Thursday, May 7, 2009

Science v. Poetry

Recently a fifteen-year-old girl told me she hated science because it was so analytical. Once you break something down into all those little pieces and examine them, she complained, you lose the poetry of the thing.

As someone striving to communicate astronomy and science in a (hopefully) vibrant and accessible way, hearing this stopped me in my tracks. It was all I could do to stammer, "But the little pieces are the poetry!" She seemed not in the least bit convinced.

So I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot lately. How does one convince a creative-minded teenager (she’s in a performing arts school) that science is relevant to her life? Or at least that poetry and science aren’t mutually exclusive? How does one convince anyone of this?

In seeking thoughtful answers to these questions, I must first consider my own science education.

I too was far more drawn to poetry than science when I was growing up. In fact, memorable science experiences are few and far between. I can remember dissecting a frog in a biology class (the icky factor does prevail). I can remember feeling wonder at growing some sort of bacteria in an agar-filled petri dish (probably because it was a hands-on activity). I can remember learning the names of the (then) nine planets in orbital order from the Sun, and seeing a diagram of the concentric planetary orbits.

Everything else–all those science lessons I passively ingested and regurgitated without any real understanding–has been lost.

At home, I would drag a chaise lounge into the middle of my semi-rural backyard at night and find the constellations with the help of my little field guide. But this was hardly a science experience. Other than a twinkling point of light, I hadn’t a clue what a star was. I was initially drawn to stargazing through my love of Greek mythology. Tracing the star patterns was another way to indulge in the romance of those legends. Poetry again.

In my daily orbit, there was no astronomy club, no person with a telescope, no person who’d even seen a telescope. The overt message from teachers was, "Girls do not excel in math and science." In my home, however, there was a love of nature and a reverence for the natural world that has stayed with me, deepened over the years, and fueled my quest for science literacy.

Second, I must consider the current science learning environment in the school the fifteen-year-old attends, a high school in one of the largest cities in the nation. Because it’s an underperforming school, freshmen must take a science course called Integrated Coordinated Science, which covers topics in Earth Science, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. This ostensibly prepares them for full-blown Physics, Chemistry, and Biology courses over the next three years.

The textbook purports to support an inquiry-based program: the learning of science by asking questions, digging deeper, and inquiring further. This is the current state of the art in science education. I suppose the textbook is better than some. I’ve just never been a big fan of textbooks, and browsing this one didn’t compel me to become one. Although I’m not a trained educator, the curriculum seemed to me to be rather dry and, well, superfluous. Clearly, it wasn't working for the fifteen-year-old. How much science minutiae do students need to absorb if they’re not going to pursue science-related degrees or careers? How many formulaic hoops should they have to jump through?

Yes, I get that there are byproducts of mental discipline and deductive reasoning skill produced in the process of doing the textbook’s prescribed activities and calculations. But wouldn’t it be far more valuable for kids to leave the experience inspired and intrigued, on fire to know more, with a reverence for the scientific approach to life and an understanding that science represents the underpinnings of absolutely everything? To see the intricately beautiful architecture of chemistry and physics when they peel the cover off of anything? To see the light of long-extinct supernovas shining out from their friend’s eyes and imagine the Milky Way spinning like a pinwheel in the vastness of expanding space? To see the poetry in an atom’s electron cloud and a tree’s transpiration of water vapor from its leaves? In short, to fully integrate the truths of scientific knowledge with the poetry of human vision?

This week, go outside and look at the night sky in a new way. See the stars as they are: nuclear reactors transforming hydrogen fuel into helium in their cores, gigantic spinning spheres of unimaginably hot gasses, bubbling cauldrons of light and heat energy. Then imagine them as the swollen, blazing stars of Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Starry Night.

In the battle between science and poetry, we must at least hope for a draw.

Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science. ~Edwin Hubble

Astronomy Essential: We are made of star stuff.

Our bodies are composed of elements forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars.

About three minutes after the Big Bang, the cosmos was a primordial cloud of hydrogen, helium, and lithium. The early generations of stars that formed from this cloud were massive and short-lived. They burned themselves out quickly and ended in cataclysmic explosions called supernovas. These supernovas spread the original three elements, plus additional elements forged in the stars’ nuclear cores, throughout the universe. In addition, more exotic elements that can only form in the extreme conditions of a supernova explosion were created and spewed into the cosmos.

Many of these elements ended up in the nebula (cloud of gas and dust) where our Sun and its attendant planets formed. The life forms that emerged on planet Earth were, therefore, also composed of these elements that came from the stars.