Thursday, January 28, 2016

Newton's Apple and Other Myths about Science

edited by Ronald L. Number and Kostas Kampourakis

I think I jumped on this one just from the title. At first I was puzzled that my library only had one copy of it, because popular science books tend to circulate well. I figured out why once I started reading: this book is not about people's incorrect knowledge of science (eg., most people think Schrödinger's cat is 50% alive and 50% dead, when really its status is indeterminate), it's about myths within the history of science and the pedagogy of science as a body of knowledge, a methodology, and/or a way of thinking. So, pretty academic and not so much intended for the lay reader.

Here is a series of quotes from the book that give an idea of how it's written and what it's about:

"What exactly do we mean by 'myths in science'? Often we mean the propagation of stories that are at odds with the historical record -- be it because their protagonists have specific views on how science has (or ought to have) developed or because teachers and textbook writers find them educationally expedient."

"Myths, as the French linguist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) put it in his Mythologies, are not simply inaccurate statements about the world; they are a specific kind of speech. Myths are a way of collectively expressing something about values, beliefs, and aspirations, even though, taken literally, the content of myth is not true."

"Part of the problem reflects a general limitation of all textbooks. Textbook writers, in consideration of space limitations and intended audience, present science as briefly and simply as possible. This systematic omission of details regarding the process of science has the unfortunate consequence of portraying the results of science as certain, rather than tentative and the object of continued investigation."

Even though this book is very different from what I expected, I rather enjoyed it. The academic tone isn't all that bad, the chapters — each one dedicated to a particular myth — are short, and the entire book is of modest length. Good to stretch the brain muscles and feel like a smartypants. I learned new things and deepened my understanding of others.

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