Tag Archives: science literacy

Pandemic 01: Learning in a Time of Crisis

by Shane L. Larson

For many of us, we have not been under the tutelage or mentoring of someone in in a learning environment for a long time. Classrooms were a regular part of our lives years if not decades in our past. Once we left classrooms behind us we did not quit learning, we just changed what we learned, and we totally changed the balance of what we learned. 

Nowadays, you learn on the fly and on your own. Maybe you were tutored in your current job skills during your first week at your company. You’ve probably done a lot of learning by trial and error (especially on home projects, like building decks, learning to garden, or sponge painting a wall so it looks good). Maybe you learned through a lot of hard knocks, starting your own business and figuring out how manage employees, price products effectively, and manage supply chains. And perhaps you still learn by surfing the web when your curiosity gets the better of you and you want to know what the life-cycle of catfish are, or how they built the Grand Buddha at Leshan, or who invented waffles anyhow? You never stopped learning, you just stopped going to school.

But there is a simple fact here: you are plenty smart, and plenty capable of taking unfamiliar information, assimilating it, and working with it. Your everyday learning life says that very clearly, and it works great for most things, especially if they are low risk, meaning they don’t threaten life and limb. Small errors can be corrected, methods and skills can be practiced without terrible consequence. But what do you do when things get really complicated?

The global pandemic caused by the coronavirus outbreak has flooded all of our lives with new information. Daily infusions of numerical data, graphs, predictions, extrapolations, models, parameters, error bars, data quality factors, trendlines. If you don’t think about data and numbers and scientific implications every day, it’s all a bit overwhelming and has a tendency to exacerbate uncertainty that abounds with a crisis that is fast moving and constantly shifting as dew data and findings come to light.

My fellow scientists and I encounter this kind of data, and in particular this kind of data onslaught, every single day. We’ve spent our entire careers reading graphs, looking at numerical data, building predictions from that data, and assessing implications and possibilities.

But if you aren’t a scientist, how do you dip your hand into the COVID-19 firehose and gather enough information to help you feel informed, enough information to perhaps quell some of the anxiety you may feel, and most importantly make an assessment of risk to help yourself plan accordingly?

Some of you are lucky enough to know a scientist or medical professional, and you may have reached out to them to ask a question or two, dipping your toe back into that learning environment you left behind in classrooms long ago. For those who know me and have had the courage to ask, I have fielded many such inquiries, answering questions about how to understand data and the implications of data and predictions to the best of my ability.

The answers to those questions aren’t always clear, because for many aspects of this crisis we are simply still ignorant. For many other aspects of this crisis, we understand in crystal clear terms what is going on, but uncertainty hinges on the fact that what is to come is largely dependent on what we do now. Understanding that our knowledge about COVID-19 and the coronavirus is evolving is just as important a lesson as being able to read a graph or understand a trendline. Understanding there are incontrovertible uncertainties, and what it means for personal risk, is essential. Understanding that there are actionable things we can do to minimize risk is absolutely critical. All of these lessons are there, in the firehose of data.

So for the next few posts, I’m going to spend some time doing what I do — trying not just to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked, but also trying to remind you of the skills someone once taught you long ago in a science class. Back then, you might have asked why you need to know all this science stuff. THIS. This is why. Because sometimes life in the modern world requires you to think a bit like I think and look at graphs and data.

These posts will feel a bit like your old science class did, and some of you remember that you didn’t enjoy that class. I get that. But at this stage in my career, I have taught introductory science to thousands of students, and I’ve talked to thousands of you on the public talk circuit. In all of those  experiences, I have discovered a secret:

You can understand this, better than that little voice in the back of your head gives you credit for when it says “I hated science!

I know, because I’ve talked to you. So let’s talk about the Global Pandemic, and the COVID-19 crisis for a few posts. Your life, and the life of your friends and family depends on it.

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This is the first in a series of posts about scientific reasoning, instigated by the Global Pandemic of 2020. The links to the rest of the posts in this series are:

Cosmos 13: Who Speaks for Earth?

by Shane L. Larson

Let me tell you a story about me that many people don’t know. When I was in junior high school, I was a small, exceptionally nerdy child who loved Star Trek, science, games of all sorts (provided they didn’t involve “teams” or “athletics”), and learning. My very best friend of the day was a similarly minded young gentleman, who introduced me to computer gaming (“Colossal Cave”, which we played on the mainframe at Ball Aerospace, where his father worked), World War II aircraft, and car mechanicing. He also had epilepsy. It was frightening when he would have seizures, because he would go blank and suddenly it was like he didn’t know me or anything about the world around him. I don’t recall how long these episodes would last, but what I do remember is his father would swoop in, and sit with him for time, and eventually my friend would be back, and we’d be off to explore the world again.

A scar on the orbit of my left eye; stitches in my 7th grade year. The scar has faded slowly over the years, but is still obviously there if you know to look for it.

A scar on the orbit of my left eye; stitches in my 7th grade year. The scar has faded slowly over the years, but is still obviously there if you know to look for it.

Now, as was often the case in the cruel world of middle-school aged children, we were the target of bullies. My locker neighbors reveled in shutting my locker each time I opened it, or knocking all my books on the ground so I was tardy to next period. Once they took my prized possession of the day, the Collected Novels of H.G. Wells; when I decided that day to fight back, I was bodily thrown across the room into a metal chair, gouging myself on the orbit of my left eye, requiring 7 stitches and leaving a scar I still have today. My best friend was a similar target, with more serious consequences because the physical bullying would often trigger a seizure. The school administration took an all too common viewpoint on these matters: no one saw it, so it is your word against theirs. An odd viewpoint in light of the amount of blood streaming down my face (I don’t know what the bully had told them, but to be fair I had bit him when he had me in a headlock).

Me and my family, in my high school years. My mom and dad instilled in all three of us boys a robust sense of justice.

Me and my family, in my high school years. My mom and dad instilled in all three of us boys a robust sense of justice.

Now my parents are the most moral, upstanding people I know, and taught me a deep personal philosophy about justice. Now, in the wisdom of my adulthood, I like to hang quotes from Gahndi on it, like “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”  But really, what I remember are words from my Pa: “Bullies are really just cowards, so knock them down. And make sure the bastards don’t get back up.”  The matter all came to a head on a late winter day during my 7th grade year. My best friend had his head bashed against a locker, which triggered a bad seizure. No teacher saw it happen, but I resolved it was going to stop.  At the end of lunch period that day, I bought an extra milk, and opened the carton on both sides. I remember one of my other nerdy-friends standing next to me saying, “Aw, how are you going to drink that now?” I didn’t answer; I was standing behind the locker-basher, who was sitting at a table. I upended the carton of milk over his head, and beat the tar out of him. The event instigated one of the largest food fights the junior high school had ever seen, and I was awarded a 2-week suspension, which I took without argument.

One of the most often reproduced Apollo images; Jim Irwin on the plain at Hadley, in front of the Lunar Module Falcon and Lunar Rover. [NASA Image AS15-88-11866]

One of the most often reproduced Apollo images; Jim Irwin on the plain at Hadley, in front of the Lunar Module Falcon and Lunar Rover. [NASA Image AS15-88-11866]

The aftermath was the most important. My friend and I were never the target of these particular bullies again; nor were we the target of a somewhat wider group of bullies who had always circled on the fringes of our lives. This kind of mayhem was far outside the boundaries of what was expected from me. The event somehow incited some people to ask what really happened, and to pay attention. After a long discussion with the faculty advisor about the event and the reasons behind it, my National Junior Honor Society membership was maintained. My suspension was lifted a week early, so my friend and I both could attend a school assembly featuring Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin, whom we met and talked with! But most importantly, my science teacher docked my term project about the anatomy and life cycles of frogs from a 100% to an 80%, dropping me a letter grade in the class. It blemished an otherwise admirable middle-school academic record. She never said a word, and just kept right on treating me like the scientist she seemed to know I was going to become. She reinforced a lesson my parents had already touted — there are always consequences, even when you are doing the right thing, but it shouldn’t stop you from doing the right thing.

Now, in my adulthood, I still carry that same overbearing, black and white opinion about justice, and an unfailing opinion that people who can stand up should stand up for those who can’t. It is something that I often think about as I push my way blindly forward in my career.  What do I do everyday, when I’m not writing this blog for you to read?  I’m a scientist; an astronomer. What does that have to do with bullies and childhood scraps? Everything in the modern world.

A white dwarf is the skeleton of a star like the Sun, long after it has died. It has about the mass of the Sun, but is the size of the Earth. [Image by STScI]

A white dwarf is the skeleton of a star like the Sun, long after it has died. It has about the mass of the Sun, but is the size of the Earth. [Image by STScI]

In my everyday life as a professional scientist, I spend my time thinking about astrophysics, exploring our understanding of how gravity influences the evolution and life of white dwarf stars, the ancient cooling skeletons of stars that lived their lives like the Sun. Some days, I teach intro science classes to young women and men bound for careers in business, medicine, law and management; people who may never take another science class in their lives, nor think all that much about science ever again. Every now and then, one of them asks me, “What is understanding white dwarfs good for?” There are a whole host of reasons related to how stars act as astrophysical laboratories, simulating conditions that are difficult and expensive to replicate on Earth, and how the knowledge has applications to technology, energy, and medicine.  But the real reasons, the important reasons are these:

(1) Astronomy, unlike bench science in a laboratory, in an exercise in looking, thinking, and understanding Nature from afar. The practice of astronomy teaches us how to think deeply about the Cosmos, how to unravel the secrets of Nature, and not fool ourselves into thinking something false. More than any other science, astronomy teaches us to be harshly critical of our reasoning, to be brutally honest about what we know and don’t know, and to be quite certain of our conclusions when we say them out loud.

secretCancer(2) Every person has a deep seated sense of wonder, waiting to be ignited and tapped. We cannot know who or what will inspire those who see the future for us, but we know it will happen, just as it has happened in the past to people named Steve Jobs, Temple Grandin, Dean Kamen, Rachel Carson, and a thousand others. We explore, learn, and teach the wonder of the Cosmos with the certainty that it can and will inspire someone someday to consider a life in science and technology, a life in service to our species and our planet. The consequences of not teaching people about the wonders of astronomy are almost too awful to contemplate. What if the next Newton never discovers science? What if the cure to cancer is hidden inside someone who is never inspired to continue their education?

(3) Lastly, in a world increasingly dependent on science and technology, science has become a weapon.  Not a a tangible device of destruction (though there are certainly plenty of examples of those), but a psychological bludgeon used to prey on those who have weakness or uncertainty in the realms of science and evidence based reasoning. The Earth faces an uncertain future in terms of its long term evolution, and the survivability and impact of our species on this planet. Special interests, driven by economics, politics, or ideology, have become the bullies of the modern world. Their tactic of choice is the subversion of knowledge and evidence-based wisdom, using modern media to sow uncertainty and discontent, holding the world hostage in a constant state of confusion and embittered debate. The weapon against those with shallow vision and self-serving interests is critical thinking, and common cause.  For the first time in all the history of the Earth, we have both. The practice of science is the human species’ profound realization of the process of critical thinking; it’s only goal, is to seek the truth with unflinching respect for the evidence and facts. Technology has given us the ability to communicate, directly and personally, with every person on the planet.

In a 1990 essay for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Carl Sagan wrote, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”  This is a trend that has not changed in the two decades since; if anything, it has become exacerbated as technology and mobile technology has interlinked our world and become enmeshed with our daily lives.

Smartphones and carburetors, two of the great mysteries of the modern world. Making sure everyone can explain their inner workings is not the goal of science literacy.

Smartphones and carburetors, two of the great mysteries of the modern world. Making sure everyone can explain their inner workings is not the goal of science literacy.

The danger is not that people don’t understand the workings of a smartphone touchscreen or the purpose of a carburetor.  No, the true danger lies with people being told what they should think about a complex and interconnected world, instead of being able to think critically about how trustworthy the information being passed to them is. The best way for the citizenry of the Earth to protect themselves from charlatans is to know how science works. The second best way is for scientists to put some more skin in the game.

Science cannot be limited to those who practice it; it cannot be an esoteric playground of wonder and imagination for the privilege of a few.  What scientists know must be explained and popularized for the citizens of the world; people must understand that the purpose of science is to improve their lives, and it has.  Modern medicine has erased crippling diseases, satellites girdle the world providing a never-ending stream of data about the weather and evolving state of the planet, and telecommunications technology has deprovincialized knowledge to build a global community. The world-spanning internet has made communications instantaneous and egalitarian, exposing a vast fraction of the world to the wisdom and art of our species, but also connecting all of us instantaneously to the abject horrors our race is capable of, and showing the implacable forces of Nature casually destroying human constructs. Science is all around us.  It is not perfect, but it has repeatedly demonstrated an unfailing ability to change the world.

There are plenty of vocal scientists and active science communicators.  Phil Plait (twitter: @BadAstronomer) is a robust opponent (among many other things) of the anti-vaccination lobby. James Hansen and Michael Mann (twitter: @MichaelEMann) are prominent faces in the battle against climate denialism. Jennifer Ouellette (twitter: @JenLucPiquant) writes and blogs tirelessly about science and mathematics.  But there need to be more — many more. It is estimated that only 5% of the labor force in the United States are practicing scientists or engineers. That is an extraordinarily tiny fraction, so there is a challenge for everyone.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

On the part of the scientists, the challenge is to talk with your neighbors, talk with your friends, talk with anyone who will listen. There has been a slow and steady decline in the public percpetion of the value of scientists and academics in general.  This has been widely discussed recently in light of an excellent OpEd by Nicholas Kristof. Many academics have taken great affront to this article, but as I tell my 7-year old: how you act is up to you, but how people think you act is up to them. If you want people to change how they think of you, then you have to change how you act (especially when they are watching). In this case, many many decades of unremitting dedication to the urbane life of an academic, steeped in our own traditions and mindsets, have burned bridges that should never have been severed. Scientists are particularly bad at this, and we see the results — charlatans are slowly eroding public confidence in science to the point where despite overwhelming evidence, people don’t know what to think about the future of our planet or species. Richard Feynman always said, “Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves.”  Our job is to help people understand that.

George Bernard Shaw.

George Bernard Shaw.

On the part of everyone else, the challenge is learn to think critically, just as you do with everything else in your lives — you are the ones who are going to decide the future of our civilization, with your money, your actions, and your votes. Talk with your neighbors, talk with your friends, talk with your children.  Honor the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw, who admonished us to “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” We are being bullied, scarred for life, and we don’t even know it.  Forces within our society think they can play on our fears, for their own benefit, by encouraging us to doubt and deny our hard-fought ability to reason.  It’s time to fight back against these nebulous and callous forces, with the most powerful weapon we have: science. Denial of science is a denial of our birthright, an abandonment of a legacy of 40,000 generations of human beings who have walked before us.

With all the long future days of our planet and our race in front of us, there is but one task before us: preserving the lives of the citizens of the Earth, be they human or not, and ensuring the future habitability of this planet, the only place in the Cosmos we know, with certainty, where any form of life can and does survive.

We speak for Earth, you and I.  Our loyalties are to the species, and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and fluorish is owed not just to us, but to the Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.


Final Note: This closing quote, is the closing quote from Cosmos as well. Thank you, Carl, for a journey that defines much of what I think, say, and do every day of my life. From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return, now and for all eternity.


This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE

Magic in the Written Word

by Shane L. Larson

I have interesting friends.  Some of my friends are scientists, but most are not.  Some work at Walmart; some manage restaurants; some are mental health professionals; some write comic books; some are nurses; some are theologians; many are teachers.  I’m sure you have interesting friends too.  Everyone has something unique to contribute to the world, and evolves to become an active participating member of their communities and professions.  The result is that our society is a gooey admixture of fascinating people with a diverse spectrum of jobs and professions.

But what do you know about all those other jobs that make your community tick?  What does the county assessor do every day?  How about the person who works in building 6 at the sewage processing plant?  How did that person running the D-8 Cat learn to grade the large parking lot to the right angle so water drains off of it?  What does the night shift manager at Taco Bell do all night?  What does a nurse do besides derive unending glee from sticking trypanophobics with needles?

There are all kinds of things you have to learn to do your job, things the rest of us probably have never thought of, never considered, never known.  Our jobs, and by extension our everyday lives, are much more than the cartoon pictures about jobs that you see in elementary school, more engaging than the portrayals in the glossy brochures handed out by career guidance counselors.  But here is the really interesting question: what are the things about your profession that the rest of us should know?  What should I know about everything you do every day?

This question was seeded by a recent Facebook exchange of knowledge with an old high school friend of mine.  She is currently a  professional counselor in Colorado, and had posted something to her Facebook stream about the princess phase in young girls.  By chance, she mentioned the works of Bob Kegan, a professor and developmental psychologist at Harvard. I was familiar with Kegan’s work through his book Immunity to Change, which details research in how your brain protects itself from new ideas.  During our discussion, my friend rattled off several other authors who I had not heard of.  But never-the-less, we had one point in contact, and it got me thinking about the interconnectedness of the modern world, and what each of us should know about everyone else’s profession.

By this point in most of our lives, we are out of school.  You may go back to school at some point and learn a new profession, but by and large many of us are on our professional paths.  The idea of sitting in classes again, of taking TESTS again, is an anathema!  My late graduate advisor once told me that having your PhD is simply the acknowledgement that you can teach yourself anything.  In reality, it doesn’t require a PhD at all.  Anyone can teach themselves anything, so long as they have access to the knowledge they need.  Today, the uniform distributor of all knowledge is the internet, but as most of us know the information one can find in online searches or at online encyclopedias is not always pedagogical and is always subject to suspicion with regards to its veracity!  But there does exist a medium for knowledge transfer that is somewhat more reliable, a special kind of magic that is, as far as we know, unique to humans: books.  Books are a miraculous invention whereby knowledge can be stored outside the confines of the synaptic networks of our brains and transferred to someone else.  They capture the art, the emotion, the passion and the collective wisdom of our species, all in the printed word.

The power of books is well known, and widely commented on in our culture and our art.  In the 1998 novel Eternity Road, Jack McDevitt tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic future where written books have been lost to our civilization, but a chance discovery of a single book triggers a long cross-country trek to uncover knowledge from ages past.  In his 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury tells the tale of a dystopian future where visual media rules and books are banned and burned, and how the consciousness of the Fireman, Montag, is freed by the rediscovery of the power of books.  The power of books even pervades movies (which are either “awesome” or “awesomely bad” depending on your perceptions and ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy yourself).  For instance, in the 2010 post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli, the petty warlord Carnegie seeks to find a long lost book to use as a weapon, because people will believe what is written in that book.  In the end we discover the book is a King James Bible, which is safely recovered by an enclave of scholars who dutifully transcribe, reprint and archive the book next to other written religious works as part of an ongoing effort to capture the history and wisdom of the world that was lost.  In Roland Emmerich’s opus, 2012, the cataclysmic evolution of the planet drives a handful of survivors onto massive arks built in secret by the Chinese.  Quite by accident, one of the embarkees carries on board a copy of Farewell Atlantis, a little known, little read novel by the story’s protagonist, inadvertently adding it to the small fraction of printed works that seed the library of the future.

So what knowledge of professions is captured in books?  There are famous books by famous people about their careers: Conrad Hilton’s Be My Guest, Howard Schultz’s Onward, and Brian Shul’s Sled Driver. There must be many such books that capture the essential elements of a profession or life.  Captured in the dulcet art of modern print media, the wisdom, wonder and adventure of a life that wasn’t yours.  All of us resonate differently with different books.  What we internalize has the power to inspire us and change the way we approach our own jobs and careers.  The methods and knowledge of other fields can expand your consciousness, allowing you to develop new and innovative ideas about your own worldly endeavours.

Bearing this in mind then, what three books do you think everyone should read about your profession?  What has been written by you and your colleagues that can expand the perspective of the rest of the world?  Imagine recommending four books.  If you had to pick three books that everyone should read about your profession, what should they be?  If you had to pick one book (any book) to survive the end of Civilization As We Know It, what would it be?

I am a practicing physicist, a professor at an American research university.  I work in astrophysics and gravity, I mentor students who will someday become scientists themselves, and I teach, both formally and informally.  I proselytize about the wonder of science, about its necessity in modern life, and endeavour to encourage science literacy among everyone.  If I picked three books that I wish everyone would read about my profession, they would be:

1. COSMOS, by Carl Sagan.  Carl was an expert in something that modern scientists seemed to have forgotten: that everyone needs to understand science, that everyone can understand science, and that scientists must participate in reaching out to our non-scientist friends and colleagues.  Cosmos eloquently and lyrically captures the interconnectedness of modern science, exploring how our species has come to a deeper understanding of our place in the Universe.  It is one of the most formative books of my scientific and teaching career.

2. SEEING IN THE DARK, by Timothy Ferris. Astronomy captures the imagination in ways that other human endeavours seldom do. Standing in our backyards beneath the majesty of the stars, our minds comprehend that we are facing the grandest of mysteries, the tale of everything that is.  Astronomy is the one science that is still practiced by amateurs.  Ferris masterfully tells the story of spending long nights at the telescope with ordinary people like you and me, woven together with explanations of what modern science has discovered about the deep reaches of the distant Universe.  As an amateur astronomer and a professional astrophysicist, this book captures both sides of my soul.

3. THE CHARACTER OF PHYSICAL LAW, by Richard Feynman.  Feynman was an eminent scholar, and a renowned lecturer.  In 1964, he gave a series of seven lectures at Cornell University as part of the “Messenger Lectures.”  The purpose of the Messenger Lecture series is “to provide a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business and social life.”  Feynman delivered seven lectures about the nature of science — the nature of scientific laws, and how scientific knowledge grows, evolves, and adapts in the face of new experiments and new discoveries.  Those lectures have been captured in this book, arguably one of the most celebrated works of modern scientific writing.

And lastly, if civilization were to collapse tomorrow, a book I think should be saved for future generations is

4. I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF, by Bill Bryson.  This book was written by Bryson when he returned to America after living abroad for two decades.  Outlined in short vignettes of reintegrating to American life, the book is funny, heartwarming, and scary all at the same time.  I think it appropriately captures the absurdity of modern life, something scholars of the future will need to understand about why we are the way we are.

My challenge to you is to produce a similar list of four books.  Post them here in the comments at <writescience.wordpress.com> or in my Facebook feed under the link to this article.  See what everyone else recommends.  Then, go out and read.  Expand your consciousness, and change the world.

The generation that took us to the Moon…

I’m cross-listing this here, from my personal blog, because I think it has some relevance to the discussion of training the “next generation of scientists and engineers”.

The generation that took us to the Moon…

Imagination, Zombies & the Trappings of Science

by Shane L. Larson

I am often asked by worried parents and struggling students what is the most important quality in a successful scientist — stunning math ability? frightening intelligence? inscrutable intuition?  I usually go with the old classic, “Imagination.”  Einstein himself famously thought the same thing, having told the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

As a scientist, I find imagination is an essential tool for problem solving.  When faced with a puzzling conundrum posed by an interesting experiment, it is the imaginative side of my brain that makes connections to the stew of scientific knowledge that has been poured into my brain as part of my continuing education.  In astronomy, imagination is among the most powerful tools a scientist can use to understand the Cosmos.  Why?  Because the size and scale of the Cosmos are, for the most part, on scales that are beyond our everyday experience and challenge the limits of ordinary human comprehension.

Imagine you and I wanted to embark on a voyage of discovery.  We agree to meet next Saturday in Salt Lake City, and plan to drive to the Florida Everglades to collect the most exquisite flower we can find.  We take your 1963 Dodge Dart to insure we obey the speed limit.  The Everglades are 2570 miles away from Salt Lake City, so if we average 60 miles per hour on our journey, it will take us 86 hours to journey to that far-away place and return home to tell the tale.  The following week we decide to embark on another grand voyage of discovery, this time to bring a rock back from the Moon.  As the astronomer Fred Hoyle once noted, “Space is only an hour away, if you could drive straight up.”  And indeed it is; the boundaries of the fragile skin of air that covers the Earth, the shores of the Cosmic Ocean, are just sixty miles over our heads.  The Moon is our closest cosmic companion, but it is still much farther away.  To drive there at 60 mph (in your magic flying Dodge Dart) would take us 166 days one way.  To reach the Sun, 93 million miles away, would take 177 years.  And the stars are farther away still.

There are few places in the Cosmos that we can visit.  Our contemplations of the Cosmos are in many ways limited to what we can imagine, informed by what we can observe.  All we can do is observe the Universe around us, and then imagine how what we have seen can be explained by the laws of Nature.  The mysteries of what we see challenge the limits of what we understand, but over time more observations reveal Nature’s grand design and our knowledge grows by a small measure, expanding the legacy of our curious species.

My imagination works in other ways as well.  For instance, I suffer from a well known academic malady known as “impostor syndrome.” If you have this affliction, you imagine that you are unworthy of the job, position or status that you hold.  You have convinced yourself that you are an intellectual fraud, and that you have put on the smarmiest used-car salesman schtick imaginable to arrive at your position in life today.  The smallest piece of data reinforces the conviction of your impostor status: a colleague or department head fails to return an email, a grant proposal is rejected, on your teaching evaluations you only score 3.5/6.0 on the question “Professor remembers to wear matching socks.”  As a consequence, you try work your ass off for fear of being discovered for the fraud and joker that you are.  This makes your more frazzled and likely to be discovered, and on your next teaching evaluations you score 2.5/6.0 on the question “Professor lectured on physics not social justice in pre-revolutionary France.”

It is this destructive form of imagination that is perhaps the most interesting.  Imagine that while on our long voyage in your Dodge Dart we decide to watch movies to pass the time. Many scientists have difficulty watching movies that ignore fundamental scientific tenets, or have logic holes in the plot.  I do not suffer from these difficulties; I am perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief and watch any movie you want to watch (except “Beaches”).  Curiously, however, some movies freak me out, and others don’t.  I can totally watch zombie movies without worry and when I’m done, turn out the lights and sleep peacefully.  However if you plunk me down in front of a Wes Craven nightmare movie, then I think harder about the wisdom of turning any light in the house off, and make sure the blankets are securely tucked up around my neck to protect my jugular from any bloodthirsty beasts from the Abyss that might be invisibly roaming around my house.

What gives?  Why don’t zombies freak me out, but ghosts plunge me into a paroxysm of fear?  Because there is an ostensible “scientific” explanation for the emergence of the zombie apocalypse — typically a virus, an identifiable biological agent discovered by scientists.  In the current vogue, zombies are a consequence of something real and understandable.  But consider a movie like Dracula.  Count Dracula has crazy supernatural powers; he can fly, he casts no reflection in mirrors, he can turn into mist or into a bat.  This is crazy stuff well outside the boundaries of science — “supernatural.”  That scares the crap out of me because I can’t understand it.  In the absence of the solid foundation of science, imagination runs away on its own and degenerates into fear and superstition.

Of course, the real observation here is this: there are some damn imaginative people out there, making up all these stories about zombies and ghosts and vampires.  People with stunning imaginations.  And their audiences love these movies because they have robust and healthy imaginations that they love to set free, to wander far from the confines of everyday life.  This reveals a lovely conundrum: why is science literacy today widely regarded (by scientists, and a few economists) as one of the pre-eminent problems of our time?  If imagination is one of the most valuable tools in science, how can such vast segments of our highly imaginative society be scientifically illiterate?  Science is also a doorway to wonder, escapism and distant vistas crying to be explored.  But it doesn’t grip the world the way movies and novels do.  Why?  Perhaps it is because we have failed to imbue science with a deep connection to the core of the human psyche; perhaps it is because we’ve distilled science down into the five points of the scientific method and beakers full of polysyllabic organic compounds and mathematical formalism.  We hide behind the trappings of science, pretending to be dispassionate observers and all-knowing skeptics.  But at night, when no one is looking, we secretly listen to Bill Nye the Science Guy, and read Timothy Ferris, and watch reruns of Carl Sagan.  When we’re alone, we revisit the reasons we all became scientists in the first place: because science is full of adventures that dazzle us and tickle our imaginations into wondering what secrets Nature might hold.

If we want the world to be more science literate, we should revisit why each of us became scientists in the first place.  Scientists are born problem solvers — we should be able to imagine solutions to the problems of science literacy.  Many do, and have somehow touched that innermost part of our psychology that makes something important to beings such as we.  There are exceptional books like Craig Bohren’s “Clouds in a Glass of Beer,”  Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” and Robert Banks’ “Towing Icebergs;” there are fantastic outreach programs, and citizen science programs like Protein Folding @Home and GalaxyZoo.  These are prominent and successful efforts, but they are not the norm and only engage the smallest fraction of our society.  As a whole, our community does not participate broadly enough in an activity which frankly we are the most qualified to do: using our imaginations to engage society in science.

Of course identifying a problem is one thing, but to imagine a solution one has to imagine what we want the world to be like on the far end.  This is the crux of the whole “science literacy” problem — we know we want more science literacy, but we don’t really have a uniformly agreed upon definition of what that means.  For the community of scientists as a whole, we recognize science literacy (or more likely, science illiteracy) when we see it.  For me, I propose the following personal goal for science literacy: I want non-scientists to enjoy indulging their curiosity about the world around them, and appreciate the fact that it is possible to figure things out.  I don’t care if people can actually do a calculation with the Universal Law of Gravitation — if you’re a dentist, I hope you can appreciate the way science works, but don’t care if you know the inner workings.  If you could compute the delta-v needed to make the transfer orbit from Earth to Mars, you’d be an astrophysicist not a dentist!

How do we encourage science literacy?  We imagine solutions!  Solutions that each of us as individual practitioners in science or education could implement, expand upon, and teach others to do.  Solutions that are simple, grass roots movements that are infectious by their simplicity and “fun factor”, which are casually introduced to the world around us and then spread like a vast plague, unleashing the science zombie in everyone.  There is only one global solution for science illiteracy: scientists must actively work outside their laboratories and classrooms to improve the understanding of science.  There is no silver bullet to save our society from the pit of ignorance.  The only solution is the sum of thousands of small solutions, built up by each one of us in our own sphere of influence — educating our neighbors, the post office employees, the night shift at Taco Bell, the city council, the president of the University.  For more than 30 years, we have bemoaned the state of science literacy in the United States.  If anything science illiteracy is getting worse as it becomes fashionable and (for some) politically correct to be science illiterate.  How can we possibly imagine that?