Last night I watched the usually impeccable news on the BBC. As a one-time aspiring astrophysicist (really), I was intrigued that they trailed a report on Mars in opposition. But my heart sank when newscaster Michael Buerk declared, “And observers should even be able to see the planet with the naked eye.”
What planet is Buerk or whoever wrote that bulletin on? Surely anyone with a modicum of schooling — or just general awareness — knows that Mars, like Venus, Saturn and Jupiter, is among the brightest objects in the sky. My five-year old son knows this.
I’ve generally been opposed to notions like scientific literacy (or cultural literacy), which have come up in discussions of future Davos programmes. A checklist of facts to memorise is no substitute for understanding, or for knowing how to learn.
Ages ago, the BBC had a wonderful documentary on the physicist Richard Feynman. He recalled that when he was a boy, his father would go for walks with him. “Do you know what that bird is called?” his father would ask. Before the young Feynman could reply, his father would give him the name in four or five different languages. “It doesn’t matter what it’s called. Learn to observe it instead.”
In the same documentary, Feynman said, “Not many people understand how rare it is to really, really know something.”
Still, if we can’t expect the evening news to understand that Mars is very visible to the naked eye even at its dimmest, there may be something to the campaign for scientific literacy.