A good friend once gave me a mighty compliment: in the midst of a discussion about something astrophysics-y or biology-y, he said to me “yeah, but you’re the scientist.”
As chuffed as I was to be bestowed with that title, I am in no way, shape or form cut out for the precision required for lab work. Or, for that matter, the hours of math grokking needed. I don’t doubt I could learn the math, but it’s just not a thing I want to devote that much of my life to. I love science, but the end result is all I’m after – my talents lie elsewhere.
So, why am I ‘the scientist’ if I’m not an actual scientist? I suppose I do hold a fairly impressive volume of scientific knowledge in my head, gleaned from sources written with laymen like myself in mind, and more importantly, written to at least be a teeny bit entertaining to keep the learning from feeling like work. I’m not talking about scientific papers here, I’m talking about woks that explain the mysteries of the universe without the weight (intellectually and physically) of a bio-chemistry textbook. This kind of reading falls on the ‘easier to digest’ side of things than Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I will finish my copy of that some day.
You too can be a scientist (not an actual scientist, though) and enjoy the learning along the way – here’s some source material to get you started:
The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA
Genetics and DNA explained – in graphic novel format! The Stuff of Life not only tackles the basics of life as we know it, but it also chronicles the history behind early genetic knowledge through to the Human Genome Project and modern applications of genetic science. In the book, we follow an alien scientist tasked with studying life on Earth as a means to discover a cure for his species’ own genetic failures. It’s a sneaky way to work all the basics into the story, giving a loose and entertaining narrative to what would otherwise be a dry chronicle of the field.
It’s a clever way to present the material, and the strengths of the genre are used well: the authors use the imagery to lend context and make some of the more difficult concepts easier to grok. It’s certainly easier to follow an explanation on RNA and DNA when I can follow through the panes that RNA is the one with the hat on backwards like a rap dude.
Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists
Relativity is one of those things that has always really nagged me. I’m clever enough to grapple most concepts into submission, but the whole ‘time and space being different depending on where you are and how fast you’re travelling’ thing has always really irked me because I just couldn’t wrap my stupid monkey-brain around it. Richard Wolfson to the rescue!
Professor Wolfson is energetic and excited about physics and about explaining physics. The analogies he brings to the table just make sense, which is all I ever wanted out of relativity (and it turns out, in the end, that my inability to make sense of things due to my very limited personal experience as a being never moving more than a teeny-tiny fraction of the speed of light; it’s all about perspective).
The audiobook of these lectures is hella expensive, but audio is the format I prefer as I like to listen in the family spacewagon. There are videos of this lecture series floating around the intertubes for the low low price of nothing, but I cringe at how 80s it looks. Wolfson’s enthusiasm is much better suited to words alone until the 2nd edition, which I presume would look a lot less like an episode of Head of the Class, finds its way onto Youtube.
(Oh, one more thing: tune out the start of each audio file, until the tacky, tacky stock music is over and done with. Please.)
The Nonfiction Works of Isaac Asimov
Okay, so not only did Asimov rock out at writing bad-ass science fiction, but he rocked the ever-living-FUCK out of writing about science.
If I do a quick count over at Wikipedia I tally up over fifty books of his dedicated to popularising and demystifying science. I’ve read but five of them, all collections of essays on particular topics often grouped together, and every one of them has been mind-staggeringly enlightening. Even the oldest I’ve read, 1968’s Science, Numbers and I still has much knowledge to pass on forty years later.
Asimov writes his non-fiction like a wise uncle sitting at the table after dinner, regaling the family with insight into the inner workings of any topic the gathered children can throw at him. His ability to lend a sense of scale to the majesty of science and bring it into our own realm of understanding is unparalleled (sorry, Richard Wolfson).
These books are also well easy to get your hands on – I’ve yet to walk into a second-hand bookstore that didn’t sport a few of these books on the shelves, courtesy of the great volume of them he wrote.
I’ll sign off with the introduction from Asimov’s Only a Trillion, but stay tuned, there’s a children’s edition of this post to follow!
One of the stories my mother likes to tell about me as a child is that once, when I was nearly five, she found me standing rapt in thought at the curbing in front of the house in which we lived. She said, ‘What are you doing, Isaac?’ and I answered, ‘Counting cars as they pass.’
I have no personal memory of this incident but it must have happened, for I have been counting things ever since. At the age of five I couldn’t have known many numbers and, even allowing for the relatively few cars roaming the streets thirty years ago, I must have quickly reached my limit. Perhaps it was this sense of frustration I then experienced that has made me seek ever sense for countable things that demand higher and higher numbers.
With time I grew old enough to calculate the number of snowflakes it would take to bury Greater New York under ten feet of snow and the number of raindrops it would take to fill the Pacific Ocean. There is even a chance that I was subconsciously driven to make chemistry my life-work out of a sense of gratitude to that science for having made it possible for me to penetrate beyond such things and take – at last – to counting atoms.
There is a fascination in large numbers which catches at most people, I think, even those who are easily made dizzy.
For instance, take the number one million; a 1 followed by six zeroes; or, as expressed by physical scientists, 106, which means 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10.
Now consider what ‘one million’ means.
How much time must pass in order that a million seconds may elapse? Answer: just over 11½ days.
What about a million minutes? Answer: just under 2 years.
How long a distance is a million inches? Answer: just under 16 miles.
Assuming that every time you take a step your body moves forward about a foot and a half, how far have you gone when you take a million steps? Answer: 284 miles.
In other words:
The secretary who goes off for a week to the mountains has less than a million seconds to enjoy herself.
The professor who takes a year’s Sabbatical leave to write a book has just about half a million minutes to do it in.
Manhattan Island from end to end is less than a million inches long.
And, finally, you can walk from New York to Boston in less than a million steps.
Even so, you may not be impressed. After all, a plane can cover a million inches in less than a minute. At the height of World War II, the United States was spending a million dollars every six minutes.
So–let’s consider a trillion. A trillion is a million million¹: a 1 followed by 12 zeros; 1,000,000,000,000; 1012.
A trillion seconds is equal to 31,700 years.
A trillion inches is equal to 15,8000,000 miles.
In other words, a trillion seconds ago, Stone age man lived in caves, and mastodons roamed Europe and North America.
Or, a trillion-inch journey will carry you 600 times around the Earth, and leave more than enough distance to carry you to the moon and back.
And yet a good part of the chapters that follow ought to show you quite plainly that even a trillion can become a laughably small figure in the proper circumstances.
After considerable computation one day recently I said to my long-suffering wife: ‘Do you know how rare astanine-215 is? If you inspected all of North and South America to a depth of ten miles, atom by atom, do you know how many atoms of astanine-215 you would find?
My wife said, ‘No, how many?’
To which I replied, ‘Practically none. Only a trillion.’
¹That is, according to American and French usage. In England, a billion is 1012 and a trillion is 1018, that is, zeros are counted in groups of six, not in groups of three as in America and France.