Why, oh why, do average laypeople so fear science? Is it some worrisome association with the Nobel Prize, a gloomy hatch of dour bearded Swedish men in lab coats? Is it the sharp sense memory of formaldehyde, recalling the wave of high school nausea upon being ordered to dissect a frog? Is it, quite simply, a terror of math? (Incoherently mumbles a friend of mine, as to why he gave up his dream to become a doctor: “Second year algebra! I hit the wall ... hit the wall.” He then mimes rolling into a fetal position and begins to shiver.)
I blame the fear I used to have of science on growing up with my father, an excitable Shanghainese engineer with degrees in fields like physics, applied physics and metallurgy. Oh, how his mood would lift, after dinner, as he fetched pencils, erasers and scratch paper, setting the table for that evening’s science lesson.
With such enthusiasm he’d sketch out a problem, his pencil swirling madly about the page, rendering what appeared to be some sort of Dr. Seuss-like perpetual motion machine. With a final flourish would the pencil then stab across the bottom as he’d eagerly ask: “Is the charge positive or negative? Positive or negative?” Knowing that, while totally lost, I had a 50 percent chance of guessing the correct answer, I’d query uncertainly, “Negative?” At which point my dad’s face would go red, veins would pop out, and he’d begin shouting, in an instant rage: “Charge is POSITIVE! Charge is POSITIVE!” And I would immediately burst into tears.
We laugh about it now, mostly because it is 30 years later and I now live in my own home far, far away. And yet, with the passage of time, and now my own perspective as a parent, I’ve also come to appreciate the gift of my dad’s sheer raw enthusiasm. Because like him, I’ve come to believe that science truly can be fascinating and fun.
My girls are 7 and 9, and recently, upon getting into bed, they began screaming because of a flying bug. “Don’t be scared!” I exclaimed, “We can use science!”
Because the bug was attracted to light, by turning off their bedroom lamp and turning on the light in the hall, and then the light farther down over the open window, we were able to persuade the bug to fly away without my having to flatten it with a newspaper. Never mind that the reason my girls forbid me from killing bugs is that they believe that, if not for their mean mother, said bugs will live forever, just like in A Bug’s Life! And perhaps put on a funny circus show!
Ah well. One step at a time. I am hoping my own girls never hit the wall with science — or if they do, I hope they’ll always feel brave enough to ask stupid questions. (Sample question: “If the Earth is rotating so fast, why don’t we just fly off?” Sample answer ... Not so simple. Hence, good question!)
With the belief that no mysteries are too basic, and no one should be discouraged from wondering, we continue to produce our one-minute-of-science-a-day show, The Loh Down on Science, and are developing The Loh Down on Science Live!, where audience members can participate in a fun science quiz and even ask Nobel Prize laureates their own dumb questions.
And why not? Science is the very essence, movement and language of the physical world around us. Science is driving, flying, running and cooking. Science belongs to everyone. Let’s enjoy!
Sandra Tsing Loh is a lecturer in the Master of Professional Writing Program, based in USC College.