Science Literacy: Then and Now

By Metz, Steve | The Science Teacher, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Science Literacy: Then and Now


Metz, Steve, The Science Teacher


Writing has always been an integral part of science. The major advances in the history of science are marked by its literature: Aristotle's Physics, Descartes' Discourse on Method, Newton's Principia (see picture), Mendel's Experiments in Plant Hybridization, Darwin's The Origin of Species, Einstein's "Miracle Year" papers, Rutherford's revolutionary "The Scattering of [alpha] and [beta] Particles by Matter and the Structure of the Atom," and Watson and Crick's famous paper in Nature announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA. The history of science is also a history of science writing. For scientists and also for our science students, the ability to communicate through writing and reading is a crucial skill at the heart of developing scientific literacy.

I like to have my biology students read the Nature paper by James Watson and Francis Crick (1953). For a paper that announced the discovery of--according to Crick, at least--"the secret of life," the paper is remarkable in its brevity at just a single page, and thus easily accessible to students. It contains understated criticism of Linus Pauling's model--"it is not clear what forces would hold the structure together"--and perhaps one of the greatest understatements of all time: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." The short length--after all, the authors were in a rush to be the first published--gives students an easy entry into the scientific primary literature, while allowing them to appreciate the human side of one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Even better, the internet provides annotated versions of classic science papers like this, helping students to "read between the lines" and access background science content and human-interest aspects. For example, an annotated version of Mendel's paper is found at www.mendelweb.org/Mendel.html.

Beyond the primary literature, popular science writing also can generate interest in science. Rachel Carson launched the modern environmental movement with Silent Spring, and Watson changed the way we look at scientists in The Double Helix.

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