Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


Run, And Find Out.

June 11, 2011

“[Tell Science Stories] about nature that are true and complex… but still have the power to enthrall, to excite, to remind people there is a deep and many leveled beauty in the world”

In that vein, let’s start with a story.

Two years ago, I was working as a substitute primary school teacher. On this particular day, I was teaching 3rd Class (8-9 year olds.) I found some time, later in the day, when the work their teacher had left them was done. So I looked at their Science books, and discovered that they had yet to do a science lesson. (3rd class is the first class where Science is its own subject.)

As I flicked through the first few lessons, my eye fell on the lesson which demonstrated that sound could travel through solid objects. Somewhere in the depths of my memory, something flickered. Had this been my first Science Experiment in primary school, 16 years ago? I remembered saying something belligerent, and insisting that I be the one allowed to go outside to verify the results. Sound through solid objects, I thought? Nonsense! I won’t believe it, until I hear it!

So I began, outlining in the simplest terms that sound travels from (for example) the teacher’s mouth to the childrens’ ears. No talk of wavelengths, or even vibrations. That wasn’t the point of this lesson. The point was the question.

“Do you think that sound can only travel through air? Can it travel through solid things, like the walls, or the desks? Hands up who thinks it can?”

The class was evenly divided. Not, as I had expected, along lines of ability, or curiosity, or history of reading. The division seemed random, each child forming their own opinion from their own past experience. I banged my fist against a desk in demonstration. It got their attention. “So,” I asked “When I banged my fist on the desk, the sound travelling from here to your ears?” I mimed a line of sound travelling from the point of impact, through the air to their ears. “No sound travelled through the desk itself?” I asked one boy to put his ear to the other side of the desk. As he did so, I spoke about how Native Americans tracked the movement of herd animals by putting their ears to the ground. Then, I banged my fist against the table again, and the boy’s head flew up in surprise.

“Wooooooah.” He exclaimed, putting Keanu Reeves to shame. “That was waaay louder than before!!!” Surprise to excitement in a moment. And there it was. A moment of wonder and discovery as his idea of the universe’s workings shifted. The other children saw that look of wonder, and mirrored it. Without warning, the classroom descended into chaos, with children placing their ears against desks and urging their neighbours to bang their fists against it. Laughter and gasps filled the room.

What happens to that wonder? It gets trained out of children. In a few short years, getting that enthusiastic about knowing and discovering is going to social poison to them. Some will simply keep their enthusiasm quiet, waiting for a time when they can go to college and surround themselves with other people who managed to retain their passion for science and knowledge. Most won’t. Most will find themselves with a slightly anti-science attitude, one of apathetic avoidance rather than outright rancor.

The Anti-Science Narrative isn’t a monolithic tract that creates extremist anti-science activists. Like so many similar stories, it is told in the form of isolated fragments. Each of the statements above will act on People in isolation, the words creating a collage of ideas never explicitly linked up into an Idea, but rather creating an implicit social context that reinforces a grand story that has never been expressed as such. The same is largely true of sexism and racism. The narrative isn’t presented to us as a manifesto, but rather as a collection of little pieces that don’t seem too bad alone, but thanks to our minds’ ability to pattern form unconsciously, we end up with a tapestry woven from these threads without realizing we’ve done it. Scientists (and other rational minded sorts) find ourselves constantly arguing against the irrational beliefs held by others. Homeopathy, prejudice, conspiracy theorists… the list is long. We try to change minds with facts. Surely, we think, that should be enough to win the argument. We go away shaking our heads in disbelief, knowing we were right and failing to understand how people can be quite so irrational.

It’s because irrationality has the Bigger Story. It has many threads that twist throughout popular culture and everyday discourse. Scientists are cold. Scientists are amoral. Scientists change their minds all the time, you can’t trust what they say. It’s only a theory. Gut instinct is a valid reason to do something. Scientists are uncool. Scientists are arrogant elitists who look down on “normal people.” People would rather elect someone who seems “folksy” than someone who seems “smart.” Scientists dabble in things Man Is Not Meant To Know and the result will be terrible Horror Movie Gene Spliced Monsters or conquest of mankind by Talking Apes.

That story is out there, and there is one way to beat a story.

Tell a better one.


Communicating the facts is vital, no doubt.. Lots of people change their behaviour based on facts. But there are those who don’t. There are those who reject science as a wordview because they see it as Cold. They see it as actively removing beauty from the world by a process of reduction, of breaking down the world into its elemental constituents without a care for the breathtaking majesty of the whole. And sometimes, even we scientists forget that this isn’t true. We reject metaphor and symbol as the weapons of the irrational, and get far too literal minded. To steal from Alan Moore: “We distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place”

Science has a gloriously beautiful story to tell. It’s not a story about a Grand Design perfectly executed, but rather the improv jazz masterwork of a quartet of Weak Force, Strong Force, Gravity, and Electromagnetism. It’s a story about subatomic particles dancing to that tune and building conga-lines of Carbon that started making more of themselves, mass producing the sheet music of life . It’s about Sex and Death, and how they let each new organism put their own ragtime riff on the genome they were born with. It’s a story about how one of these animals realized that they realized and started passing information to the next generation without the use of bodily fluids and starting building our own symbols with scratches on cave walls and arbitrary shapings of sound. It’s a story about layer upon layer of emerging complexity that defies any one mind to understand it. It’s a story about thousands of great minds giving their life’s work to perfecting their own tiny slice of human knowledge, hoping that someday, our picture of reality will fall together, and be beautiful all the way down.It’s a story about a children experiencing the wonder of discovery .


The story we need to tell of science isn’t one about how it’s right. The story we need to tell about science is one about how the scientific picture of the world is more breathtaking and beautiful that one with willful gaps in it. It’s a story that speaks to the curiousity and wonder we all come into the world with, and it needs to be told to those who haven’t had it trained out of them yet, and to the ones who still have it lurking in their memory. Changing the course of a story as told by a whole society is a terribly difficult task, but it starts with a few people telling a better story, moving one or two people ever so slightly. One story is not enough to overcome the inertia of society. It would take millions of little stories of wonder to do that. But science gives us no lack of source material.



“That’s funny…”

January 4, 2011

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!,” but “That’s funny…” – Isaac Asimov.


I’m  currently reading “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense” by Michael Brooks. While in search of some airplane reading I came across this and immediately decided I would like it based on the above quote, which opened the book.

The philosophy behind the book is encapsulated in that quote, and elaborated on well in the prologue – The history of science is filled with instances of spectacularly clever people having absolutely no idea what to make of a problem, and being utterly unable to agree on a solution. This state of confusion and bitter, bitter argument amongst experts precedes what Thomas Kuhn described as a “paradigm shift,” which occurs when someone ever more spectacularly clever comes up with a solution that shifts the way science understands the world utterly.

The wonderful nature of a problem you can’t solve is something many people, both scientists and non-scientists, [Tangent: Using the phrase “lay people” in this context is something I’ve seen a lot. That seems a little “priests and their flock” to me, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that construction.] forget or ignore. In the context of the scientific/academic culture, there is a strong resistance to being wrong (and admitting it.) That in itself is far from unique to scientists, but the scientific culture supports this strongly because of the positive results bias in publishing, and because of the nature of funding. There are many incentives to protect a theory you have championed against all attacks. (Not least one’s own personal ego – more than any of the other factors, the wider culture has trained us all to try very hard not to be wrong.) Also, the media is quick to pounce on examples of scientists being “wrong” and often these articles are used to promote, implicitly or explicitly, the idea that we should not fully trust science as a method for attaining knowledge.

But the puzzle, the mystery, the unexpected question… I love it. One of my favourite moments in my own academic history (short as it is at this point) was the first instance where my research threw up a result that was exactly backwards from what I had predicted. There was fear, there was panic, and there was creative cursing that would have given Spider Jerusalem a run for his money. And then there settled upon me an entirely different emotion. A mixture of excitement and calm. Adrenaline and Purpose. And it was fantastic.

After all, isn’t that why science captured my imagination in the first place? I wanted to answer questions about how the world works. How boring would science be if it all fell the way theory expected? If it did, every scientist would move quickly from bored to unemployed. It’s when the questions come up that you really get to be a scientist, trying to explain what you have seen and figuring out how to follow up on those questions and answer them.

Suffice to say, I’m really enjoying the book at the moment, it’s celebration of the unexpected questions and the mysteries that still remain. Because mysteries are fascinating on a primal level. The goal might be complete knowledge, but the motivation? It’s the chase. It’s the thrill of unearthing the unknown. It’s the fantastic feeling that you are working to discover and understand things that no-one has yet.

And it’s a pretty good feeling to start 2011 with. Here’s to a year of getting it wrong, the unexpected questions that throws up, and the thrill of trying to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw you didn’t know you were missing.