20 September, 2007

Common Science

Note: I have been studying, and been so busy, I have had no time to update the blog. I'm very sorry for this, and I'll try my best not to forget this blog (and you all readers!). Please bear with me, and try to refrain from hateful comments ;).

Note 2: I'm experimenting with fonts. Do you like Trebuchet more than Georgia?

Update: This discussion has gone far beyond the original post... be sure to check the comments.

Most of the books on science in the market (besides textbooks of different levels) fall roughly into two types: Those dealing with life care and health, and those dealing with important but esoteric issues in science and it's philosophy. But if you search some non-science bookshelf, there are thousands of books on Astrology, Vaastu and whatnot: the stuff generally dubbed pseudoscience. But those books sell: and for a reason. They are well-written, easy to understand, and apply to the lives of common citizens.

Look into an astrology book, and you'll see many references to stars and planets. A glance at a Reiki, Feng-Shui, or any such book has numerous references to "energy flow". This misleads the reader into thinking that what she is reading is science, or related to it. Why? Haven't people learnt real science in schools? Why can't they tell the "energy" of physics and the "energy" of Feng-Shui apart?

The problem, most would contend, lies in the education system. Whatever science we learn at school from dull, drab textbooks is often forgotten by everyone except a few nerds who aren't good at anything else. We need to "rev" up the texts, and make the courses a lot more interesting, practical. That certainly is true: the education system (here) does need an overhaul. But that isn't the whole problem. If I were asked now about the biology I learnt in school, I wouldn't be able to answer even a few easy questions. It's not my fault: the textbooks may have been interesting; they weren't so to me. Then, how do you make people interested in science?

The first question, of course, is why people ought to be interested in science. Because science is much more closely related to their lives than the stars, planets, or their karma: science is not just about fundamentals: it is about technology and applications. Every appliance in the house has a technology behind it, and people can learn to use it better only if they know it. Science isn't just concerned with galaxies and atoms: it is concerned with how to make the next toaster better, how to make a buildings resistant to fires, and why you should wear rubber boots when dealing with electricity. The "effects of electricity on our lives" are much greater than those of Saturn: every modern device needs a power plug.

However, there aren't many "common science" books in the libraries. Shelves are filled with astrology, but finding one book on electricity for the common man (as opposed to the schoolkid or the professional) would be a tiresome endevour.

Biology, which is the science closest to us, fortunately does have a number of books for the common person: from health to plant care. Physics is less fortunate: gravity is known, but not it's law; energy is a much-used word, but it's presice meaning and limitations are not well-known. Chemistry is even worse-off, although it has applications from cleaning to cooking.

I am not talking about the fundamentals of science, or even the philosophy. For the curious, there are some books in why science works. For the very curious, there is a myriad of books on science: from DNA to Cosmology, from Quantum consciousness to Evolution. These are interesting in their own because they deal with real mysteries, stuff that can fascinate everyone who has wondered about our origins or asked "why?" But these give the impression that science is an esoteric endevour. Why do so many people choose to believe in ghosts, karma and "chi"? Because there is a lack of scientific temper, and awareness of real science. This is what I think books on "common science" can provide.


  1. It was quite useful reading, found some interesting details about this topic. Thanks.

  2. I don't think the people that read the kharma and feng shui stuff are also interested in the biology for dummies books, actually.
    Therefore, if you were to have a bigger number of physics for dummies, they still wouldn't read it.
    It might be nice to see if your claims about the kinds of books being sold is true though.
    If you were to replace the word "science" in your text with "literature" and the non science with ehm, is there a word for "non literary works" in English? anyway, that, then you wouldn't have to change an awful in the text. People don't take literature seriously either.

    It is a well written piece! And I agree with most of it.

    Anyway, so what do you suggest?

  3. Firstly, I love Trebuchet..u know that

    Very stimulating read.. I agree with Saskia in the fact that poeple interested in pseudoscience are not interested in real science..coz pseudoscience is the easy way out..it gives u answers for things that science can never give u..pseudoscience is emotionally satisfying

    But I dont think the lit ananlogy works..people take lit much more seriously than science.

    keep bloggong!

  4. Anne, what you and Saskia say might be true, but I feel there is a real-world appeal to science that most people miss, even working scientists. For example, in the Times of India, there used to be a column about physics by a TIFR scientist.He wrote about stuff like black holes, paper publication, and strings. The column didn't last long. But if he had written about stuff like heat, electricity, and forces, that would have clicked a lot better with the readers.

    Actually, Saskia, I think people don't read literature because they think it's boring. People don't read science because they think it's esoteric.

    For me, a good "common science" (I purposely avoided "popular science") book would contain stuff about the science in various common situations, like cooking, appliances, animals, and even mobiles and computers. Maybe it could, as an appendix, dispel the popular notions about energy, and explain what constitutes science. But it could do wihout anything about relativity, black holes, or quantum physics.

  5. Did you check the "kids" section? There are books with simplified "life related" science in them but they're usually for children.

    I think people love 'pseudosciences' because they like generally give you something 'happy based' to believe in (kinda like religion does) or that it makes you feel that you either have total control of your life or none at all (depending on which thought gives you most comfort).

    I think people avoid science because it makes them feel stupid or they feel like they don't need to know why things happen, only that thay do.

    Take biology, I'm learning about how the body works, what it looks like inside and that practically everything can, in fact, kill you. I'm finding that knowing just how 'breakable' we are is actually slightly disturbing and that I'd much rather forget a lot of the stuff I've learnt when I go about my everyday life.

    It's all about personality and personal preference. Like you're only all enthusiastic about people learning science because you love it (and I suspect you'd prefer to be viewed as less of a 'geek' by the general population :P). I don't hear you advocating the general populace reading a book entitled "economics for beginners" despite the fact we're surrounded by a world obsessed with buying and selling everything under the sun. I'm all for science being taught in a more engaging manner but if people aren't interested we shouldn't just keep trying to shove it in their faces.

    Oops! That sounded suspiciously like a rant... Sorry...

  6. Charmaine, you make an interesting point: that science shouldn't be forced upon them. I feel it is necessary, though, because not only does every human wonder about the questions science busies itself with, but it has many applications in daily life.

    Economics, hmm... that sounds necessary too, and yes, it would do a lot of good if people had atleast a rough idea of whatever transactions they make and how much it costs them. I speak for science because I am a science student.

    Of course, people don't have time for doing everything, do they? Economics, science, and then we can add medicine, politics, et cetera. Do people really have time for these? I say, these things are essential, yes, but in the end it's for the people to decide, I guess. Whatever you're interested in, read that. Be sure to give the other stuff a try too.