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Real Science

Scientific Categories

Michael Rosenthal

(5/2015) When a student enters high school, she or he begins to get more serious about science courses. High school courses generally include biology, chemistry, and physics, with courses in mathematics to support them. The content of those courses, evolving over time, is generally determined by the school district (it has been known that the study of evolution is banned in some states in very right-wing districts), and to some extent by the school and teacher. Text books, internet references, and power points back up the class material. When a student enters college, the same courses have been historically continued, with the addition of others, such as biochemistry, geology, environmental science, astronomy. Specialty courses in each field are offered: physical chemistry, molecular biology, and quantum physics, just to name a few.

There is nothing magical about the way the material is divided. All of science obeys the same laws of nature: The Law of Conservation of Mass and The Law of Conservation of Energy, among others. The divisions are somewhat arbitrary to make it easier to organize and focus the teaching. There are colleges that seek a different mix of topics and even one college that integrates sciences into other liberal arts (St. Johnís College in Annapolis, MD, and Sante Fe, New Mexico). Teachers need to be trained to teach whatever material is in a given course, and textbooks (or e-books) need to be available to back up the lecture, discussion, and laboratory. Though the courses, the teaching methods, and the textbooks evolve, the laws of nature and their applications remain constant until someone discovers a new application.

I found biology very unsatisfying in school. Though I loved animals, plants, and the outdoors in general, there was (in those days!) too much memorizing descriptive materials, almost no math, and thus it was hard for me to find the underlying principles. Physics was (at that time) too sterile for me Ė balls rolling down inclined planes and electrical connections. Chemistry lit up my world. I loved the colors, the smells, the applicability to the world around me, and the connection of what we saw on the macro level to structure on the molecular level. That fascination has lasted all these years. Now, that is not to say I have no respect for the other fields; itís just that I found my favorite, and I have always urged my students to find their favorite. A lot has to do with the teacher, the program, and the laboratory facility, of course, for that can enhance or diminish oneís appreciation of the topic.

The evolution of these curricular changes and the revised attitude is often due to discoveries in theoretical and experimental science. A milestone was reached when Watson and Crick and their colleagues discovered the molecular structure of DNA in the early 1950s, opening up the field of molecular genetics at the biology-chemistry interface, and invoking principles of physics.

Another new field that has sprung up and that is worthy of mention is forensic science, an amalgam of biology, chemistry, and physics. Anyone who reads the newspapers or watches television or movies knows how universal the use of forensic science is in solving crimes. There are college majors and graduate degrees offered up to and including the PhD in forensic science. My college good friend and lab partner earned a PhD in chemistry and a law degree, and he later headed the New York City Crime Lab! After that he headed a Forensics Science program.

How about mathematics? Well, one can use math to support work in any of the sciences or do what is called "pure" mathematics. One year in my teaching days in New York at Bard College, I enjoyed a sabbatical experience in the chemistry department at what was then called the State University of New York at Albany. One of the department members was a "theoretical chemist," something new to me. He wore suits and ties to work, and never entered the chemistry lab. All of his work was done on the relatively new computers of that period, but he did obtain meaningful results, published them, and was respected by his chemistry colleagues.

The important thing to remember here is that science is a unity of knowledge, and that the divisions we make are somewhat artificial. Great advances have been made and continue to be especially made by individuals working at the interfaces of fields previously defined.

Letís take a look at water fluoridation. In the early 20th century it was noted that while fluoride sometimes mottled teeth, it allowed teeth to resist cavities. Ensuing studies concluded that fluoride safely reduced cavities at 1 part per million, a very low concentration. Great controversy arose over the safety of adding fluoride to water supplies, both citing scientific data involving safety and the question of mandated policy. (Does that sound familiar?). The city of New York took some 8 years to agree to fluoridate the water supply.

There are still those who think fluoridation is a bad idea. Portland, Oregon voted down fluoridation in 2013 for the fourth time. About three quarters of American water supplies are now fluoridated, but a consideration of reducing the fluoride water level to 0.7 parts per million is being undertaken by the Department of Health and Human Services. Of course, many tooth pastes are fluoridated as well. Portland, Oregon, still does not fluoridate its water supply. I have not been able to find any credible evidence that fluoridation of the water supply is dangerous to anyone at the concentration levels at which we fluoridate, and it is clear to me that the benefits are great in reducing tooth decay, especially in children. Like all such topics, we should be alert to new reliable study results and be attentive to those based on scientific fact rather than on unsubstantiated belief or on political attitudes.

In closing this monthís column, hereís some fun. Our son Nick, an American History professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, sent me a page from the Los Angeles Times, summarizing various elixirs available at a downtown drug store in LA. Among them are included: Open Roads, which promises to bring you success, love, and anything else your heart desires; Court Case, a spray which will help you with an upcoming court case; Attract Customers, a spray that promises to attract customers to your shop; and I Want Work Soon, a candle that will help you secure a job at the salary your heart desires. It might just be worth a trip to LA!

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

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