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Star Power and Scientific Illiteracy

By Robert C. Cowen / February 5, 1992



DURING a recent discussion, someone remarked on the "fact" that stars shine by reflecting the light of our sun. It was a revealing, but not unexpectable, comment.

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Scientific illiteracy has proved to be remarkably immune to the efforts of educators - and science writers - to enlighten the general public. It's not really surprising that someone should be unaware that stars, including the sun, shine by their own intrinsic thermonuclear power.

What is startling is to find scientific illiteracy among those who have studied science - even among professional science graduates. This surfaced during a recent telephone interview with Thomas Hofler of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Dr. Hofler was explaining the working of a new kind of refrigerator that he and his colleagues tested during the space-shuttle Discovery's mission last month. It uses sound waves for cooling. Hofler remarked that the biggest bottleneck in developing this principle for practical use is a shortage of physicists with a working knowledge of the classical science of acoustics. In an age of laser beams and particle-probing accelerators, basic subjects just aren't chic.

That recalled a comment made a decade or more ago by the late Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Walter Wrigley. He had worked with the Draper Laboratory near MIT where the principle of inertial guidance was developed into systems with which submarines and missiles navigate. These systems depend on the gyroscope. Wrigley said it was hard to recruit young physicists who understood classical Newtonian mechanics well enough to work on inertial guidance.

Albert Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, blames his own professional colleagues for such illiteracy. Writing in the American Institute of Physics magazine, Physics Today, he says they are more concerned with impressing their peers with what they teach than in enlightening students. He notes that they parade an array of concepts in particle research and other areas of "modern" physics before students. But the classical concepts that underpin the whole enterp rise are considered dull, drab, and avoidable.

The result, Dr. Bartlett says, is that students receive an illusion of knowledge without understanding. Science literacy, he observes, is best achieved "by giving people an understanding of the science they see and can use in their everyday lives."

Lasers may flash at supermarket checkout counters, but we live, by and large, in a classical world. Tennis balls bounce, rivers flow, and satellites orbit in accord with classical physical laws. These are far easier to grasp than the abstractions of quantum mechanics, which even professional physicists use without understanding why they work.

"If we are to have any success in improving science literacy, we must transform our introductory physics courses so that they obviously relate to the world our students see around them," says Bartlett.

He's right. That kind of education might well bring wider appreciation of even non-classical concepts such as star power. And it surely would produce physicists who can work on a revolutionary type of refrigeration.