Can you recall what you learned in high school science?
It's likely you dissected a dogfish. Even as you dissected it, molecular biologists were learning the secrets you and your dogfish unknowingly shared. Surely you haven't forgotten the periodic table of the elements. As you struggled to memorize the old list, scientists were adding to it.
I distinctly recall scoring "extra credit" on the final exam in physics by solving a complex problem on the displacement of water. What I remember even better was my relief at finding no questions in the test about Einstein's theory of relativity. The realization came years later: I had mastered a concept that has been part of human consciousness for the 22 centuries since Archimedes sprang from his bathtub. Yet I had only the haziest notion what the scientists of my own century were thinking.
Boyce Rensberger, a reporter at The Washington Post, knows there are millions of us out here, still struggling to keep our heads above the rising waters of 20th-century science. He knows we are inundated with news reports that assume we really understand what an isotope is, or a gene; a quark or a quasar. Out of consideration for our plight, he has thrown us a life preserver.
"How the World Works" is a basic reference; it necessarily sacrifices depth for breadth. The better part of it, some 340 pages, is a glossary. Here we find that quarks (physicists borrowed the name from James Joyce) are "the most basic building blocks of matter yet discovered," the pieces from which protons and neutrons are made. If, as we read more about quarks, our new grasp of particle physics loosens, we may go back to "proton" or "neutron." If we feel secure, we may dive headfirst into "antimatter" or "neutrino."
Immediately preceding the glossary are brief descriptions of 24 theories and discoveries that Rensberger considers the major advances of science. These are concepts that have changed mankind's perception of the world and have, so far, stood up to experimental scrutiny. Some are so fully incorporated into our everyday thoughts they seem trivial -- the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the fact that microbes cause disease. Most, however, were not embraced at the time they were proposed, so contrary were they to the prevailing view or to the evidence at hand.
The newer ideas among these 24 may be difficult for us to understand and, therefore, to accept. Is gravity nothing but an illusion caused by the curvature of space and time around an object? How can light have the properties of both a particle and a wave?
Rensberger wants to rekindle our native curiosity about these mysteries. He doesn't think Mom snuffed it out by refusing to let us eat mothballs, or Miss Knucklecracker by banishing snakes from the classroom. But he's worried about us now that we have our diplomas. Rensberger seems keenly aware that individuals, and societies, are bound by their concepts. Progress, by contrast, can be charted by the great breakthroughs that have allowed people to change their ways of thinking -- ideas like the 24 he has chosen to describe.
In light of this, he says surprisingly little about the workings of the human body. People are afire these days with interest in health. Many, including doctors, sense problems with the orthodoxy of chemical medicine. If Rensberger's view applies, medical practice will be freed of the albatross of convention only as new insights occur, and are assimilated, in the life sciences. We swabbies could do a better job clearing the decks for medical progress if we had a good primer on the underlying sciences.
For coming to our rescue, we all owe Rensberger a salute, especially the captains of research whose social duty he is helping to perform.