Monday, November 26, 2012


The U.S.’s rank in the Global Innovative Index dropped from 7th to 10th this year. The validity of the survey published by the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations, and INSEAD, a business school could be questioned (Education Week, J. Tomassini blog, July 9, 2012). Reports like this cause many to worry about science literacy of Americans and to wonder about the U.S.’s public and private investments in science education. Please forget politics and just keep reading please.

Making science interesting and fun for kids.
The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate on Education, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the National Academies of Sciences, NIH Office of Science Education, and dozens of museums and conservation groups have invested in science education programs for children and teens (K-12). Most of these programs have teamed scientists with educators to create innovative and fun science education modules and curriculum for students. These programs work but do not reach enough children, especially those in poor school districts. If you doubt these generalizations, Google any of these organizations.

What about making science interesting and fun for adults?
Fun depends on the eyes of the beholders. There are hundreds books on science topics (medicine, the environment, astronomy, etc) published for the general public every year. Obviously many adults enjoy these books.

A few of these “science books” read like action novels, particularly Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer. If you like horror, it’s hard to beat Preston’s description of the symptoms of smallpox with the skin peeling from the live bodies. And John Barry really “develops the character” of several of the dedicated (but quirky) scientists, leading medicine at the time of The Great Influenza (the early 1900’s).

Okay, you say, but I really like novels better than non-fiction.
Try a novel with a science theme. These novels are not stodgy textbooks but real mysteries, thrillers and romances. The science in these novels adds credence and color to the novel but does not overwhelm the plot.

For example, one reader asked me why I didn’t mention cytokine storms in Coming Flu. I know many severe flu symptoms are due to a cytokine storm (an over reaction of the body’s immune system to the flu virus), but I’ve seen a glazed look in the eyes of too many college biology students when the cytokine storms were explained. Despite the “short cut,” you’ll learn a bit about vaccine development and immunology from Coming Flu. More importantly you’ll think about the wonders and limits of modern biology.

Fun books with tidbits of science written by scientists or physicians
My medical thriller Coming Flu is the point of view of an epidemiologist trapped in a quarantined community because of an unstoppable flu virus. My next novel Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight (due out in April) is from the point of view of an associate dean in a medical school investigating charges of scientific misconduct against a “diet” doctor. I was a professor in nutrition and toxicology.

Robin Cook, a physician, wrote more than twenty-five medical thrillers, the most famous being Coma.

Kathy Reichs, an anthropology professor, writes of modern forensic anthropological techniques in her Tempe Brennan series of crime novels.

Camille Minichino, a retired physicist, writes mysteries with titles based on the periodic table.

So why not borrow one of these books from the library or better still buy one. I think fans of mysteries and thrillers, will enjoy these books. They may even decide that science is fun.

J.L. Greger and Bug