October 6, 2011
Ann Finkbeiner is a freelance science writer, the author of The Jasons, A Grand and Bold Thing and numerous articles (including this recent one for Nature) and the co-owner of the wonderful science blog The Last Word on Nothing. Here at Smithsonian, I got to know her work when she wrote a fascinating story on neutrinos for our November 2010 issue. Finkbeiner often writes about topics in cosmology, an area of science that many people (including this blogger) find difficult to understand. And I find her career even more impressive after reading her essay explaining why she likes science:
I never did like science. I was a born English major, and science was for people who didn’t have the imagination to be writers.
Then one day I was driving from central Pennsylvania to Chicago, going through the Appalachians, watching the roadcuts. When I went up the mountains, the lines in the roadcut went up; and when I went down the mountains, the lines went down. But somewhere around Pittsburgh, no matter whether I was going up or down the mountains, the lines stayed the same; they were dead flat. First I thought, why is that? Next I thought, what are those lines anyway? Then I thought, why don’t I know any facts about the world?
Math was and is out of the question, so I started taking general night school courses: Geology for Innumerates; The Origin and Evolution of Man; Concepts of Modern Physics, emphasis on “concepts.” I found not only facts but stories: groundwater and gravity had the inevitability of Greek tragedy; the unfolding of quantum theory had the storyline of Job. No way could I think up stories as good as these. I decided to become a science writer just so I could write those stories.
Since then, I’ve found out that science, besides having crackerjack storylines, not to mention superb metaphors, is a cure for neurotic uncertainty. I’ve always been unsure of what I know. And the whole point of science is exactly that: knowing how you know something so you’re sure of what you know.
Science approaches certainty thusly: Scientists discover something. They tell everybody what they found, what they measured and how. Then other scientists publicly take apart the discovery—the measurements were full of errors, the statistics were cursory. Then these other scientists race off and do it the way it should have been done in the first place, controlling variables that the first bunch was too inept to control. Then the original scientists point out the others’ systematic errors and fatal flaws in understanding. And so on, far into the night, all in public. As a way of working, it’s wide-open, competitive, nit-picky and nerve-wracking; it’s outright warfare.
But what comes out of it is evidence, measurements and facts built into an interpretation, a theory on which they more or less agree. Their agreement doesn’t guarantee certainty, only a good bet. But as a way of knowing the world, science is the most solid—verifiable, falsifiable and mutually-understandable—method that humanity has ever devised.
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