TITLE: Popularizing Science through Writing and Teaching AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 15, 2005 8:51 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I have an interest in writing, both in general as a means for communication and in particular as it relates to the process of programming. So I headed over to the Earth Science department yesterday for a talk on popular science writing called "Words, Maps, Rocks: One Geologist's Path". The speaker was Marcia Bjornerud of Lawrence University, who recently published the popular geology book Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth. The Earth Science faculty is using Reading the Rocks as reader in one of their courses, and they asked Dr. Bjornerud to speak on how she came to be a geologist and a popularizer of science. Bjornerud took a roundabout way into science. As a child, she had no desire to be a scientist. Her first loves were words and maps. She loved the history of words, tracing the etymology of cool words back to their origin in European languages, then Latin or Greek, and ultimately back to the source of their roots. The history of a word was like a map through time, and the word itself was this rich structure of now and then. She also loved real maps and delighted in the political, geographical, and temporal markings that populated them. Bjornerud told an engaging story about a day in grade school when snow created a vacation day. She remembers studying the time zones on the map and learning that at least two places had no official time zone: Antarctica and Svalborg, Norway. These reminiscences probably strike a chord in many scientists. I know that I have spent many hours poring over maps, just looking at cities and open spaces and geopolitical divisions, populations and latitudes and relative sizes. I remember passing time in an undergraduate marketing class by studying a large wall map of the US and first realizing just how much bigger Iowa (a state I had never visited but would one day call home) was than my home state of Indiana (the smallest state west of the Appalachian Mountains!) I especially love looking at maps of the same place over time, say, a map of the US in 1500, 1650, 1750, 1800, and so on. Cities grow and die; population moves inexorably into the available space, occasionally slowing at natural impediments but eventually triumphing. And words -- well, words were why I was at this talk in the first place. Bjornerud loved math in high school and took physics at the suggestion of friends who pointed out that the calculus had been invented in large part in order to create modern physics. She loved the math but hated the physics course; it was taught by someone with no training in the area who acknowledged his own inability to teach the course well. It wasn't until she took an introductory college geology course that science clicked for her. At first she was drawn to the words: esker, alluvium, pahoehoe, ... But soon she felt drawn to what the words name. Those concepts were interesting in their own right, and told their own story of the earth. She was hooked. We scientists can often relate to this story. It may apply to us; some of us were drawn to scientific ideas young. But we certainly see it in our friends and family members and people we meet. They are interested in nature, in how the world works, but they "don't like science". Why? Where do our schools go wrong? Where do we as scientists go wrong? The schools are a big issue, but I will claim that we as scientists contribute to the problem by not doing a good job at all of communicating to the public why we are in science. We don't share the thrill of doing science. A few years ago, Bjornerud decided to devote some of her professional energy to systematic public outreach, from teaching Elderhostel classes to working with grade schoolers, from writing short essays for consumption by the lay public to her book, which tells the story of the earth through its geological record. To write for the public, scientists usually have to choose a plot device to make technical ideas accessible to non-scientists. (We agile software developers might think of this as the much-maligned metaphor from XP.) Bjornerud used two themes to organize her book. The central theme is "rocks as text", reading rocks like manuscripts to reveal the hidden history of the earth. More specifically, she treats a rock as a palimpsest, a parchment on which a text was written and then scraped off, to be written on again. What a wonderful literary metaphor! It can captivate readers in a day when the intrigue of forensic science permeates popular culture. Her second theme, polarities, aims more at the micro-structure of her presentation. She had as an ulterior motive, to challenge the modern tendency to see dichotomy everywhere. The world is really a tangled mix of competing concepts in tension. Among the polarities Bjornerud explores are innovation versus conservation (sound familiar?) and strength versus weakness. Related to this motive is a desire -- a need -- to instill in the media and the public at larger an appetite for subtlety. People need to know that they can and sometimes must hold two competing ideas in their minds simultaneously. Science is a halting journey toward always-tentative conclusions. These themes transfer well to the world of software. The tension between competing forces is a central theme driving the literature of software patterns. Focusing on a dichotomy usually leads to a sub-optimal program; a pattern that resolves the dichotomy can improve it. And the notion of "program as text" is a recurring idea. I've written occasionally about the value in having students read programs as they learn to write them, and I'm certainly not the first person to suggest this. For example, Owen Astrachan once wrote quite a bit on apprenticeship learning through reading master code (see, for example, this SIGCSE paper). Recently, Grady Booch blogged On Writing, in which he suggested "a technical course in selected readings of software source code". Bjornerud talked a bit about the process of writing, revising, finding a publisher, and marketing a book. Only one idea stood out for me here... Her publisher proposed a book cover that used a photo of the Grand Canyon. But Bjornerud didn't want Grand Canyon on her cover; the Grand Canyon is a visual cliche, particularly in the world of rocks. And a visual cliche detracts from the wonder of doing geology; readers tune out when they see yet another picture of the Canyon. We are all taught to avoid linguistic cliches like the plague, but how many of us think about cliches in our other media? This seemed like an important insight. Which programs are the cliches of software education? "Hello, World", certainly, but it is so cliche that it has crossed over into the realm of essential kitsch. Even folks pitching über-modern Ruby show us puts "Hello, World." Bank account. Sigh, but it's so convenient; I used it today in a lecture on closures in Scheme. In the intro Java world, Ball World is the new cliche. These trite examples provide a comfortable way to share a new idea, but they also risk losing readers whose minds switch off when they see yet another boring example they've seen before. In the question-and-answer session that followed the talk, Bjornerud offered some partial explanations for where we go wrong teaching science in school. Many of us start with the premise that science is inherently interesting, so what's the problem? The thought I had as I left the lecture is that too often we don't teach science; we teach about science. At that point, science becomes a list of facts and names, not the ideas that underlie them. (We can probably say the same thing about history and literature in school, too.) Finally, we talked a bit about learning. Can children learn about science? Certainly! Children learn by repetition, by seeing ideas over and over again at increasing degrees of subtlety as their cognitive maturity and knowledge level grow. Alan Kay has often said the same thing about children and language. He uses this idea as a motivation for a programming language like Smalltalk, which enables the learner to work in the same language as masters and grow in understanding while unfolding more of the language as she goes. His groups work on eToys seeks to extend the analogy to even younger children. Most college students and professionals learn in this way, too. See the Spiral pedagogical pattern for an example of this idea. Bjornerud tentatively offered that any topic -- even string theory!?, can be learned at almost any level. There may be some limits to what we can teach young children, and even college students, based on their level of cognitive development, their ability to handle abstractions. But for most topics most of the time -- and certainly for the basic ideas of science and math -- we can introduce even children to the topic in a way they can appreciate. We just have to find the right way to pitch the idea. This reminds me, too, of Owen Astrachan and his work on apprenticeship mentioned above. Owen has since backed off a bit from his claim that students should read master code, but not from the idea of reading code itself. When he tried his apprenticeship through reading master code, he found that students generally didn't "get it". The problem was that they didn't yet have the tools to appreciate the code's structures, its conventions and its exceptions, its patterns. They need to read code that is closer to their own level of programming. Students need to grow into an appreciation of master code. Talks like this end up touching on many disparate issues. But a common thread runs through Bjornerud's message. Science is exciting, and we scientists have a responsibility to share this with the world. We must do so in how we teach our students, and in how we teach the teachers of our children. We must do so by writing for the public, engaging current issues and helping the citizenry to understand how science and technology are changing the world in which we live, and by helping others who write for the public to appreciate the subtleties of science and to share the same through their writing. I concur. But it's a tall order for a busy scientist and academic. We have to choose to make time to meet this responsibility, or we won't. For me, one of my primary distractions is my own curiosity -- that which makes us a scientist in the first place drives us to push farther and deeper, to devote our energies to the science and not to the popularizing of it. Perhaps we are doomed to the G. H. Hardy's conclusion in his wonderful yet sad A Mathematician's Apology: Only after a great mind has outlived its ability to contribute to the state of our collective knowledge can -- should? will? -- it turn to explaining. (If you haven't read this book, do so soon! It's a quick read, small and compact, and it really is both wonderful and sad.) But I do not think we are so doomed. Good scientists can do both. It's a matter of priorities and choice. And, as in all things, writing matters. Writing well can succeed where other writing fails. -----