Scientific Education

I don’t think much about my science education. Really, it’s pretty basic. Chemistry, biology, physics in a high school that did not excel at all in such things. If you’d asked me, I would’ve told you I hadn’t learned much. I got ok grades — right down there with my math grades. Our high school offered one honors class (and no AP) and that was in English. I took it twice. But I never really paid attention to science. In college, I took Chemistry 101 — no lab required. It was interesting (and Professor Cheng, in his Hawaian shirts, was hot!), and I learned some things. But come one. That’s about the minimum amount of science you can have taken and still have a degree from a reputable four year college.

So if asked, I wouldn’t tell you that I’m particularly knowledgeable about All Things Scientific.

But I think I’m missing something in understanding my own science background.

I’m currently reading a book that summarizes the sum of scientific endeavor since people started thinking. It maps the history of the universe, and talks about geology, chemistry, physics and the Big Ideas that revolutionized the 20th century. (The atomic bomb was only made possible, for example, once folks figured out that nuetrons existed.) I have enough science background that what the author is talking about is often familiar, and I can hook it on to something I know, or read behind it and remember the underlying logic. I understand the periodic table and valences. I understand plate tectonics and induction zones. I understand the role oxygen plays in matabolic function, and how cells are attacked by viruses. I know the difference between RNA, DNA and mitochondrial DNA. I understand how gravity works on a cosmic scale, and that it’s one of the weakest of the forces. I’ve contemplated whether the universe is expanding or contracting. I know how acid rain gets created, and that whether ozone is a nuisance or a necessity depends on where you are in the atmosphere. I know how a catalyst works. I understand the Scientific Method, the concept of a theory, and accept experimentation as a valid way of creating ideas of how the universe works, fully knowing that we will never understand it all. I understand statistics and risks, and can weigh proven risk factors against each other more or less rationally. I have mastered none of these things. My understanding is not complete. It has few gradations, and probably more than a few holes. But it’s enough that when presented with information that has a pre-requisite of understanding these things, I can follow the information. And to be honest, I’m not sure how I got here. And I’m beginning to wonder, to think, that maybe everyone has this.

To be frank, I’m not sure it ever occurred to me before. In some ways, I’m a success story of our education system. A liberal arts graduate with no more than average interest and decent intelligence who got sufficient science education to be capable of staying informed of scientific developments and what they mean. But did I get it through the education? Was it the years of subscription to Discover magazine (eventually cancelled because they got boring)? Was it the family background that made me curious in the way things work? Was it a trait of my mentality that makes it easy for me to retain concepts (I can still quote the Ontological argument for you if you wish?) Is it because I married a scientist, and he sends me links nearly every day discussing the scientist who is suspending metabolic function in mice and bringing them back unharmed from the brink of death hours later, or the latest innovation in nano-technology? Or is it because I have a good reading comprehension, and it all comes back to language?

How do you feel about your scientific education? Do you ignore what happens in the science pages, or is it part of your daily distraction reading? Do you find science interesting? Are there whole stories that just flit past you, incomprehensible? Where and how did you get the science background you got, and does it affect your daily life? Do you wish you understood it better?

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