Dr. Phil's Home

Current Science Literacy Reading Assignments

Fall 2005

Science Literacy

Most Recent Booklist: Fall 2005 PHYS-2070 .PDF File

Most Recent Book-and-Movielist: Spring 2003 PHYS-207

Most Recent Movielist: Spring 2005 PHYS-104

Please note that these lists were intended for student assignments. They are not lists of Dr. Phil's favorite science fiction or science literacy books and movies. Many of Dr. Phil's favorites don't quite do what is needed to be a proper science literacy assignment.


Science Classes

As a student, you have received science and science related information from your teachers. Whether you believe it or not is up to you. But a professional has taken the time to determine what sorts of things are important to know and with how much detail, both for the purposes of the courses you are taking and for the more general purpose of “Science Literacy”, to help make you a better citizen and better able to function in our science & technology driven 21st Century.

How Will I Get Science Information in the Future?

For some of you, your courses at Western Michigan University may be the last time you will have the benefit of someone directing what science you are exposed to. So, what happens when you get to the “real world”? Well, you may be bombarded with information from all sorts of sources: your job, newspapers, magazines, books, television, radio, movies, the Internet, friends, conversations overheard while standing in line somewhere – you name it. What these methods may lack, though, is the control and expertise of your teachers. You can find all sorts of amazing information on the Internet, but you would have to be very naïve to believe 100% of everything you read there. Much of our news is dominated by politics, but how much science do our politicians know? At the moment, we have exactly one professional engineer and one physicist in the House of Representatives (both of these men are from Michigan – you should know who they are, but probably don’t), none in the Senate. Most of Congress is made up of lawyers. While there is nothing wrong with studying the Law per se, legal arguments do not follow the same rules and purposes of scientific arguments. Therefore there is nothing that requires an environmental cleanup bill, for example, to have anything to do with either the environment or cleaning it up. Likewise, the talking heads we get our news from on TV are not trained in science and technology for the most part. I don’t know what Dan Rather or Connie Chung majored in at college, but I can probably bet it wasn’t Physics. They may have, unlike you, been able to graduate from college without ever having had a Physics course. Even on the cable channels, one of the hosts of a computer show I used to watch is now doing a cable show on gardening – go figure.

So how will you evaluate information on your own? This is possibly something that you have never thought about, but Dr. Phil and other professionals have. Dr. Phil’s approach is to have you read a book and examine what you read and how it affects you, as well as whether you believe it. (You don’t have to.)

Learning to “Parse” Information

Evaluating what you read in this context is very much in line with definition 3 of the verb parse:

parse (pärs) verb

parsed, pars·ing, pars·es verb, transitive

1. To break (a sentence) down into its component parts of speech with an explanation of the form, function, and syntactical relationship of each part.

2. To describe (a word) by stating its part of speech, form, and syntactical relationships in a sentence.

3. To examine closely or subject to detailed analysis, especially by breaking up into components: “What are we missing by parsing the behavior of chimpanzees into the conventional categories recognized largely from our own behavior?” (Stephen Jay Gould).

4. Computer Science. To analyze or separate (input, for example) into more easily processed components. Used of software.

verb, intransitive

To admit of being parsed: sentences that do not parse easily.

[Probably from Middle English pars, part of speech, from Latin pars (orâtionis), part (of speech).]

Source: Microsoft Bookshelf '95 (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Third Edition))

Books as a Source of Information

From all the sources listed in How Will I Get Science Information in the Future?, most are very difficult to evaluate. Dr. Phil can’t easily watch hours of VCR tapes or interview your friends along with every paper he reads to compare your impressions with the actual information being presented. So by narrowing the choices to one medium – books – we can have a little control and consistency between papers.

For more than ten years Dr. Phil has been building up a booklist of suitable books. They are, as you shall see, not just Physics books, but cover all the Natural Sciences, Engineering, Computers, Technology, Medicine and the Morality and Ethics of using these. The total list is kept around a hundred titles. Books come on and off the list from time to time, sometimes because Dr. Phil gets sick of reading too many papers on Airframe or Jurassic Park, etc., and sometimes because some books work better with some classes (such as PHYS-309) than others.

Because this is not strictly a Physics paper but a Science Literacy paper, the range of books is considerable. There are fiction and non-fiction titles, biographies, science fiction, mysteries and technothrillers – books that straddle the line between science fiction and current reality – from some popular best-selling authors as Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, covering topics that include Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Computers, Mathematics, Technology, Medicine, etc.. The list is anything but boring.

It is easiest to pick a book you have not read before. And if you pick a title from the booklist, that’s it. However, you may decide that (a) you have read everything on the list, (b) read everything you think is interesting on the list or (c) waited too long to get the book(s) you were interested in from the library and are now stuck. You may read a book that isn’t on the booklist, but you must get Dr. Phil’s approval beforehand and be prepared to hand in a draft of your paper at least one week before it is due. If you go ahead and write a paper on a book that Dr. Phil has not approved anyway, there is a 100,000 point penalty.

Movies as a Source of Information

It turns out that many of the books on Dr. Phil’s booklist have some connection to a movie or a TV program. Many of these are mentioned in the booklist. If you are tempted to avoid reading a book by watching the movie version – don’t. For one thing, the movies are almost always different than the books. And not only has Dr. Phil read all the books, he has seen all the movies (and owns most of both). So if you just watch the movie, you are going to get caught (and it’s a 90,000 point deduction). Secondly, in most cases, even jaded students like you will usually conclude that the book is usually better than the movie. While there is a lot to say about movies, there isn’t the time to contain all the information content of the book. Movies, at best, hold the flavor of the book.

Having said that, it can be worthwhile to compare what is in the book and movie of a particular combination. Currently Dr. Phil is using Book/Movie combinations for his second-semester Physics courses (PHYS-115 and PHYS-207 at WMU). You can, however, do this on your own IF you agree to a change in the rules. Having more to evaluate means you have to write a longer paper – it’s only fair. You also have to split your paper between the book and the movie.

Last Updated: 22 November 2005