The Joy of Science (EDIT13)|
It's more fun than you think.
An Editorial Comment
Science is a journey. Enjoy the trip!
Constructed between 1879 and 1881, the Arts and Industries Building was the very first Smithsonian museum on the National Mall in our nation's Capital. It held the role as the Smithsonian's only museum until the National Museum of Natural History building was completed in 1910. Until a few years ago the building housed a popular exhibit called: “1876: A Centennial Exhibition." This exhibit based on an earlier display from this spectacular fair, was put together in 1976.
Because of structural and other problems, the building was closed in 2004 and remains so today. There seems to be little information available on the fate of the main exhibit housed in the building. In fact the fate of the building itself is somewhat uncertain. The fact that this excellent exhibit is no longer on display is mourned by many of us who spent many a happy hour marvelling at the technology that a young and vibrant nation, celebrating its 100th birthday, had managed to create.
I was struck by the symbolism of the crumbling exhibit hall and the defunct exhibit as I read about a recent book by Pulitzer-prize-winning science writer, Natalie Angier. In this book titled The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, Ms. Angier mounts a head-on assault on what she believes is a pronounced declining interest in science by the general population and by young people especially.
In a recent interview, the author asserted that the scientific elan that has been the cornerstone of America's preeminence in the world is today being seriously eroded. In addition to the general perception that "science" is "hard" and "boring" Ms. Angier touched on the fact that in some circles, an interest in science is being actively sabotaged. Spurred on by a religious agenda, a perception is being fostered that science is a danger to be avoided and if necessary opposed.
Sir Arthur Eddington once remarked, "It is a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in a theory until it has been confirmed by observation." This is of course the credo of every scientist worthy of the name. To a true scientist there is no greater delight than to find the evidence that disproves whatever theory might be going. It is this methodology—this ordeal by fire—that makes most accepted scientific theories pretty airtight.
One of the problems with many ideas held by the population as a whole, is that they tend to turn this whole notion upside down. Many people begin with a theory, alright a belief, about how the world really works and they then reject any evidence that doesn't support that belief. For instance, for some people the idea of a creator God is an absolutely rock solid fact. For these folks any evidence that might tamper with that belief is summarily rejected.
If in the process, a lot of pretty good science is then thrown out the window is, for these people, a small price to pay. Unfortunately, science is the loser and along with the science any chance of preventing the marginalization of our society in today's world. It would be unfair to blame all the problems faced by science on orthodox religion alone. The pervasive liberal idea that every student, no matter how intellectually challenged, deserves to feel as smart as everyone else, brings its own set of problems.
In today's enlightened environment, few would question the principle that all people in society deserve an equal chance. In fact if we bypass those who can't always compete we may be discarding many potential contributors to society. The real problem is that in our zeal to accommodate everyone, we remove the challenge for those who should aspire to excellence. Outstanding achievement has become a dirty word. As a consequence we as a nation are rapidly being surpassed by societies where personal achievement is not only accepted but actively embraced.
In the end we all lose. Our society loses because many bright mavericks are turned off before they're ever turned on. These individuals also lose because they will never reach their full potential. Even the disadvantaged we are trying to help lose, since whatever they might achieve is depreciated because we are dumbing down the mix. And, of course our nation loses because we are rapidly losing our competitive edge.
The solution proffered by Natalie Angier is to rekindle a grass roots interest in all things scientific. In her book she lays out the basics of science and many of the current theories and uses them to explain astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics with all the skill of the creative writer. It's packed with alarming facts which really do deserve our attention. It is also full of passion, an emotion often sadly lacking in the field. Her primary goal is to instill a love and understanding of what science is all about and debunk some myths in the process.
No one can deny the urgent need for such an appeal. There are quibbles with the book which is to be expected. Too much fluff for some, too tough for others. Similar charges were levelled at travel writer Bill Bryson for his book A Short History of Nearly Everything. Yet we have to applaud these writers because they understand more clearly than most of us, what's at stake. We simply cannot allow ourselves to lose the edge that only a vibrant scientific infrastructure can give us.
At the end of the day, a crumbling museum building can be restored, given enough money and dedication. The Centennial Exhibition exhibit can be remounted. However, it is possible that a strong and vibrant scientific community once it has been allowed to languish for too long, may reach a tipping point from which it will be hard to recover. We musn't let that happen. There is too much to lose!
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