Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Scientist at the Seashore by James S. Trefil

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Those of us who enter a library or bookstore only to rush to the fiction or biography sections may be astonished to learn that whole shelves in these places are set aside for science. (It’s the 500s in the Dewey decimal system.) Once having taken the plunge, though, a little browsing will lead the liberal arts major to something meant for him: a science book that is informative but non-technical, written to open up an entirely new universe to those readers who have only ever liked reading about people.

Physics professor James Trefil’s A Scientist at the Seashore is that kind of book. Looking at the beach as a physicist, he gets fourteen chapters out of the existence of water itself, out of the salt and tides in the oceans, gravity, wave action, what bubbles are, what sand is, why torque and lift explain the formation of dunes as well as the flight of jets and baseballs, and what sorts of electrical charges hold sand castles together.

What makes this information so difficult for the unscientific mind to grasp is (for lack of a better word) its unbelievability. Of course we know the information is true. In his conversational but not condescending prose, and in his everyday examples, Trefil does an excellent job proving how fundamental principles, such as those governing wave action or the properties of bubbles, remain the same from the subatomic to the galaxy-sized level of matter. The problem is that the information – the structure and laws of the universe, really – is so fantastic that it doesn’t look true. Anyone browsing the fiction or history stacks can believe that men and women fall in love or that knights slay dragons. I understand that frost is bad for the garden (gardening books are in the 600s). But it’s utterly fantastic that the earth’s gravity should cause tides on the moon, or that I can cause a gravitational pull on the Andromeda galaxy when I walk across the kitchen (see page 39, "The Search for Planet X"). Yet it’s true, at least in principle.

But the sciences are, of course, among the liberal arts, so really there should not be this separation between the "scientific" and "unscientific" mind. There should be no inevitable barrier to the new universes a liberal arts major may explore. The complaint that the exact sciences have no relation to daily life, and that’s why they are so difficult and dry, won’t work either. Trefil explains MRIs before they were called MRIs, and notes how useful they may one day be in diagnosing illness.

It may be that the predictable, one-dimensional messiness of fiction and biography is poor preparation for approaching science, whose laws simply govern everything, without blather. If the liberal arts major remains perplexed and intrigued, the good news is that James Trefil has written thirty other books, all telling remarkable new truths.

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