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Can You Speak Science? A Primer from a Priest

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Many people comment on science. The fact that they obviously don't know what they are talking about doesn't seem to stop or embarrass them. Perhaps they don't admit (or know) that they can't speak science!

How can you bridge two worlds of knowledge if you don't know something of both? My background is as a scientist (physics, computers, astronomy, etc.) and also as an Episcopal priest, so I have seen this problem before. Here I am calling for us to educate ourselves about another's perspective before we open our mouths. It is difficult to bridge two (or more) world perspectives simultaneously. But unless we put out the effort, we don't really have two of us talking in dialogue, just a monologue instead.

Once upon a time, I called a meeting of an R&D lab I was leading. I asked people for ideas. No one would say anything, maybe because I was the boss. Finally I had to say, "Come on people. If my ideas are all we have to work with, why did I hire you?" I challenge you similarly now: look at my ideas and get out your own and let's dig in -- maybe come up with some ideas better than either of us had before.

Carl Sagan summarized our situation when he said: "We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster." (BP, anyone?)

This problem has been clarified further by Herman Wouk's recent book, The Language God Talks. (He is the author of The Caine Mutiny, Winds of War, and other novels.) At one point, he and Dick Feynman have a discussion in which Feynman tells him "Go learn the calculus." Wouk regrets that he never does. Wouk then points out that most people are scientific illiterates and cannot speak the language of science.

The Huffington Post now has a new section titled "Religion and Science: A Contemporary Discussion," led -- bravely, in my opinion -- by Paul Raushenbush. This is supposed to be a dialogue between religious advocates and scientists, but most of the people writing come from the religious side. As far as I can detect, there are no scientists writing. So I am writing this to urge some scientists to write and to encourage those of you who know no science to learn some to gain some perspective.

How do I recognize when someone knows no science? Science these days begins with hard science, like math, physics, chemistry and astronomy, before trying to get into other more complex sciences. Knowing this foundation is the scientific equivalent of learning how to read. Fifty years ago, C. P. Snow was shocked to learn that most of his supposedly highly educated friends, who might look down their nose at someone who could not quote Shakespeare and the Bible, were totally ignorant of mass and acceleration, not to mention the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he called the scientific equivalent of asking: "Can you read?" Knowledge of math, physics, chemistry and astronomy are the first things I look for to detect if you can speak credibly about science.

So what must we do in order to enable a dialogue, you and I? I am going to suggest four things in hard science you can learn to get started. Pick one and dive in. It won't hurt, and it might be fun.

(Maybe someone can come with a better list, but you can, get started here. Then get a scientist friend to help you. They will be excited that you want to know. After this, you may not be able to speak fluent science, but you will have fun and a handle on how to learn more.)

1) Math, the foundation of modern science. Euler's Identity is called the most beautiful equation. It connects numbers to the real world. This is the handle on how things move around in our world, from bicycles to water over Hoover Dam.

2) Physics. Lagrange Points are those that balance orbits around two objects. This is the basics of how to get from our planet to anywhere else, our gravity neighborhood. Newton saw the apple fall and realized that the moon was falling, too, but Lagrange solved the problem of a small object going around two big ones.

3) Chemistry. Some molecules, like us, are left- or right-handed. Amino acids are at the very base of life, and as far as we can tell, most found in our region of the universe are left-handed.

4) Astronomy. Did you notice that some people on Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" episodes could not tell him how long a year was? How long is a year? A day? Does the Earth wobble as it spins? You are riding on a molten rock ball with water and continents floating on it. The ocean is rising. It has a large moon pulling tides in the water. The comet that hit Jupiter in 1994 left holes in Jupiter about the size the Earth.

You owe it to yourself to know these things -- and more. Just the fact that you would inquire into these things will make me want to listen to you. Then we can have some interesting talks with info from both religion and science!