September 27, 2011
Two weeks ago I asked readers to weigh in on why they like science. Two submissions caught my eye. This first essay is from a friend, Sandy Lee, who is the IT support specialist for the Phillips Collection, an art museum here in Washington, D.C., as well as an amateur artist. His personal and professional lives often give him reason to like science, he writes:
Science is the partner of Art. There is an inherent beauty in the mathematical progression of an arpeggio, the molecular structure of a graphene molecule and the resident harmony of a finely tuned Formula One engine at full throttle.
Science is also the quest for truth. While I may not be the most skeptical of persons, I marvel at our capacity to continually ask the question, “Why?” and to seek the answers existing at the edges of the universe and deep within ourselves. Because “just because” is not a good enough answer.
Science is tragic. Masterpieces from forgotten civilizations are ravaged by time, elements and human vanity. Countless lab hours are spent in search of a medical cure that is still unknown. Computer viruses decimate invaluable data on a global scale, and scores of people braver than I gave everything they could in the name of science.
Science is sexy. We all dream of having that one “EUREKA!” moment, when it all comes together, works like it should and validates the countless hours of research. Sure, it’s simply a behavioral reaction caused by adrenaline and dopamine, but isn’t that what it’s all about?
This second essay is from Leo Johnson, a 19-year-old biology and secondary education student at Louisiana State University. “I was previously a pre-veterinary major,” he writes, “but decided I would make more of a difference teaching kids science than taking care of sick animals.” It’s great when teachers are passionate about their subjects, and that’s obvious from this explanation of why he likes science:
I was going to attempt to write something eloquent and awe-inspiring, but science is already those things. Science, when you truly understand it, is truly magnificent and astounding. Science has shown me that because of the unique combination of my parents’ DNA that came together to form me, I’m one of more than 70 trillion potential combinations that could’ve been made.
Science tells me just how amazing the world and the things in it are. All the animals I see everyday are the products of billions of years of evolution, of change. I’m the product of that change.
Science somehow takes the mystery out of things but also makes them more magical. We no longer think of the stars as points of light on the tapestry of the night but now know that they’re burning balls of gas billions of miles away in the black expanse of space. This, to me, is more fantastic and amazing than anything someone could’ve made up.
Science, simply, is both factual and fantastic. All the things science tells us are supported by facts and results. The facts say that the universe we live in is more amazing than we could ever imagine and we’re lucky enough to be able to have science to show us this.
It’s because of this that I like science so much. Science allows me to discover and understand. It shows me things I would never know, or be able to know without it. Science provides me with answers, and if my question hasn’t been answered yet, I can be assured that someone is working on answering it. It’s the understanding that allows us to question. Science is the gift that keeps on giving; the more we understand, the more we seek to understand. The broader our knowledge, the more we want to expand it. Science makes the world more fantastic, and the more we already know, the more we’ll soon discover.
September 19, 2011
As a biologist at North Carolina State University, Rob Dunn studies the complex and diverse world of ants. In addition, he’s part of a fascinating—and, to some, slightly disgusting—project looking at the diversity of microbes that live in the human belly button. Here at Smithsonian, we know Dunn because he’s also a great science writer. Dunn is the author of two books (Every Living Thing and The Wild Life of Our Bodies) and numerous magazine and web articles, including several of my recent Smithsonian favorites—”The Mystery of the Singing Mice,” “The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved” and “The Untold Story of the Hamster, a.k.a. Mr. Saddlebags.” Even better, Dunn was a great sport when I asked him why he liked science:
No one can tell you for sure what the appendix does. No one knows how deep into the Earth life goes. No one knows how high into the sky life goes. No one is sure what the mites that live on human foreheads do, though they are there while you are reading.
Most species on Earth remain unnamed, not to mention totally unstudied. New species are easy to find in Manhattan, walking around alongside celebrities. No one can tell me what the species of bacteria living on my body, hundreds of species, are doing. No one can say for sure if there is another, yet to be discovered, domain of life. Parasites in my body might be affecting my behavior, and even the sorts of things I write late at night.
There are ant species that farm fungus in the Amazon. There are beetle species that farm fungus in my backyard. Both do so with greater sophistication than I or any other human can farm fungus. No one is sure why weaver ants have green abdomens. No one knows why we have specialized glands in our armpits that feed bacteria that produce the smells we think of as body odor. No one is sure why we have such large sinuses. There exists active discussion about why our bodies are warm and not cold.
There is a bacteria species that lives in hot water heaters, but nowhere else yet studied on Earth. Hummingbirds can bend their beaks in the middle using muscles in their head, but no one has checked to see whether other birds can do the same thing. Most mice on Earth might be singing, but only a few have been listened to.
I like to do and write about biology for these reasons, because in biology most of what is knowable is still unknown, because in biology we are still ignorant, because in biology the very body I use to type these words, with its crooked fingers and twisty mind, is only partially, modestly, understood, because biology will never fully be understood, because biology is a tapestry being unraveled, because the lives of the people unraveling the stories are, even when superficially humble and human, always fascinating, because biology is like biography with better characters, because I find deep and wondrous joy in biology, because even when an editor writes me late at night to ask why I write about and do biology my first response is to smile at how much I love biology, smile and wonder, the way we all wonder before the grandeur of the stars but sometimes forget to wonder before the grandeur of life.
September 12, 2011
Science is under siege these days. Some politicians proudly proclaim that evolution is just a theory and that climate change is a conspiracy among scientists. Health gurus advocate homeopathy or “natural” remedies rather than modern medicine. Parents ignore the advice of doctors and experts and refuse to vaccinate their children against deadly diseases. People who are quite happy to reap the benefits of science—new medical treatments, for example, or sci-fi-like technological devices—advocate for schools to teach religion in science class.
And so I think it’s time for the rest of us to speak up. Let’s explain what it is about science that satisfies us, how science improves our world and why it’s better than superstition. To that end, I’m starting a new series here on Surprising Science: Why I Like Science. In coming months, I’ll ask scientists, writers, musicians and others to weigh in on the topic. And I’m also asking you, the readers, why you like science. If you’d like to participate, send a 200- to 500-word essay to WhyILikeScience@gmail.com; I’ll publish the best.
And to start us off, here’s why I like science:
When we are little, we ask “why.” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do balls fall down and not up?” “Why can’t my fish live outside water?” Good parents root their answers in science. The sky is blue due to the way light is scattered in the atmosphere. Balls fall down because of gravity. Your fish doesn’t have lungs, and gills only work in water.
But science doesn’t just give us answers to the why’s of our childhoods; it gives us the tools we need to keep answering them as we grow up.
Science is the tool I use to understand the world around me. It provides logic and sense and order in what might otherwise seem chaotic. And though the answer to the why’s of my adulthood may sometimes be “we don’t know,” it’s really just “we don’t know yet”—the answer will eventually be found, with science.
And then there’s the act of finding those answers, putting the methods of science into action, that I find more fascinating than any bit of fiction. There are astronomers who use telescopes to peer back in time. Biologists who discover new species in both familiar and faraway places and struggle to figure out how to save others from extinction. Even a non-scientist sitting at a computer can help to solve molecular structures, hunt for planets or decipher ancient Egyptian texts during lunch break. Science is often, simply, fun.
Science is also the light that keeps us out of the dark ages. It may not solve all of our problems, but it usually shows us the path to the solutions. And the more we know, the more questions we find. It’s a never-ending search for answers that will continue for as long as the human race exists. And guaranteed satisfaction for the little girl inside me, the one that still asks “why.”