Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Book Review: Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy by Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil

Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy
by Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil
Anchor Books Doubleday, 294 pages
ISBN 0-385-26108-X

We are faced with an increasingly complicated, technological world. The media bombards us with stories about the threat of genetic engineering, the threat of cancer from food additives and electromagnetic fields, the threat of biological warfare.

And for many people, the educational system has failed to teach them the science they need to make basic decisions about health, much less grapple successfully with the complex scientific issues we read about in newspapers or on news sites each day.

The book Science Matters proposes to solve this problem by helping its readers achieve scientific literacy. This is an enormous goal to try to achieve in a single, short volume. Ultimately, the book fails in this lofty aim, but it is still a darned good basic science primer.

Since the book is relatively short, authors James Trefil and Robert M. Hazen obviously can't cover everything, and in fact they completely ignore the social sciences and deal only with natural science. On top of that, the book is focused primarily on physics and chemistry; geology and biology get a short shrift.

This is probably to be expected, since the authors are physical scientists: Trefil is a physicist and Hazen is a geophysicist. I have noticed that scientists tend to believe that their own fields are more important and interesting than other scientific fields. Then, too, when the authors were faced with their limited writing space, they may have chosen to focus on physical science because many people tend to shy away from taking physics in school because of all the math involved. More people take life science classes in school because, dissections aside, learning about nature and plants and animals is generally more pleasant for most people than doing math equations.

I can vouch for this math-avoiding behavior, because I did all I could to avoid taking calculus and physics. And when I finally took the physics classes I needed for my degree, I was in academic agony. The material was impenetrable, dull, and apparently useless. I did manage to pass the classes, but I didn't learn much of anything.

I wish I'd had Science Matters when I was slogging through my physics classes. No, on second thought, I wish that my physics professor had been given the book. This book gave me the knowledge about basic physics that I should have been taught in those classes. I believe that most of the physics professors around the country could take lessons from Hazen and Trefil.

Hazen and Trefil explain physics and chemistry exquisitely. The reader learns about motion and electricity and magnetism without a single equation to get in the way. The chapters on particle physics and relativity are especially good; I have never read or heard a better explanation of these subjects.

In fact, the whole first half of the book, which deals with the physical sciences, is wonderful. My only quibble with this portion is that I think that the authors paint an overly rosy picture of nuclear energy.

And, unfortunately, when the authors venture outside their personal fields, the book falters.

I found the book's treatment of biology to be spotty and unsatisfactory. First off, I disagree with the authors' statement that "When you studied biology in school, chances are you spent a lot of time learning the names of organisms and their parts ... Taxonomy -- giving things names -- is important to science but is not essential to achieving scientific literacy."

The authors are making an unfortunate, unwarranted assumption that all their readers have studied biology. And after waxing eloquent about muons and neutrinos, they could have spent a paragraph or two explaining why fungi are different from plants and why marsupials are different from placental mammals.

Second, although the authors discuss water cycles in the chapters on earth science, they never really make the connection with biology to explain why water is so hugely important to life. They don't discuss the importance of ice being lighter than water in allowing free water to remain in cold conditions, nor do they mention capillary action. And they didn't breathe a word about osmosis, without which life could not exist.

In the chapter on genetics, they fail to mention the link between mutations and cancer. They could have also explained birth defects a little (for instance, talking about thalidomide as a teratogen that causes birth defects but does not affect the DNA.) The authors also fail to mention polyploidy in plants; this is important in developing better crops and is a natural tie-in to their discussion of genetic engineering.

I also found some minor errors and omissions in the chapter on evolution. After they discussed the Miller-Urey experiment in which amino acids were created in a laboratory recreation of "primordial soup" conditions, they could have mentioned that self-replicating proteins have also been created in the lab. And they were off the mark when they quoted Darwin as having said that the process of natural selection is "survival of the fittest." The process should be phrased as "reproduction of the fittest." It doesn't matter how long an organism survives if it doesn't get its genes into future generations.

And when the authors were discussing mass extinctions, they failed to mention that we're in the middle of a huge manmade one right now. The authors act as though meteors are the only things that cause global extinctions.

And finally, I have one complaint about the chapter on ecosystems. I feel that the authors are overly cavalier about ozone depletion. And they missed the mark when they wrote, "Without the ozone layer, humans and other terrestrial life would be constantly bombarded with high-energy radiation and consequently put at risk of medical problems such as skin cancer and eye damage."

No, that's what's happening now. If the ozone layer were to suddenly disappear, we'd have a lot to worry about besides cancer and cataracts, namely a lack of oxygen. The high-energy radiation would kill off the phytoplankton that generates most of the oxygen we and the rest of the animals breathe. If the ozone layer went, most terrestrial and aquatic life would die.

On the other hand, the authors did make a good point about disposable diapers as a form of a carbon sink to combat the greenhouse effect (pg. 275 in the book.)

Despite my criticisms, the authors' determinations of what is and is not scientifically important are generally good. Trying to make a book like this is a difficult task, both in trying to get the right things in and in trying to keep the book readably short. Even though the latest edition is ten years old, this is still the best "brush up your science" book I've ever read.