As I often do, I am listening to a science book on CD as I drive to and from work. Yes, I’m falling behind on all the important politics and news of Britney Britney and Menudo, but for me those few minutes of audio immersion in science are some of the best of my day.
It struck me today as I listened, though, how none of it really mattered, and that it was great. The speaker was talking about the invention of things like the steam engine, the airplane, and the automobile, and how little role science or scientists played in those inventions. Later on, of course, that changed, as inventions like nuclear reactors, the transistor, and the laser were driven almost entirely by science. It would be ridiculous to look around at the modern world and deny the role of science.
Yet most people have no idea how a nuclear reactor, a transistor, or a laser works. Some, like doctors, may need to know what a laser does, but knowing the science behind it is virtually irrelevant to actually using the thing. And here’s my point: for most people, the science behind the thing doesn’t matter.
There are things that do matter. I’m in the process of selling my house. I have to know things, like what an interest rate is, how to negotiate a selling price, how to read and sign my name. I’m working on various grants at work. I have to know how to spell, how to talk to people without making them dislike me, how to answer e-mail. I’m trying to sell a new book. I have to know how to write a cover letter, how to look for an agent, and how to accept rejection. But for none of these things does science matter. Yes, if I were a working scientist, science would really matter. But if I were a working auto mechanic, then auto mechanic-y stuff would really matter. If I were a baker, then . . . etc. etc.
Educators make a huge mistake when they try to convince their learners that science is Important, that it Matters. No it doesn’t. It’s wonderful and exciting, but it doesn’t matter in the same way that knowing how to read, count, or talk to people matters. If you’re trying to find the right combination of ingredients to make a room temperature superconductor, then science matters. But for most of us, science doesn’t matter, not really, and that is wonderful. It frees us up to just have fun, to know science for what it is – a grand exploration of the world, for no better reason than the world exists and is begging to be explored.
Let’s see what we can discover next!