You may have heard the French slogan l'art pour l'art – popularly Latinized as ars gratia artis in MGM’s roaring logo – and typically translated into English as art for art’s sake. However, the more common interpretation for the Latin ars is actually ‘science’. Starting from this basic point, here is an argument for scientific literacy… science for your sake… science for science’s sake.
Our civilization is at a turning point as scientific literacy – much like reading during the Renaissance – becomes a norm for economic and political survival. We must learn science to keep our heads above water in a competitive labor market. We must learn science to competently engage in big public policy questions regarding climate change, stem cell research, and so on. But are we really supposed to be scientifically literate just because… it’s good for us? Many people are dimly aware when it comes to science. This is a tragedy considering the fascinating and challenging ideas out there for discussion. On an accessible scale, however, everybody can and should participate in the scientific adventure of understanding the universe on its terms.
Only 7% of Americans are scientifically literate! Most of us don’t know the difference between an atom and a molecule. And whether we believe it or not, most of us aren’t knowledgeable about evolutionary theory. Would it really matter if scientists tell the rest of us to appreciate science just because it’s interesting to them? Many musicians insist that we should appreciate the local symphony because it’s interesting to them. But do we really need to know science to live a happy, fulfilled life? Is it really necessary to know astronomy when making coffee in the morning? Probably not, but you could honestly say that about almost anything: we don’t have to listen to or even know about any music to be able to do anything. Yet whether by choice or lack of exposure, what impoverished lives we would have without experiencing music at all. The same could be said about all types of art and should even be said about science.
We are naturally fascinated by science when young. Go to a local science museum and expect to see that it is alive with children. They are excited. They are running around. They want to understand and experiment with the world. They enjoy engaging in science because they are discovering new ideas. This is science for the sake of itself. They’re not trying to learn to be better citizens or make more money. It’s just fun. Even as adults, we remember looking up at a clear night sky full of stars and being taken away by the magical feeling of it all. But go ask Joe Citizen if they can name a living scientist and prepare to hear a few too many citations of Al Gore. A common paradox is that parents have a tendency to push their children away from professional careers in the arts yet they don’t discourage appreciation for it. Meanwhile they struggle to compel their children to prepare for careers in science and technology.
Although it’s true that few will become professional scientists, we could all still appreciate science… and should be encouraged to do so. When we do appreciate science, our lives are enriched just like with music and art. It is interesting to note that several Nobel Prize winners (and many scientists without accolades) refer to the beauty of science not its utility. They liken science to watching sunsets. They look at mathematical equations and crystal structures as others might appreciate more conventional “beautiful” things. These same people also work long, tedious hours into the night and at not terribly high salaries, not to mention a lack of non-posthumous appreciation from the general public. Nonetheless, they are still excited about their work and results; few of them would regret their chosen life’s pursuit.
Think back to school: was chemistry one of your least favorite subjects? Maybe it wasn’t the subject matter that lost your attraction but just the way we teach chemistry in our society. We all know somebody who probably flunked a chemistry course at some point. Ironically, chemists also feel underappreciated in the science community because they know their subject is most disliked. They can also be ignored easily by those in other fields. At the same time, chemists are actually closest to artists because they are creating things – new molecules or variances of existing molecules meant to obtain unique properties. For example, chemists are working on computer screens that could literally roll up like a piece of paper. The green technology movement is also pushing for biodegradable things like shopping bags, which means chemists are hard at work trying to make bags that not only biodegrade but will also do so sufficiently long after carrying home items from the store. Shouldn’t it be important for all of us to at least have a back-to-basics understanding of molecules: what they are, how they interact, why they have the properties they do? With such fundamental knowledge, we can all more competently follow developments in medical design, applied science, and so on.
Likewise with biology, a shocking majority of people don’t really know what cells are. Lacking such competency, how can we possibly engage in honest public debate over controversial policy issues such as stem-cell research? We need to know simple things like what atoms are, as well as the other most basic principles of astronomy, geology, physics, biology and chemistry. We should not read articles about scientific developments and have practically every bit of information, even general background knowledge, seem like news to us! But we’re not alone. Obviously no one can be knowledgeable about everything concerning every field – science or not – but having a working familiarity with basic principles about the different disciplines could make things easier. Here are some examples:
* Why is Earth different than other planets? This large-sized, rocky planet has had heat trying to escape from the core since the formation of our solar system. That has shaped our planet’s entire history – from the first volcano to Hurricane Katrina. Alternately, Mars is smaller and has lost most of its heat resulting in a relatively dead planet.
* How do astronomers study the universe? There are no labs full of stars and planets where scientists can tinker away. The information they use is in the light beams that come to us full of stories. Don’t merely think about dark night skies when astronomy comes to mind. We have learned everything about what’s beyond Earth, how far away things are, and even theory concerning the big bang and extraterrestrial life, just by studying rays of light.
Learning science isn’t an ‘it’s good for you so do it’ kind of idea. It’s not a chore. Science is a beautiful thing that has so much to offer, it could make someone feel happy to be alive. And for the sake of Left activism, it could even make us feel happy to fight for a better, more participatory society – so that others might fully experience science and discovery in their lives.
**The premise above is adapted from Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science