On the popularization of science

Although the popularization of science is an important task, I’ve always believed it’s not always addressed properly and way too many attempts have been made to emulate Carl Sagan’s COSMOS TV show. Many misconceptions arise from a wrong approach to the matter, and the two more susceptible scientific areas to such misconceptions are quantum mechanics and relativity, mainly because its hard to trace parallelisms between them and the every-day-phenomena in such a way that any layman is able to understand.

Everyone has heard how time elapses when moving close to the speed of light, and since a (regular) heartbeat could be considered a clock it is said that a person would stop aging (as if any other physiological process was also periodical.) What about distances becoming shorter? if we accept that our femurs (or any other bone for that matter) could be used as a ruler then we’d become short during the same trip! of course this latter effect has little impact on popular conceptions, e.g. science fiction narrative.

When it comes to QM the things become even harder to tell since there are some quantum effects that have no classical correspondence such as spin. It is very hard to explain QM to lay people without recurring to Schrodinger’s cat or just stating that its a theory of probable outcomes. True dangers arise when pseudo scientists come up with ridiculous attempts to merge science with superstitions. Such was the case of that movie “What the *bleep* do you know?” in which is said that molecular structure can be influenced by external human stimuli such as mood changing!

Now, chemistry is not immune to this sort of phenomena. During the last few months, German astronomers reported having observed two organic complex molecules in space: butyronitrile and ethyl formate. The latter is the fragrant substance in raspberries, of course this last fact was never adressed by the astronomers at the Max Planck Institute. Nevertheless, a journalist for The Guardian who picked up on it, wrote a paper stating that our galaxy smells like raspberries! Of course the statement was made with the intention of using it as a hook for readers, when the real importance of such a discovery is the presence of complex organic molecules since that implies there is a possibility of finding other molecules such as amino acids, but if the point is not delivered all the way home then a layman could keep only the fact that our galaxy might smell like raspberries.

Never been to fond of teaching, I hope in the near future science becomes more popular, just not cheapen; and for that more and better education is needed at all levels possible throughout the world. My fear is that superstitions and cults spread faster than education since, of course, the latter takes time and dedication from people, not to mention talent too.


About joaquinbarroso

Theoretical chemist in his late thirties, in love with life and deeply in love with his woman and children. I love science, baseball, literature, movies (perhaps even in that order). I'm passionate about food and lately wines have become a major hobby. In a nutshell I'm filled with regrets but also with hope, and that is called "living".

Posted on May 7, 2009, in Random thoughts, Science. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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