Photo: Phycodrys, one of the many British red algae that have been digitized and are now on line.

A number of contributors to our Twitter symposium firmly insisted that the important thing to understand about science is its method, not its facts. Others said that the important facts will be different for different people. Both of those are true. Just as some people love poetry and perhaps not abstract art, some will love seashells and not mathematical formulas. But facts matter, both in everyday life and for sheer enjoyment.

I love the scientific facts I’ve acquired. I love looking at the rounded rocks in my backyard and thinking about how they tumbled off the mountain faces to the east and the river my yard used to be. I love looking at the hummingbirds fighting over the feeder, both their instant beauty and the beauty of knowing that their ancestors were dinosaurs. I love knowing how the internal combustion engine in my car works, down to the chemical reactions. I love the night sky and knowing when to look for meteors and why they come back at the same time every year. I love making that model of the solar system in my head.

I could go on, and our contributors did. Here’s a list I’ve made from what they said.

Basic physics


Practical chemistry

Evolution is the basis of biology

Basic earth and weather-related science


Discussion of current controversies: cc, natural, organic, cell phone radiation, solar is natural and sufficient, evolution

An appreciation of Deep Time, Deep Space, and other non-human scale concepts.


Science educators


I’ve added links to explanations, news, photos, none to Wikipedia.

I guess that could seem like a lot, but consider the other things we think everyone should know. Again, this is partly a matter of taste.


  • The Bible, Koran, Bhagavad-Gita
  • The Odessey and Iliad
  • Ovid
  • Shakespeare
  • Thomas Paine, others around American Revolution
  • Emerson, Transcendentalists (I’m being American – told you it was a matter of taste!)
  • Charles Dickens
  • 20th Century Modernists
  • Second half of 20th century – up for grabs


  • Ancient Greece and the Middle East
  • Medieval icons
  • Romanesque and Gothic architecture
  • The Renaissance – a gazillion artists across the European countries
  • Persian art
  • Chinese art
  • American schools of the 19th century
  • I particularly like 19th century Russian art, which gets little general notice
  • 20th century – overwhelming

Music, history – I hope you get the idea. And there is always the possibility for individuals to do their own: play an instrument, draw, write, catalog the birds in their yard, photograph plants.

There’s a lot to know. Everyone picks and chooses. But I’d like to see more science chosen, particularly in popular media.


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  1. The Blog Fodder says:

    Not quite Renaissance Man enough for your list but not bad for a farm boy from the sticks. I understand the scientific method and the use (and abuse) of statistical analysis. “Facts” can be found when I need them. Biology, genetics and agriculture of course, though I am terribly out of date to give anyone production advice.
    Took a thermodynamics class in grad school. Good prof and VERY patient because I just didn’t get it. Tried and tried. Finally in the last couple of weeks the lights went on.
    Literature is the killer. I just cannot get into fiction other than some classics and no-brain stuff to relax. Yet I know it is a must for anyone to actually imagine the future and likely more important than history to understand the past.

  2. Cheryl says:

    I don’t think many people can claim to know all the things I’ve listed here.

    Thermodynamics can be hard to get. I didn’t in my first course. Did well enough to pass the tests, but didn’t have a feel for it. The second course started to make sense, but it wasn’t until I was using it in real life that I felt like I got it. I’m going to do a tweetstream about what everyone should know of thermo one of these days, because of all the talk about renewable energies. I will storify it and post it on Nuclear Diner.

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