Friday 13 August 2010

I heart science

Sometimes my lunchtime tab line-up is so good, I just have to share it. Today's theme: science literacy, and pictorial trickery.

Over the past 18 months or so, I've put a lot of reading hours into trying to improve my science understanding. I'm not necessarily trying to understand scientific concepts or formula, although there's been a bit of that happening along the way. What I'm trying to understand is how science happens - the process, the history, the culture, the philosophy.

The way I learn is through narrative. Often I'll start with a piece of historical fiction (say Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy) move on to a history of science from that period, and then delve into individual scientists (for example, James Gleick's Newton bio, and Lisa Jardine on Robert Hooke).

One of my favourite parts of this progression is reading reviews of science books; Freeman Dyson's collected reviews have been a revelation in this respect. And now I can add - from today's line-up - Margaret Atwood's review of Edward Wilson's Anthill, the first novel by this 'grand old man of ants'. I think a good review gives you ideas for how you might read a book: this review certainly achieves that objective.

Given my interest in catching myself in the science I missed (or ignored) at school, this article by Alice Bell on science literacy made me feel a little shabby. I'm doing my best, but what if I'm turning myself into one of those dreaded a-little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing people ("I don't know much about science, but I know what I believe")?

This interview with Craig Venter (whose company sequenced the gene faster and more cheaply than the government-sponsored Human Genome Project) gives me a little faith though. According to Venter, we've both learned enormous amounts, and hardly anything at all, from sequencing the genome. And I think I understand enough about the ethos of science to feel this is okay - even good.

So, on to pictorial trickery. There's been a rash of astronomy-porn on the web recently, and like many, I'm curious about whether the universe really looks as pretty as it does in photos. In his explanation of how astrophotography works, Ray Villard makes an analogy I really enjoyed:

Many celestial pictures look garish because the universe is, well, garish. Hot gaseous clouds of hydrogen, helium, and oxygen glow with the same intense color saturation you would see on nighttime stroll down the Las Vegas strip.

The best astrophotography is comparable to Ansel Adams’ nature pictures. Adams worked to extract the maximum information and quality from his photographs. This required many hours in the darkroom for Adams to reconstruct an image that reproduced the broad tonal range and contrast that our eye perceives on a sunny day.

And just 'cos I'm on the theme of astronomy and pretty pictures - Ethan Spiegel on where metor showers come from. It's stellar.

1 comment:

staplegun said...

I think you're safe. For me, science is a synonym for curious.

We're just trying to figure out the environment we live in. No one actually knows the answers definitively (each generation disproves the previous), but there are people who are curious and their investigations & theories & methodologies become 'science'.

Which means science isn't absolute, it keeps reinventing itself. Even the 'scientific method' - it evolved as something that seems to give results, but it too has changed over time.

So no one can 'do science wrong', it might not follow current norms, but if you're curious and act on that curiousity, you are making science.