“What kills scientific curiosity is education itself”
UC3M/DICYT Juan Meléndez Sánchez (Avila, 1964) earned a degree in Physics from the University of Salamanca and did his doctoral dissertation at the CSIC. He is currently a professor at Universidad Carlos III of Madrid (UC3M), where he combines his research in the Laboratorio de Sensores, Teledetección e Imagen en el Infrarrojo (Laboratory of Sensors, Remote Sensing and Image in Infrared) and teaching in the Physics Department with one of his greatest passions: science popularization. In fact, he has spent more than a decade teaching courses on the history and philosophy of science and has recently published a book whose objective is to help us understand the world we live in: “De Tales a Newton: ciencia para personas inteligentes” (Ellago Ediciones, 2013)(From Thales to Newton: science for intelligent people). The work is continuously evolving in the blog of the same name.
Q. Is science only for really intelligent people?
R. Well, I’m afraid that that title of the book may discourage more than one reader, but it shouldn’t. The intelligence I am referring to is an attitude, not an IQ number. What I mean is being curious, wanting to understand the world around us, and having a taste for thinking and wondering. Science is for people who have that thirst for knowledge, and I think that is something we all have as children, when everything is new for us and we see it all as a mystery. It’s just that then we are too small to have the criteria and ability to reason that science requires. And when we are old enough to have them, many times what we have lost is our curiosity…
You advocate un-learning the science that we know. Why?
In school they teach us a lot of things, but we learn them without really understanding them. For example, that the Earth is round or that it moves around the Sun. When we are older, we take these things for granted, as if they were obvious, but they are not at all obvious and the majority of us really have no idea how to explain why they are that way. If we had to convince a skeptic, we wouldn’t be able to. The fact is that many times what kills scientific curiosity is education itself: they give us a bunch of answers before we have even asked the questions, which takes away all the fun. That’s why I begin my book by inviting the reader to un-learn, to look at the world with the eyes of a Greek from the sixth century BC, who knows nothing of what we are taught at school about the Earth, the Sun or the stars, but who has his/her eyes wide open, observes what is around him/her and tries to understand it. That Greek is going to “do” science and the reader can identify with him/her and “do” science too, thinking for him/herself and discovering things even before I tell them about them.
With the eyes of a Greek who, more than knowing science, understands it, right?
Yes, it is one thing to know the content of science and another to understand it. In the university, for example, we have students who have studied a lot of material, entire syllabi of Physics and Chemistry, but who have a very weak and often mistaken idea of what science is.
So then, what is science?
Above all, it is a way of looking at the world and thinking about it. It is common to identify science with its results, with the entire enormous repertoire of knowledge that we have been given. That is the idea that students usually have, because they have spent years studying the results. This happens with a lot of people, who say that this thing or that is “a scientific fact” or that something is “scientifically proven”, as a synonym for “this is a truth that leaves no room for doubt”. But I believe that looking at science this way is a mistake. For one thing, it tends to mythologize it too much, to identify science as the only truth, as if there were no other valid ways to approach reality; and at the same time, this weakens science, because it leaves out all of its dynamics, all of its humanity, everything that makes it something that is alive. Science is a human activity, not a catalogue of results, or dead dogmas.
When was science born?
It is really like what happens with humans: they have a date of birth, but it takes a few years before their personality is defined and they reach adulthood. The birth certificate for science comes from ancient Greece, but it didn’t become an adult until Newton. Thus, the title of the book, which attempts to tell about those formative years that defined science’s personality.
Was it dangerous to “do” science in that era?
There is a certain tendency to present the great scientists of the past as heroes or martyrs, as champions in the struggle of the light against the darkness. Carl Sagan wrote many pages with this argument, pages that were very emotional, but also very deceptive. It makes no sense to present the history of science as a fight between the good guys and the bad guys. Historically it has almost always been dangerous to fly in the face of the dominant beliefs, but science is about how the natural world is, and ideas about Nature have never been as controversial as ideas about politics or religion. Cases like Galileo’s have been more the exception than the rule; in most cases the main danger to scientists has been that they were not understood or were marginalized by their peers. And even then, the ideas that have triumphed have almost always been the ones that deserved to triumph.
These great scientists also made some mistakes, of some importance…
Of course they did, but many times what we see as like mistakes were really good ideas in their time, and vice versa. The greatest astronomers from ancient times, like Hipparchus or Ptolemy, were opposed to Aristarchus, who, in the third century BC, defended the idea that Earth is not immobile but rather rotates around the Sun. Were they wrong? Today we know that they were indeed wrong, but in reality they were doing the best science that could be done at that time. In light of the physics and evidence that were available to them, Aristarchus’s theory was implausible and it was more rational to believe that the Earth was motionless in the center of the universe. Furthermore, we have cases like that of Kepler, who came up with his famous laws regarding the orbits of the planets using reasoning that was erroneous in almost all of its steps. Or that of Galileo, who made extraordinary contributions to Physics and Astronomy, but scorned Kepler’s laws and insisted that the tides proved that the Earth moved, an error that complicated his situation in the face of the Inquisition even more. These kinds of missteps are almost never mentioned, but to me they are fascinating because I think they teach us a great deal more about science than conventional history, which only tells us about the successes, as if we should be ashamed that scientists are human…
How do students react when you tell them these kinds of things?
One of the things that really grabs their attention is the number of myths and urban legends there are related to science. For example, almost all of them believe that Columbus thought the Earth was flat, and that this was the reason that he couldn’t get sponsors. It was hard for them to believe that what they had been taught in school was just a legend.
Is the history or philosophy of science part of the curriculum for engineering or pure science degrees?
They are not part of those curricula, and I find that a regrettable lack. Science and technology are part of culture and we are cutting off that aspect, depriving our students of it. I am fortunate to be able to teach a course on these subjects at my university, but it’s a Humanities course, which some students choose as an elective. I feel that in the sciences and in engineering we should be doing what they do in Medicine, where the history of the discipline has been a required subject for many years.
Can science popularization resolve this deficiency?
In recent years there has been an authentic boom in popular science in Spain, but I’m not so sure that this change can be translated into more scientific vocations or in greater science culture in society at large, because I think it is often headed in the wrong direction. For example, it has become a slogan to say, “science is fun”, but I don’t think it is especially fun, nor that presenting it in this way is really a very good strategy.
Science is not about explosions or machines that make your hair stand on end. I think that this kind of popular science is actually looking down on its audience, because it implies that they are incapable of appreciating the intellectual effort required to understand things, which is where the real beauty of science lies. And there is another variant of popular science which attempts to attract the public with abracadabra results: light that travels faster than light, black holes that evaporate or quantum particles that are tele-transported… these are questions that are so difficult that the general public really cannot understand anything and they have to be guided by metaphors and accept what the experts say as articles of faith. But using that authority’s argument is the absolute opposite of the spirit of science! And in using that type of popular science, we promote an attitude of credulity, which is not very rigorous and is definitely anti-scientific.
So how would be improve the popularization of science, in your opinion?
I think the key is that the objective should not be so much to transmit scientific knowledge, but rather to spread a scientific attitude and to understand what it can give us, its reach and how it works. The best popular science would be one that teaches us that way of looking at the world and that disciplined thinking that we talked about before; specifically, the one that would teach us to think like scientists. I think it’s possible, if we make that first effort to un-learn so that we can think for ourselves. This is what I have tried to do in my book.