I’ve met a lot of people who don’t try to understand scientific ideas because they are “too difficult” or “boring”. But if you’ve been following this blog so far, I hope that you agree that there is nothing difficult about the ideas I’ve used so far. It is possible to explain them in simple English. With luck, you’ve also found them moderately interesting.
The concepts I’ve introduced, like momentum and force, are based on simple experience (post 16.13). We use this simple experience to define these concepts so that we can use them to explain a wide range of observations. If we meet ideas, like mass, length and time, that we experience but can’t define, we simply recognize the difficulty and do the best we can (posts 16.12 and 16.13).
I think that many people’s difficulties start with the way science is taught at school and the way it is portrayed by the television and newspapers. In school textbooks, scientific ideas are not usually explained in simple English. When a chemical reaction occurs in a liquid, it doesn’t “fizz” it “effervesces”. Scientific laws are introduced as something to be memorised – not as general observations that make sense of our everyday experiences. Problems are often solved by putting numbers into “formulae” that have to be remembered but not understood; no thinking is involved.
This attitude can be reinforced by television science programmes. If you watch a science programme involving quantum mechanics (post 16.2), you will probably meet something called “Schrödinger’s cat”. The way it will be explained won’t make a lot of sense – because Schrödinger didn’t really intend it to! He wanted to show how that you shouldn’t take some descriptions of the subject in words too literally. You can study quantum mechanics at university without ever hearing about Schrödinger’s cat. Television science presenters and people who write books on “popular science” like the idea because it makes science seem weird and difficult.
As a result, many people think that they can’t understand science because they weren’t good at the subject at school. They imagine top scientists must have done exceptionally well at school and at university. It isn’t true!
In the UK many boys from wealthy families go to what are called “preparatory schools” until they are 13 years’ old. Alan Turing’s early work on codes helped stop Europe from becoming a fascist dictatorship; he then went on to invent computers. But when he was at preparatory school his most obvious talent was for making model frogs from paper. Young children from less wealthy families go to primary schools. Until about 40 years’ ago, most of them sat an examination to find out whether they were sufficiently clever to benefit from an academic education. I used to work with someone who was exceptionally good at thinking of original scientific ideas; but when he was 11 years’ old, his examination results indicated that he wasn’t one of these clever children. Albert Einstein failed to get into the University of Zurich and went instead to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) which was easier to get into; ironically ETH is now the top University in Europe outside the UK.
Successful scientists often weren’t the best students at university. In the UK, university degrees are usually graded from class 1 (the best) to class 3 (the worse); in between, most universities divide class 2 degrees into class 2.1 and class 2.2. Only class 1 and class 2.1 are considered to be “good” degrees. Yet the person who is head of a group of science departments at one of the UK’s older universities has a class 2.2 degree. In 1962 the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA – a discovery that revolutionised biology and medicine. Two of the three (Crick and Wilkins) were educated at UK universities; both of them obtained second class degrees.
You would hope that science teaching in universities would be designed to help students to really understand the subject. This doesn’t appear to be the case. And it may be getting worse. There are many successful scientists in universities who should be passing their expertise on to students. This is especially important in a student’s first year when there are many misapprehensions, of the kind I have described in previous posts, that need to be corrected. In the USA early teaching may be entrusted to “teaching assistants” who have little scientific experience. I know of at least one “leading” university in the UK where teachers who are not good at research (a polite way of saying that they may not be very good at their subject) are increasingly being made responsible for teaching science and engineering to first-year students. In contrast, undergraduate students at the Marischal College in Aberdeen (now part of the University of Aberdeen) were taught physics from 1856 to 1860 by James Clerk Maxwell, who is widely regarded as one of the three most influential physicists of all time (along with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein) and, at the University of Aberdeen, for most of the 1920s, by George P Thomson, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1937. Unfortunately, some much less distinguished professors believe that they are too important to teach students!