Help me with gain science literacy
June 13, 2007 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Is there a logical sequence in which to learn principles from the major fields of science, where knowledge from one field would undoubtedly help me understand the next?

I'd like to bump up my science literacy--I'm thinking at least "101" level in all the major fields (biology/genetics, physics, chemistry, earth/planetary sciences, statistics,...others?) with passing jaunts into more complex and topical subjects such as neuroscience, nuclear science, climate change, quantum science, etc. My goal is not to cram in a bunch of facts, but rather to understand the basics and position myself to better grasp what's interesting about new ideas & discoveries.

My only formal learning is high-school level physics & biology (c. 1985) and astronomy and meteorology 101s in university. I enjoyed all those but ended up taking the classics and humanities path through life. I'm an intrepid reader and have continued reading about science all along, so I plan to read more--perhaps textbooks, but also original works from the likes of Einstein, Hawking, Darwin, etc., and I may also take some courses.

The question is, is there a useful order in which I could set out to learn stuff that makes the learning as effective and enjoyable as possible? Most schools seem to use a historical angle (learning about discoveries in the order in which they happened chronologically), with the benefit being that you may also gain a context of what was happening in the world at the time, or understand why certain discoveries could only have happened when they did because of circumstances or materials, etc. The other major angle seems to be a "physics first" approach, the thinking being "physics explains everything, so start there and you'll understand everything else better." I imagine this angle would then play out from small units to complex systems (physics > chemistry > biology > earth sciences > astronomy??)

Any personal or professional opinions about what works best, or what worked for you? Or particular books or self-study paths that take on all of science in a coherent way? (Some of the answers to this post are helpful, but the post itself is a bit dated and geared more toward history.)
posted by cocoagirl to Education (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Sure, you can learn physics first, since chemistry is just applied physics. Then learn biology, since that's just applied chemistry. But math should probably be the first step (before physics) since physics is just math applied to one possible universe.

On a more helpful note, entry level science won't interact much with other disciplines. Learning physics before chemistry won't matter much since there isn't a lot of overlap. Yes, they both deal with atoms and stuff, but 101 physics is all about visible sized objects and them moving around, versus chem 101 being reactions, and atomic bonds and such.

In the end, there isn't much reason to learn one particular science before another, although a base level of math will be helpful in physics before going into that.
posted by cschneid at 10:07 AM on June 13, 2007

I agree with most of what cschneid said, except that I think college introductory chemistry is a prerequisite for college introductory biology. You won't need physics to understand the introductory chemistry though.
posted by grouse at 10:28 AM on June 13, 2007

Math. The more I read and learn about science, the more I find that the common thread that ties it all together is math. It's frustrating, feeling that there's some deeper truth between this and that but not being able to express it concretely because I never took the time to really grok math.
posted by Skorgu at 10:30 AM on June 13, 2007

You'll get a lot more out of introductory physics if you know introductory calculus. And I think astronomy would make more sense if you understand physics. Other than that, I don't think the order matters much.

I think college introductory chemistry is a prerequisite for college introductory biology

Not where I went to school - these were standard pre-med weed-out classes for freshman year, and most people took them concurrently.
posted by vytae at 10:32 AM on June 13, 2007

vytae: I didn't mean that it was technically a prerequisite at every university. I mean that one would get much more out of an intro to biology by knowing intro chemistry, in a way that is not true, say, of intro physics and intro chemistry.

Anyway, I'll amend my advice: Do whichever one you think is most interesting first. That will increase the likelihood of you continuing on this path.
posted by grouse at 10:38 AM on June 13, 2007

I liked John Gribbin's Almost Everyone's Guide to Science.
posted by teleskiving at 10:53 AM on June 13, 2007

I'm with grouse: pick the one that floats your boat and go from there. They all use the same logical tools, so you can move from one to another as needed (says me, the Liberal Arts type...)
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:55 AM on June 13, 2007

as a scientist i'm sympathetic to the desire but i think the premise is kind of flawed both practically and theoretically.

it's kind of like saying what programming language do i learn in order to understand all programming languages. Do you want to make programs that solve some problem or do you want to understand all programming languages abstractly?

if you want to understand science in general, start with Kant's Critique or maybe the dialogue 'Theatetus' of Plato.
(or the bible if that's your thing)

if you want to understand some problem say: how does carbon react with other molecules, how do you solve differential equations, why is the sky blue, etc. Start with the problem, find a book that attempts to answer it and see if you understand the explanation, if you don't start at the beginning of the book, if you don't then start in some more introductory book until you find something you understand.

science always starts somewhere and builds up from this starting point carefully. it doesn't have a foundation but is a tangled web of ideas, you just have to pick a thread and start following it.
posted by geos at 11:08 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Math is the foundation of everything. To really understand physics you need to understand differential calculus. To really understand biology you need to understand statistics. To understand anything at all in science, you need to understand logic.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:11 AM on June 13, 2007

Agreed that the language of science is mathematics. How much math are you comfortable with? You could read through the syllabus of a mathematics for scientists course and brush up on anything unfamiliar. But if you learned your high-school math really, really well, you will get a long way without being forced to learn calculus.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 11:22 AM on June 13, 2007

Another scientist agrees - geos has the right idea.

Learning math to understand biology though? Ummm, doubtful. Learn biology to understand biology. Learn math to understand math.

As an educated society, we like to think we have all these subjects neatly laid out as applications of one another - but the universe is not set up according to the dewey decimal system.
posted by dendrite at 11:25 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

To really understand biology you need to understand statistics.

The biological research I do certainly requires an understanding of math and statistics, but I don't think it's necessary to understand it at the intro level.
posted by grouse at 11:54 AM on June 13, 2007

Pick a subject that interests you. Work out from there. The subject could be general, like "an introduction to biology," or it could be specific, like "why does a fly fishing line behave as it does."

Yes, Math (or Physics) is the foundation of everything. Yes, statistics (of various types) are useful for understanding various fields of biology, however, if you start with the basics, it could be a long time before you actually get to the stuff that interests you. I mean, lots and lots of progress has been made in biology by people who never proved the number system, or waited for someone to come up with a unified field theory.
posted by Good Brain at 12:12 PM on June 13, 2007

I'm also someone who studied science at school and then switched to humanities, and I've recently taken to reading popular science - in fact, I read non-fiction a hell of a lot more than fiction these days. It started with Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (via a Douglas Adams interview I read, I'm sure) and I can heartily recommend it as a way into biology in general. I've found that popular science books split into two main types - the books that try and explain complex stuff to the layman, and the books that are full of quirky facts that add up to not-very-much.

Anyway, I've enjoyed:
Everything I've read by Dawkins - Selfish Gene, Climbing Mt Improbable, The Blind Watchmaker and others I've probably forgotten.
Steven Pinker's books - The Blank Slate, How The Mind Works and The Language Instinct. Not universally accepted stuff, but nevertheless fascinating.
Carl Sagan - Cosmos. This is getting on a bit, so maybe someone more qualified can say how relevant it is today, or even recommend an alternative.
Simon Singh - Big Bang and Fermat's Last Theorem. Physics and Maths which walks the line between too much simplification and doing your bloody nut in with lots of formulas and that.
Bill Bryson - A short history of nearly everything. Probably the most lightweight here, but very accessible.
posted by liquidindian at 12:13 PM on June 13, 2007

I actually would disagree with the "chemistry before biology, but don't worry about physics" statements above. I think a lot of basic chemistry is related to physics (atomic orbitals, bond energy, etc). Certainly you could do the chemistry before the physics, but I think the other way around might be helpful. Chemistry before biology *might* be helpful, but I don't think it's quite as strong as the physics-chemistry link.

But then, this depends a lot of what kind of physics, chemistry, and biology you're looking at.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:48 PM on June 13, 2007

Ack. The point I meant to make when I started that post is that there was no real thought-out reasoning for my choices, just a "ooh, that looks interesting" approach. I recommend it.
posted by liquidindian at 12:52 PM on June 13, 2007

I was pretty pissed in High School after stumbled through physics and statistics, and then taking calculus and learning they were both largely calculus (at least at the introductory level.) I remember asking my stat teacher if there was a mathematical way to find the area underneath a curve so that I didn't have to use the stupid chart in the back of the book, and she told me "I don't think so."

So, calculus and then everything else. I am currently doing this.

Also, acquaint yourself with the philosophy and history of science, scientific method, falsifiability, etc. It will allow you to defend science against crap like Intelligent Design; and prevent you from falling into the Scientism trap, the belief that science is the most or only legitimate way to understand the world around you.
posted by erikharmon at 1:02 PM on June 13, 2007

Alan Lightman's anthology The Discoveries will acquaint you with the important discoveries in science of the 20th century, if you decide to take liquidindian's course of reading popular science books (which is the also the way I do it), instead of trying to get a 101-level grounding.
posted by matildaben at 1:52 PM on June 13, 2007

Best answer: Probably the most important thing is statistics, not only for science literacy but for general news literacy as well. Maybe a logic course to recognize the common fallacies?

Philosophy and history of science can be either learned directly or picked up through observation, and I find the latter method is much more useful. Try to learn about some recent-day scientific controversies and how they've been resolved. Physics might be good for this, because most introductory physics classes touch on relativity and quantum mechanics at a history-of-science level, while still giving you the grounding in basics that you'd want from a science class.

Biology always seemed like a lot of memorization to me. I don't really think much other knowledge is going to make a difference there, although an understanding of chemistry helps with cellular bio. It's useful from a literacy standpoint because it gives you some understanding of the general systems, and also because if you ask intelligent questions you'll discover how often the answer is "We have no clue".

All of this will help you recognize real scientists, as opposed to people who are trying to trick you. Real scientists are willing to admit uncertainties, possible flaws, and holes in their knowledge.

I also think scientists' blogs are fascinating and useful for getting a feel of how real scientists think. Many do a great job of applying scientific thought to modern-day questions and ideas.

The main thing is a big healthy dose of skepticism. When someone says something "is proven by quantum mechanics!" try to learn enough about quantum mechanics to see if that's true. When they say "evolution means that..." learn about evolution, and what it really says. You can't learn everything in advance. Just find a good, balanced book on a topic you want to learn about. Something without an agenda, not trying to sell you on a diet or religion. If you can't understand the book find the missing knowledge and learn that first.
posted by Lady Li at 2:26 PM on June 13, 2007

The sciences have largely learnt to be independent so don't worry too much about dependencies between them. A biologist can't afford to spend time learning physics, because there's too much biology to learn, so biologists know how to teach biology without having to do quantum mechanics, so all the really hard biology doesn't expect more than a basic grounding in other sciences (for somewhat larger values of basic than usual perhaps).

Equally, a biologist trying to explain his stuff to Joe Public has to be able to do so without assuming prior knowledge, so again, the more popular side of things is generally explained without too much reference to obscure bits of other sciences.

If there is any kind of interdepency it will make itself quite obvious, so I wouldn't worry about it too much.

This relative indepency amongst sciences is perhaps a necessity since the days of the true polymath are long gone, but it is also costing us. One estimate is that we now spend 2/3 of our time rediscovering things simply because we didn't already know we knew them.
posted by edd at 3:39 PM on June 13, 2007

I'm in a similar boat - high school physics & biol in the 80's, went the elec / tech path, now at uni studying App Sc with a leaning towards biol / microbiol / biochem. Just finishing my first semester now in fact; first exam is on Saturday...

I don't know that there is an order as such. At least in the way my 101-level courses (chemistry, biology, physics, env. science) are structured, everything is feeding into and reinforcing everything else. First 1/2 of the semester it was all unrelated; after that it all started to gel together.

Maths certainly helps - I did a HS math refresher/bridging course beforehand that started at algebra and went through logs, stats, etc to calculus, though we've used nothing more than very basic algebra so far (with a bit of logs thrown in during chemistry). But, beyond that, for a basic self-taught appreciation? Probably not necessary - and if it is, you could pick it up as you go.

I'm biased, and I don't know where your interests may lie, but I'd lean towards biology - it's probably less "stand-alone" than the other purer sciences, and you'll encounter aspects of them all. Pick up a good uni-level textbook that's designed to take you in to 2nd or 3rd year ("Biology" by Campbell/Reece/Meyers is what we're using here), and it'll describe enough chemistry, physics, and maths well enough that you'll get a basic practical grounding in all of them.

About 1/4 of my Env Sci subject was "philosophy of science", which I thought was a bit of a wank on the part of the lecturer; a chance for him to ride his particular hobbyhorse. I was wrong - it turned out to be interesting and useful. Even a basic understanding of the background, basics, and derivation of modern logical thought and the scientific method will open your eyes, and give a different view on things you would have encountered in your humanities studies. I really should read some more Descartes, Kant, Popper etc when I've got the time (i.e. when exams are over)...

On preview: Lady Li, 100% with you on the skepticism, but not on a lot of biology being rote memorisation - it's fascinating and interesting! The only thing, at an intro level at least, which could be considered "memorisation" would be some of the terminology - and even that's debateable if you have an interest in language and word derivation (e.g. homo / homeo / hetero, etc.)
posted by Pinback at 3:47 PM on June 13, 2007

I guess I should have made something more clear: I think you can't really understand biology unless you understand evolution, and you can't really understand evolution unless you understand statistics and probability theory -- since Darwinian selection is fundamentally a statistical process.

You don't necessarily have to be a master at statistics (e.g. be able to explain what a chi-test is), but you at least have to understand the basic concepts involved.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:35 PM on June 13, 2007

(that would be "chi-square test"...)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:38 PM on June 13, 2007

Start with the philosophy of science. You probably assume you know the foundations of science, but having actually studied the problems inherent in science, the arguments over method, the different schools of thought on what makes good science, and what makes a good scientist, etc, gives a much better framework on which to build the understanding of scientific knowledge that you plan to acquire.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:13 PM on June 13, 2007

Best answer: It depends largely on what you mean by 'science'. If you want to understand specific phenomena in the world then your best bet is to start with chemistry. Chemistry is the key and you don't need as much math as you think, to really see what's going on. And burning things rocks. Once you understand chemistry you'll have a most solid understanding on why pretty much anything occurs the way it does. Later on you can dig in to physics to see why chemistry is the way it is and this can actually be pretty damn exciting. And if you're interested in biology chemistry is required, from photosynthesis to cell stability, and elemental matters like evolution can be understood more deeply as molecular mutations in DNA that, hey, just happen to work out. In fact it's chemists, I've found, that really appreciate evolution, because they have this deep knowledge of the intimate dance of molecules and macro structures that makes everything so exciting and unpredictable. But if you want to understand why science works then you'll have to tackle the philosophy of science, as harlequin points out. This can be a somewhat disillusioning path though. Once the limits of science are clear it loses a lot of lustre and you start to pity scientists a bit, being not much more than players in a very special game. But start anywhere and go with what you find interesting and everything will probably work itself out. The psychology of science, from evolutionary psychology to astro physicists, is remarkably consistent and you'll find most everything makes sense if you look at it in the right way (metaphors and analogies being especially important to the grokking of science).
posted by nixerman at 12:58 AM on June 14, 2007

As others here have said, I'd learn the scientific method, critical thinking, and basic statistics first. It puts everything else in perspective. You can learn all the accumulated facts that form the introductory courses for various fields, but until you understand how science works as a process, you'll just be memorizing things a lot of the time. Not that memorization is entirely bad-- learning introductory biology requires learning more new words than a similar course in a foreign language. And you need those words to understand biology. But to get more depth out of each discipline and to really understand what you're learning about each subject, you'll need an appreciation for how science is done. Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark might be a good place to start. As Sagan points out: "Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking." Learning to think like a scientist is applicable across fields and also in your everyday life.
posted by Tehanu at 8:38 AM on June 27, 2007

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