Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Basically everything I've learned about science since I was 17 I learned from quiz-bowl. Which isn't to say I've learned much, but I've picked up a few things here and there. Because I'm a historically-minded person, most of that qb science I picked up consisted of historical information, linking discoverers to discoveries, and that sort of thing. But it's worth noting that I did learn something about the discoveries themselves in the process.

At some point a certain faction of qb-types got all persnickety (as is their wont) about how the history of science isn't really science, and because those types of people are quasi-Survivor types (outlast, outshout, drive out), they eventually won. At that point my science education basically ended. Since that more or less coincided with the end of my academic qb playing, though, it wasn't that big a loss for me personally.

All of this is a way of getting around to this point: there's no reason why historical narrative can't be a really good way to learn something about science. My new evidence for this point is Simon Singh's Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe, which we are inexplicably reading for my seminar this week. Singh's book proceeds by presenting a variety of natural philosophers and scientists who have directly or indirectly contributed to the current state of cosmology, where the Big Bang model has surpassed its competitors as the likely explanation for describing the state of the universe.

This book could be subjected to any number of serious criticisms: it is "Great Man" history, it hides or at least downplays the math, it over-simplifies, etc. But the bottom line is that from reading it, I now have a much better grasp on at least the general outlines of Big Bang theory, the Steady State theory that it seems to have vanquished, and underlying ideas such as general and special relativity. And it does so in quite possibly the fastest 500 pages I've ever read, because the writing is engaging, mixes serious stories with whimsical sidenotes (such as Tycho Brahe's brass nose, which I knew about, and bitchin' parties, which I didn't), and tells a coherent story. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who knows a significant amount about astrophysics, but anyone else who's curious might want to check it out.

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