Behold Albert Einstein: not the tidy young patent clerk, working through his most groundbreaking theories, but the scraggly eccentric of his later years. This image speaks volumes about our conception of scientific geniuses. We view those we most admire more as crazy, intuition-driven, mold-breaking, wild-haired artists than as meticulous researchers and rigorous analyzers. We imagine their greatest mathematical and scientific breakthroughs occurring not at desks or in laboratories; instead, we see Archimedes in his bathtub, Newton under and apple tree, and Franklin in a storm with his kite.From an early draft of Raising a Left Brain Child in a Right Brain World, then called "Out in Left Field in a Right Brain World."
I regretted eliminating this section; it didn't fit in with the publisher's reconception of my project as a parent-oriented advice book rather than as a broader cultural critique. But the more I think about it, the more I think that this right-brained conception of science and scientists has contributed to the demise of science education in ways that specifically shortchange left-brained, scientific minds.
--The notion that the way you get kids interested in science is to showcase the epiphanies rather than the puzzle solving--downplaying the importance, and the fun, of solving hard puzzles.
--The notion that the way to prepare kids for science careers is to promote "creativity" and "out of the box thinking" rather than the analytical and mathematical skills that scientific competence depends on.
So it was nice to see physicist Leonard Mlodinow's Op Ed in Sunday's New York Times. As soon as I read the first two paragraphs, I knew just what he was getting at:
The other week I was working in my garage office when my 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, came in to tell me about Charles Darwin. Did I know that he discovered the theory of evolution after studying finches on the Galápagos Islands? I was steeped in what felt like the 37th draft of my new book, which is on the development of scientific ideas, and she was proud to contribute this tidbit of history that she had just learned in class.
Sadly, like many stories of scientific discovery, that commonly recounted tale, repeated in her biology textbook, is not true.Noting that "The popular history of science is full of such falsehoods," Mlodinow writes:
The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin’s success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.Perhaps most compelling is Mlodinow's critique of the recent Steven Hawking movie
The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.
Of the tale of Newton and the apple, the historian Richard S. Westfall wrote, “The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea ... A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.” Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy.
In the film “The Theory of Everything,” Stephen Hawking is seen staring at glowing embers in a fireplace when he has a vision of black holes emitting heat. In the next scene he is announcing to an astonished audience that, contrary to prior theory, black holes will leak particles, shrink and then explode. But that is not how his discovery happened.
In reality, Mr. Hawking had been inspired not by glowing embers, but by the work of two Russian physicists.
According to their theory, rotating black holes would give off energy, slowing their rotation until they eventually stopped. To investigate this, Mr. Hawking had to perform difficult mathematical calculations that carefully combined the relevant elements of quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of gravity — two mainstays of physics that, in certain respects, are known to contradict each other. Mr. Hawking’s calculations showed, to his “surprise and annoyance,” that stationary black holes also leak.Not glowing embers; difficult mathematical calculations.
Mlodinow notes that "the oversimplification of discovery makes science appear far less rich and complex than it really is." He also touches on broader consequences:
Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.To see this in action, one need look no further than the education world--including, of course, the subworld of science education.