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Science Matters
Cover of Science Matters
Science Matters
Achieving Scientific Literacy
Borrow Borrow
Knowledge of the basic ideas and principles of science is fundamental to cultural literacy. But most books on science are often too obscure or too specialized to do the general reader much good.

Science Matters is a rare exception-a science book for the general reader that is informative enough to be a popular textbook for introductory courses in high school and college, and yet well-written enough to appeal to general readers uncomfortable with scientific jargon and complicated mathematics. And now, revised and expanded for the first time in nearly two decades, it is up-to-date, so that readers can enjoy Hazen and Trefil's refreshingly accessible explanations of the most recent developments in science, from particle physics to biotechnology.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knowledge of the basic ideas and principles of science is fundamental to cultural literacy. But most books on science are often too obscure or too specialized to do the general reader much good.

Science Matters is a rare exception-a science book for the general reader that is informative enough to be a popular textbook for introductory courses in high school and college, and yet well-written enough to appeal to general readers uncomfortable with scientific jargon and complicated mathematics. And now, revised and expanded for the first time in nearly two decades, it is up-to-date, so that readers can enjoy Hazen and Trefil's refreshingly accessible explanations of the most recent developments in science, from particle physics to biotechnology.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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  • Chapter ONE CHAPTER ONE

    Knowing

    YOUR LIFE IS FILLED with routine—you set your alarm clock at night, take a shower in the morning, brush your teeth after breakfast, pay your bills on time, and fasten your seat belt. With each of these actions and a hundred others every day you acknowledge the power of predictability. If you don’t set the alarm you’ll probably be late for work or school. If you don’t take a shower you’ll probably smell. If you don’t fasten your seat belt and then get into a freeway accident you may die.

    We all seek order to deal with life’s uncertainties. We look for patterns to help us cope. Scientists do the same thing. They constantly examine nature, guided by one overarching principle:

    The universe is regular and predictable.

    The universe is not random. The sun comes up every morning, the stars sweep across the sky at night. The universe moves in regular, predictable ways. Human beings can grasp the regularities of the universe and can even uncover the basic, simple laws that produce them. We call this activity “science.”

    WAYS OF KNOWING

    Science is one way of knowing about the world. The unspoken assumption behind the scientific endeavor is that general laws, discoverable by the human mind, exist and govern everything in the physical world. In its most advanced form, science is written in the language of mathematics, and therefore is not always easily accessible to the general public. But, like any other language, the language of science can be translated into simple English. When this is done, the beauty and simplicity of the great scientific laws can be shared by everyone.

    Science is not the only way, nor always the best way, to gain an understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. Religion and philosophy help us come to grips with the meaning of life without the need for experimentation or mathematics, while art, music, and literature provide us with a kind of aesthetic, nonquantitative knowledge. You don’t need calculus to tell you whether a symphony or a poem has meaning for you. Science complements these other ways of knowing, providing us with insights about a different aspect of the universe.

    The Regularity of Nature

    Our ancestors perceived the universe in ways that sometimes seem very strange to us. For all but the past few hundred years of human existence the universe was viewed by most people as a place without deep order or rules, governed by the whims of the gods or even by chance. By noting the daily movements of objects in the sky, however, our ancestors got their first hints that some kind of order and regularity might exist in nature. The position of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the dominant constellations of stars cycled over the years, decades, and centuries with unerring regularity. Whatever governs its motion, the fact is that the sun does come up every morning.

    Most historians of science point to the need for a reliable calendar to regulate agricultural activity as the impetus for learning about what we now call astronomy. Early astronomy provided information about when to plant crops and gave humans their first formal method of recording the passage of time. Stonehenge, the 4,000-year-old ring of stones in southern Britain, is perhaps the best-known monument to the discovery of regularity and predictability in the world we inhabit. The great markers of Stonehenge point to the spots on the horizon where the sun rises at the solstices and equinoxes—the dates we still use to mark the beginnings of the seasons. The stones may even have been used to...
About the Author-
  • ROBERT M. HAZEN is the author of more than 350 articles and 20 books on earth science, materials science, origins of life, history and music. A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he received the Mineralogical Society of America Award, the Ipatief Prize, the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and other awards for his research and writing. Hazen is a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science and is Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University. His recent books include Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins and The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (with James Trefil).
    JAMES TREFIL, Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University, is the author of over 40 books and 100 articles in professional journals. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the World Economic Forum. He is the recipient of the Andrew Gemant Award (American institute of Physics), the Westinghouse and Subaru Awards (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and the 2008 Science Writing Award (American Physical Society). His most recent books are Why Science and The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (with Robert Hazen).
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 1, 1990
    These 18 lucid essays cover mainly life and physical sciences, connecting fresh presentations of basic chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy and biology to today's science news. Hazen and Trefil, professors of physical science at George Mason University in Virginia, demystify many advanced topics with succinct, if often reductive analogies: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle becomes a car wreck in a dark tunnel, for example. ``Scientific literacy'' is defined by the authors to mean the ability to comprehend the science we read about daily, as well as to appreciate ``this exceedingly beautiful and elegant view of the world.'' The book's treatment will cause readers to wonder what was so confusing about the Periodic Table of Elements they confronted in their school days. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club alternates.

  • The Washington Post Book World "Lucid and lively. Hazen and Trefil have a particular genius for picturing even formidably abstract ideas in concrete images. . . . Science Matters is as good as they get"
  • The New York Times Book Review "Hazen and Trefil [are] unpretentious--good, down-to-earth, we-can-explain-anything science teachers, the kind you wish you had but never did."
  • New Scientist "A book that even scientifically literate readers can consult . . . if they find their recollection of relativity or quantum mechanics getting shaky."
  • Washington Monthly "Ordered and accessible, never daunting, never jumping ahead of itself. . . . If you've always thought you could never understand science, Hazen and Trefil will show you you're wrong."
  • E. D. Hirsch, Jr. "A thoughtful and concise overview of what the citizen needs to know about science."
  • Isaac Asimov "Science does matter, as this book shows."
  • Leon M. Lederman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics "A model of clarity and coherence."
  • Publishers Weekly "Lucid. . . . Will cause readers to wonder what was so confusing about the Periodic Table of Elements they confronted in their school days."
  • Kirkus Reviews "A first rate exposition-thorough, accessible, and entertaining-of the rudiments of scientific knowledge."
  • Booklist "A confident overview of the fundamentals of science. . . . Comprehensible and carefully paced."
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Science Matters
Achieving Scientific Literacy
Robert M. Hazen
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