I have some blogging topics queued up (as is generally the case) but I can’t resist this one, which showed up in my Twitter feed this morning. It’s an update from Rupert Pennant-Rea in the UK – former editor of The Economist, former deputy governor of the Bank of England, and many other positions besides. Last fall, he announced that since he had never had any sort of scientific education whatsoever, he was going to sit down and learn some at the age of 70. Growing up in what was the Rhodesia, his boy’s school put him to studying ancient Greek instead of learning anything about science, and his later education at Trinity College (Dublin) and Manchester Univ. had no such requirements, either:
I am already enchanted by the topics in the syllabus — photosynthesis, molecules, membranes, ionic bonding, halogens, electrostatic force, ultraviolet, the list goes on — all of which I have heard other people mention, and now at last I will find out what they mean.
I also have a secret weapon: my wife. She is a proper scientist, who sees the world in ways I have begun to dream of. When we met a few years ago, she was appalled by my ignorance. Things came to a head when she told me I was a mammal and I thought she was joking. It is high time I returned to my childhood and started again. It is never too late.
Well, I’m also appalled that someone can get to his level without knowing the first thing about any of these, naturally, but then I’m a scientist. At the same time, I’m extremely happy that he’s doing what he’s doing. Pennant-Rea quotes from C. P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” essay/lecture, as well he should (the part about asking people about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which as Snow put it is the scientific equivalent of asking them if they’ve ever read any Shakespeare). And he agrees with Snow. He’s well aware that there’s a major gap in his education and his picture of the world, and he’s doing something about it, so good for him. Update: see Neil Withers‘ timeline on Twitter for a host of British reactions to the article!
But is that ever some gap. In the latest article, this is what immediately caught my eye (and made me catch my breath):
My particular favourite is the periodic table, which I had never even heard of a year ago. In its layers of engrossing detail it resembles a great painting or symphony, and Dmitri Mendeleev, who created the grid of elements, surely deserves to be as well known as Rembrandt or Beethoven.
Emphasis added, as if it needed any. I’ll bet that even C. P. Snow would have felt wobbly after hearing that one. I’m still getting over the idea that a well-educated pillar of the British establishment could have made it so long without ever hearing word of the periodic table. Actually, my bet is that he’d heard it mentioned over the years, but that he had a long-trained reflex to let any scientific references wash over him without retention, as if you occasionally came across people speaking a language that you didn’t know and had no need to ever learn. Even common phrases in Icelandic or Khmer wouldn’t ring a bell with me.
But I can’t resist sharing this opinion of chemistry – which needless to say, I share:
So far I have found physics relatively straightforward, because (at this level anyway) it has a lot of maths in it. Biology is not far behind, as it seems to be mainly about animals and plants. But chemistry, always mysterious to me, is pure revelation. It is making me look at so many everyday phenomena with far more interest and, yes, even understanding. A few weeks ago my tutor, John Harris, handed me a proper white overall and we spent a happy hour in his kitchen mixing acids and alkalis with the juice from a cooked red cabbage. Elementary stuff, but to me it felt like grown-up research.
Again, good for him. This is exactly what learning some science does for a person, and why it really is an essential part of any good set of mental furniture. The topic has come up here a couple of times of just how much chemistry (and how much science in general) the average person needs to knowm, or at least to have had taught at them. And while there is room to argue about where that line should be drawn, I hope that people will agree that it should be somewhere past “Never having heard of the periodic table”. I’m very happy that Rupert Pennant-Rea has chosen to fill in his knowledge of science, and that he’s finding it interesting and revealing. I love the stuff myself, and there’s no one who doesn’t feel happy seeing someone else discover and enjoy something that they enjoy themselves. Here’s a standing offer: Mr. Pennant-Rea, should you find yourself over in the Boston-Other Cambridge area, I will be happy as a chemist to say hello and show you the labs. Welcome to the club!