A Newsletter of Scientific Literacy. January 2003

"begins in delight, ends in wisdom" Robert Frost claimed that "poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom." To my ear and mind poetry in the late 20th century does not live up to this high goal. But science does. Or at least it can.

Thirty years ago this spring we finished our first educational program, a sound-filmstrip series titled Spaceship Earth. This program was designed to tap into that spring of delight and wisdom that Frost claimed for poetry. Over 3000 teachers from across the country found it to be so and the program has been very popular in high school and college classrooms.

When video technology came along in the 1980s we remade Spaceship Earth in a videotape format. Three times since then we have updated it, and now in 2003 we are offering it in a brand new DVD format. Same words, same music, same content, same integration of science and humanities, of delight and wisdom, but easier to use and more powerful than ever.

As long-time customers know, Spaceship Earth surveys the field of science and the arts from six levels: The Universe, The Biosphere, Living Things, The Cell, Atoms & Molecules and Awareness. All six parts are now on one DVD. One of the advantages of this new format is that you can access each part instantly, no rewind, no fast forward to get to your favorite parts.

Get SPACESHIP EARTH on DVD and save 50%

As a special to our internet readers, for a limited time we will send you a DVD copy of our new Spaceship Earth for half price. Order on the Internet http://www.hawkhill.com or mention that you read the offer in the Newsletter when you make out your purchase order. (Note: at half price it can still count toward being one of the three DVDs that qualify you to get a free DVD player!) .

"In Praise of Petroleum?" In my last internet newsletter I quoted from a letter I send to the AAAS journal Science that questioned the usefulness of the current buzz word "sustainability." They did not see fit to publish my letter but they did publish an interesting editorial on Dec. 6 that supported some of my concerns. The editorial is by Kirk R. Smith, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley (SCIENCE 6 Dec. 2002 p. 1847). Dr. Smith points out that there are always difficult choices when it comes to the environment, and what looks at first as an obvious bad thing may on closer analysis prove to be more beneficial than any presently available alternative. In other words, you do have to calculate risks and benefits, and future uses of non-renewable natural gas and petroleum are a good example.

"The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development struggled with defining `sustainability.' Typical of efforts to make concrete this slippery concept," writes Dr. Smith, was a paper on energy use in developing nations. He points out that most of the 2 billion poor people of the world depend on local biomass for energy--wood, crop residues and dung. The problem is that even though these are "renewable" energy sources, their use as fuel also leads to "local depletion of biomass resources, including forests; produces serious health impacts in the local population because of high emissions of pollutants ... Some 1.6 million premature deaths each year come from the use of solid fuels (biomass and coal) in poor households."

Perhaps, suggests Dr. Smith, the best solution at the present time would be to reserve some part of our one-time gift from nature -- petroleum, especially in the form of LPG (liquified petrolem gas) -- for use in the poor countries of the world "to help fulfull our obligation to bring the health and welfare of all people to a reasonable level: as essential goal of sustainsble development, no matter how defined."

Bananas and Genetic Engineering Another glaring example of poor people suffering because rich people are ill-informed if not scientifically illiterate was reported in the Wall St. Journal the day after Christmas. (Wall St. Journal, Dec. 26, 2002, front page) This one gets a little complicated but here is the gist. People in Uganda rely heavlly on bananas as one of their principal food sources. Ugandans eat 500 pounds of bananas per person per year. In recent years, however, disease and pests have devastated the banana trees. In some parts of Uganda over 80% of the plants were crippled. A scientific solution is clearly in sight. 8 years ago Belgium scientists genetically modified banana calls to resist the disease. Uganda officials have rejected the genetically engineered plants however -- and here is the sad part -- because to accept them would endanger their relations with the European Union which so far has vigorously resisted the import of GM (genetically modified) "frankenfoods."

The same kind of prejudice has led the government of Zambia to reject 20,000 tons of U.S. food aid last October on the grounds that the shipments might contain GM corn that was unsafe and capable of polluting the country's seed stock.

Meanwhile people of Europe eat well while thousands of Ugandans and Zambians starve.

Sixth Grade Scientific literacy I'm not sure how genuine these examples of scientific illiteracy are but they circulate on the Internet and are pretty funny. Supposedly these quotes are taken verbatim from firth and sixth grade test papers.

There are 26 vitamins in all, but some of the letters are yet to be discovered.

You can listen to thunder and tell how close you came to getting hit. If you don't hear it, you got hit, so never mind.

Genetics explains why you look like your father, and if you don't, why you should.

I'm not sure how clouds are formed, but clouds know how to do it, and that's the important thing.

Blood circulates through the body by flowing down one leg and up the other.

A census taker is a man who goes from house to house increasing the population.

The inhabitants of Moscow are called Mosquitoes.

It is so hot in some places, that people have to live in other places.

The spinal column is a long buch of bones. The head sits on the top, and you sit on the bottom.

Momentum is something you give a peson when they go away.

In some rocks, you can find the fossil footprints of fishes.

The four seasons are salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar.

A vibration is a motion that cannot make up its mind which way it wants to go.

When planets run around and around in circles, we say they are orbiting. When people do it, we say they are crazy.

Web Sites for Teachers Two web sites that I highly reocmmed for teachers and students are: http://www.science.gov and http://www.actionbioscience.org.

The first site is the U.S. Government's attempt to pull together scientific information from the many government agencies. Here you can find your way to what you want to know from NASA to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Forest Service, Geological Survey, etc. etc.

The second site is sponsored by BioScience Productions in Nokomis, Florida. It features more than 50 peer-reviewed articles by scientists and environmentalists. Contributors include Harvard biologists E.O. Wilson on biodiversity, agricultural pioneer Norman Borlaug on biotech advances and the green revolution in poor countries, and a great essay by Robert Hazen on scientific literacy (see below). Many of the offerings include lesson plans with activities. There is a great section where students from middle school to college ask their own questions and receive quick answers from experts.

What is Scientific Literacy? The article by Robert Hazen (http://www.actionbioscience.org/newfrontiers/hazen.html) is one of the best I have seen in defining scientific literacy and I reprint extended segments here.

"Scientific literacy, quite simply, is a mix of concepts, history, and philosophy that help you understand the scientific issues of our time. Scientific literacy is not the specialized, jargon-filled esoteric lingo of the experts. You don't have to be able to synthesize new drugs to appreciate the importance of medical advances, nor do you need to be able to calculate the orbit of the space station to understand its role in space exploration. ... The scientifically literate citizen possesses facts and vocabulary sufficient to comprehend the context of the daily news. If you can understand scientific issues in magazines and newspapers (if you can tackle articles about genetic engineering or the ozone hole with the same ease that you would sports, politics, or the arts) then you are scientifically literate.

"Admittedly, this definition of scientific literacy does not satisfy everyone. Some academics argue that science education should expose students to mathematical rigor and complex vocabulary. They want everyone to experience this taste of "real" science. But my colleagues and I feel strongly that those who insist that everyone must understand science at a deep level are confusing two important but separate aspects of scientific knowledge. As in many other endeavors, doing science is obviously distinct from using science; and scientific literacy concerns only the latter.

some scientists are scientifically illiterate "The education of professional scientists is often just as narrowly focused as the education of any other group of professionals, so scientists are just as likely to be ignorant of scientific matters outside their own specialty as anyone else.

"Some scientists are so focused in one area that they lack scientific literacy. Surprisingly, intense study of a particular field of science does not necessarily make one scientifically literate. Indeed, I'm often amazed at the degree to which working scientists are often woefully uninformed in scientific fields outside their own field of professional expertise. I once asked a group of twenty-four Ph.D. physicists and geologists to explain the difference between DNA and RNA -- perhaps the most basic idea in modern molecular biology. I found only three colleagues who could do so, and all three of those individuals did research in areas where this knowledge was useful. And I'd probably find the same sort of discouraging result if I asked biologists to explain the difference between a semiconductor and a superconductor.

"By any measure, the average American is not scientifically literate, even with a college degree: At a recent Harvard University commencement, an informal poll revealed that fewer than ten percent of graduating seniors could explain why it's hotter in summer than in winter.

"A survey taken at our own university (George Mason University), where one can argue that the teaching of undergraduates enjoys a higher status than at some other institutions, shows results that are scarcely more encouraging. Fully half of the seniors who filled out a scientific literacy survey could not correctly identify the difference between an atom and a molecule."

Note: Here at Hawkhill this view of scientific literacy is one we heartily support. Our own 100 plus programs are designed to help teachers in the important task of educating for more scientific literacy in the 21st century.

Editor: Bill Stonebarger
Hawkhill Associates, Inc.
125 East Gilman St.
Madison, WI 53703