Scientific Illiteracy

The Observer featured a lengthy article by Tim Adams bemoaning the generic scientific illiteracy of society today, tracing a line from CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” through Natalie Angier’s new book, The Canon:A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. It concentrates a bit too heavily on uber-agent John Brockman’s somewhat pretentious “Third Culture, a marriage of physics and philosophy, astronomy and art,” as exemplified by his website, The Edge, but it does finger a real and disturbing (but not really new) trend. But to me the real howler was the following quote:

George Smoot, the Nobel-winning astrophysicist who first identified the background radiation of the Big Bang and thereby invented cosmology.

OK, first, George Smoot didn’t identify “the background radiation of the Big Bang”, he was the Principal Investigator of the DMR Instrument on the COBE satellite, which identified the fluctuations in the background radiation (aka the CMB), the seeds of structure that eventually grew into galaxies and cluster of galaxies in the Universe today. The CMB itself was first identified by Penzias and Wilson in the 1960s — for which they also won the Nobel Prize. That may give you a hint about the other problem here: George, although a pretty smart guy, certainly didn’t invent cosmology, which has been around as a legitimate scientific field at least since Einstein’s discovery of General Relativity, and as a human endeavor for thousands of years.

4 responses to “Scientific Illiteracy”

  1. AGeek avatar

    And here I thought that Smoot was the Principal Investigator. [ Oops! -Andrew]
    As for cosmology being a legitimate scientific field, some of us are having some doubts lately…

  2. kiwon avatar

    I was horrified when I read this as well. I was curious who else might be blogging about it, and came across your site. I wonder what research/interview/editing process led to such a ludicrous statement going into print.
    I’m familiar with your work, by the way… A. Lange is my thesis adviser on the BICEP experiment, and before that it was none other than George at Berkeley!

  3. Julian avatar

    In the context, I think you’d have to give “inventing cosmology” to Edwin Hubble.

  4. Ned Wright avatar

    George was the PI, and the DMR as built is eerily reminiscent of the LBL design proposed in 1974. Of course Dave Wilkinson’s correlation radiometer alternative would have been less sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field than Smoot’s ferrite Dicke switch.
    But by August 1991 the COBE team had corrected the magnetic systematic error and I was able to tell George he had a signal. This is part of my history of CMB observations. My October 1991 draft paper described both the detection and a bit of the interpretation of the DMR results.
    –Ned Wright, UCLA