"Adorers of the Good Science of Rock-breaking"

“Make them like me adorers of the good science of rock-breaking,” Charles Darwin told Charles Lyell once, long ago. This, from a man who also once said of Robert Jameson’s lectures on geology and zoology, “The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology.” That, of course, was before Adam Sedgwick lectured him in geology and took him out for field work, which seems to have done the trick. He did read another book on geology, Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which became his constant companion on his voyage with the Beagle. The concepts of geology prepared him to think in deep time. Without his passion for geology, without deep time sinking deep in his mind, the theory of evolution that changed the world might not be Darwin’s.

Outcrop on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

I have become, like Darwin, an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking.

It’s a love that bloomed late. It’s always been there, since I was little and wondered at the mountains rising in my back window; at the vast chasm in the ground that revealed billions of years; at the sea that had become fields of stone. But just a bud, tucked away, unopened. I thought I knew what I wanted and needed from life: a degree in some sort of writerly discipline, like English or maybe History, until I decided the additional debt I’d have to take on wouldn’t teach me any more than I could teach myself, and I left academia for the world of daytime wage-slavery and nighttime scribbling. I set geology aside, because what a fantasy writer needed couldn’t be found in earth and stone. So I thought. I searched the stars, delved into physics, waved fondly to geology on my way to geography. I knew the basics: plates moved, mountains rose where they crashed. Enough to determine the shape of an imaginary world, wasn’t that?


And there was the small matter of a subduction zone, now: I’d moved away from the fossil seas. I didn’t understand this terrible and beautiful new place. It wasn’t a landscape I’d grown up with. So I explored it a bit, and the more I explored, the more I needed to understand, the more I realized a story world should be so much more than an ocean with a few haphazard continents sketched in. I wanted to understand this world so that I could understand that. So I delved, deep, into deep time, into continental crust and ocean floor. I turned to books on geology. They weren’t enough. I found a few geobloggers. They were more, still not enough. I began writing geology in order to understand it, because there’s no better way to learn than by teaching someone else. And it still wasn’t enough.

The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know.

And that isn’t precisely the problem. If it was, I could decide that knowing a little more than most is quite enough to be going on with, and settle down, content with my little gems of knowledge. If I’d just stayed a bit more ignorant, it would have been okay.

There’s a metaphor that explains why those few shining gems, no matter how many more I acquire, will never be enough. It’s in the story I’m writing right now, in which Nahash, the Serpent of the Elder Tree, is tasked with giving knowledge and wisdom to a young girl. And this is what he does, the first time they meet:

He led her round the tree, to the spring that bubbled out from between the roots, clear and deep. Another branch hung low there, and there was fruit on it, so heavy and ripe it was ready to fall. He plucked one of the fruits and turned back to her. “This fruit is knowledge. Do you see? It’s probably sweet. Could be sour. You won’t know until you’ve tasted it.” He held it out. She reached for it, but he pulled it back. “There’s something else. Once you’ve tasted it, no matter whether it’s sour or sweet, you’ll always be hungry. You’ll starve. And that water, there-” He waved at the spring. “Sweetest water in the world, maybe the whole universe, but once you’ve had a drink from it you’ll always be thirsty. Starving and parched. Is that how you want to spend your life? There are other ways of living, you know, and some of them are no less worthy. Some of them are even fun. Or so I’ve heard.”

She held out her hand, but didn’t speak.

“Are you quite sure? Because there’s no going back, you know. Not ever.”

Should I ever become a famous speculative fiction author, people will accuse me of being autobiographical. And, aside from the fact that I was an adult when I ate that fruit and drank that spring water, and didn’t actually munch unidentified fruit and drink from the spring of an actual World Tree Serpent, they’ll be quite correct. This is completely autobiographical. Since taking a bigger bite and a deeper drink from the fruit and springs of science, especially geology, I’ve been starving and parched. I’m desperate enough for more that I’ve considered going deep into debt for a degree I may never earn a living from. I’d beggar myself to get a full meal, and I know I’d walk away with a $30,000+ tab, and I’d still be starving. Add several fistfuls of dollars for grad school, and I’d still feel I hadn’t had more than a bite to eat and a drop to drink.

There’s no going back, now I’m an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking. There’s no end to it, you see. It’s a vast old Earth, and there’s no way for any of us to know everything about it. And even if we could, have a look out in space – lots more planets out there, all unknown, all fascinating, all with incredible rocks to break.

On Doherty Ridge, with George’s rock hammer. Photo by Cujo.

Anne Jefferson asked, “If you are a geology enthusiast but not professional… what do you wish you could get in additional formal and informal education? What would you like from geosciences students, faculty, and professionals that would make your enthusiasm more informed and more fun?”

And these are the things I’ll say to you professionals and pending professionals, you professors and students, you who have careers at surveys and for companies:

Do not withhold your passion.

If there’s a book within you, write it. Let your love pour onto the page. Put as much of your knowledge and wisdom into words as you are able, and get it into my hands. You don’t even need a publisher in this digital age: you can upload it as an ebook. I’ll take whatever you’ve got. And if you need a wordsmith’s help, well, you know where to find me.

If something fascinates you, blog it. Even if it’s complicated and you think it’s of doubtful interest to anyone outside of the geotribe, post it up there where I can see it. If you love it enough to spend time explaining it, chances are I’ll love it enough to spend time doing my best to comprehend it.

If you’ve written a paper, share it. Blog about it, maybe even offer to send me a .pdf if you can. There’s a huge, expensive double-barrier between laypeople and papers: the language is technical and hard, and the journals charge so much that even if we’re willing to put in the work, we may not have the funds. We’ve already spent our ready cash on books and rock hammers and various, y’see. But if you’re allowed to send out a copy, and you can give me an iota of understanding, I’ll read it, struggle with it, combine it with those other precious bits of knowledge until I’ve made some sense of it.

Show me what you see. Post those pictures of outcrops. If we’re in the same neighborhood with some time to spare, put those rocks in my hands. I know you’ve got a career and a family, and can’t lead many field trips, but if you can take even a few of us out, do it. We’ll happily keep you in meals, beer and gas money just for the chance to see the world through your eyes, in real time and real life.

Answer questions as time allows.

Point us at resources.

Let us eavesdrop on your conversations with other geologists and geology students.

And hell, if you want to make some spare cash, and you’re not in a position where there might be a conflict of interest, consider teaching some online classes for a fee. There’s plenty of us who can’t quite afford college, but could scrape together some bucks for the opportunity to learn something directly from the experts.We’d practically kill for that opportunity, but the days when you were allowed to break rocks in prison are pretty much over, so there’s not quite as much incentive to break the law.

In other words, mostly do what you’re doing now, with maybe a few added extras.

That’s what those of us without the cash for a college degree and not even a single community college class on offer need. We just need you to share as much as you can, challenge us as much as you can.

And you there, with the students: make them, like me, adorers of the good science of rock-breaking. Send them out into the world with passion, a hammer, and a desire to babble to the poor starving, parched enthusiasts hoping for just one more bite to eat and drop to drink.

Lockwood, Dana, rocks and rock hammer on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

This post is dedicated to the geobloggers who adopted me, answer questions and write remarkable posts and answer my plaintive “I can haz pdf?!” cries with a grin and a quick email. Dedicated most of all to Lockwood, who taught me how to properly break a rock, and gave me such rocks to break! Thanks will never be enough, so when you’re next in the Pacific Northwest, my darlings, I shall give you a fine road cut (or several), a substantial meal, and more than one beer. And I meant what I said about being your wordsmith, should you ever need help writing a book.

This Student Gives Me Hope

I don’t know who she is, only what she has done. And what she has done is this: become a banned book library. When her school decided upon a list of things the kids absolutely must not read, due to parental outrage and a belief kids can be kept from great literature and harsh truths, she tested their limits by bringing in a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. When it caught the eye of a fellow student, she lent it out. And then things snowballed, and she now runs a clandestine locker-library full of banned books, which kids who had no interest in good books until they were forbidden to read them are now thoroughly enjoying.

Firstly, we have a young woman who’s passionate about books. I already love her.

Secondly, we have a young woman who’s not prepared to be told what she can and cannot read. Love kicks up a notch.

Thirdly, we have a young woman who’s getting other young men and women reading intensely. Love shoots through the roof and becomes adoration.

I have news for parents and school authorities who believe they can shelter children from things they think are too awful for young minds: you’ll fail. You have failed. You’ve always failed. Unless this was a very clever reverse-psychology ploy to get kids interested in books, in which case you’ve succeeded brilliantly. Bravo. A cunning plan – quite evocative of the way the potato was introduced to Greece.

Too bad I doubt the administration was that smart.

We jaded adults may believe kids these days are incapable of deep thought and literacy and scholarship, and we are so very, very wrong if we believe that. Look at this student. Look at what she and her fellow students are doing. Look at how much books matter to them. Enough to take not-inconsequential risks for. And they are smart enough and confident enough to decide what they can and cannot read, all for themselves, to hell with the naysayers.

I love this to pieces. It tells me that, despite rumors to the contrary, we’re not raising a nation of apathetic know-nothings, although we’ve been trying very hard to do so. No, we’ve got a crop of brilliant, bold, and brave kids coming up, and the world will be better for them.

I just hope that once my books get published, they’re summarily banned. I’d like to have this kind of readership. I want kids like this at my signings. Unleashing that wise, unruly literary mob upon the unsuspecting citizens of this increasingly stifled country would make me twelve kinds of happy, and prouder than I’ll ever have words to express.

Hook ’em While They’re Young

I need to hang around more young children. Most non-geologically inclined adults look upon my hand samples as a personal quirk, one of those odd things about Dana that’s of a piece with her LOTR decor in the bedroom, and not quite as interesting as that. They like the pretty samples with the nice crystals and a lot of sparkles, but they lose interest by the time I whip out the mudstone.

But kids, now, they’re a different matter entirely.

Old friends of mine have just moved to the Northwest, and they came by for a visit with their grandkids in tow. Once the two boys had finished exhausting themselves on the playground outside, they came in and started staring at the rocks. They said what all the adults do: “Wow, you’ve got a lot of rocks.” That’s true. I have so many rocks now it turns me pale when I contemplate moving.

I thought I shouldn’t bore them, but I whipped out a few samples anyway, and started talking about how they were formed. I didn’t shy away from words like “subduction zone” and “metamorphose.” I gave them the hand lens and set them loose. And we ended up going through very nearly every rock in the house, even the little brown boring ones.

By the end of it, I’d enlisted the elder brother to pack samples out of the field, and he was talking about the need to start a collection of his own. The youngest begged two pieces of magnetized hematite off me. Then, when I walked them to the car, the elder picked up a pebble, asked me if it was granite (it was) and pocketed it with evident delight.

I’ve never had a more rapt audience, with more questions and understanding. They didn’t blink at the hard words (probably helped that I’d throw in a simple definition whenever those words came up). They soaked the knowledge in without glazing over after ten minutes. And it was one of the greatest times I’ve ever had. There’s nothing quite like giving kids the tools to understand a little more of the world around them.

It’s a good thing their grandparents love this stuff, too, and won’t mind that their charges are now going to be a bit rock-obsessed on hikes. Extra bonus: they’ll tire themselves out more hauling all those extra pounds. This is not a small consideration when you’ve got two energetic kids to contend with. Anything that works off that energy is a boon for adults.

So, we’ve got a pair of kids who will now be able to identify granite, gneiss and schist in the field, who’ll have a good chance at spotting turbidites, and know something of how a subduction zone works. They’re already good with their volcanics and limestones, having been exposed to quite a lot of those before they moved up here. They make me wish I knew more, because it doesn’t seem like there’s any end to their curiosity.

That’s the beautiful thing about kids. They’re starving. They want to know everything, they’re curious and adventurous, and all it takes is putting examples in their hands and talking to them about science to make them excited about it. Also, having grandparents with a “Got Science?” bumpersticker helps. We’re hooking them on science young, and even if they don’t go on to become scientists, they’ll have an appreciation for it that follows them throughout their lives. They’ll understand their world to a degree that many people never do.

Dumbing down science, or keeping it away from kids for religious reasons, is a travesty. So is the way we so often teach it, out of a book, with too little opportunity to get their hands on it. And don’t get me started on “chemical-free” chemistry sets.

So here’s what I’ve learned from that brief foray into informal teaching: kids are interested in the dull-looking stuff just as much as shiny, because they haven’t told themselves there’s nothing interesting about the dull-looking stuff. You can lob big words and concepts at them, and they’ll catch them well enough, probably better than many adults. Then you turn them loose to use what they’ve just learned. Well, that and leave them to watch X-Men while the adults finally have that conversation they haven’t been able to enjoy IRL for far too many years.

And I love this stuff. I’ve never wanted kids of my own, and still don’t, but I’m going to have to borrow some more friends’ kids more often. Showing them things about the world they’ve never seen is great good fun, and will hopefully help them get through the endless dull school days wherein it seems the only point is to quench the thirst for knowledge.

Mathematical Memories

There’s this post, you see, up at a new blog called Hyperbolic Guitars, that’s dredged up some old memories:
We should have, as a goal, to never hear the question “why are we learning this?” again.  No one asks why we learn to read.  The same should be true for basic mathematics.  Once students go beyond the basics, they should learn what their natural interests require of them.  The job of a mathematics teacher, once a student achieves basic mathematical fluency, should be to shine light on where mathematics lives in the world, and to point the curious student in the direction that they wish to go.  And then to stand aside.
The teachers, the engineers, the musicians, the artists, the scientists – all of us need to demonstrate – not EXPLAIN – how the quantitative complements the qualitative; the reasons that knowing why is as important as knowing how.  Or what.  Or when.  Or who.

I remember math.  I remember spending a good part of elementary school living in dread of it, because after I’d proudly learned my numbers and some basic addition and subtraction, it started getting nonsensical.  No one told me multiplication and division could be cool, just that they had to be done.  We had timed tests.  Those timed tests comprised a goodly portion of my academic dread (and I was a nervous child, mind).  I’d freeze.  I’d fail.  And freezing and failure led to more freezing and failure, until I became convinced that mathematics was an Evil Subject that Was Not For Me.

Something clicked early in middle school – don’t know what – but we got to the more complex stuff at the end of the basic math courses and all of a sudden, I was flying.  Math was fun.  I could own this shit.  It made sense.  Numbers spoke to me.  Oh, and the tests weren’t timed, so that pressure was off.  Just a nice, happy communing with numbers – until the school said, “Congratulations!  You’re doing so well we’ll just let you skip the rest of this and get right into pre-algebra.”

It was rather like someone deciding a hole in the ground was as good as a finished foundation and trying to slap a house up on top of it.  I collapsed.  Numbers, once more, made no damned sense.  And the book – oh, that book, with its horrible word problems.  My dad, incensed that his daughter, the daughter of a civil engineer, couldn’t do pre-algebra, sat down one night to explain to me just how easy it was.  He looked at the book.  He fell silent mid-rant.  He flipped a few pages.  And then he told me he didn’t understand it, either.  What, he asked, did any of this have to do with real life?  This wasn’t how math behaved in the real world.

He worked thirteen hour days, so he didn’t have time to teach me when the teachers couldn’t.  He tried, but by then, I needed too much time and attention, and his books were decades out of date, and what he did the teachers tried to undo the next day, because it wasn’t the way it would be on the test, and so he gave up.  We both did.  Math became one of those subjects that I scraped by in.  The numbers never talked to me, and I could see no possible way it would ever be relevant to my interests.  I didn’t need algebra to balance a checkbook.  I had calculators to deal with the calculations.  And all I ever wanted or needed to be was a writer, and what writer needs calculus?

SF authors, actually, but nobody ever told me that.

There was only one more time when math made sense.  It was in high school chemistry, and our chemistry teacher didn’t take for granted we’d have learned any of the algebra we’d need.  So he taught it to us.  It had context, it was directly applicable to what we were doing, it helped us do interesting stuff with chemicals, and I loved it.  I could do it.  I could solve the problems.  But he was the only one who ever did that.  It was back to story problems and divorced-from-my-reality-bullshit-complete-with-blond-jokes-in-geometry for the rest of my academic career.  

And no one ever told me, ever, in all that time, that music and math were related.  Never told me where algebra came from, or how powerful it was.  No one ever said that calculus had been only a comparatively recent invention, and what a universe it had unlocked.  Math was never put in context.  The closest my math teachers got was some vague hand-waving about algebra being useful if you forgot to record a check in your checkbook (like we couldn’t just call the bank) and some extraordinarily lame “What if you were trapped on a desert island without a calculator?” bullshit when they tried to get us to go without calculators.

I felt that, in that case, solving for x wouldn’t be high on my list of priorities.

So I missed out.  There’s a whole enormous universe of numbers out there, and I don’t speak the lingo.  I can’t understand what they’re trying to say.  I never knew about “happy primes” until I watched Doctor Who and thought no such thing existed.  But they do.  There’s whole realms of happy and sad numbers.  Why don’t they teach recreational mathematics? 

I can’t tell you how to fix education.  But I can tell you what I needed: I needed teachers who loved the subject.  I needed less teaching to the test and a lot more exploration.  I needed strong foundations built.  I needed the who and the what and the when and the where and the why.  I needed teachers who demonstrated what math was good for, and the astonishing things it could reveal, and how art and music and myth and fiction and science and engineering and politics and just about everything else used math, could be inspired by it, could be given power and potential by it.  I needed to be shown how math tied in to other subjects.  I didn’t need it walled off from everything else, as if it was a noble gas that refused to react with anything else.  I needed to see it as something every bit as dramatic and exciting as a great story (which it can tell), and as uplifting and inspiring as a song (which it can be).  I needed to make friends with numbers.  I needed to understand you don’t have to be born good at math in order to become good at it.  And I needed to know it was beautiful.

If my teachers had done even a fraction of that, I’d very possibly have gotten right up through calculus.  Equations would still hold mystery, but they wouldn’t be mysterious.  I’d be able to suss out their secrets.  We’d be able to converse, these numbers and I.  Instead, we’re doomed to stuttering, stilted conversations held only when translators are available, and I don’t understand a tenth of what they’re saying.  That hurts, sometimes physically hurts, and it’s held me back in life.  It’s kept me from delving as far into science as I’d like to go.

So yes, education in this country is failing miserably, and I’m damned glad there’s a good place to have a conversation about it.  Maybe someday, if enough of us get talking, we can change the academic world.

Is There No End to Inanity?

By now, the more perceptive of you may have realized I haven’t been writing about pollyticks lately.  That’s not because I’ve lost interest, it’s because I’ve been awash in a target-rich environment.  After so many hours of exposure to ever-increasing stupidity, day after day, my poor brain crawled out a convenient ear canal and ran away.  I’ve been luring it back by feeding it lots and lots of science, not to mention a heaping helping of Connie Willis.

We’ll have a nice roundup of political dumbfuckery later this week.  For now, suffice it to say that if a politician in this country has got an R after his/her name and is currently electable, he/she is probably batshit fucking insane, so deplorably stupid that no words have been coined which properly describe the horror, and the fact he/she has any chance at all of getting elected solves the mystery of why great civilizations fail.  Forget all those theories of environmental catastrophe, barbarian invasions and so forth: it was probably the because they let their politicians become as horrifically idiotic as ours.

You’d think this current election cycle would have sated my appetite for stupidity.  Alas, no.  It’s just caused me to crave a little variety.  IDiots are always good for a laugh, and watching ol’ Billy Dumbski nearly get expelled for not toeing the good Baptist line gave me the giggles.  Still, I wanted more.  So I went though PZ’s blogroll looking for new sources of entertainment, and came across a site called DC’s Improbable Science.

Parents: if you have ever thought of sending your kiddies to a Waldorf school, unthink that thought now.

In an article entitled “The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense. Part 1,” we learn that these schools are repositories of quackery of the first order.  We’re talking people who think the moon’s phase is important to crops, kiddies aren’t completely incarnated yet, and pigeonhole them based on “The Four Temperaments.”  Yes, just like the Four Humors, only in this case, even dumber.

Oh, and if you think your kiddies shall at least be taught to read, think again.  That, you see, would hinder their spiritual development.

As far as history class, well, you know, “‘The narrative thread for Ancient civilisations often begins with the fall of Atlantis’.”

You may remember the fear of being held back a grade because you were flunking reading, math, or science.  Well, kids in Waldorf schools have a whole other set of concerns:

To quote from The Age:

“One parent, who did not wish to be named, said she moved her son out of the school after a Steiner teacher recommended he repeat prep “because his soul had not been reincarnated yet”.

“I just don’t believe it is educationally sound,” she said.”

Ya think?

I marvel, my darlings, positively marvel, at the sheer volume of utter bullshit human beings seem capable of swallowing whole.  I guarantee you: down a cocktail of magic mushrooms and LSD, write down the insanity that ensues, blend it with the contents of the newage and religion sections of your local bookstore, pick bits of it at random, and serve it up after having translated it from English to Swahili to Japanese and back to English using Babelfish, and you’d still find people who would wholeheartedly believe every incomprehensible word of the resulting mess.

People are weird.

Why Science Education Matters

Yes, this is going to be one of those annoying adult “if I’d known at your age what I know now” screeds.  Get the fuck over it.*  One day you, too, will be pouncing upon innocent young things screaming the same phrases you now denounce, up to and possibly including “Get off my lawn!”  It’s an unfortunate consequence of aging.

Have I got your attention?  Excellent.  Let’s talk about science education, and why those classes you roll your eyes at now could just save your life one day.  Seriously.

My screed is prompted by this missive from a teenager who apparently needs to pay more attention in English as well:

I want my voice to be heard! I think science should be an optinal class. Many kids aren’t going to grow up to be sceintest so why are we forced to learn it. For exemple I know I will not pursue my science carreer so why waste my time when I could be learning about things I want to. I think all schools should have a debate class but many don’t like mine wich dissopoints me because that’s what intrests me the most. If we had more classes that teach life skills instead of science. If I took a survey I’m sure more kids and adults would say sceince is not that important to kids who aren’t intrested. I’m not saying get rid of science just please consider making it optinal.

Fact o’ life numero uno: when you’re forced into the shark-infested waters that are the adult world, you will find that people spend more time poking fun at your ideas rather than taking them seriously when you can’t spell the things you’re ranting against.  The boss will never give you that raise/vacation/promotion when your request starts “Deer surr, kin ah pleez haz…”  That kind of thing only flies when you’re intentionally breaking grammar and spelling rules with I Can Has Cheezburger fans.

But I digress.  We were supposed to be talking about science education.  You see how we very nearly didn’t, because the first response to such a missive is to snort, “Ye gods, what an ignoramus!” and dismiss the ideas hidden within the misspellings out of hand.  In this age of spellcheckers absolutely everywhere, there is no longer an excuse.  No, you can’t even fall back on a learning disability.  I know of none that allow you to submit comments to education sites, but prevent you from finding the spellchecker in Word.

Anyway.  We shall pack my offended Inner Editor into a box with copious amounts of duct tape applied to the oral orifice for now, because this is not supposed to be a presentation on proper English.  You want to learn why English is actually fun and easy, you come see me after class.  I used to make this subject enjoyable for people who hated it.  I can turn you into a grammatical force to be reckoned with in no time flat.  But for now, I want to tell you something:

I used to agree with you about science classes.

Oh, yes, I remember being a teenager.  I remember dragging my sorry arse into science or math class and whining that this shit should be elective.  Because I’d bloody well elect right out of it.  What possible use could any of this crap be?  I was gonna be a writer, damn it!  Writers don’t need no stinkin’ math and science.

Alas, they do.  Everybody does.  And now we come to the meat and the marrow, wherein I share with you my hard-fought realizations in the vain hope that you, dear hormonally-challenged person, will not have to repeat my mistakes.  I want to you realize a few truths about science.  I want you to understand why awful old adults force your butts into seats and try to stuff this stuff into your brains until you want to scream.

First thing, for those of you clamoring for more life skills classes, science is all about life skills.

Oh, it may not seem that way.  Few things may seem to matter less to you when you’re looking for your first apartment, your first shitty job, etc. etc., than physics, chemistry and biology.  Au contraire.  Take math, for instance.  Without good math skills, you’re prey to all those people who know how to manipulate math to make a deal sound better than it is.  You can’t calculate your income versus your expenditures, balloon mortgages sound like an awesome good deal, and you end up with car insurance because it promised you discounts of 40%!!1!! – and you thought that sounded great because you forgot to ask “forty percent off what, exactly?”

Even algebra, my dears, esoteric as it seems, can come in handy, especially when you have missing monies in your checking account.  Percentages, vital.  In other words, don’t punk off math, and if you’re one of those lucky few who’s forced into economics and statistics classes, scream for joy and buckle down to learn all you can, because if more people had known more about this shit, you wouldn’t be facing graduation in an economy that sucks leper donkey dick.  People who knew this stuff pulled entire sheep farms of wool over the eyes of those who didn’t, ergo, you have an excellent chance of ending up living in your parents’ basement for the next twenty years, if your parents even still have a basement.

Fine, you say.  Math good.  Must appreciate math, or at least tolerate it, because while the word problems are ridiculous now, the concepts will be useful IRL later.  Great.  But physics?  Chemistry?  Biology?  Yuck.  Who needs it?

That would be you.

You are biology.  You are chemistry.  You are physics.  So is every single thing around you.  You are, quite literally, made of star stuff, and if that isn’t awesome, nothing is.  It also means that all those weird things they try to shove in your ear in science class matters in the real world.

I won’t go into the weeds here with equations and so forth, because I was one of those idiots who didn’t learn them and am now scrambling sadly to catch up.  But you don’t need to take equations away from class and out into the real world, necessarily, as long as you can grasp the basic concepts.  Let me tell you one of the many ways that understanding Newton’s Laws of Motion saved my life once.

You may vaguely recall a few general principles from learning about Newton: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, an object in motion will tend to stay in motion until something else acts on it, that sort o’ thing.  Now, consider Phoenix, Arizona.  It is a city set on a grid in the bottom of a gigantic, flat valley, which leads to long, arrow-straight streets.  This means that drivers can see quite a long way, even with buildings and such around, and means they are not forced to slow down for hills and curves.  This has led to a rather distressing tendency for some drivers to completely ignore red lights.

One night, I saw a driver approaching an intersection at a high rate of speed.  I had the green light.  I was supposed to go.  He was supposed to stop.  But I understand the laws of inertia, and I realized he was driving far too quickly for brakes to be of any help, even if he did see me.  See?  Science is already of some help – you know that heavy objects will take longer to stop when moving at a high rate of speed, and that there’s a length of time before the friction of the brakes can halt the car’s inertia.

Realizing this, I slowed.  But I didn’t stop yet, because another car was coming into the intersection opposite me, and they either hadn’t seen the imminent red-light runner, or they’d assumed he could stop in time.  They continued at their normal rate of speed.  And I could see that they were about to get t-boned.

More Newtonian physics here.  Two objects colliding at that speed won’t just stop, they’ll rebound off each other.  So I found myself calculating a few likely trajectories.  Had I stopped where I originally intended to, chances were excellent I would’ve gotten hit.  I aimed in a slightly different direction, threaded the needle, and made it safely through without so much as a scratch while the two other cars engaged in a spectacular bang-up. 

And no, I wasn’t thinking literally in terms of F=ma.  Newton’s name never crossed my mind.  But I had that background – it was one of the few things I’d paid attention to in school.  I’d seen countless demonstrations of Newton’s laws, both in the classroom and out.  All of that prior experience meant that I could, in less than two seconds, make the calculations that prevented me from ending up on the pavement with glass down my throat, as happened to one of the unfortunates in the car that hadn’t seen the danger.

Science can save your life.

Same thing for chemistry.  Understanding how molecules work, how chemicals combine and react, can save you a world of hurt in the real world.  It helps you comprehend warning labels even when they aren’t written in layman-friendly language.  It helps you understand, avoid and mitigate a lot of hazards that we come into contact with every single day.  It will help you respond to disasters.  And it will help you puzzle out who’s telling the truth and who’s pulling herds of sheep over your eyes when blame gets flung around and people claim to have miracle inventions that can zap all those nasty hazards right away.  Of course, it will ruin you for some call center jobs, because you’ll have a hard time taking orders from people who’ve fallen for the latest hype on the late-night infomercials, but that’s a small price to pay for the armor of knowledge.

And biology?  Hated that class.  Hated it ferociously.  I wish I hadn’t, because I realize now that biology is the single most important science of them all.  You are going to get sick, you’re going to have children and have to make decisions about how to give birth, how to raise and protect them, and it’s a total crapshoot without knowing how biology works.  Without a solid understanding of biology, you’re prey to the first quack who comes along with a miracle cure, or a way to improve your baby’s brain, or any of the other ten billion things people use to play upon your fears and your sense of inadequacy.  You’ll lose shitloads of money, you’ll waste your time on useful crap, you’ll risk your health and your very life, and you won’t have any idea who to trust.  You need to understand this stuff, my dear hormonally-challenged fellow humans, because what you don’t know is going to fuck you over someday.  I guarantee it.

If that doesn’t have real-world applicability, nothing does.

Before I developed an interest in biology, I didn’t know quite why my doctor was always on about finishing a course of antibiotics.  Why should I keep taking these stupid horse pills when I felt just fine?  Now that I understand the basics of evolution, when prescribed antibiotics, I take them religiously.  Right down to the last pill.  Why?  Because the bugs those drugs kill figure out ways to defeat those drugs, and if you leave a few survivors, they sneer at your paltry efforts to eradicate them.  It may not happen this illness, or the next, but eventually, a population of bugs impervious to our drugs develops, and the next thing you know, you’re in the hospital getting your flesh eaten by bacteria, and there’s no drug in the world that can stop them.  Sound apocalyptic?  It is.  And it’s happening.  And if more people had learned basic biology, it wouldn’t be happening.  So cherish that biology class.  It’s going to save you time, money, and lives.

I know, I know, you’re bloody immortal.  Trust me.  You won’t always be.

Right, then.  So we’ve determined that science is useful in your everyday life for very important things: keeps you from getting fleeced, killed, helps you make smart decisions, and so forth and so on.  It’s useful for very nearly any field you’ll go in to, as well.  Science pervades everything.  Take out your cell phones.  No, really, do it.  I’m not gonna take ’em away from you.  I want you to look at that cell phone and realize you’re staring at a chunk of science.  It’s science from start to finish.  Even geology’s in it, my friends, physics, chemistry, the lot.  And guess what?  Here’s where astronomy gets important. 

Yes, astronomy.  Because that gorgeous communications device that lets you text your friends and explore the intertoobz is just a very expensive and fragile brick if the people running the network don’t understand the sun.  Did you know you’re just one good solar storm away from electronics armageddon?  Indeed you are.  And you may think wise and wonderful people in jobs you’ll never want are taking care of that, but chances are, they aren’t doing enough.  Because, y’see, in some ways they can’t.  Because voters don’t understand science, and so Congressmen cut funding for things like solar observatories, and then we don’t know what the sun’s throwing at us, and we can’t harden our grids against the oncoming storm, and… you don’t get to text your friends anymore because the network is fried.  And so is your teevee, and every single thing that runs off of electricity.  Think about it.

Knowledge is power.  So is ignorance.  And ignorance has the power to fuck up our lives big time.  Remember that.

Learning scientific method, not just science facts, will also help you immensely as you navigate the real world. Your teachers may sometimes go on about critical thinking skills.  You may roll your eyes.  But those skills are vital for helping you sort through a lot of contradictory claims.  A great many people throughout your life will claim to have the truth, and their truths will not often jibe with other people’s truths.  Science can help you with that.  You won’t always be able to think scientifically about a problem (although I know of few problems that can’t be tackled with science), but that logical way of thinking will definitely be an asset when the salesman is trying to get you to buy his product because it is absolutely miraculous, darling.  It’ll even help you sort through all that confusion in the news reports.  You see, reporters quite often don’t understand jack diddly about science, and so they may leave you with the impression that science has no answers whatsoever, or that what a scientist claims today will be debunked tomorrow, so why bother?  Well, if you know how science works, you’ll understand all that.  And this will assist you with vital matters like whether you should consume some chocolate today, because you’ll know how to evaluate the studies hyped all over the media that one day tell you chocolate is the cure-all and the next day tell you it will kill you.

(Upshot: enjoy some chocolate.  Don’t eat it by the truckload.  And don’t expect it to work medical miracles.)

So I hope we’ve established that yes, science is essential, and you need to at least grasp the basics for wealth, health, and entertainment.  But there’s far more to it than that.  There’s a secret to science that I don’t think ever gets adequately conveyed in science class, and it is this:

Science is gorgeous.

It’s fascinating.  It’s intriguing.  It’s fun, and exciting, and if you want to live with a sense of wonder, if you really want to appreciate the world, there is nothing else like it.  Don’t fall prey to the idea that knowing how something works will kill the mystery, because it doesn’t.  It’s a little bit like waxing the car, in fact: when you first apply the wax, it makes the finish look dull and icky.  Keep going, and you end up with a brilliant shine.  Science is like that.  The more you learn, the more spectacular the universe and everything in it gets. 

Artists, musicians, poets, novelists, comedians, and all sorts of other creative people have discovered that secret, and put it to great good use.

Ordinary people have discovered it, and used it to forge a deeper connection to the world around them.

People who never thought they’d be in a scientific career have found themselves in one, and discovered what it means to really love your job.

The world will need you to know some science, because science will help save that world.  If you care at all about cute furry animals, forests and all that, do yourself a favor and pay attention in class.  You might just be the person who makes the critical difference in the world’s survival.  At the very least, it will prevent you from doing harm when you meant to do good.

And if you don’t care about cute furry animals, forests and all that, you’d be surprised at what might happen when you learn the science behind them.  Things I didn’t give two tugs on a dead dog’s dick about before suddenly matter intensely to me now, simply because I understand them.  I understand why they are important, and why they are fragile, and why they are worth saving.  I can find beauty in places I never thought to look for beauty before.  Beauty’s important.  Beauty makes it worth getting up in the morning.  Beauty even makes a crappy job tolerable.  And there is so much beauty in science, beauty where I never suspected any existed, that at times I just have to stop and stare with my mouth open and tears in my eyes, too overcome to speak.

Science will make you laugh.  It will make you cry.  It will become a part of you.  Hell, it already is a part of you.  You just haven’t gotten a real chance to get to know it, yet.

Remember when you were a kid, fascinated by dinosaurs and astronauts and why the sky’s blue?  That sense of wonder’s still there, and this stuff is far more exciting than anything you learned in elementary school.  Yes, it’s harder.  Learning equations and diagrams isn’t simple, except for a lucky few of us.  But it’s like anything.  Once you’ve learned the basics, it gets much easier, and you’ve now got the keys to the universe.

Go unlock the door and have a fabulous time.

*Why yes, I did use naughty words.  It’s not like you can’t handle them, now, is it?


Most of the time, I feel pretty good about living in the very-nearly-enlightened state of Washington.  This, however, is not one of those times:

In this respect, Washington is no better than Arizona, the land where anyone with an accent can be bunged into jail for not presenting papers.  Both states are highly rated for overall evolution education, but seem to shy away from mentioning that humans are part of all that evolving.  Rather a significant oversight, that.

Now mind you, this data’s two years old.  I took a ramble through the science standards online, but couldn’t find anything definite, so I’ve queried a relevant official.  Perhaps she’ll share the happy news that Washington’s beating Arizona now.  If not, it appears we science supporters in Washington State shall have to kick up a wee bit o’ a fuss. 

Especially since it looks like we may have to kick the English standards up a few notches, as exemplified by the comment at the bottom of this page.  Yeesh.