A different view of science

Today is Earth Day, and many folks will be out marching for science. There are lots of reasons one might do this–provides the grist for technological advance, allows for finding ways of living longer and better, etc–but GG would like to explore a different tack.

GG was recently in Ireland, and at geologic sites like Giant’s Causeway and the Cliffs of Moher he looked for books on geology in the visitor center stores.  There was one rather generic book on deep time at Giant’s Causeway (with a cover shot of the Grand Canyon) and nothing at the Cliffs of Moher.  There were, on the other hand, fistfuls of books on Irish history, most of which dealt with events nowhere near the places where the books were being sold.  This is hardly unique to these places, but it is sobering.  Here are landscapes–geological landscapes–that people have travelled some distance to see, and there isn’t enough interest for there to be even one book specific to the place?

The point? People seem to gravitate to history books but avoid science books.  Science books, it would seem, are too heavy for casual reading. Many of the marchers today may feel science is important, but you wonder if they would pick up a science book while on vacation. Now perhaps this reflects a certain inability of those writing science to author accessible books (but there are some really excellent science writers out there), but it might also mean that folks feel that science is best left to scientists.  Just give me my smartphone, thanks, and make sure the plane gives me a smooth ride home and all is good.

Science can be more though than just the mechanism by which we find our way to new and better gadgets. It can also provide the same kind of insights into the human experience that we seek in art and literature. But by limiting science to an academic pursuit, the public misses out on this facet of the scientific enterprise.

This is why GG wrote The Mountains that Remade America. The book fuses human history with geological history, so in some ways it is a bit deceptive–here is some nice tasty history, and oh by the ways, there is some geology here too–try it, just a smidgen, and you’ll get a bit more yummy history. Who we are, why we do things some ways, how we live in others is rooted in the geology of a region, but this aspect of history is buried in most of those history books cluttering visitor center shelves.  Hundreds of books address the California Gold Rush.  Few if any consider how the gold got to be there–or that the presence of different kinds of gold deposits dictated how the rush would affect later history. Or consider how John Muir’s idolization of empty landscapes might have been different had he been tramping in the Rockies with Indian settlements all around instead of the High Sierra where occupation was purely seasonal.

So today, as many trumpet how important science is as a practical matter, don’t forget that science is a human endeavor, and there is real gratification in learning the origin stories that make us what we are.

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