Watching Particle Fever, a documentary, I experienced a visceral reaction. I was jumping out of my seat; I was animated and exhilarated. I could not wait to find out how it all came out, even as a part of me traveled down memory lane, wondering if I could still solve the Schroedinger equations scribbled on the blackboard.
The film recounted the search for the Higgs Boson, dubbed the God Particle, which allegedly explains the creation of our universe. Focusing on a few key men and women, the film managed to engage the audience, with one flaw. It did not actually explain the physics behind the Higgs Boson, nor did it elaborate why it is critical to the formation of our universe. Instead, it simply threw around the terms super-symmetry and chaos, the two possible ways our universe could be.
I can understand the reasoning behind the filmmakers’ decision; they did not wish to bore the audience. But is it wise to underestimate the filmgoer in this way?
Still, the film, along with the new television series Cosmos, heralds the long overdue advent of science on the entertainment scene.
Science has not captured the imagination of the American public since Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, more than forty years ago. When you look at some of the most prestigious American magazines, like the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, what stands out is the disparity of coverage between science and the liberal arts. The New Yorker, in particular, excels in discussing artists and writers that no one has ever heard of. It is impossible to imagine it giving equal space to an obscure scientist or an engineer instead. But why is it more valuable to know about a critic named Paul De Man, than about Spencer Percy, the man who invented the microwave, which everyone uses every day?
I think the reason is that products of the Ivy League education machine dominate our politics, government, media, literature, and entertainment. I myself, though educated in science, have fallen prey to this bias, so that I am prone to reading essays about unknown critics, focusing on the cadence of sentences alone, even though the subject might bore me to death.
Perhaps the problem starts with the teaching of science and math in schools. American education has often been described as mile wide and inch deep. This approach may work—sort of—with a subject like history or psychology, giving students a cornucopia of flavors, but it definitely fails when it comes to science and math. American teachers approach subjects like physics or chemistry the same way they approach English; they fail to inspire the habit of repetitive problem solving. When I was in college, I would buy a notebook, and in one weekend, fill it with differentials and integrals. American science teachers never ask that of their students, probably because they themselves never did it, for the simple reason that a majority never even studied science. I am not kidding! I was shocked when a high school science teacher I met at a party recently told me that she had not taken any science in college whatsoever. “You don’t need a science degree to teach science,” she said. “You just have to get a certificate.” I could not believe my ears.
The result is that science educators only manage to dazzle their students with its complexity while failing to teach them even the basics.
Take an elementary course in biology at the college level, for example. The 650 page textbook covers topics from the basic structure of a cell to brain structure, plant reproduction, theory of evolution, the DNA code, basic anatomy, sexual reproduction, genetic counseling, gene therapy, the environment, ecology, microorganisms, and plant and animal viruses, just to name a few. Is this not overkill by a long shot? One wonders what the next course is supposed to cover.
I had never studied biology before, but took up the challenge of helping my younger son, only to discover that in spite of its glossy pages and snazzy diagrams, the book followed no logic and made little sense. We resorted to learning from Khan Academy videos instead.
The reason why Khan Academy, founded by a South Asian, succeeds where fancy textbooks fail is that it understands that scientific learning is cumulative. Before you go on to Step B you must thoroughly understand Step A. Before you fathom the genetic code, you must first comprehend how cells produce proteins.
Unfortunately, the TV show Cosmos makes the same mistake, dazzling you with spectacular visuals while failing to dwell on logical connections. I doubt that this is the fault of its star, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The producers try to impress the viewer by cutting such a wide swath that at the end of an episode one can remember little. Episode Four, for example, starts with the Big Bang, goes on to the work of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Maxwell, and then to electromagnetism, gravity, and the theory of relativity. It doesn’t stop there, but discusses dark stars, black holes, gravity wells, X-Rays, and event horizons.
When the show does focus on telling a story about a specific scientific event, as it does in recounting the tale of Clair Patterson’s research to determine the age of our earth and his resulting discovery of the poisonous effects of lead in Episode Seven, it succeeds spectacularly. That story especially piqued my interest because Patterson’s boss who directed him to do the study was none other than Harrison Brown, the geophysicist I worked under at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Cosmos is the right show to come along at the right time. While stopping short of proselytizing, it nevertheless battles ignorant beliefs like the dogma that the earth is only six thousand years old or that climate change is not manmade.
I can only hope that shows like Cosmos and movies like Particle Fever will finally begin to combat the pervasive portrayal of scientists and engineers as nerds and social incompetents. You only have to watch the TV show Silicon Valley to get my point.
What does it say about a society that prizes the ability to throw a ball, over the ability to understand the universe? Which chooses its presidents on the basis of whether it wants to have beer with them? The anti-intellectualism of America has gone far enough. It is time to educate Americans about science and how deeply ingrained it is in our daily life. It is also essential if we are to compete in the labor market in a globalized world.