Ten examples of the ideas that people in public life should understandby Mark Henderson / June 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
General Relativity: a theory that posits the warping effect of gravity on space-time. In the imagined experiment, left, a signal beamed from a satellite bends round the sun
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists,” said CP Snow in his celebrated “Two Cultures” lecture of 1959. “Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”
It is hard to believe that Snow would meet with much more comprehension were he to repeat his questions in today’s House of Commons. It is nevertheless interesting to consider a few ideas from contemporary science with which every politician and civil servant really ought to be comfortable.
1 The Second Law of Thermodynamics
We can start with Snow’s example. The Second Law of Thermodynamics postulates that entropy—disorder, if you like—will always increase in a closed system. It has a wider philosophical significance that politicians would do well to note.
The Second Law emphasises that, over time, without intervention (which can break open a closed system), things will degrade and get worse. Yet it also shows that there will always be waste. As Lord Kelvin explained, heat can never be completely converted into work.
2 The meaning of mass
Snow also wondered whether his audience would have been able to answer the question: “What do you mean by mass?” He considered this a little like asking whether or not someone could read.
Mass is perhaps best described as a measure of how much matter an object contains. But if this is simple, its origins are more opaque. The standard model suggests that it emerges from a mechanism proposed by Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh physicist. But the existence of the particle predicted by this hypothesis—the celebrated Higgs boson—remains uncertain, though that uncertainty should soon be reduced. The Large Hadron Collider at Cern is expected to confirm or rule out the badly nicknamed “God particle” within the year.