Learning Science - from Archaic to Arcane


science books for GED

There is as great a sum of illiteracy in not knowing the basic concepts of calculus or spherical geometry as there is in not knowing grammar. Or to use Snow's famous example: a man who has read no Shakespeare is uncultured; so is one who is ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics. Each is blind to comparable worlds.
George Steiner, The Retreat From The Word

[Danish quantum physicist] Bohr once commented that a person who wasn't outraged on first hearing about quantum theory didn't understand what had been said.
Overbye, quoted in Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything


Each September, I set myself some professional learning goals - some puzzlements I hope to solve, or a skill set I want to gain - and then I review my progress the next September, etc.

Looking back at the past year, and the one before that, I note that I'm not doing very good with science.

In particular, I was going to learn something useful about climate change, the atmosphere and weather. Instead, I mostly learned how to make video and sound clips, and get a little more out of on-line social networking tools.

Part of my science problem is I'm a Newtonian of the Popular Mechanics type. This whole newfangled quantum notion that time is relative? That sounds like bunk to me. I know I'm wrong - at least, I'm prepared to accept it on faith - but I can no-how see that Einstein was right.

Worse, I've a poor head for biology, fast becoming queen of the sciences. The science I know and love is the large-motor, physical science of machinery and planets; the way a pulley works or the arc of a well hit baseball.

This worries me a bit, since it is sometimes my job to help learners prepare to pass a GED science test.

Now, I can pass that test easily. But that's because I'm good with text and inference and patterns and such. The GED is a talky sort of test that's always giving away the answer if you have an ear for the written word.

But I can't explain science stuff, not easily.

I can't explain how, for example, near lake-fulls of water can be sailing over our heads as clouds, and then fall to earth, but - wonders of wonders - only a few drops at a time. Toss a pail of water into the air, and it thuds to earth like a dead sheep. But put enough water to drown Pakistan up there, and it will drizzle down leisurely all week long. How can that be?

And how can I explain it if I can't see it?

I bought some science books a few weeks back: Why Does E=mc² by Cox and Forshaw; Wonderful Life and The Mismeasure of Man by Gould. Relativity, evolutionary biology and psychology/anthropology. Maybe that will help.

But then, I bought two more books this week: Voyager by Pyne and The Fallen Sky by Cokins. See? I fell right back into the gross motor physics of outer space.

Oh, and that earlier purchase? It included a fourth book: The Eerie Silence, a book about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by Davis. Tell me, how is that going to help my learners?

Nope. No doubt about it. I'm a lousy guide to science. The only thing I have going for me is that, thus far, my learners have known even less science than I do. It's a case of the near-sighted leading the blind.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to fall asleep listening to Jet Morgan in the radio drama Journey Into Space: The Red Planet. Big machines and all.

Jet Morgan

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