Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2023
This book was inspired by a quote from Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts in 2003, republican candidate for president in 2012, and senator from Utah in 2019. Speaking at a fundraiser, Mitt wondered why you couldn't open the windows of an airplane in flight. He thought that might be useful in an emergency. Really? There are children in elementary school who have a better grasp of atmospheric pressure. His ignorance notwithstanding, Mitt governed a state for 4 years, almost became president in 2012, and leads our country from the senate floor. It is disappointing how much science our leaders don't know.
After high school, we should be able to explain how the world works: physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, and evolution; and yet many of us can't. Perhaps this book can help.
I try to avoid complex math and technical jargon, focusing on concepts and ideas instead. I even provide some exercises - because we learn best by doing. Sometimes it is pencil and paper, like traditional homework, but sometimes it is running around the room with your friends, or watching the bubbles in a glass of club soda. Please follow these exercises if you can.
This book emphasizes breadth, rather than depth. A sitting senator, or a voter, needs to know a little bit about every branch of science, rather than obtaining a Ph.D. in one particular field, although that doesn't hurt either.
The book is organized into sections: physics, astronomy, chemistry, life sciences, and math / logic. The chapters on math are not science per se, but I believe they aid in critical thinking. If you can be rigorous about jumping pegs on a board, then perhaps you can also separate science fact from misinformation. These problems and puzzles are easily understood by a high school student, but the solution is not trivial. Here are some more math puzzles for high school students.
Some chapters include some science history, as well as science fact. It's good to know how we got here.
A few chapters are original short stories, science fiction that fits in with the topic at hand. These are indicated by (fiction), in the table of contents below.
You probably want to read one chapter a day. If you try to binge through, I think you miss / lose some of the content.
If you enjoy this book, or if you already have a grasp of scientific principles, then I recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Since he covers Nearly Everything, it's not a short book, but it's a great read; you can't put it down. However, most people can't begin with his tome - it's rather like diving into the deep end of the pool. If you feel like you didn't get a chance to learn basic science, or if your school didn't do a stellar job explaining it, you might want to start here, then read Bryson's book next year.
Returning to our elected officials, Mitt isn't as crazy as his one-off faux pas might suggest. He expanded healthcare in Massachusetts in 2006, when nobody else was doing so. ObamaCare, which covered an additional 20 million Americans, drew inspiration from the work Mitt did at the state level. It is possible to be scientifically illiterate and still make some wise political decisions. It's possible, but it is becoming more difficult, especially at the national level. Physics governs what our military can and can't do, biology (including evolution) influences policy on agriculture and wildlife, medical knowledge shapes our discourse on vaccines and abortion, and climate change affects almost everything in one way or another. If you like a candidates's position on the issues, or if he belongs to your favorite political party, but he thinks Joseph built the pyramids of Egypt to store grain for the upcoming famine, you probably shouldn't vote for him. He doesn't have enough education to run the country. This is an elitist position, and I won't apologize for that. When I'm looking for a doctor, auto mechanic, airline pilot, or lawyer, I expect a certain level of education, and even certification. Serving in the federal government is even more important; we should insist on the best.
I dream of a day when every candidate, and every voter, has a deep understanding of science and technology, and I hope this book carries us one or two meters in that direction. If nothing else, you will know why you can't open the windows of an airplane in flight. ✈
The Beginning of Science
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