“Welcome to Science!”
When people think of science, they think of huge laboratories and specialized instruments. They think of the mad scientist screaming “FOR SCIENCE!” at the top of his lungs as he unveils yet another doom machine. They think of complex equations and science jargon, unintelligible to the uninitiated. They think it as a practical, wonder-less, boring enterprise for a special set of people with special skills.
The scientist to them is an introverted individual, more familiar with math and jargon than actual conversation. He spends his time in his lab or in his study, devoid of wonder, accepting only the cold hard facts that are the basis of his profession. A calculating individual more at home, alone in the lab than elsewhere with other people.
With this kind of perception bordering on animosity, Is it a wonder then why students in the Philippines perform very poorly in Science and Math? Ask any ordinary elementary or high school student what they think of science and more often than not you’ll here something negative. Ask them to list their subjects by how much they like them and you’d often find Science and Math at the bottom. If you ask them what they want to do when they grow up, they’ll say doctor or teacher or nurse or engineer but you’d very rarely hear scientist as an answer.
This is all very troubling in that it all stems in a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of what Science is and who can do it. However that also provides us with the remedy to it.
Science is often seen as boring and without wonder, often contrasted with the imaginative worlds of literature and art, because that’s how it is treated in the classrooms all over the country. Memorize facts, names of scientists, processes, molecules etc. then, come exam time, to retrieve and write that information down. Mechanical, repetitive, boring. It’s the products of science without appreciating the process or inculcating any of the values. It misrepresents Science as merely another means to an end. The end being to make our lives easier. Though Science does that, it’s not, oftentimes, the reason we do Science. As Richard Feynman puts it, “Science is a lot like sex, it has practical applications but that’s not why we do it.” Behind every scientist is a kid playing detective with the mysteries of the universe.
Absent in the Science class is the eternal curiosity and childlike wonder that is at the heart of every scientist. It is that permanent burning question, the search for answers and what Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out” that makes Science a fulfilling endeavor. It’s what makes the tedium of the scientific process, days and nights spent slaving in laboratories, wrestling with highly complex math problems and going through mountains of, all worthwhile.
The main values of science are anchored on a firm duty to truth. Assertions remain as assertions unless they are verifiable by facts and can withstand inquiry. There are no free passes, all laws and theories first underwent the trial by fire that is the scientific process and even when accepted as fact, remains open to questioning. In science, we slay our heroes. This does not however take anything from the wonder, the amazement. In fact it multiplies it tenfold. I find it much more enchanting to think of what Neil Degrasse-Tyson deemed “the most astounding fact” that we are not only descended from the Earth but actually we can trace our very origin to long dead stars who went supernova just for their molecules to form our ancestors and ultimately us. indeed as he further exclaimed “We are the Universe, and the Universe is within Us”. I find that fact more stimulating than any origin myth. “We are Starstuff” as Carl Sagan put it. Himself so enthused by wonder and gifted with verve and eloquence that recordings of his “Cosmos” series continue to spread love and interest in science to this day.
Scientists are often misconstrued as unimaginative, or uncreative or at the very least unable to appreciate the arts in the same way as other people do. One could only agree with that fact if he/she does not consider the vast amount of time scientists spend in their imagined universes. Einstein became famous for his thought experiments while Nikola Tesla was rumored to build entire machines in his head before actually building them. A good portion of a scientist’s time is spent daydreaming. Every concept, every law, every theory was at one time an unverified idea. The unlocking of further facts does not weaken this but only stimulates it to grow further and take on new shapes and forms. One can point to the relationship of sci-fi and real science and how what was once considered merely fiction being realized as reality. Science does not prevent us from dreaming and oftentimes “fact is weirder than fiction”.
There is nothing that unlocks as much wonder, opening up as much excitement and mystery as science. It is the unending adventure, the unanswerable question.
“Welcome to Science! You’ll like it here” – Phil Plait