The Importance of Wonder in Science

There was a great op-ed in the NYTimes this past Sunday called “Put A Little Science in Your Life“. The author, Brian Greene, is a professor of physics, and he makes a compelling argument that we could be doing a little better in teaching science. Specifically, teaching it in a way that helps the students retain their natural sense of wonder at all this neat stuff, rather than boiling it all down to some really dry numbers and making sure you follow the exact proper procedure for everything. Is there really a reason that science can only be interesting during elementary school and then not again until you reach high level independent research?

Some excerpts, although of course you should go read the whole thing:

When we consider the ubiquity of cellphones, iPods, personal computers and the Internet, it’s easy to see how science (and the technology to which it leads) is woven into the fabric of our day-to-day activities. When we benefit from CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers and arterial stents, we can immediately appreciate how science affects the quality of our lives. When we assess the state of the world, and identify looming challenges like climate change, global pandemics, security threats and diminishing resources, we don’t hesitate in turning to science to gauge the problems and find solutions.

And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there’s simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future.

These are the standard — and enormously important — reasons many would give in explaining why science matters.

But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don’t have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up as I’ve told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I’ve spoken with high school dropouts who’ve stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we’re all a part.

It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.

[…]

As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it’s a profound loss.

A great many studies have focused on this problem, identifying important opportunities for improving science education. Recommendations have ranged from increasing the level of training for science teachers to curriculum reforms.

But most of these studies (and their suggestions) avoid an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.

In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”

[…]

At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, it’s a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities — solving this equation, balancing that reaction, grasping the discrete parts of the cell — the verticality of science is unassailable.

But science is so much more than its technical details. And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.

Er, well, I ended up excerpting almost the entire thing, but I suppose that’s a hallmark of a well-written piece, that it all flows together so well that you feel like you can’t really leave out very much of it or you’ll lose the context for the bits that really spoke. Anyway, this piece certainly spoke to me, because I have a long-standing desire to learn physics from a class that utilizes MacGyver episodes and emphasizes the coolness of the universe, rather than the class I did have in high school, where a math teacher in disguise taught us calculus before any of us had ever actually gotten to that point in the math curriculum and told us it was physics. Which definitely left me feeling like the actual physics-ness of the physics had all been taken away. Oh, yes, and I learned biology from a teacher who didn’t believe in evolution. And my first introduction to chemistry was by a teacher who made us first take a spelling test of the names of all the lab equipment (before we’d even been told what it was for.)

For this reason, I am grateful to Mr. Greene, and all the other scientists and science writers out there who take the time to try to explain the general public why they think science is so cool. I may not have been very satisfied by my classroom science experiences, but there’s still so much that I can learn about, and so much to wonder at. (Hence my previous excited post about the ScienceBlogs book club.) I actually know a person who got an undergraduate degree specializing in the history of science, and I was really jealous to find out that was even possible. That seems to be an area where the sense of wonder is preserved, because we tend to be looking back in awe at these people who discovered what are now considered absolutely essential concepts, but which hadn’t been truly understood/accepted before that.

I also really appreciate Mr. Greene’s insistence that “science is a perspective,” a way of thinking and understanding things, because it’s certainly true, and I think most of us here at Geek Buffet found ourselves nodding in total agreement to his very clear way of stating that view. How this perspective has come to be seen lately as so hostile and threatening is something I’ll probably never really understand, but wouldn’t it be great if we could reintroduce that sense of wonder to general science education and overcome such ridiculous sentiments?

I’ll be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on these issues.

-posted by Dana

Past book reviews of science books:

Advertisements

5 Responses to The Importance of Wonder in Science

  1. educatorblog says:

    I credit my curiosity to my mother. She bought my me first computer when I was 3 years old, we started putting our own computers together and doing upgrades by the time I was 8, and by age 12 I was learning programming languages. Although she knew close to nothing about computers, she would fuel my curiosity and we would learn together. I think that the most important skills that I have are my “do it yourself” style and my propensity to ask tough questions. Our economy needs people who can learn quickly, ask questions, and innovate processes. So does our democracy – there are so many issues (from health science and the economy to military science and foreign policy) that will not be worked out until we have the sustained curiosity of voters.

  2. TheGNat says:

    <.< I actually don’t necessarily agree with the “science is a perspective” statement, mostly because of discussions with my philosopher fiance, who just took a class called “Philosophy of the Human Sciences” where one of the things they were trying to do was define the difference between “natural sciences” (like biology) and “human sciences” (like anthropology), and more or less they couldn’t quite quibble it out.

    I attribute any and all enjoyment of natural sciences that I have to Bill Nye the Science Guy and a couple similar shows when I was a kid. They made swamps seem terribly exciting, and I assure you, when you live with the humidity and the muck, it doesn’t *seem* interesting till Bill Nye goes crazy for half an hour about them.

  3. Evan Torner says:

    Speaking as a scholar of German Studies, I find nevertheless that the wonder that Brian Greene so eloquently describes and longs for is completely analogous with any other serious academic pursuit. In fact, “serious” is actually to be interpreted in a child-like sense of the adjective: the gravity which a child assigns to creative, imaginative pursuits and fancies of curiosity.

    It is, for example, the reason why the character Lyra captivates us in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, whereas we revile the scientists who capture her in one part of the book. Her utter, determined curiosity about the nature of her world and its laws compels her to encounter and overcome all kinds of dangerous situations. By contrast, her “scientist” captors are depicted as dispirited, mundane, and mechanical. Their pursuit of knowledge is predicated on the attainment of certain powers over nature and society, whereas Lyra’s pursuit is based to a certain extent on her familial heritage but largely on awe. She is no natural scientist, yet her drive to inquiry mimics that which the curious scholar is supposed to naturally exhibit.

    This child-like sense of inquiry (as opposed to the instrumental rationality that motivates parents to push their high-school graduate children kicking and screaming into engineering… and not because it IS a genuinely fascinating field) can also be found in the sorts of cultural studies that we do here in the humanities. I for one was never a particularly fanatical follower of the Cold War. Yet my film and project research all converges on the 1960s and 70s, and what forces contributed to the breakdown of socialist realist cinema in the German Democratic Republic in favor of niche-driven genre cinema. Within this relatively obscure field of myriad data, I take great comfort in knowing that A) I am looking at films that nobody has looked at seriously (in the same sense as above) for decades with fresh eyes, B) people really lived during this time period, worked on these films, and took them seriously as well, and C) people today reading about these films from a critical standpoint can discern an overarching lesson about the way humans produce and receive their own culture. Science dignifies its object of study only through this level of sheer wonder.

    What I find obnoxious about our present university system is the fact that all of our different disciplines are made to oppose one another, despite the fact that only our successful interdisciplinary collaborations always yield the deeper understandings of our world’s cultural and social history. Greene states that “music, art and literature” are generally considered “an indispensable part of what makes life worth living,” whereas many public universities take the opposite stance: literature, etc. may be indispensable, but the hard sciences are what put the food on the table. Grants and discoveries in the hard sciences are highlighted while the humanities may do wonderful work that remains judiciously ignored for decades. The point is, however, that instrumental science (i.e., science used merely for making new technologies and such) is spiritually and, in the long run, as unscientific as humanities professors who simply read books and discuss the plot. The excitement of inquiry extends across all disciplines that critically explore the relationships of nature, man and the cosmos, and only this excitement will continue to produce the kind of scientists who will actually help us change our world for the better. Science, after all, is just a social construct, and therefore we can always improve upon its implementation in the social realm.

    Great article, Dana!

    -Evan

  4. Dana says:

    Evan,

    Despite the fact that I did not actually enjoy the His Dark Materials books at all, I agree with everything you said, especially about the university system, interdisciplinarity, and the humanities. I’m currently refusing to allow myself to go back to grad school until I find a place that will let me draw connections between the many different things that catch my interest and also retain my sense of wonder. I envy you for having found your place!

  5. […] (After much lurking in the shadows and posting the occasional odd comment such as this one or that one, I have decided to make my initial post as a full-fledged contributor to Geek Buffet. I […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: