December 6, 2011
Annalee Newitz has written about science and pop culture for Wired, Popular Science, New Scientist, the Washington Post and many others. She’s the editor-in-chief of io9.com (a must-read for any science and/or science fiction fan) and is currently working on a book about how humans will survive the next mass extinction, to be published by Doubleday.
It started with monsters and ended with taxonomies. When I was a kid, my parents took me to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, where reeking ponds of bubbling tar had mired unwary mammoths, perfectly preserving their bones. You could walk right up to a chain link fence and gawk at the still-simmering tar, where museum curators had set up a tableau of a woolly mammoth family trying to rescue one of its members, who was slowly sinking into oblivion. I loved the giant bones you could see in the museum nearby and became a fierce dinosaur enthusiast, learning the names of all the mega-monsters who had come before the mammoths. I built a model of a stegosaurus and put it next to my bed.
In elementary school, I came to understand that any program or book labeled “science” would turn out to be awesome. I devoured books about biology, anthropology, outer space and evolution. I spent a lot of time pondering the poster in my school library showing the evolutionary stages between Australopithicus and Homo sapiens. I liked how scientists took the messiness of the world and organized it into classifications, categories and comprehensible chunks. At the same time, science opened up a yawning chasm of the unknown inside ordinary objects. A wooden table wasn’t just a piece of furniture–it was a blob of swarming atoms, constantly decaying and changing.
Even when I took a detour into the humanities and social sciences in graduate school, I carried my love of scientific categories with me. I studied narrative genres because that allowed me to place movies and books into recognizable categories (even if those categories included “uncategorized” or “wacky”). And in my dissertation, I analyzed the way pop culture stories about monsters evolved over time. Even in the absence of science, I had my taxonomies and evolutionary theories. And, of course, my monsters.
For the past decade, I’ve written almost exclusively about science. I’ve returned to my roots as a science geek, but now I understand that every scientific discovery always takes place within a story. I don’t mean that there are no truths–one of the things I love best about scientific thought is that it allows evidence to prove facts more or less definitively, which is frustratingly never possible in the humanities and social sciences. But science is nevertheless a story about the world, a way of explaining how everything functions. Best of all, science is a story with an open ending. Every discovery ends with more questions. And every line of scientific questioning ends with, “I don’t know, but I’m designing an experiment to find out.”
November 17, 2011
When I think back on how my love of science grew, I think fondly of all the science teachers who conveyed their enthusiasm for the subject to me and my fellow students. And when I went through recent reader contributions to this series (send your own to WhyILikeScience@gmail.com), I was pleased to hear from two individuals who work with students every day.
Elizabeth Fife teaches physics to juniors and seniors at Mesa High School in Mesa, Arizona:
When I was in high school I viewed science as a puzzle to be solved; my teacher would present me with a handful of variables and a paper full of equations, and I was expected to find some missing quantity. I loved rearranging the numbers and chugging through the equations, and I felt a smug sense of satisfaction once I finally figured out the path to the correct answer. But I never really understood the concepts, the actual science, behind what I was doing; it was all algebraic manipulation to me. And though I eventually decided to pursue science in college, it was not because of any high minded ideals—I liked the idea of feeling smart and making a lot of money.
Somewhere along the way, however, I came to the startling realization that all those equations actually mean something. I began to see connections and explanations, and I finally saw the elegant beauty of a world explained by science and saw that science isn’t about numbers and math—it’s about explanations and patterns and relationships. It’s about unlocking the world around us and laying it out to be admired.
This was such a powerful realization that I changed my course of study. I wanted everyone to see what I had finally come to see, that there is a beautiful elegance to the physical laws that construct and connect our world. More than just an appreciation, there is a certain joy in really understanding how the world operates and a raw excitement in the act of gaining that understanding, in making an opaque world just that much clearer.
Years later, I now find myself at the front of that exact same classroom where I sat so long ago as a know-it-all high school student. I shake my head at the ghost of my younger self who thought science was nothing more than an interesting number puzzle and a means to a lot of cash. I grin with shared excitement whenever one of my students’ eyes light up and they say, “OH. So THAT’S why…” because that is what science is and what makes it so enjoyable. It is in the realizations and connections we make, it is that shiver of excitement that accompanies those “ah-ha” moments of discovery, and it is in finding the order in an oftentimes nonsensical world.
Katherine Krein, of Sterling, Virginia, works in the special education department of a local middle school. This year she is assisting students in eighth-grade physical science:
Science enables us to stretch our senses beyond our human limitations. We cannot see the whole spectrum of light, we cannot hear all sound frequencies and we cannot see all matter. Unaided, we can only perceive what is within our range, our reach and our human scale. We cannot sense what is inaccessible to us. Science expands our access.
Science has empowered us to detect and sense the world around us. The nature of science, with its strong foundation of methods, has allowed scientists to develop tools that help us to identify the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light; tools that assist us in measuring and recording all wavelengths and frequencies, including all the sounds that our ears can detect; tools to search for and find ever increasingly small particles of matter; and tools to see things that are farther and farther away from us. Through the study of science, scientists can detect the DNA in a follicle of hair or a speck of saliva, see viruses in blood, and find tumors within a body. The list goes on—the benefits to mankind are manifold.
On a more personal scale, science has given us hearing aids which help my father hear. Science has given me eye glasses that correct my near-sightedness. Science has given us medicine that helps many of us live healthier lives. Science is helping a co-worker battle breast cancer.
To say that I like science is an understatement that does not adequately express my gratitude for everything that it has given humanity, my friends and family, and me.
November 2, 2011
Visitors to the Smithsonian museums that circle the National Mall may be surprised to learn that there’s so much more to the institution. Tucked away behind exhibits and nestled in buildings far from downtown D.C. are scientists studying everything from dinosaurs to the materials used in Khmer stone sculptures. Out on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland you’ll find the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), which focuses on ecosystem science, including research into climate change, fisheries, forest ecology, invasive species and water pollution. Of course they like science there—that’s what they do. And when I started the Why I Like Science series, several people at SERC wanted to tell you why they do what they do:
Kristen Minogue, science writer and media relations coordinator
Growing up I saw science primarily as a reason to get dirty. Yes, I loved learning about the shapes of different tree leaves, the life cycles of stars and the superfast formation of obsidian in a volcanic eruption. But for a well brought-up girl in a Midwest suburb, science gave me something I couldn’t find anywhere else: an excuse to get soaked, muddy, grass-stained or all of the above without having to explain myself to anyone.
It meant I would gladly tramp through the snow every night for a month for a seventh-grade astronomy project. I would study speleology at a three-week college prep camp because students who majored in cave science returned with their clothes covered in mud, which were later displayed in a fashion show for the rest of the student body. I would forsake college parties to spend weekends clambering up rocks in the Mojave Desert. I could torment my mother’s—and later my school’s—washing machines while remaining a productive member of society.
That’s one of the reasons the myth of the academic scientist in the ivory tower has always puzzled me. Scientists have some of the dirtiest jobs I know. Whether they’re taking ice cores in the Arctic, wading through polluted marsh waters of the Chesapeake or scrambling over mangrove roots in Belize, they’re not afraid to go to the wildest, filthiest, most remote corners of the planet. Granted, the scientists I’ve met tend to have nobler motives than my 12-year-old self. There are questions to answer and mysteries to solve. But the scientists know that the secrets of the universe are often in the mud.
Textbook science is generally neat, crisp and well-ordered. Picture the perfectly circular outline of Earth’s layers or the straight fault diagrams in a middle-school Earth science book. Nature doesn’t always obey the rules of textbook science. Because, the truth is, we don’t know what all the rules are yet. Science is our attempt to figure out the inner workings of a very messy world. And often, the only way to do it is to get messy ourselves.
Maria Tzortziou, ocean and atmospheric scientist, University of Maryland, and SERC Research Associate
I love science because it allows us to discover and understand the world around us and inside us; the Earth and the universe and beyond; human physiology, psychology and behavior; life, ecosystems and biodiversity; stars and matter and energy. It allows us to find the answers to “what”, “why” and “how”. Ask new questions and move forward. As Stevie Wonder said (“Superstition”):
“When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer.”
In a unique way, science fights against the fear of the unknown and allows us to apply our understanding of the past and present to predict and (if only we dare) improve our future.
Karen McDonald, outreach coordinator
I like science because it’s a dialogue between myself and the Great Unknown. I ask a question and know that the answers are already provided, but I have to go humbly into nature as a student to discover them. Science is that part of life that is a mystery, and every time I learn something new the world grows just a little bit larger. As a science educator I enjoy sharing the unraveling of science and nature because I see children and adults whose disconnect from nature, and themselves, becomes connected and they appreciate some insignificant thing they passed over before. They find meaning in something once meaningless, and suddenly we’re all connected. Maybe that connection is from the beauty of the scales of a butterflies wings, the diatoms on a grain of sand or the amazing world of an earthworm’s den, but each bit uncovered, and discovered, and shared brings meaning and it’s what makes science amazing.
Angela Boysen, fall intern in the nutritional ecology lab under Olav Oftedal
Every piece of technology you use. Every car, every bike, every television and every aspirin. Every allergy pill, every glass of milk and every light switch. Every roller coaster, every camera and every contact lens. They are each a reason to love science. Every “why”, every “so what” and every “how come” is a reason to love science. There are thousands of reasons to love science. But out of all the reasons, the reason that I love science is because it can bring out the best in people.
Question. Hypothesize. Observe and experiment. Analyze. Conclude. Question.
This is the essence of the scientific method, a method which emphasizes and even necessitates curiosity and an open mind. These are qualities that I hope lie at the core of every person. Qualities that, nurtured, can lead to improvements in ourselves and our world. A questioning nature and an openness to unexpected ideas or results have often lead to scientific and technological breakthroughs. These same qualities, however, also can lead to greater tolerance and compassion.
So though it is enough to love science because it brings us a greater understanding of the world around us or because it allows us to improve our quality of life, I also love science because I think it improves us as curious, questioning, open and innovative people.
October 20, 2011
In my four years at Smithsonian magazine, freelance science writer Michelle Nijhuis has been on of my favorite writers to work with. She tells wonderful, deeply reported stories that give a peek into the world of science—for example, how ecologists use the work of Henry David Thoreau to study climate change. In addition to Smithsonian, Nijhuis’ work has appeared in many other publications (including High Country News, where she is a contributing editor) and several books. She is a 2011 Alicia Patterson fellow and also blogs at The Last Word on Nothing. Here’s what she had to say when I asked her why she liked science:
Like my fellow science writer Ann Finkbeiner, I was an English major—until, that is, the time came for me to actually major in English. In college, I discovered that studying literature was less about enjoying words on the page and much more about dissecting them. Worse, dissection led to more complications, not fewer. If I was going to pull something lovely apart, I thought, I wanted to find answers. So I fled to the biology building—where I found a few answers, a lot more questions and a new way of understanding the world.
I like science because it is a process, a journey, as we writers like to say. It’s not a list of facts but a method, honed over centuries, of asking questions, testing possible answers and asking yet more questions. Scientists are trained to doubt and criticize, habits that can make their company difficult, but never dull. So in study after study, they observe and analyze and report, picking away at their uncertainties. If they’re lucky, they satisfy themselves and their colleagues and some part of the world at large, and finally arrive at something close to an answer. If not, they pass their questions on to the next generation, and the one after that. It’s a tradition of discovery that, bit by bit, adds up to knowledge. Like anything else practiced by fallible humans, science isn’t a perfect process, but it is a very powerful one—our clearest view of nature’s true complexity.
I like science, but I’m not a scientist. I loved studying biology, and a biology degree gave me a chance to hike around in strange places and see amazing things. As I’ve described elsewhere, though, I found I was less interested in doing science and more interested in understanding how and why it got done. What possesses some people to, for instance, spend decades studying the sex life of snails, or the hibernation habits of cave-dwelling bats, or the parenting skills of Atlantic puffins? And what do their journeys mean for the rest of us? These days, as a journalist, I get to watch the process of science at work, and I get to tell its stories. And while my profession is much more art than science, I still practice the science habit: I ask questions, and question the answers.
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.