Curt Suplee

The New Everyday Science

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Curt Suplee
Author, The New Everyday Science Explained

Why do shoelaces become untied? Why do we have seasons? There are not the typical questions that a scientist might ask everyday but something that you might ask for everyday science. Well joining us today is Curt Suplee, an acclaimed science writer, who recently came out with the book The New Everyday Science Explained: From the Big Bang to the Human Genome…and Everything in Between. Frank Ling (FL) talks to Curt Suplee (CS) about his book and science education:

FL: Mr. Suplee, thanks for joining us today.

CS: Thanks for the opportunity.

FL: First of all, what is this book about and who is it written for?

CS: The book is intended for a lot of folks who may have gotten turned off from science at one time in their lives because they were afraid they would have to wear a pocket protector or be called a geek or because they didn’t want to solve equations. And they somehow sort of lost track, but in fact they would like to know about the scientific principles that govern things in the world around them.

FL: In the book, you talk about every science in terms that most people can relate to. What got you interested in this?

CS: Well, I was at the Washington Post for many years as a science writer and editor, and people would ask me questions and at one point I edited a section that had a write-in-your-questions thing and the questions were remarkably similar. And the questions that my kids asked me were remarkably similar. Why are leaves green? Why do airplanes fly? Why do curve balls curve? Etc. Soon you realize there is a lot of science that impinges right on people’s everyday lives that they didn’t know anything about, but if they did, they would see the world in a different way.

FL: I was just wondering if you were affiliated with this other radio program called Everyday Science produced by Bayer?

CS: No, this is just the title of the book The New Everyday Science Explained from National Geographic.

FL: Perhaps you can describe some of your stories here. Which ones are among your favorite?

CS: Well, I have a personal favorite. I like the fact that most people when they fly airplanes are under the apprehension that it is the motor thats making them fly: the engine in the jet or the propeller in the propeller plane. In fact, it is not. It’s the difference in pressure between the top of the wing and the bottom of the wing and what I like about it is that it is such an old concept developed by a scientist named Bernoulli way over a hundred years ago. And yet only recently applied by the Wright Brothers’ flight, which was only a hundred years ago and most people riding airplanes are not aware of that. They are also not aware that the same exact forces that make an airplane fly, make lift on the wing, also make curve balls curve, which is interesting.

FL: So among the misconceptions that people have about science, which one do you feel most strongly about clarifying?

CS: Well, most people would like to believe that things that happen are random or accidental or so forth. There’s a lot fewer accidents in nature than you would think. It is not, for example, an accident that all snowflakes have six points or that all thunderstorms tend to — even though they are formed by very different kinds of weather and situations — all tend to take the same kind of shape. And once you begin to understand those shapes, forces, and concepts, you can understand the world around you a lot.

FL: I was thumbing through your book. You have some really amazing pictures here. How were you able to get them? Are them from National Geographic?

CS: National Geographic is, you know, the nation’s leading purveyor of graphic images and their quality is unsurpassed in this and graphic images are their speciality. And that was one of the great joys of doing this book is realizing that it could be done in a way that was visually, extremely attractive if not outright riveting. In fact, it’s worrisome for a writer because the pictures are so attractive that they tend to draw attention from the all important words. But it was a great feeling to work with their graphics resources.

FL: I notice one of them came out from a TV commercial a couple years ago. A guy sitting in the chair and then it seems like a wind blowing at him even though it’s just a stereo.

CS: That is obviously not a National Geographic. The rights for that were purchased for the book. But what’s good about it is that it’s a very intense representation of what acoustic waves actually do. I mean they are pressure waves. They will blow out your ear drums if you go out to the wrong kind of rock concert over enough times and all that illustration does is to show you what a highly exaggerated effect of the stuff you are doing everyday .

FL: So I enjoyed how your book discussed basic concepts in science, particularly with the forces of nature. Perhaps you can describe this a little bit to our audience.

CS: Most people are not aware that they see this vast array of things that go on everyday and one of the fascinating things of science is it enables you to see out of that huge diversity of stuff that makes up your everyday life. It’s all being determined by a comparatively few simple principles and one of the great things about learning about the four fundamental forces is that all of sudden, everything you look at, you realize, is the product of either electromagnetic interactions or gravity or the strong nuclear force or the weak nuclear force. And that’s suddenly enormously interesting.

FL: So, in addition to the basic principles of nature that you just described, your book also goes into the science behind some of our most pressing issues. Perhaps we could talk about a couple of them. Global warming and the carbon cycle behind it.

CS: For me, personally a big motivation in the book. I firmly believe that you can not be a responsible citizen of this democracy at this present time and cast intelligent votes on a number of things we do like cloning or climate change or as you say global warming, stem cell research, genetically modified food, the energy policy, unless you are prepared to understand at least few of the scientific concepts. You don’t have to get out a calculator, but you have to begin to understand these things. And the carbon cycle is an absolutely essential part. Well, it’s just perceived to be hard but you know it’s not hard. And you’ll never understand the prospect of climate change without understanding that and without understanding the greenhouse effect.

FL: And what about bioterrorism and how our immune system responds to diseases?

CS: Well, people need to know a great deal more about the processes that cause infection and the immune system that prevents infection because we are, as several writers have already pointed out, we are already on the brink of a major change in the way that we are exposed to pathogens around the world. Two different things have happened in the last few decades that have made this alarming. One is the widespread use of antibiotics. Yes, they will kill many microbes but they will also leave those microbes not affected stronger. You get antibiotic resistant strains growing and the more we use more and more antibiotics when we don’t need it, the more we perpetuate antibiotic resistant strains of microbes. At the same time, we have six billion people on the planet and travel is now easier and faster and cheaper than it ever was. And as a result, we are exchanging germ pools an awful lot faster than we ever were before. And as a result, if you put those two together, it’s frankly a terrifying prospect for the public health.

FL: Could you perhaps tell us your background and how you got interested in science writing?

CS: I was just a kid in high school who won the science fair prizes and all of that stuff and when I left high school, I was absolutely determined that I was going to be a nuclear physicist and keep the world safe from the commies. And then I got to college and literature suddenly seemed very attractive. So, I went through college and grad school in English literature, ended up being an English teacher and then a writer. But I’ve always been interested in science and I discovered that those two were not at all contradictory and in fact, there is a huge demand for people who can write about science. And I finally, at the Washington Post where I worked for 25 years, I was able to combine those two and it was an enormous satisfaction.

FL: Which brings me to the next question. There seems to be a problem of science literacy in America. Perhaps there is a dearth of good science writing in the media. Do you have any comments on how we could improve our science education?

CS: You got 7 or 8 hours? Sure. There are any number of reasons for this and the unfortunate thing about it is there are too many reasons. They range from the pedagogical where we don’t know how to teach science to people in the very best ways. We know quite a lot how to teach reading because it has been studied carefully, scientifically over the years. We now know what dyslexia is. We know how to rectify it. We know how to solve different kinds of reading problems with different kinds of curricula. We don’t know anything like that kind of stuff for how to teach science and math. And it’s very that work is going on now and one of these days, we will know as much how to teach science as we do about now teaching reading but we are not even close to it. At the same time, you have a culture in which scientists unaccountably are not held up as role models. I never cease to be stunned by this. If you were to ask people pick the two or three people who made the most difference to the human condition in the 20th century, the people you’d pick would almost certainly be scientists. They would be like Jonas Salk of the Salk vaccine or Albert Einstein or somebody like that. And when you look at the people represented in popular culture, all across the spectrum, broadcast, print, etc, there is never a scientist in the bunch.

FL: It seems the average person can name a few NBA stars but would have a hard time naming even one good scientist.

CS: Yes and whose fault is that? In part, it’s the media’s and that’s the easy people to blame. But it is also true that the science community has not been particularly pro-active in going out to talking to the public and explaining to them that the work they do is not magic, not weird. You do not have to wear a pocket protector. You do not have to have enormously thick glasses. These are ordinary people. The worst misconception about science that is held in the United States is that it is a special niche vocation that is pursued by only a special kind of weirdo. That is absolutely and utterly untrue.

FL: And Hollywood has not exactly helped either.

CS: There is no doubt about it. It’s fascinating to me, as a popular culture consumer, Hollywood pumps out lots and lots and lots of science fiction movies. So there is obviously a great deal of interest in science. You don’t just see a science fiction because they have aliens. You see it because there are interesting things like rockets or planets or asteroids or this or that. But the way that scientists are portrayed in there is not that much different from the kind of stereotypical cartoon you see across the country: the white coat, the kind of messed up hair, the tie is skewed, and an inability to communicate in ordinary language. This kind of stereotyping, which we would never accept for racial or ethnic or other kinds of groups, is considered quite valid in Hollywood.

FL: And do you think the World Wide Web has helped to promote science. Indeed, there is a lot of good information out there but also misinformation.

CS: I was cruising around the web the other day and decided to make a count of all the products that sold themselves with the slogan “contains no chemicals” and I was stunned to find dozens of them from hair treatments to even one meat seasoning that contains no chemicals! The only thing that does not contain chemicals is a hard vacuum. And we’ve gotten away from them. We now associate chemicals with things like dioxin etc. and we have lost any idea that it is in fact chemicals that keep us alive. It is chemistry that keeps the human body going and converts food into energy, and that is what I wanted to do in that section of the book is to explain that these are not weird, mysterious, and incomprehensible processes, but you can understand them yourselves.

FL: After all, we are made of chemicals.

CS: We are. Mostly water but a lot of other stuff.

FL: I guess we are running out of time today. Are there any last words you’d like to add about yourself or your book?

CS: I want people to understand that the concepts that are involved in people’s everyday lives are not that difficult to understand. They are intrinsically fascinating. They are fun to learn about. They can be made very exciting and rewarding and this book is an attempt to do that and I hope it will have that effect.

FL: Okay, thank you for joining us today.

CS: Sure thing.

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