- Any Richard Feyman title!
- Bad ideas?: an arresting history of our inventions by Robert Winston.
- Napoleon’s buttons: 17 molecules that changed history by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson.
- They called me mad : genius, madness, and the scientists who pushed the outer limits of knowledge by John Monahan.
- Boffinology: the real stories behind our greatest scientific discoveries by Justin Pollard.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark by Carl Sagan
This rallying cry on the importance of science and critical thinking may, alas, only be known and read by the converted.
Those with an interest in science will probably already know of Sagan. His name alone made this title appeal to me. On a shelf – be it library or bookshelf – it might leap out at the browser. However, its brilliance will, more likely than not, be missed by those who should read it the most: educators and politicians.
Coincidentally, on the day I finished the book, I heard a news report that scientific education is increasingly important.
Published the year of Sagan’s death, this is worthy of standing as his last word.
Sagan argues persuasively for the importance of teaching science, and the critical thinking – or baloney detecting – that scientific-thinking requires. When pseudoscience proliferates in popular culture – when more money is spent on alternative therapy research than main-stream medical research, for example – it is difficult for those without a sceptical mind / training, to distinguish it from true science.
Why is science so maligned? Ignored? Why don’t scientists share the joys and wonderment – the journeys they take to their discoveries?
I am one of the converted. I find wonderment, joy, and reassurance in the discoveries of science. How much more joyful can a thing be to discover that the very molecules of our beings are made of the same stuff as stars – that the building blocks of everything around us, and inside us – are made of particles ejected in the big bang – from the very beginnings of time. I can also reconcile this joy with a belief in a Creator – but not necessarily a God, from any religion.
I watch pseudoscience programmes regularly – and science ones, when they’re on – and scoff and make comments. And argue with my TV (it doesn’t reply, nor do the commentators on it, which is reassuring). My current favourite is Ancient Aliens which, if Sagan was still alive, I’m sure he’d be taking issue with. It is the heights of ridiculousness. And, it is a true example of Sagan’s contentions – it is made and screened on the History Channel. (Check out this article ‘Where’s the History on History?’ - I know it’s not science, which is what Sagan is talking about, mainly – but he does talk about recreating history, too).
I remember asking ‘why’ in maths class once. And only once. Because the answer was ‘I don’t know. You don’t need to know why. Just learn it so you can pass the exam’.
So, keep inspiring a sense of wondering and questioning in children. Work on developing their critical thinking. Answer those ‘why’ questions (the real ones, not the trying-to-annoy-the-adult ones) – even if the answer is ‘I don’t know’ – but follow up with ‘let’s see if we can find out’. Let them experiment. And, unfortunately, do your best to work against the current educational paradigms that teach rote learning of facts, not thinking and discovery.
PS I’d be interested to see where this book is catalogued elsewhere. Although the first subject heading in our catalogue is Science – Methodology… it’s Dewey Classification number is 001.9, which relates to the fourth subject heading, Superstition. That said, some of our copies are under 501 – which is a much better fit. (Having said that, if people browsing in the 001.9 area happen to take this out, it might expose them to science, rather than pseudoscience.)
Some other thoughtful science-type books you might want to try out are:
Reviewed by Thalia.