Science doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t really even have to be hard. We are all prewired to be scientists – every single one of us from the time we are infants. It is, in fact, our evolutionary heritage, one of our most advanced survival traits, and easily the one that has allowed us to practically overpopulate ourselves. We observe. We hypothesize. We test. We revise. We test again. And the beat goes on. It is how we learned to talk and walk and what hurts and what doesn’t. We have an implicit understanding of cause and effect (even though we often confuse correlation with causation, but, hey, it’s a complicated world). We do this every single day of our lives, like breathing. The only difference between me as a scientist, and people in every other line of work is that I am actually conscious of doing it, and I expand it beyond the things that affect my everyday life directly. My survival trait has become my passion. But we all DO it. We are all amateur scientists.
I know this both implicitly and by watching my son. He is at the age where is entire vocabulary is an endless string of “what ifs?”. I will admit there are times when I collapse in frustration and resort to the refuge of “well, that’s never going to happen, so let’s not worry about it, eh?”, but for the most part I try not to discourage the convolutions of his imagination. The foundation of science is built on “what ifs”. Einstein was a horrible mathematician, but he possessed a highly honed ability to visualize. My son, who wanders in a vivid world of his own creation, shares this gift. I want him to travel the universes of his “what ifs”. I want him to follow them to their logical conclusions. I want him to tweak and rethink. I want him to observe and see if his “what ifs” fit the world outside his head, and if not, to try and figure out why. Because reality, my friends, is a wondrous thing.
But don’t believe me. I am going to recommend a few books that will convince you that the world you live in is possibly more incredible than your imagination ever dreamed.
One of my most highly recommended science-for-the-layman books was written by a layman, Bill Bryson. Despite his lack of scientific training, he wrote one of the most cogent books on science for popular consumption that I ever had the great joy to read. To be sure, the first few chapters, where he, by a series of comparisons, drives home what a miniscule portion of the known universe our world is a bit of a slog. Trust me, if you push through that first grind, the remainder of the book is well worth the time. We forget that science is pursued by people, and it is truly amazing what it owes to the quirky personalities that have influenced it.
Written by a neurologist who is an acknowledged expert in the treatment of phantom limb syndrome, this book is an amazing journey into the very heart of what it is to “occupy” our own bodies. This exploration on how the mind manufactures the sensation of being the “self” and the intricacies of how our minds distinguish it from the “other”, and even from the divine, will completely change your view on what constitutes reality. This is one of those books I could not put down, and had a profound and long lasting impact on how I saw myself, and my world.
Our instinct is to trust our common sense, right? But what happens when that sense is manipulated by fear? This books explores when real risk and our perception of risk are at odds, and how we make poor choices by relying on our “common sense” and instant instinct. Instinct is a function of self-preservation, but that innate gut-feeling of imminent danger can deceive us into making poor choices. Furthermore, this gut instinct can be manipulated to feed social and political agenda. Learn when to stop and assess when our fear is well-grounded, and when it’s just our inner ape talking.
As a life scientist, trained in molecular and population genetics, I can tell you that there is no scientific theory that has been more misunderstood, maligned, and misused than Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Beautiful in both its simplicity and in its intricacies, it is the story of life from its earliest molecules to that incredible, intertwined ecosystem that we call our home today. There are few better tellers of the evolutionary tale than Stephen Jay Gould. Not only is he a master at walking the layman through the theory of evolution, the real theory and not the popular misunderstanding of “survival of the fittest”, but he is one of the most eloquent whistle-blowers on how Darwin’s theory had been used to justify the most criminal human abuses of man to his fellow man. I recommend two books by Gould – “Bully for Brontosaurus” is his most accessible, but “The Mismeasure of Man” is a must-read to understand the social impact of Darwinism on modern history.
Happy reading, and prepare to be amazed!