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  • Op Ed Commentary

    The Disturbing State of Science Literacy

    By Stuart Samuel, Ph.D.

    I felt a rather positive response to your February issue of Education Update for reasons of which I am not completely sure. Perhaps because the issue treated both education and science—things that I deeply value.

    I was, however, astonished and disturbed by the article on Science Literacy where it was stated that the majority of Americans are not certain that humans evolved from apes, nor do they know the number of planets in the solar system. It is very important that people know science, and even more important that they understand how the physical world works. If Americans base decisions on things such as astrology, for example, then their actions are more likely to produce poor results.

    Scientists have learned so much about nature during the past few decades that it is difficult for people to assimilate it all. Yet the more that people know about science, the better that they will be able to function and to deal with certain social polemical issues such as human cloning.

    How does one combat science illiteracy? The best way is through our schools by providing students with the proper knowledge about physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy and related scientific disciplines. If good science courses are introduced now, then science illiteracy can be reduced within a few generations. Such an approach, although long term, is effective but it does not address the problem among adults.

    Adults can improve their knowledge of science through reading. There are a number of excellent books that address specific topics. And recently there has appeared a comprehensive work, written in a simple rhythmic language that has much appeal to the non-scientist. It is called The Bible According to Einstein. Even I, a research physicist, learned an enormous amount from it.

    Most of us know that the moon’s pull of gravity causes Earth’s tides. But how many of us know that when the earth first formed 4.5 billion years ago, that it was so hot that it was almost entirely of liquid rock? Initially, there were no oceans; days lasted only six hours instead of 24 because the earth was spinning faster; the disk of the moon in the night sky was about twenty times bigger than in modern times because the moon was closer to Earth. And it is only during the last 4.5 billion years that the moon has slowly spiraled outward, to its current position. Discovering things like this has been enlightening for me.

    I applaud the American Museum of Natural History’s initiative (reported in your February issue) to create a National Center that will help people to learn science through a variety of communication channels. We should all go to visit museums to better understand the world. We should watch educational programs such as NOVA, on PBS. And we should all read science books.

    Stuart Samuel, Professor of Physics at Columbia University.

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