In 1959, British chemist and novelist C.P. Snow, in his now famous lecture “The Two Cultures”, observed that western society is split between a culture of the sciences and a culture of the humanities. This view might be a bit simplistic, but he had a point in there. There are many people who have a good understanding of literature, the arts etc. but know and understand very little about science. Even among politicians or other decision makers, you will find many people whose understanding of science is very limited or even nonexistent. Many people don’t have the means to form an educated opinion about matters of science, technology and environmental issues and are an easy prey to quacks and ideologist because they lack basic scientific understanding. In today’s technology-permeated world, with all its huge problems, I find this dangerous and alarming.
I believe this situation is something that should and could be changed. A large part of the problem might be the way science, and especially physics, is taught in schools. My opinion is that we should radically change the way we present science to pupils. More specifically, we should throw out most of the math.
If you look into popular science magazines or at popular science programs on TV or on the internet, you may note that people there are explaining scientific insights using very little math or even no math at all. This makes it possible for a much wider range of people to achieve an understanding of scientific matters. Teaching physics manly in a mathematized fashion where pupils learn, say, how to calculate the trajectory of a cannon ball, limits the physics curriculum to a small subset of physics that can be treated with the limited math available to the pupils. Large interesting and important areas of physics are left out of the school curriculum because they cannot be treated in this way. But it would be much more useful for many people to have a broad qualitative understanding of physics and science even if they are not able to do the calculations. The mathematized physics curriculum, on the other hand, turns many people away from science. They leave school with the impression that science is difficult and uninteresting and only good for a few geeks and nerds. They never get experiences of success and the “aha” moments of insight that make science fascinating. As a result, most of them will then also not look into those popular science sources that they could actually understand.
For those “geeks and nerds” who like the math, schools may offer advanced courses. For the rest, a new much broader curriculum should be created that spans the whole range from particle physics to cosmology, from quantum physics to general relativity, from thermodynamics to geophysics, but mostly on a popular science level. The use of mathematics in physics can be demonstrated in a few simple examples so people develop an understanding of the role of math in science, but besides that, it should be kept out. The aim would be to achieve a much broader understanding and interest in science in a much broader section of the pupils.
Most people don’t need a mathematical understanding of science but most people need an understanding of science. The “two cultures” divide is the artificial result of bad teaching methods. We cannot afford it. Therefore, people who understand the importance of the role of science in society should campaign for a change of the way science is being taught in schools.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Physics_Class_(8651547653).jpg?uselang=de)