Touching the Sky


andromedaIn 1946, the summer I turned eight, old Uncle George moved into the back room of our house in Palo Alto.  Though he seldom emerged, I would sometimes encounter him in his rumpled coat, high-top shoes, and fedora hat sitting out on the porch under a red sky in a cloud of cigar smoke.  He would tell me his bad jokes or his stories of the great San Francisco fire, and on the rare occasions when he was appointed my sitter he would talk on into the cricket-pulsing night about the strange habits of ants and the speed of the Earth through space.  One night he told me about the canals on Mars.  They might have been built, he said, by an older, wiser civilization heroically trying to delay extinction.  It was a wondrous image, a fire in a small boy’s mind.  Mars became a blood-red beacon, burning low in the night sky.

Under the tree one Christmas morning, I found a book of astronomical paintings.  In it were silver ships poised needle-nosed on the craggy wastes of other worlds, alien moonscapes bathed in the stark light of some monster planet, and of course the rocky green hills of Mars, rolling like the coast of Maine along the great canals, looking over a far desert where ruins stood half in sand.  I cut out the pages and communed with the pictures, enshrined on my walls.  Then one afternoon the following summer, I wandered into a low-budget movie—Rocketship X-M—in which an expedition lands in the eerie red twilight of the Martian desert to discover atomic ruins and shadowy survivors reduced to primitive savagery.  It was the first film of the sci-fi boom in the ’50s.  Having never seen anything like it, I was possessed for months by its images.  In fact I never really recovered, courting a lifelong love affair with the leading edges of science.  From my first real encounter with the cosmos, waking one night at summer camp under a soul-searing canopy of stars, to the day, a half-century later, when Pathfinder put its rover on the red desert of the real Mars, my deep sense of wonder has owed a great debt to a cracker-barrel story, a mistaken book, and a bad movie.

Seeding the sense of wonder seems so natural and inevitable.  Why, then, are schools almost bereft of students who sense the larger dimensions of science?  In a universe immense and mysterious beyond all previous imagining, why do so many of our youth wallow in world-weary ignorance?

Surveys suggest that 95 percent of Americans are scientifically illiterate.  Something like half of American adults do not know that Earth goes around the Sun and takes a year to do it.  Sixty-three percent are unaware that the last dinosaur preceded the first human.  Three-quarters of Americans believe in angels.  Quizzing cap-and-gowned students at a college graduation, Jay Leno discovered that Thomas Jefferson invented the light bulb, Galileo was an opera singer, and Earth has five moons. 

Scientific illiteracy has many roots—underfunded schools, oversized classes, uninspired textbooks, poorly trained and underpaid teachers, peer pressure, failure to group students by ability, and most important, a culture that promotes short-term gratification while expecting little of its youth.  Recent tests ranked American high school students 11th out of 13 nations in math and science.  As Carl Sagan said, we are turning out “leaden, incurious, uncritical, and unimaginative high school seniors.” 

Even when the material is learned, it is soon forgotten for lack of interest.  What is wanting is the sense of wonder that is prerequisite to any lasting affair with science, which emerges from a realization that science, beyond all the practical benefits, is a spiritual quest in the broadest and deepest sense.  If students could be awakened to this dimension we might see a significant leap in scientific literacy.  But there’s more work than that to be done.  A major defect in science teaching is the focus on factoids, most of which are forgotten in adulthood.  We need to transcend the memorization of facts, figures, and formulas.  Rather than presenting the packaged load that is characteristic of virtually all introductory courses (American textbooks typically provide superficial coverage of no fewer than 53 topics, compared with, at most, 17 in Japan) we need to teach what science is about: the larger concepts, the method, the history, the wonder—the mysterious and awe-inspiring phenomena that will sustain interest in science long after the minutiae are forgotten.  The result might be adults less susceptible to pseudoscience and superstition and more in tune with the transcendent yearning to both comprehend the cosmos and see more deeply into the self.

Each night, the stellar giant Betelgeuse passes overhead.  Four hundred million miles in diameter, it is 100,000 times as bright as the sun, a nuclear inferno roiling like an angry sea, flinging its froth of fire ten million miles into space.  How many students know that this monstrous object is the peaceful point of light at Orion’s shoulder?  Or that when stars explode millions of worlds are destroyed, some surely with life and the intelligence to understand what is happening?  Or that science, having exorcised the last demons from the dark pools and oceans of Earth, now ironically encounters a monster stranger than all our dreams—a black hole lying at the center of our galaxy, smaller than Earth’s orbit but with the mass of a hundred million suns, feeding on stars?

To gaze into the night sky and feel the vastness and passion of creation is to glimpse an equally vast interior.  We are aware of the stars only because we have evolved a corresponding inner space.  Thus the deeper the interiority projected onto the world, the more profound the field of wonder.  And if the depth of our experience is proportional to our level of self-awareness, then the broader the field of wonder, the greater one’s perspective on the self.  Images from the edge—the barrier between known and unknown—can instill in children a lifelong fascination with science that will deepen self-reflection and set the world in relief.  To that end, we need teachers who are impassioned with the romance of science.  Ray Bradbury notes that most of the scientists and astronauts he has met are beholden to some romantic encountered in childhood.  “It is part of the nature of man,” he adds, “to start with romance and build to reality.  We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world.’”   

My eighth-grade science teacher was a tall, imposing man named Crayton Thorup.  He was slightly bent at the shoulders, ever wary of low doorways, and he wore small, metal-rimmed glasses that looked almost comical on his unusually large head.  New to the school, he was a fresh breeze with his high spirits and intense enthusiasm; you felt you were discovering along with him, learning as he learned.  He allowed us time to pursue our own scientific interests, showed poetic films like The Sea Around Us, and on occasional Fridays, read us a classic science-fiction story.  Mr. Thorup once invited those who were interested to come to his house in the evening and look through a telescope in his yard.  A few of us went and saw the rings of Saturn, the mountains of the Moon, and the Great Galaxy in Andromeda.  His wife served cake while Mr. Thorup, somewhat bashfully, played his guitar and sang a song.  It struck me that the feeling in the song and the passion in his science were one and the same.  He had been singing all along.

I went on to high school, where my only memories of science are Bunsen burners, pulleys, litmus paper, dead frogs, and a pigeon in a filthy cage that a fat boy in the back poked eternally with a pencil.  One room in particular reeked both of formaldehyde and the sweat of a monotoned teacher named Hagerman who wore dark suits and erased the blackboard with his sleeve.  He warned us that he would be misspelling words on purpose to see if we were “on our toes.”  Coming from an enlisted career in the Navy, Mr. Hagerman barked out assignments in military vernacular: “You are hereby advised and admonished . . . .”  The assignments involved endlessly copying diagrams from a textbook and memorizing ten-syllable words.  Strewn about the tables and shelves were crumpled projects, snakes and insects in filmy, dust-caked terrariums, and eviscerated worms pinned to squares of cardboard.  Broken slides, rusty scissors, and bent scalpels lay in a sink covered with varied molds and slimes.  On the floor of a dark storeroom, among broken pots and parts of skeletons, were vats of formaldehyde filled with dead frogs and stiff rats.  The one interesting object, someone’s brain floating in a giant mayonnaise jar, was never retrieved or mentioned.

Sitting in that dismal prison, I thought about Mr. Thorup.  I decided I would write him a letter after college telling him that he’d been the best teacher I’d ever had.  Though I never wrote, over the years I would occasionally remember the unassuming man who always seemed to try so hard, who took night classes and studied weekends to stay abreast, who was never preoccupied or impersonal, and never seemed to resent the job that afforded only a small flat and a ’39 Plymouth.  One day, long after my own sons were out of college, I finally looked him up and called.  His wife answered.  He had died that Monday morning. 

Where are the Mr. Thorups today?  A few, of course, can still be found, but teachers today must endure inadequate equipment, inflexible guidelines, and undisciplined students, while their relative standard of living has hit a 40-year low.  The percentage of education spending devoted to teacher salaries has been in decline since 1962.  When Pete Wilson lowered the size of classes without attaching new buildings, the need for more rooms worsened already overcrowded conditions.  Some San Francisco schools are holding classes in choir rooms and closets.  Portables are pervasive, while many rooms used for science have no running water and some have no equipment.  Yet the same parents who vote down school bond issues complain that the basketball coach is teaching chemistry. 

With starting salaries of $24,000 and a ceiling of around $50,000—the lowest in the country when adjusted for cost of living—most Bay Area teachers are unable to buy a house or support a family.  The consequence is a severe shortage of teachers here and across the nation:  Last year, 68 percent of the country’s school districts complained that there were too few applicants to adequately fill open positions, particularly in math and science.  And it won’t get better anytime soon; less than 10 percent of college freshmen plan a career in teaching, compared to nearly 25 percent in 1968. 

To compensate, schools are issuing more and more emergency credentials—8.5 percent this year—often to people without even a bachelor’s degree in the sciences, and few of whom feel compelled to stay in the classroom for long:  In the Bay Area, half of each year’s new teachers leave teaching within two years.  True, teachers in general are highly idealistic; otherwise they wouldn’t settle for such low wages.  The problem is that those with a passion for their subject tend to inhabit the higher-ranking schools; others are poorly trained in science, especially at the elementary level—those first critical years of primary school when lifelong attitudes are set—where the vast majority hold their college degrees in education.  To make matters worse, in California, the elementary science curriculum is slighted in favor of other subjects.

There are a few excellent Bay Area public schools, of course, but even there the practical, instrumental goals of science education can be overemphasized.  “Our students are lugging home heavy texts full of disconnected facts that neither educate nor motivate them,” reports a recent study on textbook quality commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  “It’s a credit to science teachers that their students are learning anything at all.  No matter how ‘scientifically accurate’ a text may be, if it doesn’t provide teachers and students with the right kinds of help in understanding and applying important concepts, then it’s not doing its job.”  Which may explain why American eighth graders are scoring worse on science literacy tests than eighth graders in Hungary and Slovania—while at the fourth-grade level our country is second only to Korea.  At the root, according to the National Academy of Sciences, lies in an overemphasis on “student acquisition of information.”  What we need to stress, instead, is appreciation.

In The Myth of Scientific Literacy, Morris Shamos, former president of the National Science Teachers’ Association, argues that widespread scientific literacy is an unrealistic goal, that it has never been a reality at any time in history, and that the exponential increase in information and specialization has now made it more elusive than ever.  Yet the resulting emphasis on know-how has tended in some schools to elevate technology over science.  In most courses, at least three-quarters of the period is spent in the lab.  One San Francisco teacher told me that lab work was beneficial to some students if they learned no more than how to wire a light switch.

Not that a hands-on approach is incompatible with a modicum of wonder, but it often becomes a tedious and uninspired means of activating otherwise listless students.  Many local science teachers say that student inattention and lack of motivation are their major problems (not to mention the 30 percent truancy rate in some San Francisco schools).  Citing a letter from a clarinet teacher who remembered science at school as “a long period of studying the Bunsen burner,” biologist Richard Dawkins observes that you can enjoy the Mozart concerto without being able to play the clarinet.  “Of course music would come to a halt if nobody learned to play it,” he says.  “But if everybody left school thinking you had to play an instrument before you could appreciate music, think how impoverished many lives would be.  Couldn’t we treat science in the same way?”

If science teaching were to begin with the great mysteries—things strange beyond comprehension, immensities beyond imagination—and work backward to the familiar, more students might become inspired.  It was Carl Sagan’s ability to do this that made Cosmos the most successful science documentary ever produced.

But could Sagan reach the average student today?  It seems ironic that at the very time when an explosion of knowledge has increased the scale and complexity of the cosmos a millionfold, so many of the young lived jaded, geocentric lives.  Perhaps never before have there been so many questions and so little curiosity, so much advantage and so little vision, so many mysteries and so little humility.  The paradox of postmodern youth is a naïve world-weariness, a narcissistic illusion of omniscience that comes partly from a world made too accessible by media.  On those cricket-pulsing nights with Uncle George, the Moon had seemed the near edge of infinity, a piece of the unfathomable mystery passing nearby.  Now there are two generations who see the Moon as the far edge of Earth, who view Armstrong’s leap as an archival event, another Lindbergh commotion.  How far away is the Moon?  The same distance as Kosovo and Columbine—across the family room.

The chronic stress of modern culture has brought an obsession with control that overvalues the rational analytic mode.  The result is a withered capacity for creativity, curiosity, and wonder.  The root condition is often an authoritarian environment—overprotective parents or traffic-cop teachers operating in a system geared to the lowest common denominator.  Both produce either shallow rebels or cooperative conformists, neither of whom is capable of self-transcendence.  Ironically, a true appreciation of science requires an ability to surrender the analytic, reductionist, problem-solving mind, allowing access to the slower, less conscious ways of knowing that are the seedbeds of creativity—that part of the mind, grounded in feeling, that gives meaning to experience.

For most students, spectroscopic analysis or the laws of planetary motion do not tap those deeper, more creative ways of knowing.  Nor does the cosmos as portrayed in SAT II subject tests.  (“The Earth has a radius of 6,400 kilometers. A satellite orbits the Earth at a distance of 12,800 kilometers from the center of the Earth.  If the weight of the satellite on Earth is 100 kilonewtons, the gravitational force of the satellite in orbit is . . .”)  Rather than treating science like a standardized test, curricula must begin at the edge and work back, asking what secrets might lie beneath the ice seas of Europa or the yellow skies of Titan or what we might feel were we able to gaze back on the radiant presence of the home galaxy, 600,000 trillion miles across, drifting in the cosmic ocean like a great whale, singing her inscrutable song to the radio telescopes of 100 billion sister creatures.  Two million light-years away lies the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, our nearest neighbor in the “Local Group” and home to a trillion stars.  Perhaps someone on a planet circling one of those suns—a small boy, out on a porch with his rumpled old uncle—is looking through a telescope at the glowing, multicolored wisp that is our galaxy.  But the image was two million years in transit, so that even if Earth were magnified a million times they would see only our remote ancestors, barely erect, huddled in camps across Africa’s Great Rift Valley.  The black abyss between us may be forever impassable.  Though the boy and his uncle are alive at this moment, peering at our past, we are divided by the equivalent of death itself.  The Great Galaxy in Andromeda is our galactic Mars, our sister universe, but our marriage to this companion in the night may never be consummated.

Why do so many students drift into adulthood ignorant of the vast vistas and inexhaustible mysteries of space and time?  The proclivity of otherwise educated people to believe in Adam’s rib and Noah’s Ark suggests that some of us have an inability to confront the abyss—the sublime and terrifying unknowns that border our models of reality—that along the way we lose our childlike delight in the unknown.  To the extent that students can reach adulthood with their curiosity even modestly intact, their science education has been worthwhile. 

Far more than worthwhile:  The whole person is a marriage of outer and inner, sense and soul, truth and meaning.  Scientific understanding and spiritual insight must coexist in tension, like the note in a vibrato.  At the core of science, like religion, is a longing for the whole over the part, the why over the how.  Ultimately, the moon landings were more than the collecting of rocks.  At the heart of science, it seems, is the attempt to complete a grand internal model of reality, to broaden the context of meaning, to find the center by completing the edge.  It is a search for roots, for something fixed and eternal.  It is the hope that we are more than chance anomalies, that our essence somehow reflects that of the cosmos, that it is not a house but a home.

What textbooks fail to explain, and few teachers are prepared to confess is that science, like religion, is most basically a quest for creation myths, stories that give our lives meaning.  And so we have lost our sense of a community story—of who we are, where we came from, where we are going.  On the macro- and microscopic frontiers, attempts to account for black holes or for particles that defy time and space begin to sound like those of the ancient mystics.  As classic paradigms crumble, merging inner and outer unknowns, the old mysteries trickle back, the old enchantments return to the world.  But we resist.    

We are a species still in childhood, only now becoming aware of the true immensity and complexity of the cosmos, a universe turbulent and mysterious beyond anything imagined by our forebears.  There is a spiritual depth in millions of people, a space altogether neglected in school, that must be touched and tapped if we are to survive our own cleverness.  It is a task worthy of philosophers, poets, and artists to translate the new scientific story from a language of science into that of celebration.  Science is not a perfectible task.  It is a continuing spiritual encounter with the mystery of being.  In a world in which people write thousands of books and over a million scientific papers a year, the literate layman is the one who can play with all that information and hear a music inside the noise.  If we can teach that music, science will no longer languish in our schools.

In the history of science is the message of humanism—that we must think in the limited but positive terms of fulfillment, that the true faith is a belief in the inherent potential of humanity.  The telos is the eternal quest, the cosmos coming to know itself.  To believe less—or to believe more—is to live in the shallows of what it means to be human.

[This appeared in San Francisco Magazine, December 1999]


  1. Reid Isaksen says:

    Wyn is an outstanding writer…especially on subjects like these!

  2. I read your book: The Dream of Spaceflight multiple times. It’s full of explanations about man’s deepest feelings and searches. I never read such a beautifull book. And the cover fits perfectly with the feeling of the book.

    I especially like the part where you describe the launch of the Saturn V rocket. It is absolutely wondrous. I do reread that part sometimes.

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