These books make science popular

CorrespondentMarch 5, 2006 

In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof lamented the widening divide between the humanities and the sciences. The problem, he wrote, is serious. Many Americans know little science. They don't believe in evolution, the cornerstone of biology, and are becoming increasingly hostile to science. Unfortunately, this antagonism is waxing just as society tries to deal with a slew of technical issues, from stem-cell research to global warming.

The gap between scientists and nonscientists is not new. The English physicist and novelist Charles Percy Snow addressed the divide 40 years ago in his famous essay "The Two Cultures." Even highly educated people, he said, knew almost nothing about biology, physics or chemistry. It was, Snow proclaimed, "as though the scientists spoke nothing but Tibetan."

He offered a solution that would prove correct in concept if not method. "There is only one way out of all this: it is, of course, by rethinking our education." University education was too specialized, he believed. English majors took English courses; physics majors took physics courses. Snow hoped his essay, and the lecture upon which it was based, would inspire educators to require humanities majors to dip more deeply into the sciences. These hopes have been largely realized, at least in the United States.

Most universities now require undergraduates to take some math and science courses. Students nickname these courses designed for humanities majors: "Rocks for Jocks," "Cookbook Chemistry" and so on. These courses aim to familiarize the student with not only science but, more importantly, the methods of science. They are valuable additions to the curriculum. But, 20 years out of college, when the English major tries to follow an issue in the newspaper as complicated as, say, the pros and cons of nuclear power, that "Physics for Poets" course won't help much.

However, Snow was on the right track. Education is the key. A bridge between the two cultures, a gateway to understanding today's front-page science stories is available. For most of us, it lies only a few steps away, in a bookstore or library. The hundreds of popular science books (so-called to distinguish them from academic texts) that have hit the market in the last decade or two make scientific literacy possible for anyone. Entertaining, accurate and amazingly informative, the best of them provide the scientific background -- what exactly is a stem cell? how solid is the evidence for global warming? -- that is rarely spelled out in public discussions. As the science of nutrition, medicine, the environment and myriad other issues affect our everyday lives, it is ever more important that we understand them in order to make informed decisions.

Here are a few helpful books:

* Stem-cell research: "The Proteus Effect: Stem Cells and Their Promise for Medicine" by Ann Parson (Joseph Henry Press, 2005). Anyone concerned about the Bush administration's restrictions on stem-cell research should read this book. It clearly explains the science behind the political posturing and shows how stem-cell research could lead to cures for some diseases.

* Biological diversity: "Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion" by Alan Burdick (2005). Invasive animals and plants are organisms that behave well at home but can be disruptive when humans dump them into a new neighborhood. The brown tree snake is one example. Introduced into Guam, most likely as a stowaway on military aircraft during World War II, the bird-eating snake has almost completely devoured the island's avian life, completely wiping out many species. This book explores the developing science of invasion biology and the researchers who are attempting to stem the waves of invasives.

* Genetically modified foods: "Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods" by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown (2005).

A Boston College professor coined the word "Frankenfoods" for genetically modified (GM) foods in 1992. It aroused images of the mad scientist creating an uncontrolled monster. The authors clarify the science and dispel the monster myth associated with GM foods, convincingly arguing that they offer a safe and important alternative to conventional crops.

* Global warming: "The Weather Makers" by Tim Flannery (2006) and "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" by Elizabeth Kolbert (2006). Many authors have written about global warming, most notably Al Gore and Bill McKibben. Two books due out early this year present increasingly persuasive evidence of global warming and warn of its dire consequences.

* Evolution: "Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom" by Sean B. Carroll (2005). Only 40 percent of American college graduates believe in evolution by natural selection. (Those college science courses must help, though; just 18 percent of Americans without a college education accept evolution.) Oddly enough, this rejection of Darwinism is happening just as biologists are making Bunyanesque strides in explaining the mechanics of evolution -- how small genetic changes can account for the amazing variety of life on Earth. These new insights are coming from a marriage between evolutionary and developmental biology. Called evo devo for short, it adds to the mountains of evidence supporting evolution. In this important new book, the author tells how evo devo is revolutionizing evolution.

These are just a few of the hot-button issues covered in recent books of popular science. In fact, such books are available on almost any topic, from the dangers of bird flu ("Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic" by Marc Siegel) and the latest investigations into Alzheimer's disease ("The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic" by David Shenk) to the reasons the world may be facing a vaccine crisis ("The Cutter Incident: How America's First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis" by Paul Offit). Just a few afternoons of reading can bring the curious English major up to date on a variety of scientific issues.

As Snow said, the secret to unifying the two cultures lies in education. However, what's needed is not more university education, but the low-cost, continuing education available on a bookshelf just around the corner from you.

(Phillip Manning is a Chapel Hill writer; his book reviews and essays on science are available online at www.scibooks.org.)

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