Are You Scientifically Literate?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, sci-lit, scientific literacy
(Image source: skeptical avenger)

Are you able to explain why stem cells are so important? Do you know why the moon has phases, or how old the universe is? Can you explain why the sky is blue, why the grass is green, or what carbon dating is? Do you know the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission, or why it is hotter in Summer than it is in Winter?

If you’re unable to explain these things, or do not know the answers to those questions, then you may not be scientifically literate. This is quite an issue, because science is not only fascinating and incredible, but it’s also highly important.

Why is it important to be scientifically literate?

At some point, and mostly likely soon, you are going to see a news headline about something involving stem cell research, or a warning about climate change. Even if you do not understand what exactly that entails, it will definitely affect your life. Science isn’t being taught or communicated to the public as effectively as it should be. Even some scientists are scientifically illiterate outside of their specific field of study. This is incredibly problematic.

Our world, and society at large, is becoming increasingly more dependent on technology and science. As a result of this, everyone needs to have at least some fundamental background knowledge in order to comprehend, and be actively involved in, scientific issues. There are tons of people out there (Have you seen your FB newsfeed lately?) spreading misinformation and false statistics. Having a more solid understanding of science and scientific research will make it possible for you to spot the erroneous information being shared and supported.

This doesn’t mean you need to have expert-level knowledge – you don’t need to build a robot in order to appreciate Mars rovers, nor do you need to manufacture quantum dots in order to be thankful for them making the next generation of TVs have sharper, more vivid images. But these things do exist, and they do impact your world. They will impact the world of your children, too. Becoming scientifically literate should be just like learning to read: Everyone should be taught the basic facts, concepts, vocabulary, history, and even philosophy. Just like reading books does, this will open your eyes and enrich your life. Learning is exciting. Science is exciting.  Our universe is beautiful and exciting, and everyone should learn more about it.

Get started. . .

15 Science Basics Every Adult Should Know

  1. An object at rest stays at rest. . . because of Newton’s First Law of Motion, which can be read about here. Simply put, a resting object will not begin moving until another one places some type of force on it. Conversely, an object in motion will stay in motion.
  2. A light year is not a unit of time. While the term “year” does play a role in the nomenclature, a light year actually measures extremely long distances and is used in mapping galaxies, planets, stars, and other astronomical phenomena. According to NASA, light years are equivalent to roughly 9,500,000,000,000 kilometers and stem from how quickly a beam of light will travel in the span of a year.
  3. The sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. When someone looks toward the sun at sunset, red and orange colors are visible because the blue light has been scattered out and away from the person’s line of sight.

    blue sky, time lapse, video, sunny skies, why the sky is blue
    Source: Shutterstock
  4. Nuclear fusion and nuclear fission are different: Nuclear fusion is the fusing of two or more lighter atoms into a larger one, a process requiring extremely high energy. Fusion occurs in stars, such as the sun. Nuclear fission is the splitting of a large atom into two or more smaller ones, a process that takes very little energy to complete. Fission does not normally occur in nature.
  5. Grass is green because plants use light from the sun to make food in a process called photosynthesis. This requires a chemical called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll absorbs blue light and red light, but tends to reflect green light, which is why the grass looks green.
  6. The moon has phases because the moon is a sphere that travels once around the Earth every 29.5 days. As it completes this orbit, it is illuminated from different angles by the sun.

    moon phases, the moon, astronomy, why the moon has phases
    Source: Stardate.org
  7. Carbon dating (C14 method, radiocarbon dating ) is a method by which scientists are able to determine how old something is. Using this method involves radioactive isotope carbon-14. Most organic matter contains carbon, which has different isotopes. Isotopes are usually not radioactive, but 14C is radioactive. Its half-life (how long it takes to radioactively decay to ½ its original amount) is roughly 5,730 years. This makes it possible to tell the age of substances in which carbon is found. This method is possible for up to about 60,000 years old. Dates obtained are generally written as before present,  with ‘present’ being 1950.
  8. It is hotter in Summer than Winter because the sun is higher in the sky, which means more sunlight shines on the earth more directly. The days are longer, with more hours of sunlight heating up the earth. There seems to be a misconception that the earth is closer to the sun in the summer, which is simply not true. The earth does not spin in a direct up-and-down axis, but is actually titled at a 23 degree angle. As a result, for six months out of the year, the North Pole is on the side titled away from the sun. For the other six months, it is on the side titled toward the sun.
  9. Stem cells are important because they have the potential to regenerate and repair damaged tissue. Some current therapies, such as bone marrow transplantation, already use stem cells for their potential.

    Picture of the stem cell cycle, stem cells, importance of stem cells
    Source: Medicine Net, Inc
  10. The earth is roughly 4.54 billion years old… Scientists looked at the state of decay of lead isotopes from rocks, and then compared that to a scale based on calculations of how lead isotopes would change over time. This helped them to determine that Earth formed approximately 4.54 billion years ago, with a margin of error that is less than 1 percent. They also found that the universe is around 13.8 billion years old.
  11. Rainbows are caused by droplets of water suspended in the atmosphere following a rainstorm. These droplets have a different density than the surrounding air. As a result, when the sunlight hits the droplets, they act as tiny prisms that bend the light to break it up into its component wavelengths, and then reflects them back at us. This creates the arc with bands of colors of the visible spectrum that we are able to see. Because the droplets have to reflect the light at us, in order to see a rainbow, we have to be standing with our backs to the sun. It only really looks like an arc because of the ground. In fact, if you’re in an airplane, and you see a rainbow from above, it actually may look like a disk.
  12. Most of Earth’s atmosphere is made up of five gases…Nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, argon, and carbon dioxide. Several other compounds are also present.
  13. Magnets are objects that produce their own magnetic field, which interacts with other magnetic fields. Magnets have two poles: A north pole and a south pole. The magnetic force is caused by the magnet’s magnetic field. When two magnets are next to each other, and their north poles or south poles face each other, there is a repelling force between the two magnets. If you put a north pole of one next to the south pole of the other magnet, then there is an attractive force between the two magnets. This is why opposites poles attract, and like poles repel.

    magnets, how magnets work, US News
    Source: US News
  14.  Why there are low and high tides…The earth and the moon rotate around one another, each pulling the other toward itself. The moon attracts every bit of matter. Gravity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance, so this force is greater on the side of the earth closer to the moon. It is less  strong on the side further from the moon. Since earth is very rigid, this difference in force does not deform it all that much. However, water is not rigid and the oceans are deformed by the difference in the forces. The waters on the moon side are attracted more strongly than average, so they bend TOWARD the moon and create high tide. The waters on the opposite side are less attracted than average, so they are slower than the rigid earth, and bulge AWAY from the moon and AWAY from the earth, causing low tide. Low tide occurs at about right angles to the moon, where the force on the water matches the average pull of the moon on the earth quite closely. The sun does not cause tides like the moon does because, while the gravitational pull of the sun on the earth is larger than that of the moon, there is a much greater difference and so the force changes very little from one end of the earth to the other. Since it’s the difference in the force that creates tides, the sun doesn’t cause tides the way the moon does.
  15. Oxygen is the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and makes up about half of its mass.

    Test your knowledge of science basics here!

    If you are looking for some great online resources to help you expand your knowledge, check out the following links:

    Khan Academy: Easy-to-understand video lectures on a wide variety of subjects.

    The Brain Scoop: Run by Emily Graslie, the Chief Curiosity Correspondent of The Field Museum in Chicago, former volunteer of the University of Montana Zoological Museum

    SciShow discusses science news and history and concepts.

    It’s Okay to be Smart, created by Joe Hanson, Ph.D.

    Sagan Sense: Mostly astronomy and cosmology, but other subjects are covered



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2 comments

  1. […] I have always kept track of the newest advancments made by NASA, and get irate when people do not understand just how important it truly is. So much funding goes into other things, but not enough goes into funding space exploration. It just astounds me how many people would rather forgo exploring our universe and learning. […]

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