How Do We Fix It? Napoleon’s Buttons And Our Crazy Problem With Science

Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia during the brutally cold winter of 1812 might have gone a lot better if only he’d known about the chemical properties of tin.

“The buttons that were on his jacket were made out of tin,” says materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez. “When it gets really cold, tin undergoes a chemical transformation, changing from one state to another.”
“It becomes dust.”
Because of crumbling buttons, “their coats were open and their pants were falling down. Their buttons were disintegrating” as they tried to fight the Russians. Things went horribly wrong for the invading French army.
The Napoleon example is what Ramirez calls, a “big-ass hook.”  She uses it when teaching, writing or doing her Science Underground podcasts to make her subject that much more interesting – “so that I grab your attention.”
Ainissa is on a mission: to make science fun for kids and adults.  She’s the author of “Save Our Science” and “Newton’s Football,” a lively book about the science of America’s favorite sport.
Just like Napoleon, the failure to understand the basics of science puts us in peril.  “STEM” jobs – requiring skills in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math – are among the best-paid and hottest growth sectors for employment.  But most students graduate college or high school without any knowledge of STEM, which closes off a broad range of career opportunities.
“We all start off as scientists,” Ainissa told us on on our “How Do We Fix It?” podcast. “If you look at a 4-year-old’s hands, they’re completely dirty, because they’re engaging with the world.  But then something happens. School happens and we forget that we are curious beings.  We feel we need to worry about what we get on a test and don’t think about understanding.”
“As a science evangelist I’m trying to get us back with our wonder.”
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Sadly, most of us  lost our initial curiosity about science, including me.  And Ainissa is right. We need to get it back.  As citizens, widespread ignorance of science means we are more likely to fall for absurd vaccine conspiracy theories or for politicians who deny the reality of climate change.
Ainissa says schools and major corporations could help put the sizzle back into science.
Too often schools teach to the test. “That has nothing to do with understanding, learning and wonder.” Science should be woven into projects and stories that children learn in other subjects.
Many kids go to McDonald’s after school to use their WiFi and do homework. “There’s a huge opportunity for there to be science on McDonald’s WiFi system to students,” says Ainissa.
“Walmart has many millions of people coming through their doors every day. If you could get 10% to look at a small screen that shows a science PSA (Public Service Announcement), you significantly move the needle,” One place to do this would be in the electronics aisle, where dozens of new TV sets are turned on.
Ainissa also sees opportunities for citizen action. Flint’s water crisis only became widely known after parents worked with scientists from Virginia Tech to confirm there were unsafe levels of lead . “They couldn’t get the information directly, but by using science kits available at a hardware store they were able to test what was in it.”
“They also tested the water in different regions, so they had good data.”  Parents empowered by science were able “to pushback and show that the water in Flint was unacceptable.”

The Best Argument I’ve Heard To Turn Climate Skeptics Into Believers


Looks pretty peaceful doesn’t it?  I love our part of the Connecticut shoreline.  On most days the waters from Long Island Sound are calm and there is a lovely balance between sky, land and sea.

But what if this picture were to change in the years to come with dramatic sea level rise and climate change?

I’m no alarmist. In fact, it’s quite possible that over the next one hundred years, the average increase temperature will be relatively modest.  Scientists don’t know exactly what will happen. But that’s not an argument for doing nothing.

Quite the reverse.

Environmental economist Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, co-author of the book “Climate Shock,” says “first  and foremost, climate change is a risk management problem.” Even if you are a climate skeptic and believe that the possibility of a global disaster is minimal, consider this: “Most of us have auto and home insurance to cover us in the event of a disaster.”

“If you had a 10% chance of having a fatal car accident, you’d take necessary precautions. If your finances had a 10% chance of suffering a severe loss, you’d reevaluate your assets. So if we know the world is warming and there’s a 10 percent chance this might eventually lead to a catastrophe beyond anything we could imagine, why aren’t we doing more about climate change right now?”

I don’t believe our house here is likely to be flooded or damaged by fire anytime soon, but I still pay a lot money each year for coverage just in case. Shouldn’t we be doing the same thing to deal with the risk of global warming?

Gernot makes the case for an insurance policy. A price would be placed on carbon emissions,  either through a tax or a system of cap and trade.

This would mean ending subsidies for fossil fuels and boosting incentives for renewable forms of energy. “We need new technologies. We need energy efficient technologies,” Gernot said this week on the “How Do We Fix It?” podcast.

“You set the right incentives and get out of the way.”  Use the market to reduce the CO2 emissions. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley will do their thing.

Before the Industrial Age began in the late 18th Century, carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere were roughly 280 parts per million for thousands of years.  Today the level is 400 parts per million and rising. Even if emissions were stabilized tomorrow the carbon number would continue to rise.

Scientists first made the link between greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures in the 19th century. Today, all but a handful of climate scientists say there is an urgent need for action to reduce carbon dioxide levels as soon as possible.

“We know we need to act,” says Gernot.


Gernot Wagner (right) and Martin Weitzman (left), authors of “Climate Shock.”

Top photo by Linda Jessee.