Friday, February 16, 2024

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

This is the phrase that celebrity physicist Richard Feynman used to describe the joy of scientific research. But it also describes the joy of science education. Feynman was as brilliant of a scientist as you could hope to meet, and to him mathematical equations were as obvious as the nose on your face. But he knew very well that science education did not consist of learning piles of facts. He knew it was a matter of joy: professors and students alike should share this joy. This is what I always tried to do as a science educator, even to the extent of trying out what some colleagues thought of as stunts.

This is the reason that Bill Nye the Science Guy is more popular among people in general than any professor could hope to be. Professors try to impress their colleagues; but Bill Nye’s audience is ordinary intelligent people.


Jamy Gormaud is France’s answer to Bill Nye. He started off as a reporter, then discovered the joy of science—just as Carl Zimmer and David Quammen started off as fiction writers and found their calling in science writing. Today, with his YouTube channel, Jamy uses humor—a lot of it—to communicate not only science but also history to a large audience. My wife and I started watching his videos in order to learn French, by slowing down the videos and reading subtitles. But I appreciate his joy of science. In one of his books (Mon Tour de France: Des CuriositĂ©s Naturelles et Scientifiques) he has assembled a tour of France to see scientific curiosities. Several dozen videos later, he is still one of our favorite video hosts. Jamy describes the pleasure of learning new things as “la connaissance qui soulève l’esprit” (knowledge that lifts the spirit). He practices “la vulgarisation de la science.” Vulgarization is not a bad word in French, although American professors and writers hate to be accused of vulgarization. It just means making science understandable and interesting to non-specialists.

He takes his readers to old places to see new things. He starts his book in the marshlands of northeastern France mainly because he saw some great sunrises there when he was a kid. This chapter is about why sunrises (and sunsets) are red. Maybe you know why, and maybe you don’t. My answer was mostly right.

Sunlight is intensely white, which results from the mixture of all visible wavelengths of light. But when sunlight encounters atmosphere, it scatters. Blue wavelenths, at one end of the spectrum, scatter more than the others, which is why the sky around the noontime sun on a clear day is blue and the sunlight itself is yellowish: the sunlight is white minus some of the blue color. When sunlight has to travel through more of the atmosphere, as when it comes in at an angle at sunrise or sunset, not only do the blue wavelengths scatter but also the others, except those at the red end of the spectrum. If you did not know this, you might have felt your brain grow a little bit right then. Thanks to Jamy, and maybe to some outstanding science teacher you may have had in the past.

Jamy, and other good science educators, also draws in perspectives from outside of science. It was Isaac Newton who explained that white light is all the rainbow colors mixed together. We do not perceive it as a range of colors, but as bands of color. It turns out, for reasons I explain in my book Scientifically Thinking, that our brains create the illusion of bands of color, which helps our brains make sense of the world. But, Jamy wondered, why did Newton say there were seven bands of color? Clearly there are bands, but can you really see seven bands? Violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Long before Newton, Robert Boyle had written that a rainbow has five bands of color. Jamy explained in his book that Newton was very religious—he wrote more pages about religion than about science—and to him seven had great Biblical significance. That is, Newton had a little bit of religious illusion even in his hard scientific observations.

He must be very satisfied in his work. To the extent that my videos fulfill the same role as his, I am satisfied. Even though I have retired, I continue to be a science educator, in the tradition of Jamy Gourmaud.

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