I think learning should be a lifelong process, and nothing makes me happier than stumbling upon fascinating information during the mundane activities of daily life, such as shopping. It also reaffirms my belief that a free market economy can provide valuable educational support, along with consumer goods.
Where else but in America could a person learn about the theories of a famous astronomer while satisfying the enthusiastic chewing habits of a black Labrador retriever? We needed something to distract our dog from his constant raids on the laundry basket, so my wife came home from the local pet shop with a sturdy chew toy called the Galileo Bone made by the Nylabone Company. The Galileo Bone, which resembles a large, misshapen eclair, was constructed according to Galileo's suggestions and comes with a detailed booklet explaining Galileo's Strength of Materials theory, along with some tidbits about cantilevers and fulcrums.
As a college graduate with a degree in the history of science, I was delighted if somewhat surprised that a company making pet accessories would go to the trouble of reprinting some of Galileo's drawings and several excerpts from the 1638 "Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences" in its chew-toy pitch. It even lists an English translation by H. Crew and A. deDesalvio that is available from Dover Books for dog owners who do not want to trouble with the original text in Italian.
When useful knowledge is promulgated during everyday life, ignorance is pushed back, and ordinary citizens have more opportunities to understand what's happening in the world. This is especially important for parents. Children love to ask questions like, "What's holding up this bridge?" Or, in my own case, "Could insects really grow to giant size and attack our cities?" (I was badly shaken after watching monster ants running amok in the 1950s science fiction classic "Them!")
The answer to the latter question is, of course, a resounding no, thanks to size effect, which is used to illustrate Galileo's Strength of Materials theory. Simply put, ants big enough to battle army tanks would not be able to support their own weight. Kids everywhere can sleep easier knowing this simple fact.
To be honest, my dog soon lost interest in the Galileo Bone and went back to the occasional Italian shoe instead. But I think that Galileo, surely a dog lover, would understand. And I think he would be pleased that the Galileo Bone monograph has a permanent spot in my personal library.
I wish more companies would follow the example of Nylabone. Just think what peoplecould learn about the history of ceramics, basic facts of oil exploration, or the finer points of handspinning in the course of daily events. I'm not saying that every business could, or should, provide educational background for their products. But it's an idea worth chewing on.
* Jeffrey Shaffer is a regular Monitor contributor. He lives in Portland, Ore.