Earlier this week I interviewed Thea Beckman, a science blogger who’s just released her first science explanation book ‘for the rest of us’ – and good stuff too. We all need to understand science. It’s important.
The thing is, we’re living in a world filled with the products of science, one never imagined fifty years ago, unless you were Arthur C. Clarke. Pick up your phone. There in your hand you’ve got more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft, more than the Bletchley Park crowd who were cracking Enigma codes in the Second World War. You can contact anybody you know, anywhere on the planet – hook into the greatest stores of knowledge in the history of the world (thanks, Mr Google!) – take photos, movies, record sound – and send it to anybody. You can navigate with it, locate things, even figure out where to buy the next pizza.
The thing is, do many of us know the science behind it? Even in general terms? There is a lot of science in those things – and it all came out of the way technology has developed over the past century on the back of scientific discovery.
Even these days, the era when geeks won, it’s hard to make science entertaining. Some people can. In my final couple of years at high school I had a physics teacher who used to thunder into the school on his Norton Commando with chopper-style handlebars, walk into class in his leather sheepskin bike jacket, and tell us all kinds of interesting stuff, including the difference between centrifugal and centripetal force. He demoed that by pirouetting while holding up an oil-filled jar containing a ping-pong ball (imagine it – this bikie guy who was about 6 feet tall and 4 broad, pirouetting to demonstrate a physics principle). When the headmaster told him not to bring the bike to school he turned up instead in an ancient 1961 Dodge. You get the picture – he was a hell of a nice guy, he made physics entertaining – and that made the kids interested.
The thing is that if we understand generally how stuff works – particularly the science that defines the way the world works around us – then a lot of other things make sense too. Climate change, for instance, which is a thing. Don’t confuse debates between climatologists over the subtleties of detail as proof that they are wrong about the whole. And if we have a basic general understanding of science, then a lot of the claims that ‘science can’t explain x’ go away too.
For me one of the fun parts is that a good deal of everyday physics (particularly) is counter-intuitive. There’s no mystery – providing you understand what’s going on. It’s because a lot of people don’t understand some of the oddities about real science that silly conspiracy theories and other ‘mysteries’, usually peddled on Facebook, get traction.
So – science. It’s cool. It’s fucking cool.
And if you want to find out how counter-intuitive real physics is, sometimes, check out my short book Explaining Our Weird Universe – no equations, promise! But it does tell you how your phone knows where it is – thanks to Dr Einstein. Go on, you need to read this one.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017