Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Did Galileo Actually Do? Most People Don't Know

There are some things that you JUST expect that a functioning human being should know. For example, if you live in the US, you should really know the name of your current President, and where Washington DC is roughly on the map of the US. You should know the name of the two big oceans flanking the east and west coast of the mainland, and you should really know the two neighboring countries to the north and to the south. One would be severely ignorant to not know any of them and, in my opinion, someone who does not know that shouldn't be allowed to vote!

There are certain things in science that even most the general public is rather expected to at least be aware of. Even if they don't understand science, they should at least have heard of certain names and words due to their importance or prominence. After the great tsunami disaster from a few years ago, almost everyone on earth learned about the word and what it is, even if the overwhelming majority of the public were never schooled in that area of study.

The name "Galileo" is one of those names that should be familiar with people, especially in light of the historical significance, not only in science, but also in christianity. So 400 years after his courageous work that shows that the Earth revolves around the sun, do people actually know what he did? Most apparently do not.

To mark the UK launch of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009) in the UK, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have surveyed the UK public to ask what Galileo is remembered for... and most people don’t know.
The results show that nearly one third (29 per cent) of the UK is just as likely to associate the name Galileo with wine, fashion or a famous ship before associating him with astronomy. Also of concern, almost three quarters of the UK (73 per cent) credit Galileo with erroneous discoveries, such as Neptune or the black hole at the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy, or simply don’t know what he discovered – the four large satellites of Jupiter.

But really, is this really a surprise? It isn't to me. Practically all surveys of the public's knowledge of science have shown a rather depressing result. In the 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators, a survey of the public's knowledge of basic science knowledge showed a miserable result. Almost half, for example, thinks that the electron is LARGER than an atom (see Appendix table 7-5).

The public's support for science, strong as it may be, is built not due to an thorough understanding and appreciation of what science is, but rather based on a perceived importance of science. While this may not be a problem most of the time, it will rear its ugly head when the "reputation" of science is under assault either by some scandal, or when it is being challenged by well-managed entities that can distract the public with delightful bells and whistles. The Discovery Institute is one such entity that can propagate zero substance, but disguise it via attacking Evolution.

It is why science cannot be done via public polls. When the majority of the public thinks that a laser is nothing more than a focusing of sound waves, this is not the group of people that should decide science content, or what scientific idea is valid and what isn't.



Anonymous said...

didn't Galileo build the Leaning Tower of Pisa?


ZapperZ said...

No, he's the guy in Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".


Anonymous said...

Actually, Galileo _did_ observe Neptune (there's a fascinating article in _Scientific American_) during its 1612-1613 conjunction with Jupiter. But he mistook it for a fixed star.

Tony Zbaraschuk

estraven said...

I would say Galileo invented the scientific method; he discovered classical (aka Galilean) relativity and sun spots; his experiments and arguments supported heliocentrism.

I think each of these achievements, especially the first, is actually more important than how many satellites he precisely discovered.