This may sound familiar. I was reading an article about the increasing popularity of websites and magazines in Europe aimed at explaining science to children. Yet according to a 2007 EU report cited by the author, less and less children are pursuing advanced science courses in school. Taking the seeming disparity as their cue, many European countries are investing huge sums to revamp their K12 science curriculum in a bid to reverse their slumping economic fortunes and launch recoveries “based on brain and not brawn”. Of course this is welcome news to anyone who would like to see science take a more prominent role in the lives of students and educators but towards the end of the article I saw a familiar argument. On the one hand are scientists who express dismay at what they consider the “dumbing down” of scientific concepts and inquiry to make them more accessible to young minds. This is precisely how misconceptions are born and endure, they might say. On the other hand are “popularizing” scientists and media personalities, arguing that children must be attracted to science in ways they can understand if they are to develop an abiding interest in the first place.
This argument sounded very familiar to me, not so much for the tension between “popular” vs. “dumb” science but for its recurring emphasis on how science should be communicated and experienced in the first place. In the late 1700’s the pioneering British chemist Humphry Davy engaged in a number of amazing conversations with the renowned poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Traditional forms of literature and language were just not equipped to communicate the beauty and mystery of emerging scientific discoveries – new forms of language and meaning should be created to match the newness of our expanding knowledge of the natural world. Davy tried his hand at poetry while scientific concepts made their way into Coleridge’s verse. In the end, Davy was persuaded by others in the British scientific community to drop the more poetic language from his formal presentations but he never quite gave up the idea that science and poetry were kindred forms of artistic endeavor. His notes were often filled in the margins with fragments of his own verse as he attempted to describe not just what he saw but what he felt as conducted his groundbreaking experiments.
The story of Davy and Coleridge, as well as the “popular” vs. “dumb” discussion above, reminds me that scientists are often frustrated by the difficulty of explaining what they know, how they know it, and the process it takes to get there. Some are taking this challenge seriously. At Stony Brook University, the Center for Communicating Science conducts a program in conjunction with media experts to help scientists find more effective ways of communicating science to the general public. One of their most notable challenges: answer the question – “What is a flame?” – in a way that an 11-year old could understand. I believe the program, along with the growing popularity of websites, magazines, and TV series that make science more accessible, are encouraging signs of a shift in thinking – that the ways we explain the understanding of science to children are just as important as the knowledge of science itself.
Note: For more on the story of Davy, Coleridge and other figures of science, art, discovery, and adventure in the Enlightenment, I suggest Richard Holmes’ excellent The Age of Wonder.