It's perfectly simple, my dear Watson

Tim Adams's piece on scientific illiteracy, The New Age of Ignorance, in today's Observer brought a smile to my face:

…The longest two minutes of my life occurred in the company of James Watson, one half of the famous double act who discovered the double helix. I was interviewing Watson, then in his late seventies, at his lab in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. At one point, I referred blithely to the 'perfect simplicity' of his and Francis Crick's findings about the code of life.

Watson is a mischievous, famously prickly man and that phrase seemed to get under his skin. He raised an eyebrow. He sat back. He thought he would have some fun. Seeing as it was all so perfectly simple, he suggested, maybe I could briefly run through my understanding of DNA base pairing, say, or chromosome mapping.

What followed—a tangled, stuttering stream of consciousness reflecting distant O-level biology and recent half-understanding of Watson's brilliant books, punctuated with words like 'replication' and 'mutation' and meaning nothing much—gave new resonance to the notion of floundering.

Nice one, James.

Adams's article also cites C.P. Snow's famous example of scientific illiteracy taken from his lecture The Two Cultures:

'A good many times,' he suggested, 'I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice, I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold; it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: have you ever read a work of Shakespeare's?'

Where are the Snows of yesteryear?

As second laws go, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is one of the best. In fact, let's not mince words, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the most important law in science. In the inconceivable event that it is ever proved wrong, it really will be back-to-the-drawing-board time. As I have previously stated on my other website, I find the Second Law of Thermodynamics rather comforting: you can never get more out of something than you put in, stuff wears out, things break, people die, so you might as well get used to it.

For any of you with a general ignorance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, who would like to do something about it, I would recommend you pop over to the In Our Time website and 'listen again' to their excellent programme on the subject. It was one of their best ever shows.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

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