Archive for April, 2009

An otter in my garden!

April 20, 2009

Otter Napping

Otter Napping


Note: I wrote this piece yesterday but didn’t have a chance to post it.  At the end is an update.


This morning I was walking in the back garden with my dog when he suddenly got excited.  Instinctively I tightened his leash and from a bed of reeds there burst a long, sinuous dark shape with a rounded, muscular, tapering tail.  “Otter!” I thought to myself incredulously.  The apparition vanished into the bushes at the front of the house.


On Why People Don’t Like Science, Especially Physics

April 14, 2009


Take a child.  Put said child into a sufficiently stimulating and diverse environment and let him/her explore.  When I’ve done or observed this, I’ve found that

a)      Children are interested in and curious about practically everything,

b)      And this includes asking scientific questions, and looking for or speculating about possible answers. 

Now add a few years of schooling, including heavy doses of negative stereotyping about science, especially for girls in the West.  Include also deadly dull and boring teachers who either hate the subject or the students or both.  Include huge reams of homework and assignments and authoritative pronouncements on who is stupid or smart, who is a science-type or not, and other forms of labeling. 

End result: people who think science (especially physics) is boring, or dull, or for “smart people only.”  People whose imaginations are unmoved by Saturn’s Rings, quadratic equations or the implications of the special theory of relativity.  People to whom gravity is something to be taken for granted rather than something amazing. 

I try not to take all this personally but it does get a bit depressing when people who are otherwise intelligent find out what I do and immediately cringe, or wince, or say something inane about how brilliant I must be.  This is not dissimilar to the reactions I get about writing science fiction (except for the “brilliant” part).  And while I think the two reactions are related, I first want to speculate about why people don’t like science in general and physics in particular.

Here are some random thoughts that come to mind.  These are in the nature of hypotheses:

  • It is taught poorly, which kills the student’s interest
  • It is challenging in the sense of what it requires from the student: dedication, attention to detail, discipline and constant practice.  
  • Formal education tends to divide the universe into “subjects” that appear to have little to do with each other.  Those who are not going into the sciences tend to think, as a result, that physics has no relevance to their lives.
  • It gets bad press, from dull textbooks and incomprehensible news reports to mad scientists in movies.  Particularly in societies where the herd mentality is paramount, where people tend to go with trends and bury their individuality in an attempt to conform, science is not portrayed as “cool.”  In such cultures (I’m thinking in particular of the US) it is the province of nerds and geeks, as though it is a necessary rite of passage when growing up to give up one’s curiosity about the natural world.  And if you don’t do that, gosh, how embarrassing you are.
  • Science, especially physics, is portrayed as antithetical to art so people who write or paint or make music are naturally turned off by it.
  • Science is the handmaiden of industry and war and is therefore off-putting.  It is owned by the powerful, and those in the lower levels of the hierarchy do not feel a sense of connection and ownership with respect to science.
  • Science is a boy thing and therefore not something that can be done by girls, or should be done by girls. 
  • Scientists are notoriously poor communicators, with some happy exceptions who write about it well, but then you have to know a certain amount of science and have some liking for it in order to appreciate their work.

In my experience growing up in India until my early twenties, things were different in two ways (again this is my experience):

  • There was no negative labeling if you liked to learn.  Kids who did well were looked up to by their classmates.  I don’t know if this is still true given the amount of penetration of Western norms into urban India in the last couple of decades.  
  • While there was less labeling regarding “science types” or “arts types” there was some.  But interestingly I didn’t myself come across the idea that girls could not do science.  The idea was that science required hard work and anyone who could put in the discipline could do it.  I’ve heard that nowadays in India female science graduates are sought after by mamas looking to arrange marriages for their sons because they can bring in a decent income.  However, then at least, a woman pursuing science would be expected not to go into demanding areas like research (as a long-term career anyway) because that would take too much away from family duties.

All right. I personally think that retaining one’s curiosity about the natural world adds to the richness of life experience, whether one is a scientist or a saxophonist, a mathematician or a dressmaker.  I mourn the take-over of science by Wall Street and the war mongers, but not the science itself.  I wish it were done and taught differently — in a more holistic way for lack of a better word — in a way that made us feel, like John Muir or the Buddha, connected to everything else, so that it would mean something to us at a personal level, and so we would not use it for harm.  But to dislike science itself, to think of its ideas as boring, or irrelevant, or dull?  That is beyond my comprehension.

A quick note:  I think a dislike of science may be connected to a dislike of science fiction, although not necessarily and not in every case.  But I’ve come across a bunch of reviews of my new collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and a couple or three of the reviewers have been totally baffled by my stories.  One classic example was the person who said that these stories were not really stories because they had science in them! 

Anyway all I’ve done in the above is to speculate.  I’d like to hear what others think.  Why are some people turned off science? Why are there so many of them?  What, if anything, should be done about it?

Update: See my latest post on this, with further links.

Reflections on a Rainy Saturday

April 11, 2009

It is raining and because I’m feeling a bit under the weather I can excuse myself (temporarily) from marking a tottering pile of papers.  The rain is drizzly and half-hearted and cold, and I try to follow a raindrop from as high up as I can see from the window.  Imagine being a water molecule up in the clouds, coalescing with others like yourself (bless the hydrogen bond!) until you are gravid, liquid, falling.  Falling through the heights, faster and faster, but decelerating until you coast down at a constant speed, like a feather.   I try to “eyeball” whether the raindrops are actually falling at a fixed speed, a condition identical to staying still — but it is hard.  Even in a thin, slow rain I find the raindrops’ trajectory difficult to follow.  

Idly watching the rain was a favorite pastime of mine as a kid, although the kind of rain I remember best is the monsoon.  Monsoon rain is loud, making you feel like you live under a waterfall, like some kind of aquatic hobbit.  It is dramatic, with violent flashes of lightning and great rolls of thunder.  In my mind it is inextricably connected with hot cups of sweet, milky chai and samosas.  Which is what I’d like right now…

But all this is also reminding me of something I read in a recent issue of New Scientist.  There is a controversial new theory about how coastal forests might act like moisture pumps, lowering air pressure above them and pulling the moist sea air many miles inland.  This draws wet weather much further inland than it would normally go, so that as the forests spread inland the moisture pump effect is magnified.  This, according to the theory, allows the existence of forests that might span a whole continent, like the Amazon.  Thus, the authors sat, coastal forests are key to the existence of inland forests and therefore should be protected.

What I like about this idea is that if it is true it might allow us to re-green the dustbowls that human activity has created, such as the interior of Australia, and the Sahara.  It probably did not take much coastal forest destruction to turn off the moisture pump and disturb normal rainfall patterns.  I think the theory is exciting and worth studying.  Regrowing forests (slow as the process is) might help turn global warming around decades or centuries after we are gone.

All this gives me a feeling of helpless urgency at the same time because of the rate at which the Amazon is being cut down.  I believe that although phytoplankton in the oceans provide much of the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen, the Amazon by itself provides a substantial amount, somewhere between 10 and 20 %.  The thought of that literal green lung vanishing makes me feel positively asphyxiated.

So I’m taking a few deliberate deep breaths and staring out at the slow fall of rain and enjoying the sight of birds at the feeder.  The bird feeders have been a blessing.  We set them up last year and all winter we’ve been rewarded with birdsong.  It’s been heartening to hear birdsong in the dead of winter, with snow and bare branches and leaden sky.  But it got us through. 

I saw a film at my college this past week that I’m not quite ready to talk about, but among other things it was about the emotional lives of animals.  I’m really interested in that because I’m in general interested in the so-called Other, in ways that are both science-fictional and not.  It is ironic to me that we search the skies for alien signals and have all this angst about possibly being alone in the universe, when all the time we are surrounded by creatures that feel and communicate, whose “language” we don’t deign to give attention to because we assume they are saying nothing, or nothing that’s important to us. 

I want to learn that language.  I’d like to have a glimpse into what it would be like to be something else. 

Like a redwood tree.  Or a giant squid.  Or a sparrow.   Or a man.  J

Talk about an alien experience!