Science Matters

A review of Science Matters by Karla D. Passalacqua

One of my favorite undergraduate microbiology teachers used to remind us that the study of biology was important because “we are all biological citizens in a biological world.” Authors James Trefil and Robert Hazen would probably modify that statement, and say that studying science is important because “we are all physical citizens in a physical universe.” In the book Science Matters, the authors undertake the grand task of conveying “Science,” with a capital “S,” from atoms to ecosystems and from the scientific method to the very latest advances in biotechnology.

In Science Matters, which is not a textbook, the goal is more unabashedly to educate a wider swath of society to help them become scientifically literate. In the Introduction, Hazen and Trefil define their notion of scientific literacy as “the knowledge you need to understand public issues.” They point out wisely that scientific literacy is different from technological literacy (such as the ability to program your DVD player), and that it is important for civic, aesthetic, and intellectual reasons. Thus, the book is organized around 19 Great Ideas (or “Core Concepts”), and is written in a very readable, storytelling style. The book begins with the general idea of “Knowing” in science, then goes through the Great Ideas in a general order of physics, then chemistry, then life sciences, ending in a chapter on Ecosystems, with the most beautiful core concept that “All life is connected.” One particularly nice feature is a section called “Frontiers” at the end of each chapter, where current state-of-the-research questions are discussed. This has the excellent effect of showing that science is an active, changing, open-ended process and that there are many things we still do not understand.

As a scientist, I enjoyed reading Science Matters very much, and I liked that I was able to fill in some of my own gaping holes of knowledge, particularly in the earth sciences. However, I am still curious about how true newcomers to science might fare in upgrading their understanding after reading this book on their own. With that said, I think that Science Matters would be splendid for short, adult education classes in scientific literacy. But I think that the person who is motivated to pick up this book at a bookstore would likely possess the proper mindset to gain a fairly thorough grasp of the sciences and the role they play in society.

The only thing that Science Matters might benefit from would be a few more well-organized figures, a suggestion I make because the few pictures that are included are simple, to-the-point, and helpful. Also, I noticed that the authors mention the Doppler effect in Chapter 10, but don't explain what it is until Chapter 11. But this is a minor organizational point and will hopefully be corrected in the next edition. And although the authors point out that many societal issues, including the rise of drug-resistant microbes and the spread of “bird-flu,” are important reasons for becoming scientifically literate, as a microbiologist who has a particular interest in “microbial literacy,” I would like to see these topics specifically addressed in future editions.

Overall, Drs. Hazen and Trefil are to be commended for tackling the Herculean task of telling the grand story of Science for all and keeping the works updated in an energetic way. In both The Sciences and Science Matters, the authors' love of science is abundantly evident, and I believe that this sincere enthusiasm can be wonderfully infectious. I'm certain that this will serve to inspire the students and individuals who read these works, especially with the guidance of an equally enthusiastic instructor.

This is an abridged version, please visit this website for the complete version.

Articles from CBE Life Sciences Education are provided here courtesy of American Society for Cell Biology