First, I note that the Christopher Hitchens book, god is not Great, is #1 this week on the NY Times Hardcover Non-Fiction list. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe even Richard Dawkins book ever reached #1.
Second, Steven Pinker reviews what looks to be an interesting attempt to educate the indifferent about the basics of Science. The book, THE CANON: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier, a contributor to the NY Times Science section, is a noncontroversial attempt to impart a modicum of science knowledge to its readers. A couple of quotes from the review:
Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Most of our intellectual magazines discuss science only when it bears on their political concerns or when they can portray science as just another political arena. As the nation’s math departments and biotech labs fill up with foreign students, the brightest young Americans learn better ways to sue one another or to capitalize on currency fluctuations. And all this is on top of our nation’s endless supply of New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam.
Angier’s goals are summed up in two words in her subtitle: beautiful basics. “The Canon” presents the fundamentals of science: numbers and probability, matter and energy, the origins and structure of living things, and the natural history of our planet, solar system, galaxy and universe. These are, she judges, the basics that every educated person should master, and a prerequisite to a genuine understanding of the material in any newspaper’s science coverage. And she presents these basics as beautiful: worthy of knowing for their own sake, even if they won’t help us save the planet, age successfully or compete with the Chinese.
She conveys the real substance of field after field, without distortion or dumbing down, and often her sensual descriptions (of the interior of a cell, a star or the Earth, for instance) leave the reader with images both vivid and useful. “The Canon” is an excellent introduction (or refresher) to the beautiful basics of science, and I hope it is widely read. It could make the country smarter.
I really think we need to do a better job of teaching science to our society. Most people shy away from the subject while taking for granted the benefits of everyday life made possible by it, and I’m not sure why, but as a result we have an entire population that believes such nonsense as the the Genesis story of creation, the Great Flood, intelligent design and other religious “science”, not to mention an unquestioning acceptance of the possibility of miracles, various forms of pseudoscience such as astrology, (why is there no science column in every newspaper, in lieu of a horoscope?) and UFOs.
This might be a good book to buy for your theistic friends. Chapter One is posted on the Times site also.
(NB: In order to view the NY Times links, you may need to log in if you have an account, or create an account if you don’t.)