9. All matter is made of quarks and leptons. Although this is another topic removed from everyday experience, you won’t
understand what the Large Hadron Collider is without it. (It’s
the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.)
10. Stars live and die. A discussion of stellar lifetimes can lead
to investigating supernovae and black holes, always topics of
11. The universe was born at a specific time in the past, and it
has been expanding ever since. This is the main tenet of the big
bang theory of the universe. It serves as the basis for current
discussions of an accelerating universe, along with dark energy
and dark matter.
12. Every observer sees the same laws of nature in operation.
Known as the principle of relativity, this is the basis of Einstein’s
famous theories: moving clocks slowing down; nothing traveling
faster than the speed of light; E = mc2.
13. The surface of the earth is constantly changing. This idea
encompasses plate tectonics, our current dynamic picture of
the earth, and the notion—surprising to many people—that
everything is impermanent, from mountains to oceans.
14. The earth operates in many cycles. Understanding the rock
cycle, the water cycle, and the atmospheric cycle will enable
students to more effectively look at such environmental problems as acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming.
15. All living things are made from cells, the chemical factories
of life. This idea helps us understand that the basic reason
humans are different from other organisms is that our cells run
different chemical reactions than theirs do.
16. All life is based on the same genetic code. This simple fact
provides the scientific basis for genetic engineering. It also
raises enormous ethical, moral, religious, and legal issues that
are already being hotly debated.
17. All forms of life evolved by natural selection. This refers
to a two-step process. The first is chemical evolution, in which
inorganic materials initially gave rise to the first living cell; the
second is evolution by natural selection, in which that cell and
its descendants produced the millions of species we see
around us today. Controversies surrounding this idea often deal
with a perceived conflict with religious doctrines.
18. All life is connected. Living things on earth interact with one
another in complex webs called ecosystems. Understanding
how these systems work is essential for the future management of our planet.
Fortunately, an inherent structure in
the sciences—a kind of hierarchy—
points toward an effective way of
achieving scientific literacy. Think of the
physical universe as being something
like a spider web. Around the outside of
the web are all the objects that make up
our world—trees, mountains, cells,
butterflies. If you start anywhere on
that web and start asking questions—
What is this thing? How does it
work?—you begin working your way
in. Along the way, you will discover
unexpected connections. Think, for
example, of Benjamin Franklin discovering the connection between static
electricity and lightning.
Once you work your way into the
center of the web, however, you find a
relatively small number of laws that
govern the entire universe—the conservation of energy is a good example. I
call these laws the Great Ideas of
Science (see sidebar). They create a
kind of skeleton, a matrix of concepts
The standard cookbook experiments so
beloved of advocates of teaching the
scientific method aren’t going to help.
that tie everything together and form
the foundation of our view of the
universe. They are the essential core of
the way the universe works. They also
constitute the framework that all
students need when they leave our
education system, whether that means
finishing high school, university, or
I would like every student to have a
mental filing cabinet based on these
great ideas. When he or she comes
across a public issue involving genetic
engineering, for instance, I want that
student to be able to open the drawer
labeled “molecular genetics” and fit the
new information into a matrix of pre-existing knowledge about how cells
work, how information in DNA is
expressed, and so on.
I don’t know what scientific issues
will frame political debates 20 years
from now. No one 20 years ago would
have imagined that we’d be talking
about stem cells today, and few people
were even aware of the possibility of
global warming. What I do know,
however, is that whatever those future
issues are, they will fit into the intellectual matrix provided by these great
ideas. That’s simply a consequence of
the way science is organized.