August 26, 2007 12:41 PM   Subscribe

I dropped my science classes in grade 10, one of the major stupid decisions in my educational career. Now I want to catch up on my science knowledge. What's the least expensive way for me to catch up, either over the internet or through local classes? (I live in Toronto).
posted by pcameron to Education (24 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
One enjoyable way to at least dip a toe in the water would be to read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.
posted by mattholomew at 12:58 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

MIT's OpenCourseWare has a lot of science material available. They have also begun posting videos to iTunes U. I'm considering auditing a few local classes in Biology and Physics in the near future. Is that option available at any colleges/universities near you? You can also check out the responses to this recent question of mine.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:03 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

First of all, I think it's admirable that you want to do this.

I think you need to start by defining exactly what your goal is. Are you interested in doing science research? Are you shooting for as much knowledge as a bachelor's in a science field would give you? Or are you just looking to increase your scientific literacy?

If it's the last of the three, I would start by going to your library and reading a bunch of science magazines like Discover, Popular Science, and Seed. Doing this will give you an introduction to some of the most interesting science going on today, without burying you in terminology and presumed prior knowledge. It will also allow you to identify topics that are interesting to you and you can then do further reading on them.

Another great place to start is by subscribing to some of the many wonderful science-related blogs out there. is a great place to start. Pick a few of the most interesting and popular authors and add them to your daily reads. I'd recommend Carl Zimmer as the most accessible of the bunch. There's a whole big community of science-lovers out there, and if you can tap into their enthusiasm, learning science will seem like a lot of fun.

After many years of doing science, I'm still always amazed and humbled by how amazing science and nature can be.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:25 PM on August 26, 2007

I think finding a cheap introductory science college-level textbook (look for the International Editions) coupled with OpenCourseWare should provide you with enough passive learning. You can do the active learning using newsgroups/USENET or IRC -- I would start with this list.

If you're not familiar with USENET, I recommend getting a Google account and using their Google Groups interface. If you already have an account, make a new one anyway -- all posts to newsgroups expose your email address. I would browse the existing posts and see which ones are most friendly to newbies and most willing to answer questions. Note that some USENET users are weary of helping people do their homework, so make it clear that you are doing this out of your own volition and interest.
posted by spiderskull at 1:47 PM on August 26, 2007

Why not just take some contuning ed classes, and take those sciences classes you missed? As an adult learner it's eminently doable.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:48 PM on August 26, 2007

In terms of books, I'll put in a plug for the "Cartoon Guide" series as a nifty introduction to many fields. I think they do a better job than Cliff Notes on many things.

At least in the U.S. High School science is spotty and inconsistent enough that most university campuses pretty much need to offer remedial classes. In addition, many universities offer basic courses for people in the arts and humanities.

A third way that might be worthwhile is to pick a science club in your area. Just about all the basic sciences have dirt-cheap entry points for hobbyists.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:51 PM on August 26, 2007

I haven't read this, but Amazon has been suggesting it, and it sounds like it might be up your alley:

Pulitzer-winning science writer Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography) distills everything you've forgotten from your high school science classes and more into one enjoyable book, a guide for the scientifically perplexed adult who wants to understand what those guys in lab coats on the news are babbling about, in the realms of physics, chemistry, biology, geology or astronomy.
posted by erikgrande at 1:52 PM on August 26, 2007

The Angier is woefully overwritten, I'm afraid.

For basic physics, Isaac Asimov's Atom is clear and sound. James Trefil's also good.
posted by futility closet at 2:01 PM on August 26, 2007

I'm a grad student in the biological sciences, but I think that introductory science classes/books are mostly quite a slog. I think it's more fun to read about science questions that you're interested in, and then learn the mechanisms and facts behind them. So, for example, if you really liked whales, you could read about their physiology (like special adaptations to deep diving), their evolution, their social behavior, their ecology, etc. You could even get into physics with sonar and acoustics. If you like rocks, get a guidebook, go out, and ID some rocks, then learn about how they were formed and how they relate to the geology of your area.

Another fun and free way is to just read science blogs about things you care about, and then look up concepts that you don't understand or want to know more about. At least in the biological sciences, there's some great writers out there. I recommend looking at ScienceBlogs, an excellent collection of, well, science blogs by practicing scientists and science writers. I think it's a more focused on the life sciences, but there's a lot of good writing and explaining on there.
posted by ilyanassa at 2:13 PM on August 26, 2007

curse me for not previewing. sorry for the repeat.
posted by ilyanassa at 2:15 PM on August 26, 2007

Catching up on general science knowledge is best done by reading well-written books. I haven't read the Bryson book, and so can't comment on that, but I note that Bryson is not a scientist. The Angier book has received mixed reviews. I would recommend something like Asimov's New Guide to Science. In addition to science fiction, Asimov trained as a biochemist and wrote many many textbooks. He covers the basics with more rigor than most popular writers, although especially in biology some of the details will be out of date.
Beyond these general texts, you will need to decide what kind of science you are interested in and focus on that, as ilyanassa says.
posted by nowonmai at 2:29 PM on August 26, 2007

part of the problem with reading "not textbook" science books is that you don't know how flakey the science is. while that's just plain annoying if you already understand the science, it must be confusing and misleading if you don't. because of that i have tended to stick to collections of papers and "starter" textbooks when curious about a new field. however, i recently read brain greene's "the fabric of the cosmos" and was very impressed - the only drawbacks were (i) he is over-enthusiastic about string theory, so take what he says when he discusses that with a big grain of salt and (ii) it's quite detailed and covers a lot of ground (i have a degree in physics/maths and phd in astronomy and still learnt things from that book). i don't know how confident you are with physics, but that would make a very good "advanced beginner" book, i think (perhaps one to come back to later?).

[oh, and least expensive - i borrowed the copy i read from a library]
posted by andrew cooke at 2:52 PM on August 26, 2007

brian, not brain
posted by andrew cooke at 2:53 PM on August 26, 2007

Are you looking to just to catch up on the knowledge or to get the actual high-school credits?

Either way, the Toronto school board has a huge array of continuing education classes and also of high-school programs for adults.
posted by winston at 4:01 PM on August 26, 2007

I agree with the folks who've said to start with popular science books. Of course, it depends on your goal; if you think you might actually want to begin a career in science, then perhaps night classes or (if you're motivated enough) reading through textbooks on your own would be more appropriate. However, I've read a lot of science textbooks and most of them are boring and unclear. So if you're just aiming to learn something interesting and expand your scientific literacy, then, yes, "popular science" books (I hate the phrase) are absolutely the way to go.

Bryson's Short History is absolutely wonderful, as people here have already said; I'm personally craving that illustrated edition, even though I already have a regular copy. I'd strongly encourage you to start with this, because he does a lovely job of covering both exciting and basic science, so if you don't remember what a neutron is, this could be a good place to begin.

For an introduction to astrophysics and cosmology, I'd suggest The Whole Shebang by Tim Ferris (who himself ended up as a scientist after a first career in journalism). Genome is a well-loved introduction to the genetics revolution, and evolution looks absolutely fascinating when described by Richard Dawkins in Climbing Mount Improbable (regardless of one's opinion of Dawkins as a political and social figure - I have my reservations, but love this book). Lawrence Kraus's Atom: A Single Oxygen Atom's Journey... is a fascinating form for a history of the physical universe. And if you have any interest in neuroscience (and who doesn't?), try Oliver Sack's classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and V. S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain. If you lean towards ecology and environmentalism, try Douglas Adams's Last Chance to See and Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses.

Some of these books are serious overviews of a field by experts; others are written by outsiders who have a fascination with a subject. All of them are wonderful. Don't listen to people who tell you that popular science books aren't "serious" enough, or aren't worth your time. They're a joy to read, can teach you a lot, and - I speak for myself, and for many of my friends - have spurred a lot of people into a career in science.

Oh, and finally, I'd agree that Seed is a wonderful magazine; I have mixed feelings about Discover, but if it interests you, go for it. I'd stay away from Scientific American unless you have a strong interest in computer science and technology - I find it painfully boring - but go to a library or Borders or something and see what catches your eye. And make a point of picking up a book (or five) in the Best American Science Writing of YEAR series.

Oh - and finally, stay away from Hawking's A Brief History of Time - it's always touted as being so great, but it's not a beginner book, and I've spoken to serious astronomers who said that it made no sense to them.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:31 PM on August 26, 2007

Thanks everyone for the wonderful and detailed answers! I had a feeling this question would get a great deal of replies. I will be spending a lot of time following up on these leads, I assure you.

My interest in science stems from two things: a feeling that part of my mind is languishing from ignoring science, and wanting to be a broadcast journalist I feel I ought to have, at the very least, a broad and general knowledge of the topic.
posted by pcameron at 5:03 PM on August 26, 2007

I would vote for Angier as a quick, accurate, and level approach. It is also full of social-class-dependant 'humor' and has absolutely no pictures or formulas/equations. But it is good (and, for the amount of material covered, short) despite that.

I found Asimov more spotty--he hammers in the easy concepts, and skips over the harder ones so skillfully you won't miss them until you make an utter fool of yourself. Also, he is a little out-of-date, a forgivable defect in the not-recently-living.
posted by hexatron at 6:31 PM on August 26, 2007

I'll add another vote for Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything to give you an excellently written overview of many fields of science. Even though Bryson is not a scientist, he is a good writer and can provide useful background before you start delving more deeply into specific fields.

For evolutionary biology, the best writers are Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins. For neuroscience, anything by Oliver Sacks is worth reading.
posted by tdismukes at 8:07 PM on August 26, 2007

a guy i lived with took this course and really liked it - he was a business major and didn't have any particular training in science. also i know the instructor and he's a great guy.

i think if you just showed up at the lecture hall on the first day of class and sat in the back, nobody would know the difference. hey, free education!

if you're thinking of doing this, the line "2L: TR11 Room:MP 202" means there are 2 lectures per week, tuesdays and thursdays at 11am, in room 202 in the mclennan physics building. 202 is in the undergraduate wing, not the big tower. lectures usually start at 10 minutes after the hour but i would get there 5 til 11 anyway. classes begin on monday september 10, so the first class should be on the 11th. don't show up at the tutorials.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:42 PM on August 26, 2007

For what it's worth, I've flipped through old science books (like 50s old) on occasion, and I'm usually favorably impressed by the clarity and quality of the writing. Maybe it's just rose-tinted glasses or something, but I'm not the first to comment on it.
posted by alexei at 1:51 AM on August 27, 2007

You have what is quite possibly the second best science centre in the WORLD in your city! While you're there you can take the opportunity to show off your hydraulophone skills...
posted by creeky at 3:12 AM on August 27, 2007

Since you're interested in being a broadcast journalist, you might also enjoy RadioLab. I don't live close enough to NYC to get the radio reception, so I podcast it and listen whenever I have time. It's an extremely intelligent coverage of various sceince topics, and covers the basics as well as the cutting-edge research on the topic.
And I'm surprised no one's recommended the New York Times Science Section yet, but the writing is generally very good. You can also opt for the podcast of the paper, if you'd rather listen.
Both are extremely enjoyable, and provide general background knowledge as well as in-depth analyses, so if the reason you "dropped" science was because you didn't find it interesting, these two places will cure you in no time. Plus, both are free, as long as you have an internet connection.
posted by jujube at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2007

Oh, and here's a link to Malcome Gladwell's articles in the New Yorker. Wonderful example of social science (e.g., sociology, psychology, economics, etc.) writing. I'd also recommend his book, which you can find on his webpage.
posted by jujube at 12:32 PM on August 27, 2007

Bit late to the thread, but Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces is absolutely brilliant.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 5:13 AM on August 28, 2007

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