Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Can’t hack fashion? Try chemistry

A recent article in The Australian has pointed out that the minimum entry score for university science courses is lower than the minimum required marks for almost any other course.

“At the University of Technology, Sydney, the entry score for a science degree was 76.9, compared with 88 for fashion and textile design, 80.25 for sport and exercise management and 84.15 for an arts degree.”

The study cites a lack of prestige, higher course fees, and boring year 11 and 12 courses as contributing factors. For those American readers out there, entry scores in Australia are demand driven, so either all the high-scoring students are choosing to pursue careers outside of science, or nobody at all is interested in science. Thus science departments are letting anyone in off the streets to fill up classes.

Usually I’d slide a snide punchline in here, but this is so depressing that I can’t think one up.

I disagree with some of the proposed solutions, though.

In a follow up article, a professional scientist spokesman is quoted as saying, "There's a view among some kids at secondary school that science is nerdy. We've got to make it sexy.

Alternatively, we could point out to them that being sexy without knowing any science will turn you into a syphilis-addled teen parent. But maybe he was looking for a more positive spin.

Apparent Dip and Green Gabbro both contain posts about how to get more people interested in geology, and what we ought to be communicating to the public. Thermochronic seems to be pushing the inspiration angle, while Yami prefers to hold San Francisco hostage.

I think the inspiration angle has its problems. Let’s be honest folks. We spend most of out time looking at rocks. Or squeezing them. Or figuring out what they are made of. This is not the sort of inspirational topic that propelled the Greeks to create one of humanity’s most enduring mythologies. There is no ancient Sumarian deity who split the feldspars from the amphiboles or chewed the primordial muck to distinguish silt from clay. The wow factor of rocks is essentially zero.

I don’t fancy the fear factor either. Most people don’t really care if their hometown will get flattened once every 400 years, and there is enough irrational fear-mongering going around already, without us spoiling the party by pointing out threats that are actually real.

I reckon the best approach is to find a way to communicate how science works. The really great thing about geology is how we connect seemingly unrelated things to put together a story. For example:
If you find me an ancient hunk of hyaloclastic basalt (or low-grade metagabbro), a geochemist can tell you whether or not the shoreline near where that basalt erupted had a serious tsunami risk. And they can do it by measuring three elements that most people can’t even find on the periodic table: lanthanum, niobium, and uranium.

The reasoning is simple:
Niobium is compatible in titanium minerals, due to the similar ionic radius and the ability to charge-balance trivalent cations.
Titanium residues in magma formation form during the hydrous melting of the mantle.
Transporting water into the deep hot mantle requires a subducting oceanic plate.
Subduction zones are the main sites of tsunami-generating magnitude 9+ megathrusts.

And if that sort of connectivity between seemingly unrelated factoids isn’t cool, then maybe you should be selling houses or balancing ledgers. Or maybe I’m just a dork.

The story behind each line in the above argument is an entire geology class. Learning how to test and verify these outlandish ideas is how we learn about the natural world.

I think the big challenge is getting people interested in appreciating the power of the scientific method, and then teaching them how to apply it to things that interest them. And finally, if their natural inclinations don’t point them towards outcrops or osmium, we could just appeal to their pocketbooks:

“Some geologists have eclipsed dentists as the highest-paid graduates in Australia, scoring rock-solid wages of more than $80,000 a year”.
-The Australian 19/12/05


Thermochronic said...

as a clarification, I only propose including the inspiration angle, I think it must be a multi-pronged endeavor. And, what is it that cosmologists do all day? Stare at computer screens, sift through and manipulate boatloads of data? My constant example seems to be Carl Sagan, but I doubt his average research day was very thrilling, yet he managed to do it.

Yami McMoots said...

Hmm. In some ways, holding San Francisco hostage is less of a tactical suggestion, and more of a reason to care about whether or not the public is interested in geology in the first place. Otherwise, we're stuck appealing to our own desires for grant money and cultural cachet.

There was a good Nova episode about Mt. Pinatubo that really hammered the "heroic lifesaving seismologists" angle without fearmongering. Not too difficult, really, since volcanology has wow factor up the lava tubes, but still - it's possible.

C W Magee said...

While I think that wow factor promotion has its place (I mean, c'mon. I worked in the Smithsonian), my concern with that tactic is that wow is not science specific. With the continuing rise in pseudoscience and technical-sounding self-justification, some new sort of promotion the shows how science gives preferable outcomes would be nice.

A geo-mythbusters, perhaps?