Relearning the “Beautiful Basics” of Science

(This post is inspired by Bora Zivkovic’s excellent post on Circadian Clocks without DNA which reminded me just how much I still need to learn and how exciting that can be when learning from the right writer.)

I have a pile of favorite popular science books as long as my arm. Literally. I measured it the last time I had them all in one place. (Currently they’re mostly on loan to various people who absolutely *needed* to read them.) This list reads like a who’s who of scientists and writers. It runs from Carl Sagan, who was my first favorite science writer when I was 13, to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I read last year and have been obsessively throwing at people since then. (Where can I get a button that says “Ask me why HeLa is relevant to YOU!”)

However, my favorite popular science book of all is one that I initially resisted reading. It’s a book I bought for my father, who is a brilliant man and a voracious consumer of science writing, but doesn’t have that much of a formal science education. He knows more about different scientific fields than most people, but he hasn’t had a basic science class since he was in high school and that some of those basics are either completely different or were never thoroughly explained to start with.

This has lead to many, many strange dinnertime conversations, where he asks my brother, sister and I question after question about some subject he’s just read about, or where he reads a passage from a book that he finds particularly fascinating and we go “Well, yeah. That’s cool, here’s what’s really happening….” At least one of us usually knows what he’s talking about already. We have a weirdly diverse range of knowledge for three children raised together and following similar educational paths.

That brings me to the book that now has pride of place at the top of my science books to lend to people. That books is The Canon by Natalie Angier. I had seen it on bookshelves repeatedly when it came out, but brushed it off as not intended for an audience in my demographic. When I read “A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science” I assumed it would be so far below my knowledge level that I would read a chapter, become bored and put it aside. I did this for six months before actually picking it up.

So what made me change my mind? Well, I had just lent my father Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean B. Carroll’s fascinating and fairly basic book on evo devo.  I had read this book and thought it was perfectly written and expressed, so of course I wanted others to read it. Dad read through it over the course of several months, interspersed with questions about details and concepts that I had never really considered that he wouldn’t know already. The same thing happened with other people who read Endless Forms.

After having several of these conversations, while wandering through the bookstore, I gave The Canon another look. I had read a good review of it somewhere and it occurred to me that it might be the answer to a lot of Dad’s questions. I bought it for him for his birthday and forgot about it.

Then something amazing happened. It was around Christmas time when my siblings and I were all at home. Dad pulled out the book he was reading and started with “Did you know this? This is fascinating!” and then he read a section from The Canon about static electricity. I had only been half paying attention, when suddenly I realized that I was actually learning something I had never known before.

I knew in a basic idea how static electricity works, and could even probably have explained it if called on by a museum visitor to do so. However, I had never thought about it in depth This was so cool! How come I had never thought about it before? I expressed this idea to my family and while Dad agreed with me, my high school brother rolled his eyes and expressed disbelief that this was new to us.

Wait, wasn’t that what I had been doing to everyone else? Assuming that they knew the basics and that those basics weren’t particularly exciting, because, of course everyone knew them already. Get to the new and interesting things already!

This was a huge breakthrough for me. It made me realize I had been missing one of the best opportunities to get people excited. Tell them the basics and tell them in a way that is interesting enough that they can then take and explain to others. That wasn’t necessarily new – after all, I had been using the various descriptions of the length of geologic time as party facts for years, but that tendency hadn’t been expanded to other fields or other situations.

So I picked up The Canon, read it, not only learned things I hadn’t previously known about the world around me, but also learned what I didn’t know. This book managed to not only teach me facts, but open my mind to other concepts out there that I wasn’t previously aware of and that I then needed to pursue. More than that, it taught me that teaching the basics doesn’t boring and learning the basics is one of the exciting things one can do, as long as they’re taught in the right way.

This is a lesson that all science communicators could learn. Just because something’s old hat to you, it can still be new and exciting to everyone else. We just need to take care to present it in that way!

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27 thoughts on “Relearning the “Beautiful Basics” of Science

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