If Floridians need a reminder why a comprehensive science education is critical for our high schoolers, they need only look to the south and west this week. The BP oil disaster has it all:
1) The fluid mechanics (physics) of the Gulf of Mexico tell us where the oil will be flowing – perhaps even around the Florida peninsula and up the US Atlantic coast. The work of arresting the flow from the bottom of the ocean, involving both the construction of mechanical containments and the boring of a relief well are also engineering problems driven by physics. And how will this affect the way we harvest energy from our environment to fuel our economy, which is just starting to grow again?
2) The chemistry of the interaction of the oil with both the Gulf water and the dispersants being used to attack the oil are critical elements for both understanding the scope of the disaster and figuring out how to attack it.
3) Marine biology tells us both the toll of the disaster and the how the ecological system will respond over the long term.
4) And of course this is all Earth science – the classic synthesis of all fields of basic science to provide us the tools to understand the world on which we reside.
Of course, scientists and engineers are playing starring roles in this drama. But how well our society responds to this disaster – whether we make positive changes in the way our society interacts with our planet to provide opportunities for individual and collective economic health – will depend sensitively on the scientific literacy of our policy-makers and the population at large.