Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist
By Chad Orzel
Basic Books (December 9, 2014)
It’s a good book, really. The problem isn’t the book, the problem is me.
Chad Orzel’s new book “Eureka” lays out how the scientific enterprise reflects in every-day activities. In four parts, “Look, Think, Test, Tell,” Chad connects examples from sports, cooking, collecting, crossword puzzles, mystery novels, and more, to the methodology used in scientific discovery. Along the way, he covers a lot of ground in astrophysics, cosmology, geology, and atomic physics. And the extinction of the dinosaurs.
It’s a well-written book, with relevant but not excessive references and footnotes; the scientific explanations are accurate yet non-technical; the anecdotes from the history of science and contemporary academia are nicely woven together with the books theme, that every one of us has an “inner scientist” who is waiting to be discovered.
To my big relief in this recent book Chad doesn’t talk to his dog. Because I’m really not a dog person. I’m the kind of person who feeds the neighbor’s cat. Sometimes. I’m also the kind of person who likes baking, running, house music, and doesn’t watch TV. I order frozen food and get it delivered to the door. Chad cooks, believes baking is black magic, plays basketball, likes rock music, and his writing draws a lot on contemporary US TV shows or movies. He might be a good science popularizer, but his sports popularization is miserable. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that somebody could read his book who, like me, doesn’t know anything about baseball, or bridge, or basketball, and therefore much of his explanations are entirely lost on me.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that made me feel so distinctly that I’m not the intended audience. Of course the whole idea of “Eureka” is totally backwards for me. You don’t have to convince me I’m capable of scientific reasoning. I have even proved capable of convincing others I’m capable of scientific reasoning. Sometimes. But I do not have the slightest idea why somebody would want to spend hours trying to throw a ball into a basket, or, even more bizarre, watch other people trying to throw balls into baskets. So some stretches of the book stretched indeed. Which is why it’s taken me so long to get through with it, since I had an advance proof more than a year ago.
Besides this, I have a general issue with the well-meant message that we were born to think scientifically, as I elaborated on in this recent post. Chad’s argument is that every one of us brings the curiosity and skills to be a scientist, and that we use many of these skills intuitively. I agree on this. Sometimes. I wish though that he had spent a few more words pointing out that being a scientist is a profession after all, and one that requires adequate education for a reason. While we do some things right intuitively, intuition can also mislead us. I understand that Chad addresses an existing cultural misconception, which is that science is only for a gifted few rather than a general way to understand the world. However, I’d rather not swap this misconception for another misconception, which is that scientific understanding comes with little guidance and effort.
In summary, it’s a great book to give to someone who is interested in sports but not in science, to help them discover their inner scientist. Chad does an excellent job pointing out how much scientific thought there is in daily life, and he gets across a lot of physics along with that. He tells the reader that approaching problems scientifically is not just helpful for researchers, but for every one to understand the world. Sometimes. Now somebody please explain me the infield fly rule.