A month ago, almost 40 years later, I decided to resume something I started in high school and memorized the entire periodic table, an entirely useless feat. It started in the 1970s as an extension of a chemistry course requirement. We had to know the names, symbols and atomic numbers of the first twenty elements. So I decided to carry it a little further. It would get attention from peers because I would use it at Sweet Sixteen parties as an alternative to walking a straight line to prove that I was not drunk.
Years later after some elements had disappeared from memory, reciting just the first 70 still impressed my high school kids. Yet now it’s not to impress them a little more that I learned the rest. It’s because for me there’s a good feeling that comes out of it. Why? Some of the mnemonics I use are quirky and somewhat creative. A few are based on things I’ve learned gradually about the elements and their relationships. Our brains have an affinity for things that are related to previously stored facts and concepts. It’s why some of us recall names and statistics of professional athletes of the present, adding to the bank of even more useless information of the past.
But why was I drawn to chemistry in the first place? It does not depend on a special talent but on a personality quirk that makes it likely for some individuals to devote themselves to it. All of this brings me to a myth about science. As educators, we often believe that if science was more valued in society, we’d have more scientifically literate individuals. But it is already highly esteemed. Most high-achieving adolescents are persuaded into taking enriched courses of chemistry and physics. Large sums of money are spent by universities, industry and government on research, equipment and personnel. Even in my internet-less world of the 1970s, there were chemistry sets in department stores, science shows on TV and plenty of basic science books in the city and school library. And yet back then, pure science departments like chemistry and physics were relatively tiny in all universities across the planet. Biology ones were larger but only because they were filled with students who hoped to get into medicine after undergraduate studies. Now with the addition of even more science on TV, more publications of books and thousands of science youtube videos, web sites and blogs, nothing has changed. More importantly, there’s no evidence that scientific literacy in general has increased.
Why is science highly valued in the first place? The main reason it should be valued is because its experimental method of confirming or rejecting guesses is the best way of understanding how the natural world and technology operate. It’s slowly giving us more insight into the mechanisms of emotions, dreams, behavior and so forth. But it does not diminish the value of literature, music, the arts, philosophy and history, which will for a long time continue to explore what it feels like to go through the journey of life. There are people who think that religion and science are reconcilable, but I find that intellectually and spiritually, it is all those other things that I mentioned that complement science, not organized religion.
Science started as natural philosophy. Unfortunately too often in both industry and academia, science is now valued mostly because it’s tied in to ego and profit. To many, it is just another way of selling questionable goods and philosophies to a public with too little time or ability or motivation to probe into things more deeply. Moreover, science is embedded within a world whose relation between technology and humanity is deeply symbiotic but often not mutualistic. But in any world we can imagine or realize, science is as ineffective as religion if it promises a nirvana.