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Imminent Collapse Science of the Apocalypse

By Bill Andrews
ASSOCIATE CAMPUS LIFE EDITOR

Okay okay, I’ll admit it. I read “The Da Vinci Code.” I fell prey to the vast conspiracy of book circles and seemingly erudite TV shows (behind the secrets of the legends of “The Da Vinci Code”). And what’s more, I liked it, I really liked it. I thought I’d leave the experience none the worse for wear too, except for one fatal flaw: it made me want to read “Angels and Demons,” Dan Brown’s book-to-which-The Da Vinci Code-is-a-sequel (it’s not a prequel because it came first).

Now, my scientist and engineer friends, don’t be alarmed, this isn’t turning into a literary discussion or anything. What “Angels and Demons” did to leave me scathed was simply expose me to the scientific ignorance of the general populace — which was staggering.

I’m sure that for some of you, this is old news. My very fianc e said, “Well of course, Bill, where have you been? I thought you lived in Florida!” And, all digs at Florida aside (for now), she has a point. While I’m there, I usually hang out with my family or my high school friends, neither group typical in knowledgeability. The rest of my time, of course, I’m up here @mit.edu. If you don’t know science here, [insert random Harvard joke].

Surely I’m not the only one who has led such a sheltered life from scientific ignorance, and it is for the rest of you that I write. Consider Robert Langdon, the world famous symbologist and Harvard professor who is the protagonist of both books. Here is a man who, in a matter of hours, is able to figure out centuries-old Illuminati puzzles, uncover secrets of the church, and evade assassins left and right. He is buddies with both the Pope and Jesus (well, more or less), and is suave enough to be voted most eligible symbologist, or something. And yet, he was shocked to learn that matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. His exact words were, I believe, “Matter is energy?”

I responded in shock and derisive yelling, “What! How can you possibly not know that, Robert! You profess at Harvard! Haven’t you ever wondered what E = mc2 means?!” That book got me banned from the reading room at my favorite library, but it was worth it.

But as several of you already know, that’s the way it is. People don’t like science and math the way they like, say, art and literature. They pay hundreds, thousands, millions for original Botticellis and Monets and stuff to decorate their homes, but where are the framings of the mathematical axioms, the posters of the three laws of motion, the sculptures of Newton standing on the shoulders of giants? Nowhere, except maybe in our dorm rooms.

To be fair, though, sometimes we do our part to discourage them. Why, for instance, do papers have to be so dull and laden with jargon? My fianc e, more scientist than I, says it’s to preserve uniformity, make it easier for other scientists to understand. She may have a point, but I know that I hate reading those things, and can see why it seems like we’re trying to discourage laymen from getting all up in our grill.

I know we’re not, but it’s just that I don’t think we care whether others know what we’re doing. I’ll do my job, you do yours. But damMIT, I care! Not knowing matter is equivalent to energy (or what CERN stands for, or what supercolliders do) — that’s just sad. It’s also a little scary; if we stay on this path it won’t be long before people start mistrusting us, before scientists are seen as the elitist keepers of arcane knowledge.

While the idea of being one of the few who can understand esoteric scientific work may be beguiling to us, we have to remember that to outsiders it’s all the same, it’s all gibberish. Algebra looks like calculus looks like chemistry looks like physics looks like engineering to most people out there, equally inscrutable and impossible.

So what am I saying? We suck because we keep them out? They suck because they’re so ignorant and afraid? I suck for having read Dan Brown? Well, maybe the answer’s yes to them all. If someone’s ignorance strikes you, maybe you could offer to explain, instead of just the casual “you wouldn’t understand” I hear all the time @mit.edu. Maybe those of us with literary bents can try and convince the world to pay some attention to science, and at least make an attempt to understand. Who knows what might happen?