Science Matters

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September 1, 2007 by J. Johnson

By Sheila Campbell, Library Media Specialist, Columbus Zoo Library

“An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” Anatole France, 1844 – 1924

For many Americans, what they don’t know is how the world works; the natural world, that is! Learning about science once seemed natural but now seems alien to humans. Today, many of us spend most of our waking hours ensconced behind a desk
in front of a computer in an air-conditioned building with windows that don’t open or in an air-conditioned car or in an air-conditioned house in front of some household appliance!

We think of ourselves as a literate society but many of us are illiterate when it comes to science! “We have succeeded so well in shaping daily reality to reflect the very narrow parameters and needs of Homo sapiens. We the subjects become we the objects, and we forget that the moon shows up each night for the graveyard shift and we often haven’t a clue as to where we might find it in the sky.” (1)

New scientific discoveries are in the news constantly and sometimes science issues seem to dominate. Climate change, diabetes, pollution, stem cell research, bird flu, cancer, etc. all require that we have a basic understanding of how the science behind those concepts work in order to form an intelligent, educated opinion.

So what is scientific literacy and why is it good? “If you can understand scientific issues in magazines and newspapers (if you can tackle articles about genetic engineering or the ozone hole with the same ease that you would sports, politics, or the arts) then you are scientifically literate” (2) according to Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory and Clarence Robinson
Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University.

Science is all around you—everywhere, all the time! Science is a way of knowing and thinking about the natural and physical environment that you interact with everyday. Understanding science helps you make daily decisions–like whether to buy organic, why and how to change your diet to lower your blood glucose level or whether to drink grapefruit juice with that lipitor you are taking (Don’t do it!).

Public issues like managing natural resources and protecting the environment, require some scientific background. Understanding how things work (whether chemical reactions, human development, or nutritional needs) allows you to make informed decisions. Informed decision-making is a social process and also requires a “society of scientifically literate thinkers to make wise choices and to help combat racism, sexism, bigotry, and social injustice by allowing us to distinguish reliable scientific information from unsubstantiated claims and pseudoscience.” (3)

Our society is inextricably tied to the discoveries of science—so much so that they often play a crucial role in setting the intellectual climate of an era. Charles Darwin’s discovery of the mechanism of natural selection at once made understanding nature easier. And in this century the work of Freud and the development of quantum mechanics have made our natural world seem (at least superficially) less rational. In [both] … cases, the general intellectual tenor of the times…was influenced by developments in science. How can anyone hope to appreciate the deep underlying threads of intellectual life in his or her own time without understanding the science that goes with it? (4)

So how does the average science-phobic Joe or Jane get a basic understanding of the why and how of everyday science? Lucky for us there is an author like Natalie Angier who can bring us up to snuff! Her recent book, Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), explains key concepts in the big scientific disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy and makes them accessible to people like you and me, who have no science background.

CanonIn Canon, Natalie Angier presents the fundamentals of science: numbers and probability, matter and energy, the origins and structure of living things, and the natural history of our planet, solar system, galaxy and universe. In her opinion, these concepts are the basics that every educated person should master, and a prerequisite to understanding any science story covered in the news today. “In order to follow science, even in the newspapers, you have to have some confidence that you get the basic lay of the land, the geography of the scientific continent. I was trying to convey the basic ideas behind scientific thinking in a way people would understand,” she
explained in a recent interview with Harvey Blume in the Boston Globe. (5)

Angier is a blatant cheerleader for science literacy and she is convincing. The book is worth reading for the first three chapters alone that explain scientific thinking, probability and measurement with clarity and humor, as well as some witty (and maybe a few not so witty) puns.

AngierNatalie Angier has been a science writer for a quarter of a century. She was a founding staff member for Discover Magazine, a science magazine launched by Time, Inc. in 1980. 

She began writing as a science reporter for the New York Times in 1990 and won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1991 for 10 features on a variety of topics, including scorpions, sexual infidelity in the animal kingdom, the Human Genome Project and the molecular biology of the cell cycle. She is also the author of four other books and numerous articles and essays.


1 Angier, Natalie. Canon. Houghton Mifflin, 2007 p. 23.
2 Hazen, Robert M. “Why Should You Be Scientifically Literate?” December 2002.
American Institute of Biological Sciences. Accessed September 6, 2007 < >
3 “Scientific Literacy” Jane Maienschein. Science 14 August 1998: Vol. 281. no. 5379,
p. 917. Accessed September 7, 2007.
4 Hazen, Robert M. “Why Should You Be Scientifically Literate?” December 2002.
American Institute of Biological Sciences. Accessed September 6, 2007 < >
5 Blume, Harvey. Q&A with Natalie Angier. May 13, 2007. Boston Globe. September
5, 2007. <
/2007/05/13/qa_with_natalie_angier/ >



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