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February 09, 1992|Charles Solomon

THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF SCIENCE LITERACY: What Everyone Needs to Know From Newton to the Knuckleball, edited by Richard Flaste (HarperPerennial: $12, illustrated). Although faith in the power of science to solve virtually any problem is widespread in the United States, many Americans are dangerously ignorant of how scientific inquiries are conducted and of the present limits of scientific knowledge. These interesting essays, collected from the "Science Times" section of the paper, emphasize science as a process and explain what the best evidence currently available indicates about various phenomena, rather than presenting simplistic "facts." As the title suggests, the authors report on a variety of topics, from the genius of Sir Isaac Newton and the mystery of Jupiter's Great Red Spot to the dangers of passive smoking and when a human fetus becomes "viable" (before 23-24 weeks, the lungs are too poorly developed to support the fetus outside the womb). While this anthology hardly encompasses everything a concerned citizen needs to know about science, it offers valuable information at a time when one-twelfth of the nation's 24,000 high schools don't even offer biology, and the necessity of teaching the principles of evolution is being challenged in court.

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