Click Here To Purchase Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You

Author: Philip Yaffe
Kindle Edition

This pleasant and educational little book is a potpourri of tidbits about science and scientists. Mr. Yaffe’s motivation for writing it is commendable: there are many popular misconceptions about and outright hostility to science among many laypersons. None of this is healthy. His reason is the same as mine, but I’ll state it more strongly: If society’s average knowledge level is only that of a technological savage (a person that uses gizmos without understanding anything about how they work), society can only through pure damn luck find smart and ethical solutions to global warming, cloning, alternative energy, water usage, and so forth. In other words, we have a moral imperative to learn enough science to vote wisely. In a representative democracy, this also goes for the representatives of the people (their ignorance sometimes is frightening).

Consequently, Mr. Yaffe’s essays are meant to mitigate the hostility and eliminate some of the misconceptions, i.e. to get the reader started on that yellow brick road to the Wizard of Scientific Literacy. Like the author, I have met people who seem to pride themselves on their scientific ignorance. I tell them I’m a physicist, for example, and they say something like, “Physics! Wow, that’s deep. I never could or wanted to learn anything that deep. Never needed it either.” This might be the same person following ten feet behind me in a car during a rainstorm. The most egregious case I ever encountered was when a bean counter wouldn’t release the funds for my text on quantum mechanics because, according to him, mechanics can take care of cars just fine after just an intuitive apprenticeship—no text needed. As a born pessimist (I expect my glass of Jamesons to be half-full, so when it’s three-quarters-full, I’m very happy), I don’t think books like Mr. Yaffe’s do any good because the people who need them most just don’t read them.

One of Mr. Yaffe’s heroes is Albert Einstein. I wondered a little at that (see later), but one saying of Albert’s that Mr. Yaffe didn’t include in his book is the following: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” The author probably didn’t include this quote because it shows not only that Albert waxed egotistical at times, but that he also probably wouldn’t have much hope for the success of the author’s book! Another Yaffe hero is Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer who began public life as a biochemist (we often study and develop expertise in areas different from what turns out to be our true calling). Most readers either know Isaac from his sci-fi novels and stories or his popular science books—he was prolific in both. (Mr. Yaffe regrettably ignores Isaac’s prowess as a mystery writer—many years ago, his works in the mystery and suspense genre led to my interest in that genre.)  

Although the yellow brick road to scientific literacy is curvy and uphill most of the way (there is no super highway), this little book is a pleasant way to begin the journey. Let me ignore the editing errors (mostly dropped words and punctuation)—the reader can get by those. (There is one glaring misspelling that caused me to smile, namely, when Mr. Yaffe writes, “We are not lying in a comma.”) However, since the author talks about misconceptions, I feel obligated to mention some of his. First, E = mc2 is only a small part of special relativity, probably the best-known part, due to the atom bomb. The constancy of the speed of light in any inertial frame is the key assumption of the theory—the relationship between energy in mass is just a consequence of four-vector momentum conservation. Moreover, special relativity is completely in agreement with electromagnetism and disagrees in a fundamental way with Newtonian mechanics as well as traditional quantum mechanics as an object’s velocity approaches the speed of light. Electromagnetism was the crucial theory (consider the title of Einstein’s 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”). The Michelson-Morley experiment with light was the crucial experiment (gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, the visible light spectrum, infrared, and radio are all examples of electromagnetic waves), although some people believe that Einstein didn’t know about it.

The history of Einstein’s discovery leads us to another point: In his discussion of the scientific method, scientific approach, and scientific spirit, the author ignores the role of serendipity. Many scientific discoveries occur because a scientist is at the right place at the right time. For example, while no one can deny Einstein’s great intellect, serendipity helps to explain that incredible production of seminal papers in 1905, which includes the paper on special relativity. Baffling experimental data, difficult to obtain in previous generations, was lying around ready to be explained. Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory was well established. Even those transformations that mix up space and time, so important to the special theory, are named for Lorentz, not Einstein, for a very good reason (Poincare made important steps too). In other words, Einstein was an extreme example of a scientist looking at data and saying, “Gee, that’s funny!” (I prefer the words “strange” or “weird” and in my own research have said one of these words at times as I experienced a scientific epiphany, albeit much smaller than Albert’s.)

The reader is likely to be confused with the difference between the author’s scientific method, scientific approach, and scientific spirit. Here is my take: The scientific spirit leads to the scientific approach that is part of the scientific method! The author defines “scientific spirit” as the creed that “you must never dogmatically insist that something is true simply because it seems to make sense. Likewise, you must never dogmatically insist that something isn’t true simply because it doesn’t seem to make sense.” In brief, dogma has no place in science. Scientific fundamentalism, like any other fundamentalism, is a throw-back to the tribal shaman and his potions and rattles. Scientists must have an open mind (if you object that some of the old boys’ clubs allocating research funds in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and elsewhere seem to violate this rule, your pessimism is commendable).

Once you practice the scientific spirit, you a fortiori must approach your theory, experiments, and data using the scientific method (the scientific approach is no more than this). Also, a part of this approach is the author’s Provisionality Principle, which I’ve never heard of, but it’s just that part of the scientific method that tells you that any theory can be overturned or expanded when new and as yet unexplained data comes along. I have to emphasize the importance of data here. For example, while the people running the huge accelerator in CERN are now trying to find the Higgs boson, they might be in for a surprise. This particle’s existence was conjectured as a theoretical mechanism to provide for spontaneous symmetry breaking, the mechanism that allows a photon to remain a photon and the other bosons of the electroweak theory to acquire mass. This is a dangerous game to play, but still part of the scientific method.

Some other misconceptions of the author: Louis Pasteur didn’t discover viruses—he discovered that certain diseases were caused by bacteria. It was the general theory of relativity, not the special, where Einstein presented a new description of gravity. Historically it wasn’t controversial—it was just that few people understood it, and those that did, realized it needed to be tested (as any good scientific theory must be—the lack of testability of creationism and intelligent design makes it belief, not science). (As far as I know, the general theory has passed every test—the one failure is its incompatibility with quantum mechanics.) I’m not sure that Einstein even understood it completely. He often regretted his error about including the cosmological constant. As for quantum mechanics, Einstein never accepted it, but recent experiments have confirmed that theory and have led to new theoretical predictions about the possibility of quantum computing and quantum communications.

By the way, the original Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, couched in the language of matrix mechanics developed by Heisenberg (Schrodinger’s wave mechanics is an equivalent formulation), is true for any complementary variables. It is momentum (mass times velocity) and position that are complementary, not velocity and position. Energy and time are also complementary. Finally, Sherlock Holmes’ dictum that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains—however, improbable—must be the truth” only works if what remains is unique. Otherwise, Occam’s Razor or some other selection technique must be temporarily used until more data are available.

Nevertheless, the author’s list of scientific misconceptions is funny and educational for the non-scientist as well as super-specialized scientists who try to keep up on other fields. His collection of old jokes gave me a few laughs. I had heard many of them but there were some new ones for me and some I had forgotten—e.g. the one about the NASA pen. The list of quotations from famous scientists (and mathematicians) can be complemented using, but you have to know your scientists (you can also search on a field, like genetics).

Speaking of mathematicians, in my previous life as a research physicist, mathematics played an important role. For me and many scientists and engineers, mathematics is the language of science (it is more than this, of course). Mr. Yaffe does a reasonable job of convincing you that this must be true. In general, I don’t believe that one can achieve scientific literacy without mathematical literacy. I suppose it’s possible (the many “Physics for Poets” courses in our colleges and universities lamentably depend on this), but the discussion is moot: modern society, especially here in the U.S., is literate in neither area. Our competitiveness in the world economy is bound to suffer as a result.

One section that I found completely out of synch with the rest of the book was the discourse on the importance of language. I’m not convinced that foreign languages help one be a better scientist. English has become the lengua franca of science, although one day it might become Chinese. I remember the days of yore when I translated papers from Doklady and Comptes Rendus for Mathematical Reviews—to English. I’m not quite sure how that’s done now, but scientists tend to write their papers in English anyway, even if it’s not their mother tongue. On the other hand, I disagree with the author’s statement about language and knowing a culture. I knew I had mastered Spanish and understood Colombian culture when I could understand a novel, song, or a joke in that language (in particular, the Spanish of Colombia). I often wonder how English readers can really understand Garcia Marquez’ magical realism, for example, without knowledge of Spanish. The phrase “lost in the translation” is so true when dealing with the cultural mores of a foreign culture.

I want to end this review by saying that I found this book fun and entertaining. I’m not a layperson so many of my points above can be taken as erudite nitpicking. Mr. Yaffe’s book is in fact a nice way to start down that yellow brick road to the Wizard of Scientific Literacy that I mentioned above. However, the lay reader would do well to visit the U.C. Berkeley site the author mentions, or some of Asimov’s popular science texts. In fact, between the internet and books, the reader has a wealth of understandable material available. Almost every scientific topic can be found in some popular science book. I’d also recommend the biweekly Science News (I use it to keep up on all current events in science and mathematics since I write sci-fi and am no longer a practicing physicist and never was a chemist, geneticist, microbiologist, anthropologist, etc., etc.—you get the idea). The reader just has to become motivated. Mr. Yaffe can help the reader achieve that motivation and be entertained at the same time.

Click Here To Purchase Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You