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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Heat Death of the Universe, Etc. 

What ho! We have on multiple occasions expressed a certain enthusiasm for the writings of our elusive colleague Racrecir, and we are yet again indebted to him for alerting us to the presence of the item excerpted below, a column by Tim Adams that appeared in last Sunday's Observer:
It's half a century since CP Snow put forward the idea of the 'Two Cultures', the intractable divide between the sciences and the humanities, first in an article in the New Statesman, then in a lecture series at Cambridge and finally in a book. Back then, Snow, who was both a novelist and a physicist, used to employ a test at dinner parties to demonstrate his argument.

'A good many times,' he suggested, 'I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice, I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold; it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: have you ever read a work of Shakespeare's?'

Fifty years on, and exponential scientific advance later, it seems unlikely that the response of dinner guests would be much different. I was reminded of Snow's test when reading the new book by Natalie Angier, science editor of the New York Times. Angier's book is called The Canon, and subtitled 'A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science'. It is not a long book and it contains, as the title suggests, a breathless Baedeker of the fundamental scientific knowledge Angier believes is the minimum requirement of an educated person.

In many places, I found myself cringeing all over again. I've read a fair amount of popular science, tried to follow the technical arguments that underpin debates about global warming, say, or bird flu, listened religiously to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, but still I discovered large black holes in my elementary understanding of how our world works. Angier divides her book into basic disciplines - biology, chemistry, geology, physics and so on - and each chapter offers an animated essay on the current established thinking.

The result is the kind of science book you wish someone had placed in front of you at school - full of aphorisms that help everything fall into place. For geology: 'This is what our world is about: there is heat inside and it wants to get out.' For physics: 'Almost everything we've come to understand about the universe we have learned by studying light.' Along the way there are all sorts of facts that stick: 'You would have to fly on a commercial aircraft every day for 18,000 years before your chances of being in a crash exceeded 50 per cent', for example; or, if you imagined the history of our planet as a single 75-year human life span: 'The first ape did not arrive until May or June of the final year... and Neil Armstrong muddied up the Moon at 20 seconds to midnight.'
Why does salt dissolve in water? Why is the sky blue? Is a clone the same as a twin? What does the second law of thermodynamics have to do with what Ms. P. Zoline so memorably called "the heat death of the universe"? Test your scientific knowledge against a panel of celebrity hotshots, including Will Self and Marina Warner, by clicking here.

TANGENTIALLY RELATED SIDEBAR: Enthusiasts of science will be greatly pleased, as we were earlier today, to learn that our boon colleague Quixote (of Acid Test) has consented to lend her own formidable distinction to the distinguished team now blogging at Shakesville.

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