Improving Science Literacy

Heidi B. Hammel joined The Planetary Society's Board of Directors in 2005.  A Senior Research Scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Hammel herself lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

She received her undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982 and her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the University of Hawaii in 1988.  After a post-doctoral position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California), Hammel returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

Hammel primarily studies outer planets and their satellites, with a focus on observational techniques.  Hammel received the  2002 American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS) Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public .

  • Transcript


Question: What should be the standard for science literary in the US?


Heidi Hammel: My sense, talking to the general public around the country, is that most people don’t have a very high level of scientific literacy. People seem to be afraid of science, and certainly people seem to be afraid of mathematics. And I think that’s such a shame, because I don’t think it’s as hard as people seem to think it is. You know, people have this idea that if you’re not brilliant like Einstein, you can’t be a scientist. And that’s just a myth. He was the one out of a million scientists, but there were 999,999 other scientists who were not as brilliant but who just do great science, as well. And so a lot of the work that I do is to try to dispel these myths about science being an arcane, hard field, and math being incomprehensible. I just think, you know what? We need to know math to be a good scientist, but math is a language, and we need to learn the language because that’s the language of science. And, you know, if I go to Sweden or Ethiopia, I can’t speak that language, and that doesn’t mean I can’t live in that country and function. I need to learn the language. It’s the same with science and math. You need to learn the language first, and then you can work in those fields. But it’s not mysterious and arcane. It’s a way of looking at the world, and a way of exploring the world, and trying to make sense of the world. It disappoints me that people are so frightened of science and frightened of math. I think the only way we’ll have a sea change in peoples’ appreciation of science, technology, engineering, math, is through a broad effort, partially part of the government, partially the work of scientists like me, who communicate to the public, partially the parents of young kids, not propagating myths about science is hard and, oh, I never did well in math, you know. You don’t need to do that. Yeah. It’s got to be a joint effort on everybody’s part. People need to realize that the world is changing. It’s a very different world than it was 20, 30 years ago, and we have to be aware of that as a culture, as a society, and recognize that the rest of the world is moving on and moving on pretty quickly. And if we want to maintain the level of comfort in our culture and society that we’ve become accustomed to, we have to really get in there, and we have to educate our kids, and bring them up to speed commensurate with what’s going on in the other countries, and I worry that that’s not happening.