Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Science Class I Wish I Had

I recently read a book called The Science Class You Wish You Had to get motivated and inspired for the new school semester.  It is authored by two brothers, David and Arnold Brody; the former is a science historian, and the latter a professor of pathology.  The book, written in 1997, describes the seven most important scientific discoveries of all time, and gives insights into the lives of the scientists who made them.

According to the authors, the top seven scientific discoveries in history are:

  •  Gravity and the basic laws of physics (Newton)
  • The principle of relativity (Einstein)
  •  The big bang and the formation of the universe (Hubble)
  • The structure of the atom (Rutherford and Bohr) 
  • Evolution and the principle of natural selection (Darwin)
  • The cell and genetics (Flemming and Mendel)
  • The structure of the DNA molecule (Watson and Crick)

In the list above, we have one discovery in chemistry sandwiched between three in physics and three in biology.  In each case, the story behind how the discovery was made is as interesting as the discovery itself.  Noticeably absent from the list is quantum physics, but it would be hard to knock anything off this list.  The importance of quantum physics has become more apparent over the past fifteen years (when the book was published) – today’s list of top discoveries should perhaps be extended to eight.

The vast majority of man’s science discoveries have taken place in the twentieth century.  With the exception of Newtonian physics, all six of the others listed came to fruition in the 1900s.  It appears that the most exciting period of time to be a scientist was between 1850 and 1950.  The explosion of scientific knowledge that occurred during that period will probably never be matched.  Although our current tools and sheer numbers allow us to drive science forward at a greater pace than ever before, today’s science attempts to push boundaries, whereas yesterday’s science discovered what those boundaries were.

Today, discoveries are no longer made by individuals, but rather by very large groups.  The Large Hadron Collider project is pushing forward our understanding of quantum physics, but the credit on this project will be shared by literally thousands of scientists and engineers.  The Nobel Prize is indeed losing relevancy in science, as its aim to honour individuals is becoming increasingly misguided.  Even the great scientists listed above, in the words of Newton, “...stood on the shoulders of giants” to make the discoveries for which they are credited.

Getting back to the book, its title implies that science classes are not enjoyable, which is an unfair generalization.  Looking back at the science classes I have taken, they all gave me a more full experience than reading any single book.  It is wrong to equate the value of a classroom experience to that of a book, particularly for a young student.

That being said, most science classes would gain a lot by giving a greater historical perspective to their classes.  A physics course that teaches about special relativity does not require that Einstein’s early life story be told, but it ought to.  That an inquisitive patent clerk without much strength in mathematics discovered relativity in his spare time adds so much richness to the scientific discovery.  Indeed, the phenomenon and the story behind its discovery have become forever intertwined.

Is the book as accessible as it claims to be?  It was accessible for me, but I think it would be a stretch for the typical student.  I would recommend the book for adults with a science background that want to gain a historical perspective on science; on that level, The Science Class You Wish You Had is a great success.  Perhaps the title is fitting, as it also implies that science is worth revisiting later in life.

We are left to ponder the question, “What is the single greatest scientific discovery?”  This is of course subjective, but I believe the choice is simple.  The greatest discovery was science itself, and this was made by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and ultimately, Newton. 

The law of gravitation and the rest of Newton’s work contain the least complex notions in science.  In fact, much of Newtonian physics has been proven to apply only for big enough objects that do not move too fast.  Yet, it is the greatest discovery of them all because it got the scientific ball rolling.  By boldly attempting to make the universe quantifiable, Newton gave an emerging field some very able shoulders to stand on.

Newton is the father of science, the field of study that has most directly shaped our experience of the world.  If my students can more easily appreciate how science shapes our world through their experience in my classroom, I will have succeeded.  I suppose that all teachers should aim to teach the class that they wish they had taken.

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