The way we teach science misses something key: Human context

Why do we deprive students of the historical and cultural context of science?

Credit: Adobe Stock via Archivist and stta
  • The teaching of science must and can be humanized at all levels, from nonscience courses to technical advanced courses.
  • By teaching science only as a technical endeavor, we deprive students and future scientists of a more inclusive worldview where science is seen as part of our human need to make sense of the world.
  • The challenges we face in the modern world call for an engagement of the sciences and the humanities that starts in the classroom and becomes an essential aspect of the public sphere.

We've all heard this before, and many of us have experienced it firsthand: Science class is boring. It's too hard. It's not fun. It's all about memorizing a bunch of formulas. The teacher is too tough. Homework is stupid and pointless. The list goes on. Of course, there are spectacular exceptions, truly motivating and inspiring science teachers across the world. One or two of these mentors were essential to many of us who became professional scientists. What do they have that other teachers don't? What makes a good science teacher? There is pedagogy, of course. How you present the material, how you relate to your students. But first and foremost, it is passion that makes a science teacher stand out, or any teacher for that matter. Passion for the subject matter, passion for teaching, passion for making a difference and becoming someone unique in the lives of the many young people the teacher meets in the classroom. A successful teacher never steps outside of his own humanity as he steps into the classroom. Quite the opposite, the act of teaching should be a celebration of our shared humanity, of our mission to pass on knowledge from generation to generation so as to keep the appetite for discovery and invention burning.

...the act of teaching should be a celebration of our shared humanity, of our mission to pass on knowledge from generation to generation so as to keep the appetite for discovery and invention burning.

There is a side to science teaching that is formulaic; there is material that needs to be covered, facts that must be introduced, there is repetition, there is frustration. No profession is different. Like in acting, however, it is the delivery that makes the difference. You can explain Newton's laws of motion by simply writing them on the blackboard (or the whiteboard or a tablet that is projected onto a big screen) and working through a few examples. This is done across the world in thousands of classrooms every day. But if this is all you do when teaching Newton's laws, you are leaving out the best part of the story, the story itself. Who was Isaac Newton? Why was he thinking about the laws of motion and gravity in his early twenties? What was going on in Europe in the mid 1600s? Was science at war with religion after Galileo's affair with the Vatican? Where was Newton when he came up with his first insights into a formulation of mechanics that would change the world forever? (Answer: hiding from a plague pandemic in his mother's farm.) What inspired him? Was he just a hardened rationalist who only cared about describing the world through formulas? (Answer: absolutely not! Yes, Newton was a weirdo, socially detached, quiet, and probably died a virgin. Still, he was far from a cold machine, only interested in calculations. What moved him was a deep religiosity, a conviction that the rationality of the world reflected God's rationality and that the task of the natural philosopher was to unveil the cosmic blueprint so as to understand better the "mind of God.") To Newton, the practice of science was an act of religious devotion.

Why deprive students of this humanistic side of science? The usual excuse is time, as in "we don't have enough time to cover the material and delve into such stories." Nonsense. I've been teaching physics courses for over 30 years at all different levels, from non-science majors to quantum field theory to graduate students, and I can guarantee that there is always time when there is the will.

The true reason why the overwhelming majority of science classes excludes the humanistic aspects inherent in the practice of science is that most scientists don't know any of this story. And they don't know it because these topics are not part of their scientific education. Those who do know, look for this knowledge largely on their own. A typical scientific education doesn't include the historical and cultural context from which the science emerged, or the spiritual and religious inspiration behind the thoughts of many of the "heroes" of science, from Johannes Kepler and Newton to James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. And if they do know, they've been trained not to mention it. "Don't mention philosophy, don't mention history of science, and surely don't mention religion in a science class."

Carl Sagan, one the most loved science teachers and communicators, speaks at Cornell University circa 1987.

Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel by CC 4.0

Over the past two centuries, and largely influenced by the profound and immediate impact of technological applications of scientific thinking in industry and society, the teaching of science was mostly reduced to the instruction of technicians, a specialized guild focused on very specific tasks. We became incredibly efficient at handling abstruse mathematics and computer programming, of modeling specific systems and handling laboratory demands within narrow subdisciplines: plasma physics, condensed-matter physics, high-energy physics, astrophysics, and so on. The walls erected between the sciences and the humanities after the Enlightenment have multiplied into walls erected between the countless subdisciplines within each scientific field, from physics and chemistry to biology and computer science. Reductionism took over education and we lost sight of the whole.

True, the vast amount of knowledge accumulated over the centuries, and that continues to grow at an unrelenting pace in all scientific fields, unavoidably precludes anyone from having a global understanding of a whole subject, be it astronomy or cognitive psychology. That is not what worries me, as I am, as are all my colleagues, one of the specialists. What does worry me is the enormous distancing between a scientific education and a humanistic approach to knowledge. From teaching Dartmouth's Physics for Poets for most of my career, I have witnessed the excitement of nonscience majors when they understand not the formulas of physics but the ideas of physics, the historical context from which they emerged, their philosophical and religious implications, the humanity of science itself, as an expression of our human need to make sense of who we are and of the world in which we live. (For those curious, I created a similar online course free and open to the public, Question Reality! Science, Philosophy, and the Search for Meaning )

As students learn about changing worldviews, about the importance of observational rigor and methodological discipline, of the devotion and passion that feeds the search for knowledge and the fundamental relevance of science education in our times, they reconnect with a science they had deemed unwieldy and grow as thinkers and citizens. The challenges we face in the modern world call for an engagement of the sciences and the humanities that starts in the classroom and becomes an essential conversation in the public sphere.

More From Marcelo Gleiser
Related Articles

China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

  • How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
  • One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
  • Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.

There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

Sex & Relationships
  • A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
  • The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
  • The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Keep reading Show less