Carl Sagan was a man famous for many things and especially for de- mystifyng science for ordinary Americans,sadly he died 15 years ago and today as i read his book The Demon Haunted World I wish I had met him but more than that ,that science teachers in Kenya would get the book and read it cover to cover as i did.Sagan sets out to portray Science in an easy to know way without sounding pompous and his reverence for the universe (he was a Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences)jumps at you with every word in this book and with each turn of the page.
Written largely for an American audience it does have much to offer for Kenyan audiences too because much of what he discusses we can relate too,from aliens ,to pseudo-science to miracles and even hallucinations.He urges his fellow scientists to “communicate the substance and approach of science in newspapers,magazines,on radio and television,in lectures for the general public,and in elementary,middle,and high school text books.”
As i was reading the book, which is a must have in my opinion for the curious ,i was reminded of
two things ,no its four things that have hit our local headlines and that would be made clearer if Kenyan scientists took time to explain things to the general public.One of them is the afforestation programmes going on in the Mau Forest and other water catchment areas,the increasing Kenyan population,the proposal to start nuclear power generation and the GMO debate.
Much of the debates that have occurred in the public sector have been based on superstition,ignorance and myths.Take the example of GMO that is sensitive very sensitive here because it deals with a national delicacy ugali(stiff mixture of corn meal taken with vegetables/meat stew).Even scientists who should know better discouraged it on the basis that it was an untested technology and that we were being used as guinea pigs by companies.We forget that maize seed has seen changes made to its genetic make-up to yield more and withstand disease.
Or the Mau Forest where a certain MP whom i would not name was telling his constituents not to move from the areas of the forest they had encroached because there was no way trees could attract rainfall.Yet if you drive along the Nairobi Kericho ,you get a clear view of the heavy grey clouds always hovering over the trees.Ready to pour down ,nourish the trees and provide water for the people down stream and feed the many rivers,lakes that rely on this water catchment.
All of these areas i have highlighted would benefit from a demystification approach without scientists being too patronizing to the listening public.We would all benefit from knowing exactly what it is we are dealing with and the after effects of whatever cause of action we take.Then science would cease being a reserve for the “nerds” but would become the marvel that it is.
In primary school i remember my fascination with the human body and with space,i would read over and over again about leukocytes(white blood cells) and (erythrocytes (red blood cells)blood plasma,how the heart and kidneys worked .My dad and i would even spend some nights outside star gazing,it was wonderful and thrilling !But in high school everything changed,i could never get my head around physics and chemistry was a struggle yet i remained fascinated with biology and would pore over my textbooks and notes especially when it came to the topic on genetics.Somehow my curiosity waned and i never understood why.
Probably it was the way it was taught or i was too afraid of asking dumb questions,something Sagan says he saw in high school kids too, the fear to ask and dumb .He said that his most enthusiastic audiences were elementary school kids who never got tired of asking questions and Sagan talks about “provocative and insightful questions bubbling out of them.”.But he reports his disappointment with high school students ,who had learnt to “memorize facts” and the “joy of discovery had gone out of them.”
Could we as a country learn something from the mind of this great man who never lost his wonder and curiosity about science?With a vision towards seeing Kenya being an industrialized country by the year 20303,is there more we could add to the present curriculum to motivate students to take up more science subjects.We need to have more students taking up these courses in our universities and we need to have more Kenyan Professors who are passing on this love of science to the next generation.How many of them go to high schools to pass on this wonder for the natural world to students,most forays in career fairs are by accountants or even lawyers but rarely do scientists venture out from their laboratories.Who knows the next cure for cancer,AIDS could come from among these young ones.With climate change slowing affecting seasons we need more studies done on the effects this will have on our environment,land use and disease and science will have the answer to that.
Hopefully the recent back and forth that has been going on among stake holders in the educational system as to the review of the 8-4-4 system of education and the way this knowledge is passed on to students will be reviewed so that we do not cede the natural curiosity and need to know we had as children.This innate “need to know” and “stretching of our minds” is something we as a humans have and must use in order to survive in a world that is changing pretty fast.
I will end this with a beautiful article by Carl Sagan’s wife published in the Skeptical Inquirer in his memory….