Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2022
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.
Let's be fair;we vote them into office because we don't know very much either. Science is not taught in our schools, or it isn't taught well. After high school, we should be able to explain how the world works: physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, evolution, etc, and yet most 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, because they plant the ideas firmly in your mind.
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). I might bounce from physics to chemistry to geology to biology, and then back to physics again; I hope this is not too confusing.
If you enjoy this book, or if you already have a grasp of scientific principles, then I highly 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 sound 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.
Let's consider two successive presidents, 30 years in the past, thus giving us the benefit of hindsight. As I have told my children, you can't really judge a president until ten years after he has left office. One has an advanced degree in engineering, and the other has very little education, having achieved fame and success by other means.
In 1976 we elected Jimmie Carter, a man with a degree in nuclear engineering. His decisions were led by a deep understanding of science, and the intuition that such understanding brings. He didn't know anything about global warming, nobody did, but he knew that fossil fuels were unsustainable in the long run. Thomas Edison had the same insight in 1931, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Such visionaries are few and far between. If you are sinical, you might say Carter had an agenda, to promote nuclear power, but that is not the case. He promoted conservation above all else. He could do the math - the biggest energy savings are realized if people use less. At the same time, he invested in almost every form of renewable energy, including solar power. He put solar panels on the White House roof, even though they weren't very economical at the time. Some how he knew the cost of production would drop by a factor of ten, and they would provide unlimited energy for homes and businesses across the globe. He could see the future, and he led America as few presidents do. He wasn't blown this way and that by public opinion, or the short sighted goals of corporations. He had a vision, and with hindsight, his vision was correct. However, he should have been a bit more in tune with the public, like FDR and JFK. Some of Carter's ideas were expensive, and weren't really going to save the day, and unfortunately, we threw the baby out with the bath water.
Another one of Carter's pet projects was bringing America into the metric system, to join every other country in the world. If we could snap our fingers and make it so, the economic advantages are obvious, but the devil is in the details. Company after company published estimates on what it would cost to convert tools and factories to metric, while maintaining and repairing preexisting feet-and-inches products for decades to come. This was not a trivial concern! The auto industry was particularly hard hit. Cars are on the road for 20 years, sometimes longer, so GM would have to maintain two inventories, and two sets of tools, and train their technicians in parallel procedures. Other companies, that don't have to maintain and repaire preexisting products, found it easier to switch - thus the 1 and 2 liter bottles of Coke and Pepsy. At the same time, ordinary citizens weren't thrilled about learning meters and kilograms. Carter wanted to lead, but he also needed to listen to the people, and understand that changing America is like steering an air craft carrier. It's a slow process that can take decades, performed step by step by step. Still, Jimmie Carter understood science, and made good decisions year after year. I believe he is somewhat underrated.
In 1980 we elected Ronald Reagan, an actor. Within the first 3 months he scrapped the metric system, and told American business they could use feet and inches forever more. At the same time, he took the solar panels off the White House roof, and told Americans they could burn all the fossil fuel they wished; we weren't going to run out of oil or incur an environmental disaster on his watch, so no worries.
Turning to economics, anyone who had taken micro and macro in college, or studied the effects of unregulated capitalism in 19th century England, or even read Charles Dickens, would never believe you could help the poor by giving money to the rich - but Reagan did, and we are still paying the price for that today. This is where science illiteracy is dangerous! I don't believe Reagan was evil, he sincerely wanted to help the poor and lift America out of poverty, but without a proper education he was easily misled by others who had their own agenda.
Science illiteracy affects the military as well. Reagan's advisors promoted an idea, the Strategic Defense Initiative, that would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete”. If you have even a modest grasp of science, or economics, or military history, you know this is absurd, but Reagan had no formal education, so he bought it. He bought it because he wanted to believe it. We all want to believe we can put a shield around our country to protect us from the horror of nuclear war. No more duck and covver drills, and we can all sleep at night. But what we want, and what is true, have very little to do with each other. Once gun powder was invented in the 14th century, walls, and fortresses, and castles, and even the Great Wall of china, could not withstand the fury of the cannon. From that moment on, the offense had the upper hand. Bring in nuclear weapons, and the imbalance is multiplied a thousand fold. There is no practical defense, and no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Oppenheimer quoted Vishnu when he witnessed the atomic blasts above the sands of New Mexico, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Every scientist and engineer understood this, but Reagan did not. In 1985 I went to Congress to testify, explaining why Reagan's "shield" was a ridiculous boondoggle. I also wanted to say it was destabilizing, but I am not an expert in foreign policy, so I let others make that case. At the end of the day, facts didn't matter, because Reagan wanted to believe, and a dozen defense contractors were salivating over the lucrative contracts that would result. We've spent 5 billion dollars a year on this project, and it continues today. Once you start a military project it's almost impossible to stop.
Without science literacy, a politician might make a good decision here and there, but most of the time he is subservient to his advisors, who often have their own agendas. We, as voters, also need to understand science and make it a priority. 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, (Ben Carson), 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 an intuitive 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. ✈
Send along your feedback or questions.
About the Author