In Focus

Published on May 22nd, 2011 | by Au Science Magazine


Why Science?

by Sean McMahon

You and I have something in common: we both think science is fascinating. That’s why I’m writing this and that’s why you’re reading it. Probably, like me, you’re surrounded by friends and colleagues who think the same way. Like me, you sometimes forget that for many people outside our bubble, science is boring, difficult, cold, and silent about the things that really matter. At school, it’s OK—maybe even slightly fashionable—to be “hopeless” at science: it’s one for the oddballs and math-geeks, a subject best dropped as soon as possible.

Naturally, you and I fret about these attitudes. We know that modern societies simply wouldn’t work without doctors, engineers, resource geologists, computing scientists, and so on. We’re all frightened by the social, political and economic consequences of ignorance about climate change, energy, genetics and medicine.

So when we get the chance, we try to persuade children to become scientists. Study science to save the world from global warming! Study science to fight disease! Study science to find natural resources! Study science to invent the future! To strengthen our case, we hand out rainbow-coloured books about ‘creepy-crawlies’ and ‘snot’ written by the kind of people who hang around TV sets with buckets of soapy water and liquid nitrogen, or lightbulbs and microwaves, or viscous neon-green gloop. Study science so you can blow stuff up! Study science so you can make gloop! An effective strategy, no doubt, for introducing chemistry to children. But aren’t we missing something?

Yes, our economies need science. Yes, our health needs science. Yes, our planet needs science. And yes, scientists occasionally make slime and then blow it up, which is, I suspect, why the fire alarm in my building keeps going off. But none of this explains why I became a scientist, or why anybody should. Scientists become scientists because science is amazing. Consider the following:

  • In 1995, the Hubble Telescope focused on a tiny region of space, an apparently empty square about one thirty-millionth of the area of the night sky, for ten days. About three thousand galaxies appeared in the resulting photograph. Pointing the telescope in any other direction obtains a similar result. That means there are a least a hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Each one contains something like a hundred billion stars. Try to imagine that number of stars, one hundred billion hundreds of billions, and then consider that the number of atoms in your body is about one million times larger still.
  • The tiny bones in your ear evolved from the articulating jaw bones of your ancestors: long-extinct varieties of fish. A neat sequence of fossil intermediates illustrates the transition. As a bonus, roughly 10% of the population (including me!) have small pointy nodules at the back of their ears, called ‘Darwin’s tubercles’. These are a vestigial feature homologous with the points of bat and monkey ears.
  • Recognisably modern human beings have lived on Earth for about two hundred thousand years. For at least three quarters of that time—and maybe as much as nineteen twentieths—we shared the planet with other species of humans, with whom we competed, fought, and occasionally interbred. Two hundred thousand years might seem like a long time, but geologically it’s an instant: the Earth has been orbiting the sun for a period twenty thousand times as long.
  • For roughly the first half of the history of life on Earth, the only living things were microbes. We still don’t know why things changed.
  • There used to be two ‘Earths’ in our solar system: Mars was the other one, until it lost its atmosphere. That’s one reason why we think there might be life on Mars. Other candidates for habitable worlds include Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has an ocean of liquid water below an icy crust; and Saturn’s moon Titan, where ‘rocks’ and ‘mountains’ made of frozen water are washed by rivers, lakes and seas composed of oily hydrocarbons. There are even weirder things out there. So far, we’ve spotted more than 500 alien planets around distant stars, but the technology to see what they are made of has yet to be invented. We’re working on it.
  • The seagulls that terrorise Aberdeen are descended from the same order of dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus Rex. Dinosaurs, by the way, lived on Earth for more than eight hundred times longer than humans have managed so far; and they had already been extinct for 65 million years by the time we showed up.

I could go on. These examples are drawn from my own MSc (geosciences) and PhD (astrobiology), but every field of science has its share of wonders (perhaps you can share your own below). Here’s what we should be telling young people: If you want to mess about with insects and slime, become a primary school teacher. If you want to save the world, become an activist, a charity worker or a politician. But if you want to study the most interesting things in the world, become a scientist.

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is produced by students at the University of Aberdeen Science Journalism Society. Our goal is to share our passion for science and showcase scientific research taking place in Aberdeen's universities.

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