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Best American Science & Nature Writing #2006: The Best American Science and Nature Writingby Brian Greene
There was a time, long ago, when I wasnt much into words. Books rarely lit a fire in me as a kid. When we were assigned the usual canon of great works in school — from Macbeth to Moby Dick — Id diligently start in but, truth be told, I often wouldnt finish. From newspapers to novels, magazines to plays, comics to biographies — the written word was a burden.
Mathematical equations were a completely different story. I loved their precision, their unwavering certainty, and the way they just plain worked. Whether you organized a calculation one way or chose to attack it from a different angle entirely, as long as you executed each step correctly youd get the same answer. All roads inevitably led to an identical result, with no room for opinion or interpretation. Mathematics allowed me an abundance of creativity in seeking a problems solution but constrained that creativity to serve a single ultimate purpose: getting the right answer.
As I got a little older, my tastes became more nuanced. Its not that my devotion to the exactitude of mathematics diminished. Rather, I began to better appreciate the gray areas of life and literature. The gray areas of ambiguity, the gray areas of human paradox. The gray areas where, search as you might, you will never find a solution. I spent increasing amounts of time wrapped up with Balzac, Gorky, Faulkner, Orwell, Sartre, and Camus. A messy and wonderful world opened up for me, and the burden of words lifted.
Even so, the two realms — the humanities and the sciences — seemed thoroughly separate, a view that remains widely held. In fact, the divide between the two cultures” runs even deeper now. As Nicholas Kristof emphasized in a recent New York Times op-ed, the hubris of the humanities” is extensive. There is an implicit agreement in educated circles” that its barbaric to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares.” As a professional scientist, Ive often encountered this attitude among nonscientists. Its rarely derogatory, and its frequently accompanied by embarrassment — sometimes feigned — that the otherwise intelligent and informed individual has no understanding of science or mathematics. Generally, the encounters end with a well-meaning chuckle (one in which decorum obliges me to partake) that says in short its really okay not to know any math or science.” But in the twenty-first century, such willful ignorance of science is not okay. We are living through a radical cultural shift, one in which science and technology play an increasingly pervasive role in everyday life. From stem cells to global warming, from cyberspace to nanotechnology, from computer-enhanced perception to extension of the human lifespan, full participation in the global conversation requires a familiarity with the major advances in science and technology as well as an understanding of the scientific way of thought. The most far-reaching choices we will make in the years ahead, whether through action or apathy, are ones that have a critical scientific component. How should we deal with pandemic threats? What limits, if any, should we legislate on genetic manipulation? Should we curtail research on human cloning? Should we support manned space exploration, or is money better spent on robotic missions? Is evolution just” a theory? Informed decision making requires a populace engaged with science, not one that is looking in from the periphery and not one that takes pride in its lack of knowledge.
Even on issues that seemingly bear no direct relation to science, a scientific mindset can have a radical impact. Heres a concrete example. Think back to the 2000 presidential election and recall the dominant question asked in the tumultuous weeks following the casting of ballots: who received more votes in Florida? Count followed recount, with the vote differentials ranging from a handful to a few dozen to a few hundred. All attention was sharply focused on who came out on top after each of these recounts. But to someone familiar with scientific analysis, these recounts raised a different issue. Every measurement has a built-in limit on its accuracy. With a good- quality bathroom scale, you might measure your weight to an accuracy of half a pound — which for most purposes is all you need. But if you want to determine which of two averagesize apples is heavier, your bathroom scale would prove inadequate, as its accuracy is too coarse to provide a meaningful answer. Scientists are acutely aware of such limitations and always accompany their measurements with a caveat declaring the numerical limits on the accuracy of their methods and apparatus.
Vote-countting procedures also have built-in limitations on accuracy. In Florida these inaccuracies arose from hanging chads, dimpled chads, prrrrregnant chads, butterfly ballots, computer malfunctions, errors with voter registration, and other factors. Usually such sources of inaccuracy can be ignored because theyre too small to have any effect on the elections outcome. But when the vote differentials are not in the hundreds of thousands or in the tens of thousands or even in the thousands, the built-in inaccuracies compromise the entire process. Like trying to use your bathroom scale to find the heavier dust mote, the vote-counting apparatus is just too coarse to determine a winner. Thus the appropriate question should not have been who received more votes?” because the sources of error were as large as or larger than the vote differentials, rendering it impossible to provide an answer with any meaning. Instead, the mostly unasked yet primary question was what should we do when two candidates, to within the accuracy of our measuring apparatus, are tied?” I offer no answer to this question because clearly thats not my point. Instead, the example highlights how a scientifically sophisticated public would have shifted the debate to the truly relevant question and not bothered with, nor accepted the outcome of, a procedure that was in effect meaningless.
A scientifically literate public is, plainly, increasingly vital.
How then do we make headway toward this end? Well, lets turn the issue around and ask why Kristofs hubris of the humanities isnt met by an equally extensive smugness of the sciences.” Why isnt it considered barbaric to know little or nothing about probability and statistics, genetics and biochemistry, relativity and quantum mechanics? One can come up with many explanations — science requires a specialized language that relatively few people have the inclination to study, science deals with esoteric questions that only experts can truly appreciate, science operates in an abstract, foreign realm that doesnt cater to the casual visitor — but I think all such propositions add up to this: to many people, science — unlike Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Monet — seems dry, cold, and removed from the human spirit. Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Monet tell us about ourselves. They augment our understanding of the range and texture of human experience and thus enrich our limited time here on Earth. Science, many feel, doesnt do this and hence is dispensable or, more precisely, can be safely left to the scientists. One culture is thus deemed profoundly relevant while the other profound but extremely distant.
This line of thought isnt unreasonable. I can see where it comes from and how aspects of our educational system foster it. But the conclusion is wrong and, in the long run, dangerous. Science needs to be recognized for what it is: the ultimate in adventure stories. Against staggering odds, a species that has been walking upright for only a few dozen millennia is trying to unravel mysteries that have been billions of years in the making. How did the universe begin? How was life initiated? How did consciousness emerge? These are big questions, and the stakes are high. Fully answering these questions — something yet to be achieved, though researchers worldwide are closing in at an exhilarating pace — will provide the very frame for life as we know it and prepare us for the next step, in which we go from being inquirers about nature to becoming its manipulators. In fact, todays researchers routinely tinker with the molecular structure of life, so its clear that we have already taken the first steps on this latter journey.
My secondary-school education revealed nothing of this drama. The human element of searching into the unknown — the human struggle to piece together a coherent story of life and the universe — played essentially no role in any of my science classes. Instead, we focused exclusively on the results. Newtons laws were taught without Newton. Mendeleevs periodic table was taught without Mendeleev. Darwins evolutionary theory was taught without Darwin. Frankly, I didnt mind this at all. I relished the crispness, the unencumbered clarity, the purity of science. But my reaction has little relevance — I was hooked on math and science by the time I was six. The larger truth is that if my education was at all typical, it is no wonder that science feels removed from the human experience. More often than not, science education removes the humans.
The very nature of mathematics and science compounds the problem, for their level of detail and precision goes well beyond that of other subjects. Grasping these disciplines thus requires that students attain a level of analytical thought that is not only unfamiliar but also almost completely lacking in opportunities for emotional connection — thus perpetuating the myth that the sciences, especially the hard sciences, are cold and aloof.
Some science textbooks do give a nod to historical context, but sidebars and the occasional boxed human-interest interlude have little lasting impact. Ive recently become aware of some specialized schools in which science is taught largely through experimentation and hands-on discovery. Students in those schools may well emerge with a very different and more accurate sense of what science is all about. In the vast majority of schools, though, teachers are expected to cover so much material that they have little choice but to focus directly and exclusively on the science proper.
I believe the beginnings of a remedy for this problem are to be found in the realm of popular science writing. If it is well done, nontechnical science writing can connect the sciences and the humanities. And this connection is essential. Like master chefs, the best science writers pare away all but the most succulent material, trimming details essential to the researcher that would be only a distraction to the reader. And by carefully crafting a narrative and using expository devices that showcase the drama of scientific exploration and discovery, popular works can maintain a high level of scientific integrity while making difficult and technical subjects not only accessible but moving and compelling. Good science writing can humanize the abstractions of scientific research by establishing visceral, meaningful connections to questions and issues we care about and by humanizing the scientific process itself. In Einsteins words, scientific research consists of years of anxious searching in the dark for a truth one feels but cannot find, until a final emergence into the light.” A reader who is led to envisage this search, I believe, will start to bridge the gulf between the science and the humanities. The best science writing can have that effect.
I first became aware of the illuminating capacity of science writing during my freshman year in college when I took Robert Nozicks course Introduction to the Problems of Philosophy. Nozicks lectures were inspirational — clear, concise, and provocative. The readings, by contrast, were at times dense to the point of being impenetrable. The philosophers we studied were, by reputation, among the most influential thinkers our species has produced. But as I read some of their works I wondered, does anyone really know what they were trying to say? To be sure, not all the assignments were opaque, but frequently I had to read passages over and over again — guessing here, straining there. At times the level of frustration was severe. In my mathematics and physics courses, I was no stranger to wrestling with difficult, subtle concepts. But spending hours poring over philosophy texts and being uncertain whether Id made any progress at all — that was unfamiliar and disheartening. When I recounted my difficulties to the teaching assistant, himself a graduate student in philosophy, he replied, Ah . . . struggling over the meaning of anothers text, youre doing well — thats the very nature of philosophy.” But then I came upon an essay by Daniel Dennett dealing with the famous mind/body problem, which we were studying in class. The essay was a breath of fresh air. Not only was it thoroughly readable, it was entertaining. And throughout, Dennett stayed true to his material. He laid out the problem of personal identity — does our sense of self come from and reside solely in our brains, or does it somehow transcend that three-pound gray mass? — with clarity and verve through a story he created for the purpose (a tale involving, among other things, his brain being delicately removed from his head yet still in control of his body through a radio-controlled hookup). He went on to describe possible philosophical solutions, which he illustrated through narrative vignettes that made their meaning — as well as their strengths and weaknesses — crystal clear. Whereas some of the other philosophers seemed engaged in a battle with language — I could almost imagine their drafts marked up with change upon change as they wrenched the sentences into hard-won paragraphs — Dennett wielded language as an essential and effective tool.
Although this was not my first encounter with such a popularization” — I was well aware of Carl Sagans Cosmos, largely from its public television adaptation, and I read Scientific American now and then — it was the first that impressed me with the power of the genre. On reflection, I find that this makes perfect sense. Because I was studying math and physics with the intention of pursuing those fields professionally, popularizations in those areas, while enjoyable, didnt serve any particular purpose. Philosophy, though, was a field I was dabbling in just to get a sense of the subject; I had no inclination to study it in depth. Dennetts essay thus hit the mark perfectly: he brought a subtle subject down to earth and did so in an essay that was not only easy but pleasurable to read. That, to me, is the hallmark of excellent science writing. Over the past few years, as Ive gone around the country giving both general and technical lectures at high schools and colleges, Ive frequently been asked to offer suggestions for raising the level of interest in science and mathematics. I generally rephrase the question, because my experiences suggest a slightly different perspective. Across the country a great many students are interested in science. The task is not so much in attracting them to science, but rather in not turning them off from it. To this end, Ive been advocating that schools introduce a new course, one in which students spend the entire term reading and discussing a wide selection of compelling popular-science books and articles.
What would this accomplish? Well, those students who lose interest in science and mathematics generally do so because the material gets difficult and requires more effort to understand than they can — or think they can — expend. This is not a catastrophe. By no means is everyone cut out to be a scientist or mathematician, or even to delve into the complexities of these subjects. But the rigorous, detailed, abstract elements, while critical for those who seek facility in science, perhaps in preparation for a career, are not required for basic science literacy. Having students read gripping, nontechnical materials that cut a wide swath through the sciences, from their established underpinnings up to cutting-edge research, can cultivate excitement while greatly deepening their working knowledge of sciences achievements. No doubt if more students saw science as a great venture into the unknown, as an unfolding story of exploration, then more of them would be drawn to participate in their generations chapter of discovery. At the very least, these students would be more inclined to continue following science in popular sources throughout their lives.
The challenge for popular science writers, of course, is to humanize the subject matter while staying true to the science. The danger is that in highlighting the drama and easing off on the details, the science may be reduced to a mere caricature of the underlying ideas and results. Avoiding this pitfall is the art of the science writers trade. And, as with all arts, there is no right” way, no standard approach, and no agreed-upon measure of success. Ive read popularizations that I thought were truly wonderful, only to find other readers who thought there was too much science and others still who thought there was too little. Ive also read some popularizations that, for my taste, focused too heavily on the human interest story behind a discovery, but encountered other readers who found the narrative gripping. That is an inevitable — and welcome — result of mixing the messy grays of the humanities with the purity of scientific results. The selection of articles in this collection reflects the wide range of styles and degrees of scientific emphasis in science writing today. Some convey cutting-edge research in fields ranging from particle physics to neurobiology. Other articles focus on medical issues, from unintended consequences of antibiotics to the critical need in medical education to conduct more autopsies. A number of others are driven by the effects of science and technology on people, including a moving exploration of brain implants, the impact of frontline bloggers on the perception of war, and the wonders of psychopharmacology. A couple of articles cover human development, from aspects of language acquisition to first contact with remote cultures untouched by the modern world, while a couple of others take on the evolution/intelligent-design pseudo-debate.
Collectively, the articles demonstrate the long reach of sciences tentacles, a reach that goes well beyond the confines of the ivory tower. They also demonstrate the high level of science writing found in a range of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, aimed at a wide spectrum of viewers. If we harness this talent by integrating these kinds of articles into the standard secondary education curriculum, the long-range impact on science awareness and science literacy would be of great consequence.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Brian Greene. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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