Science and Everyday Life

JBS Haldane

Lawrence and Wishart: London, 1939. (Reprinted by Penguin Books, 1941)

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The seventy articles collected in this volume deal with various aspects of science. It is often said that modern science cannot be explained in anything less than a whole volume, and that short articles on it are necessarily worthless. I do not agree. The only subjects which are definitely unsuited are organic chemistry, mathematics, and those branches of science which use a lot of mathematics. These have their own terminology, and one cannot even explain in a thousand words what "Beta-alanylhistidine" or "an almost periodic function" mean, let alone deal with recent work on them. But a great deal of work in other branches of science is quite easy to follow, at least partially. I can explain that a lot of very small stars called "white dwarfs" are being found fairly close (on an astronomical scale) to our sun. Some astronomers will say that such knowledge is useless and superficial unless I explain about parallaxes, spectroscopic measures of surface temperature, and so on. My answer is that if my critics will tell me just how their boots were made, I will agree. But I don't expect the astronomer to know the details of tanning before he talks of boots, nor need he expect the ordinary man to know the details of astrophysics before he talks about stars.

The ordinary man must know something about various branches of science, for the same reason that the astronomer, even if his eyes are fixed on higher things, must know about boots. The reason is that these matters affect his daily life. In each article of this book I have tried to do two things, I have tried to give a few facts which are not yet, to be found in text-books, and which a student leaving a university with an honours degree would not be expected to know. And I have tried to bring these facts into relation with everyday life. Undoubtedly this is what the ordinary teacher finds hardest, and for a very simple reason. A hundred years ago many books on science stressed the applications of it which were then being made. This is harder today because a great deal of our knowledge finds no application in practical life. Whether this is the fault of scientists or of society in general is a very important question.

In the nineteenth century distinguished men of science wrote regularly in the daily Press. Thus Ray Lankester was a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph. This has ceased to be the case because the readers of most newspapers are not interested in such matters, or so at least their editors say. Some sixteen years ago a colleague and I offered to do a free scientific news service for the Daily Herald. The offer was turned down. Personally I do not think that the rank and file of the Labour Movement are as stupid as the editorial board of that journal appeared to believe.

Fortunately, however, the Daily Worker has now given me the Opportunity to write them an article which appears every Thursday, and this book represents my first sixteen months' output. A number of the articles were topical. Indeed that on the fossil fish Latimeria appeared two days before the much fuller account in Nature. Many of them have also appeared in American and Canadian journals. I must apologise to overseas readers for taking most of my examples from Britain. But I hope that I may encourage writers with a knowledge of local conditions to follow my example in other countries. I am convinced that it is the duty of those scientists who have a gift for writing to make their subject intelligible to the ordinary man and woman Without a much broader knowledge of science, democracy cannot be effective in an age when science affects all our lives continually. I hope that my book is a contribution to this essential need.