Sunday, January 07, 2007

Popularizing Science

This weekend, on my sister's recommendation, I read Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi. Rest assured, the voyeuristic suggestion implied in the title is merely a narrative device that complements a thorough, thoughtful examination of genetic variations backed up by a lot of historical and cultural research. Although some of the science presented is at an advanced level (ectoderms, morphogens, and melanocytes are likely above the head of the average reader), it is all explained simply enough to be understood.

But my intent here is not to write a book review, but rather to introduce a subject that troubles me: the absence of science (meaning natural science, not social science) as a popular aspect of our cultural knowledge. Social sciences get their proper due--the shelves of bookstores overflow with bestsellers in history, politics, business, etc.--but never the "hard" sciences like biology, chemistry, physics, etc.

I am especially concerned about the dearth of scientific content aimed at the public that is both interesting and accessible to a broad audience. This is a concern given the insufficient scientific literacy of the average American, and the very real implication this has on public policy issues. I needn't remind anyone about the debates over stem cell research, global warming, teaching of evolution, and the space program, to name a few.

In fact, as the previous sentence illustrates, the only time that science seems to permeate the public consciousness is when an issue like evolution or global warming gets politicized and distorted. The media gives only a short shrift to anything that can't be framed by X-versus-Y screamfests.

Recall, for example, what surely must have been the most under-reported story of 2006: the suggestion by NASA in December that water has been flowing on Mars as recently as in the past decade (and perhaps even now.) Water! On Mars! Not in some distant galaxy a long time ago or on some moon on the outer reaches of our solar system, but right now on our very own planetary neighbor! This revelation was good for about one day in the headlines.

Publishers and producers are always looking for the Next Big Thing to push. How about something that has a built-in appeal to our sense of wonderment, something that allows us to discover more about ourselves and the world we live in? Those TV documentaries on the Discovery Channel are a good start, but we all know nobody watches those unless there's nothing else on.

Where are the 2007 Carl Sagans, some sort of physicist version of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) or biologist version of Steven Levitt (Freakonomics) who will pen the latest title all the book clubs want? As evidenced by the success of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything a couple years back (which I hope to read soon), people are very curious about science. Combine a layman's earnestness with a charismatic, talented scientist-author, and I think you've got the formula for a *gasp* educational hit.

If any of you know of interesting, accessible books, magazines, websites, etc. written about natural or interdisciplinary sciences, please pass the recommendation on to me--and to others! That would be a real favor. The more that science enters into the public discussion, the better we as a society will be able to make informed decisions.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Heh, I got A Short History for christmas, I'd been meaning to read it too. Haven't started yet but I'll tell you how it is.