool you —
carnivorously competitive; yet through it all they gush about the good fortune
and great fun of being scientists, and they're not selfish and they're willing to
share their glee.
"So, yes, we did it, we pushed the boulder to the top of the hill,
and we made people think science is boring," Galison continued. But there's
something to be said for a boulder in that position: it holds a lot of potential
energy, and it's practically begging to be dislodged. A few well-placed
shoves, a joining of shoulders for a hearty oomph, and the boulder may well
be released from its unnatural bondage, to tumble earthward with a
This book is my small attempt to lend a deltoid to the cause, of
nudging the boulder and unleashing the kinetic beauty of science to wow as
Maybe you're one of those people who hasn't clicked with science since that
dreadful year of high school when you flunked physics because you showed
up for the final exam an hour late, in your pajamas, and carrying an insect
collection. Or maybe you fulfilled your college science requirements by
taking courses like the Evolutionary Psychology of Internet Dating, and you
regret that you still can't tell the difference between a proton, a photon, and a
moron. Or maybe you're just curiouser and curiouser and you don't know
where to start. You think that the beginning might be a reasonable place, but
whose beginning? Not the kiddie beginning, not the contemptuous or
embarrassing or didactic digit-wagging beginning, but the beginning as an
adult. The beginning as a relationship between equals, you and science. And
before you raise your hands defensively, and cry, Whoa, that's not a fair
competition, me versus science, let me say, It's not you against science, but
you with science, you the taxpayer who supports science whether you
realize it or not, you the person who does science more often than you'd
suspect. Every time you try to isolate a problem with the vacuum cleaner, for
example — machine heats up; machine stops running; holy hairball, when
was the last time you changed the bag in this thing, anyway? Or when you
know that if you don't stir the hollandaise sauce constantly at a hot but not
boiling temperature you'll end up with a mass too lumpy to pour over your
asparagus. You do science, you support science, you're baking the cake,
you may as well lick the spoon.
This beginning is the beginning as scientists see it, or at least as
they've agreed to see it because some reporter has shown up at their office
door, plunked herself down in a chair, and asked them to consider a few very
basic questions. Scientists have long whinnied about rampant scientific
illiteracy and the rareness of critical thinking and the need for a more
scientifically sophisticated citizenry. Fair enough. But what would it take to
rid people of this dread condition, this pox populi ignoramus, and replace it
with the healthy glow of erudition? What would a nonscientist need to know
about science to qualify as scientifically seasoned? If you, Dr. Know, had to
name a half-dozen things that you wish everybody understood about your
field, the six big, bold, canonical concepts that even today still bowl you over
with their beauty, what would they be? Or if you're the type of professor who
still on occasion teaches undergraduate courses for those soft-shelled
specimens known as "nonmajors," what are the essential ideas that you
hope your students distill from the introductory class, and even retain for
more than a few femtoseconds after finals? What does it mean to think
scientifically? What would it take for a nonscientist to impress you at a
cocktail party, to awaken in you the sensation that hmm, this person is not a
When confronted with the query "What do you wish people knew
about science?" many scientists felt compelled to talk about the urgent need
to improve science education in primary and secondary school, which is a
noble and necessary goal and worth urging at all relevant opportunities, but
few adults have the luxury of a K-through-12 encore. To the well-intentioned
curriculum revisionists, I gave my emphatic agreement, then pleaded that
they take pity on the post-pedagogued. Surely not even the most feebly
educated adult is beyond hope? Let's focus on them: What should
nonspecialist nonchildren know about science, and how should they know it,
and what is this thing called fun?
Realizing that the term "science" is a bit of a bounder, which can
be induced via modifiers like "social" or "soft" to embrace anthropology,
sociology, psychology, economics, politics, geography, or feng shui, I
decided to focus on those sciences generally awarded the preamble "hard."
These are the physical and life sciences, which in their broadest categories
include physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy. These are the
subjects that people tend to find the most daunting and abstruse, and that
have the worst customer service desks. At the same time, they are the fields
in which the greatest progress has been made, where the discoveries of the
last century have been the grandest and most buoyant, and where a
shopworn term like "revolutionary" still rightly applies. Scientists have probed
the Joycean chambers of the atom, read the memoirs of the cosmos virtually
back to the moment of crowning, detangled the snarls of our DNA, and
mapped the twitchy globe of Silly Putty we call our castle and our home.
These are the fairy tales of science, tales, as one scientist put it, "that
happen to be true." They are hard the way diamonds and rubies are hard:
they're built to last, and they sure look swell in the light.
In the course of my research, I interviewed and gathered insights from
hundreds of scientists, often in person, sometimes by phone and email, at
many of the nation's premier universities and institutions. I spoke with Nobel
laureates, members of the National Academy of Sciences, university
presidents, institute directors, MacArthur geniuses. I also sought out
researchers who were known as brilliant teachers, who had won their
university's version of the "most adored professor of the year" award, or who
were cited on student Web sites for being exceptionally clear, inspirational,
entertaining, or, that old reliable, "awesome." Even the most difficult,
desultory conversations, the ones that had me feeling like a Victorian
dentist — all pliers and no nitrous — almost invariably yielded a gem or two.
Scientists talked about the need to embrace the world as you find it, not as
you wish it to be. They described their favorite molecules. They told jokes,
like the one about physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose famed uncertainty
principle says that you can know the position of an electron as it orbits the
nuclear heart of an atom, or you can know its velocity, but that you can't
know both at once. To wit: Heisenberg is scheduled to give a lecture at MIT,
but he's running late and speeding through Cambridge in his rental car. A cop
pulls him over, and says, "Do you have any idea how fast you were going?"
"No,"Heisenberg replies brightly, "but I know where I am!"
"Now, you tell that at a cocktail party, and people will walk away
from you," said Michael Rubner, a materials scientist at MIT. "Tell it in front of
five hundred eighteen-year-olds at MIT, and they just roar."
I also pushed scientists to get beyond the knee-jerk tutorials, to
explain, as much as was possible, what exactly they mean by some of the
terms so often used as introductory definitions. You've likely heard, for
example, the purportedly kindergarten description of the atom, that it is
composed of three different classes of particles: protons and neutrons sitting
sunlike at the center, electrons whizzing in orbits around them. You might
also have heard that protons have a "positive charge," electrons a "negative
charge," and neutrons "no charge. "Well, that sounds breezy enough: a plus
sign, a minus sign, and free with purchase. But what in the name of Mr.
Rogers's last cardigan are we really talking about? What does it mean to say
that a particle has "charge," and how does this subatomic "charge" of the
light brigade relate to more familiar, real-world displays of electric "charge"?
When your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, for example, and you
realize, on taking out your cell phone to call for help, that you forgot to re-
"charge" the battery, and suddenly it's not a beautiful day in the neighborhood
I also sought, as much as possible, to make the invisible visible,
the distant neighborly, the ineffable affable. If a human cell were blown up to
the size of something you could display on your coffee table, would you want
to? What would it look like? You say that the average cell is a very busy
place. Is that busy like Manhattan, or busy like Toronto?
It's not that I wanted to take dumbing-down to new heights. In
peppering sources with the most pre-basic of questions and tapping away at
the Plexiglas shield of "everybody knows" until I was about as welcome as a
yellow jacket at a nudist colony, I had several truly honorable aims. For one
thing, I wanted to understand the material myself, in the sort of visceral way
that allows one to feel comfortable explaining it to somebody else. For
another, I believe that first-pass presumptions and nonexplanatory
explanations are a big reason why people shy away from science. If even the
Shlemiel's Guide to the atom begins with a boilerplate trot through concepts
that are pitched as elementary and self-evident but that don't, when you think
about them, really mean anything, what hope is there for mastering the text
in cartoon balloon number two?
Moreover, in choosing to ask many little questions about a few big
items, I was adopting a philosophy that lately has won fans among science
educators — that the best way to teach science to nonscientists is to go for
depth over breadth.
After countless interviews and many months of labor, I began to
experience the wonderful, terrible sensation of "déjà-knew": scientists were
telling me the same things I'd heard before. Wonderful, because it meant I
could be fairly confident I had a defensible corpus of scientific fundamentals
that weren't entirely arbitrary or idiosyncratic. Terrible, because it meant the
time for reporting was over, and the time had arrived for writing, the painful
process, as the neuroscientist Susan Hockfield so pointedly put it, of
transforming three-dimensional, parallel- processed experience into two-
dimensional, linear narrative. "It's worse than squaring a circle," she said. "It's
squaring a sphere." And to think I was brought to tears in an art class
because I couldn't draw a straight line.
Copyright © 2007 by Natalie Angier. Reprinted by permission of Houghton