Scientific Illiteracy

The Observer featured a lengthy article by Tim Adams bemoaning the generic scientific illiteracy of society today, tracing a line from CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” through Natalie Angier’s new book, The Canon:A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. It concentrates a bit too heavily on uber-agent John Brockman’s somewhat pretentious “Third Culture, a marriage of physics and philosophy, astronomy and art,” as exemplified by his website, The Edge, but it does finger a real and disturbing (but not really new) trend. But to me the real howler was the following quote:

George Smoot, the Nobel-winning astrophysicist who first identified the background radiation of the Big Bang and thereby invented cosmology.
OK, first, George Smoot didn’t identify “the background radiation of the Big Bang”, he was the Principal Investigator of the DMR Instrument on the COBE satellite, which identified the fluctuations in the background radiation (aka the CMB), the seeds of structure that eventually grew into galaxies and cluster of galaxies in the Universe today. The CMB itself was first identified by Penzias and Wilson in the 1960s — for which they also won the Nobel Prize. That may give you a hint about the other problem here: George, although a pretty smart guy, certainly didn’t invent cosmology, which has been around as a legitimate scientific field at least since Einstein’s discovery of General Relativity, and as a human endeavor for thousands of years.