The Great Ideas of Science
The following ideas form a superstructure for the edifice of science. If students have this framework in place, they will be scientifically literate.
1. The universe is regular and predictable. The notion that repeated experiments or observations will give the same results is the basis for the scientific method. Understanding this is a necessary condition for doing science.
2. Energy is conserved and always goes from more useful to less useful forms. This idea helps us understand such concepts
as global warming (energy captured by greenhouse gases has
to go somewhere—in this case, to warming the planet) and
explains why, when we burn coal, two-thirds of its energy will
be dumped into the environment as waste heat.
3. Electricity and magnetism are two aspects of the same
force. This law tells us that moving electrical charges produce
magnetism—the basic operating principle of the electric
motor—and that changing magnetic fields produce electrical
currents—the basic operating principle of the generator.
4. All matter is made of atoms. This idea suggests the basic
structure of matter in the universe. Through time, scientists
have suggested various models: the atom as indivisible, as a mini-solar system, and as composed of smaller particles (quarks). More currently, matter is being considered as manifes- tations of vibrating strings (string theory).
5. Everything comes in discrete units, and you can’t measure
anything without changing it. This law deals with quantum
mechanics—what the world looks like at the atomic level.
Although quantum mechanics deals with areas far removed
from everyday experience, everyone should be familiar with it.
6. Atoms are bound by electron glue. This law describes chemical bonding, the glue that holds molecules together.
7. The way a material behaves depends on how its atoms are
arranged. Knowing how atoms come together and form bonds
in chemical reactions enables us to understand the kinds of
properties the resulting materials will have. This law clarifies
how the periodic table of elements was formed.
8. Nuclear energy comes from the conversion of mass. To
understand such issues as nuclear power, radioactivity, and
radioactive tracers in medicine, people need to know how a
nucleus is put together and how to tap the energy within it.
standard university-level “eight hours of
lab science” or a single high school
biology course can cover.
© STEVE ALLEN/BRAND X/CORBIS
Second and more important, the
kinds of issues we can expect future citizens to face will not be just about
science. Instead, they will be issues in
which science is woven seamlessly into
a rich tapestry that includes ethical,
political, social, economic, and moral
ideas, all of which form part of the
debate. In arguing about stem cells, for
example, the real issues involve things
like the destruction of embryos and the
legal protection due a collection of cells
that may someday develop into a
human being. You can’t even begin this
debate that gets into moral/religious
territory, however, unless you know
what a stem cell is. Scientific knowledge
becomes a kind of entry ticket into that
wider debate; you can’t get into the
debate without it, even though you’ll
need more than a scientific background
once you do.