Robert M. Hazen & James Trefil,
Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy
(Anchor, 1991; 2009)

I have to applaud the notion behind Science Matters.

Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil believe that all of us, as members of modern society, ought to have a basic understanding of science, an understanding sufficient to follow news stories concerning such things as climate change, new medical breakthroughs and the latest images from the Hubble space telescope. So, back in 1991, they published the original version of Science Matters devoting a chapter each to such topics as the atom, electricity and magnetism, relativity, evolution and astronomy.

Now we have an updated version of the book complete with an additional chapter on biotechnology, perhaps the most quickly evolving area of science in the decades since the book's original publication.

As the authors state in their introduction, "To function as a citizen, you need to know a little bit about a lot of different sciences -- a little biology, a little geology, a little physics, and so on. But universities (and, by extension, primary and secondary schools) are set up to teach one science at a time. Thus, a fundamental mismatch exists between the kinds of knowledge educational institutions are equipped to impart and the kind of knowledge the citizen needs."

So does Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy succeed where the North American education system fails? In part it does. It compiles the basics from the vast landscape of science in a mere 350 pages of readable text. The authors, for instance, do an admirable job of explaining the often counterintuitive concepts underlying relativity. They cite experiments that have demonstrated that clocks in motion do indeed run more slowly than those at rest. And they frequently remind the reader that, while relativity can seem absurd to our Newtonian perspective, the world of the very small and the very fast is a strange place where different rules dominate.

Again, does Science Matters succeed? In part it does not. I still came away from certain chapters foggy on the core concepts. The problem was created somewhat by the authors' attempts to employ metaphor and simile. For instance, "Most cells are about a ten-thousandth of an inch across, a bit smaller than the particles of smoke that make the sky hazy after a fire." This comparison, while artistically compelling, does nothing to solidify my understanding of how big a ten-thousandth of an inch is, since I have absolutely no sense of the size of a smoke particle. Nor, I suspect, do the vast majority of readers this book is hoping to attract.

But the shortcomings of Science Matters are greatly outweighed by the book's considerable strengths. This isn't the sort of populist breakthrough publication that Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything proved to be, primarily because Hazen and Trefil don't have Bryson's immense storytelling skills or his extraordinary sense of humor. But readers will find it much simpler to return to Science Matters to refresh their understanding when they run across a confusing scientific concept in the news.

So read both books and be more scientifically literate for the experience. After all, that's the whole point.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

25 July 2009

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