How important is gravity?

March 17th, 2008

You drop a pen on the moon. Does the pen
a) float off into space,
b) float where it is, or
c) fall down?

Disturbingly, a majority answers either a or b. When asked, as a follow up, why astronauts don’t float when they’re on the moon, the majority answer is “because they have heavy boots.”

If you have a hard time believing this, I encourage you to start asking around. I asked some educated teenagers I know, and the first three of them answered either a or b.
“And why don’t astronauts float on the moon?”
“Special equipment.”
“Heavy boots.”
“Heavy boots.”

I mention this because a theme of SciBarCamp was “10 Things Everyone Should Know About Science”. This was motivated by organizer Eva Amsen’s recently surveying a number of people about to receive PhDs, and finding that none of them knew what a gene is. She felt strongly that everyone should know that genes are segments of DNA that code for proteins, and started to wonder what else everyone should know. We all made suggestions on a large poster board at the Friday reception, and then had a panel and heated discussion on the subject Sunday morning. Eva has promised to post the results on her blog.

Strangely (and somewhat embarrassingly) there was not a single scientific fact on the list. Everything was about the process of science, the purpose of science, the practice of science, etc. In everyone’s defense, these are important topics that are fun to argue about. Passionate on the subject, I used my turn to speak about infant behavior as a model of inquiry. But, given the chance at a do-over, would anyone disagree that gravity deserves a spot in the top 10? In fact, shouldn’t it be number 1?

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