Disturbing State of Science Literacy
Stuart Samuel, Ph.D.
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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