Saturday, August 26, 2017

Science ("Caesar's Last Breath" by Sam Kean)

I was not a particularly enthusiastic student, at least where science was concerned. Every class I took on the subject, from middle school through college, left me completely uninterested, and I soon mastered the art of daydreaming while maintaining eye contact with my teachers, always with a notebook and pen seemingly at the ready. (In college, a required class on soil science, held at 9 a.m., was almost too much to bear. To keep myself awake, I sat beside the same student every Tuesday and Thursday, a soccer player with an active night life, and nudged him every time his head drooped to one side or the other. This self-appointed task kept me alert enough that I never fell victim to the same fate.)

Needless to say, upon the completion of my last required science class as an undergrad--and, as I was well aware, the last science class I would ever have to take--I felt a sense of overwhelming joy. I had endured years of droning lectures, filled notebooks with equations and diagrams that I would never fully understand, and devoted hours of study to textbooks that described science as though it were a piece of furniture in need of assembly. Even dissection, something I did only once, revealed itself to be lacking any real interest for me, as we spent most of our time looking over the photocopied carcass of a splayed piglet in preparation for yet another quiz. (In retrospect, I should have claimed moral objections and skipped the entire ordeal, as another one of my classmates did; my grade would have been the same regardless, I'm sure.)

And yet...buried deep in a box somewhere in my parents' basement are science books. Dozens and dozens of them. Many of them are picture books--on dinosaurs, weather patterns, birds, volcanoes, and so on. As a child, I adored anything related to science, especially if it taught me something about the strange, wild, and fascinating world I had been born into. I watched episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy with such hunger that even today, twenty years later, I can recite certain moments verbatim. The house in which I grew up was surrounded on all sides by lush forest, and I whiled away hours collecting a leaves, studying anthills, and investigating dens dug by small animals. (That I escaped childhood without once being attacked by a badger is a miracle.) Like many young boys, the effects of fire left me spellbound:  aluminum soda cans would weaken if left in a fire long enough, I noticed, but metal soup cans would not, and from these simple experiments I could make endless deductions. And at some point, around the age of ten or eleven, I became obsessed with Alfred Wegener, the man who first proposed continental drift. The thought of a fifth-grade boy becoming enamored with a long-dead German geophysicists while his classmates filled their lunchtime conversations with thoughts on their favorite football players is a little tough to imagine; for me, I couldn't imagine anything else at that age, especially the allure of football when compared to the puzzle-piece continents of our world.

My interest may have been narrow and eccentric, maybe even parochial, but they were not unusual. My hunch is that many boys and girls experience a similar baptism:  a parent or teacher introduces them to an enchanting aspect of the world, and they are hooked. As time passes, however, those interests disappear. Blame is easy to assign--we abandon many of our childhood interests over time, and adolescence makes us self-conscious about ourselves, especially if we enjoy something considered "geeky" or "weird"--but I have no hesitancy in doing so. At some point, science became less about the world around me and more about the world as it was depicted on paper. The science lessons I remember fondly from my pre-teen years--raising butterflies, making alum crystals, dissecting owl pellets, creating an electrical grid from desk to desk--slowly gave way to tedious chapters in decades-old textbooks. Hands-on experiments became fewer and fewer, replaced by thick packets and endless tests.

Even today, I shudder at what has become standard in science curricula across the country. Once, while tutoring a student after school, he handed me the packet he was required to complete for his science class, which reduced a compelling topic--volcanoes--to a series of multiple-choice questions and short-answer problems, all derived from long, droning paragraphs in his textbook. The boy I was tutoring was eleven years old. In more capable hands, he would be learning about volcanoes by building his own out of paper mache, or by studying pictures of Pompeii, or by tracing every step of an eruption with props and sound effects and destructible scenery. Instead, his study of volcanoes required him to sit at a table and search for bold vocabulary words.

Which is, of course, a travesty. Our world is endlessly fascinating, and it's only been in the last five years or so--since graduating from college and becoming a teacher myself, albeit of English--that my interest in science has been rekindled, thanks almost exclusively to writers like Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, and Sam Kean.* The first wrote what is perhaps my favorite science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which explores the planet Earth from its earliest moments. What makes the book such a treasure is that Bryson, who has no formal training in science, devotes an equal amount of ink to both scientists and their discoveries. He tells their stories as though writing a novel--sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic, often inspiring but just as easily dispiriting--and employs creative analogies and contemporary examples in order to simplify complicated (but important) milestones reached centuries ago.

The same can be said of Mary Roach, who writes about serious topics--the utility of dead bodies, the science of human sexuality, the preparation needed to undertake a mission to Mars--with biting honesty and a dark sense of humor, both of which help lay readers connect with subjects that might otherwise be seen as too obtuse or irrelevant. And Sam Kean takes broad scientific concepts--elements, genetics, the brain--and weaves together dozens of fascinating stories in order to convey how rich and complicated each subject truly is. In other words, he takes topics that have become stodgy textbook chapters and rewrites them to reveal the human faces behind each.

Kean's most recent book, Caesar's Last Breath, explains the air around us:  what it is comprised of, how long we've known this, and who made these discoveries. Along the way, we are introduced to the first men to successfully fly a hot-air balloon; a crotchety old widower in Washington who defies a volcano and loses; a pig that miraculously survives a nuclear blast; an aristocrat whose house is set on fire by those who see his scientific experiments as proof of his decadence; the world's worst poet, writing an ode to one of the world's worst bridges; a man who hopes to defeat hurricanes with chemicals; and so on. Each of these stories offers us a glimpse into our attempts at understanding, utilizing, and even changing our atmosphere. Most importantly, Kean knows that every respiration is a story in itself--a remixing of the same air breathed by men and women who lived centuries ago, as well as the same air that will be still be breathed centuries from now. In other words, every inhale is a communication with the past, and every exhale is a communication with the future.

This is one aspect of science that is almost always lost in textbooks:  why the past matters to those of us living in the present. It's very easy to ignore the life of Einstein when all we're asked to do is understand his theories. But learning about where our famous scientists came from, as well as how they came to be scientists, is just as important as memorizing their formulas, identifying their discoveries on the Periodic Table, or using modern versions of the instruments they designed and built. We see the situations that propelled them into asking questions, making observations, and filling pages with calculations, until they arrived at a conclusion. This gives our modern world a depth that it so deeply needs, and a nuance that might serve as a warning to others. As Kean points out, not all great scientists were heroic beyond their achievements; some, like Alfred Nobel and Fritz Haber, left legacies of carnage and death that may very well overshadow their scientific accomplishments in the near future. Those who hope to one day work in the sciences must understand that not every breakthrough is universally beneficial; sometimes, the cure for one problem is the cause of another, and anyone who walks into a laboratory without that in mind is taking a great risk.

Studying the past is also a reminder to young people that those who do great things often come from humble beginnings, that they need to work hard over many years, that they often--and inevitably--struggle. Students often approach science class with a pass/fail mindset--they need to get the experiment right the first time because they will not have a second, and anything that does not achieve the prescribed outcome is meaningless. This is not how science is supposed to work. Science is built upon repetition and failure: every floundering experiment or disproven hypothesis adds to our scientific knowledge because it tells us to try again, change our approach, or move in a different direction. One of the great benefits to doing experiments with children is that it forces them to act, evaluate, and recalculate based on little more than what they've observed, all of which are vital skills. Learning that scientists of the past found success only after years, even decades, of failure gives kids permission to do the same--have an idea, conduct an experiment, and fail. As long as they see that failure as the beginning of a new path rather than the end of their only option, they will benefit much more than if they simply read about these experiments in a stuffy textbook.

There are writers with much more direct scientific knowledge and expertise than Sam Kean--Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Michio Kaku are only a few. And they are fine writers, not to mention excellent spokespeople for the importance of a strong science education. But it's Sam Kean and his compatriots who I enjoy the most, and whose work offers us guidance about how we can reclaim the joys of science for future generations. They remind us that science can be both terrifying and exciting; it can be time-consuming but also fun and invigorating; it can be frustratingly mysterious, almost petulant in its unwillingness to give up the solution as easily as you would like, but within those mysteries is something redemptive. To solve a mystery of this world, even a relatively small one, is to locate a missing puzzle piece, one that reveals even more of our existence once set in place. And the people who solve those mysteries, regardless of their own personal foibles and reputations, are just as worthy of our study as their most important works.

*A healthy diet of MythBusters reruns has also helped.