Science Marches On

by Steven Utley

I once hired out to create educational materials for middle-schoolers, and it happened that my first assignment was to take a basic chemistry text and edit it down to its essentials. You may ask what sort of inessentials are likely to be found in a basic chemistry text worthy of the description; I can only answer that they are there, that I knew them when I saw them, and dealt with them firmly.

Theretofore, I had always professed to admire science and scientists without knowing too much about it and them, beyond whatever I might have gleaned from the Mr. Wizard TV show and old movies about Martians carrying off Earthwomen or warped geniuses transplanting human brains into lethal robots. One handicap was the rudimentary state of my math skills; another was the idea that an unbridgeable gulf necessarily separates the literary camp, in which I generally saw myself as resident, and the scientific community, which in the popular consciousness is the domain of pencil-necked geeks and vivisectionists. In truth, I never even thought about the kind of person who would take chemistry in school, except when that kind of person whipped up a powerful stink bomb during fifth period.

Writing chemistry and, later, physics texts not only helped me to pay my bills on time (for a time), it also taught me a good deal about, well, chemistry and physics. Previously I could not have told you the difference between valency bonds and municipal bonds; now I am a warehouse of information (or, as scientists call it, “data”) about, oh, pH and buckyballs and superconductors. I can not only tell you that your usual sort of atom is packed full of parts called protons and neutrons and wontons, but also that those parts are themselves constituted of stuff, or things, named for directions (Up, Down) or for qualities you may or may not hope to find in a blind date (Charm, Strange).

Yes, and I learned the law of conservation of volume, too, even though I’m not convinced that it applies across the board. At this writing, I have two new kittens, sisters, named Emma and Liz after Jane Austen heroines; each is about the size of a rolled-up pair of sweatsocks and daily consumes twice her own weight in cat food, which she immediately processes into three times her own volume of what, out of regard for readers’ sensibilities, I shall designate Metabolic By-Product. My cat-fancying colleague Jessica Reisman observes, “I think their internal volume defies expected space-time logic ... there’s more going on inside most cats than can be explained through current scientific understanding.” It could very well be. It would certainly seem so.

Anyhow, my edited texts were accepted and paid for with a minimum of fuss on the publisher’s part — always a good thing — and I soon went on to other challenges, such as finding a rhyme for Quetzalcoatl. I feel I have done my small part to build The Wonderful World Of Tomorrow. Somewhere is a former middle-schooler, now a grown-up pencil-necked geek, whose imagination was inflamed by words I wrote. Probably he is building a better stink bomb, or figuring out how to put a human brain into a robot.

Copyright © 2006 by Steven Utley

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