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Romanticizing Science

<y be banal to bring about a reflection from the ancient days of high school, yet even our time then had some realizations. That being said, I experienced one in 2011, as our English class analyzed Robert Fulghum’s famed essay “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” His credo that contained this gem: “Be aware of wonder.

Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.” My English teacher steered the interpretation of this line as one that did not care how or why the seed grew this way, reducing the reason to irrelevance. I posited, “We do know how and why, so wouldn’t that be something to be in awe of?” (Perhaps then I should redact this now by saying just the “how” part). But after suggesting photosynthesis and whatever inkling of biology I recalled from two years before, my teacher then argued along the lines of “the scientific explanation can be boring” and that in the context of Fulghum writing about learning things in kindergarten, the growth doesn’t need to be attributed to anything. In fact, I do recall the word “magic” being tossed around.

This little observation confirmed two things for me, the first being that I identify as a romantic of science. Actually, I knew that already, but it confirmed it more. I keep thinking back on that seed in the Styrofoam cup, something so minute that was designed by nature to not remain as a seed. Biological signals of the presence of water, soil, and carbon dioxide somehow cause a chain of chemical reactions so that the seed knows when to open up, to grow roots, to grow upwards with a stem. And all of these abilities are made possible by the biochemical information encoded in the genetic material of the seed, even more minute than itself. Surely I have given a very rough idea, but as you can see, the plant simply does not come in to being “just because.”

That’s it. Wonder. I am in awe by the seed not because we don’t know how or why it grows, as my teacher then suggested. The suggestion was actually appalling, because it was for me too accepting of not knowing, something we all desire. Let’s face it: we are beings who want information and want to understand it, whether it’s knowing why the sky is blue, where babies come from, learning game theory for kicks, or your friend’s favorite movie. Wouldn’t a kindergartener want to understand how the plant decides to take roots? What processes let it grow up? Of course, the question of why it happens is another matter, but I discuss a different philosophy here, of understanding the “hows” of the universe, visible and invisible.
It is the act of discovery, firsthand or secondhand, that I am in awe, as many of us are, in knowing and understanding our surroundings. Even if you are averse to organic chemistry, molecular biology and its ilk, you have to admit that they do well in explaining everything, from why caffeine helps us pull all-nighters at Sayles, to how we make our decisions at a neurological level. The little victories of understanding are moments of awe, sparks of “So that’s how it works!” For those of us seeking a future in the natural sciences, including me, this is among the primary things that drive us, in spite of how complicated our problem sets are or how dense our subject matter is.

Which brings me to the second observation, which is ironic given how much our present industrialized, postmodern society is built upon scientific progress over the centuries. There is still a disconnect between our culture and the sciences: the appreciation of understanding our greater world is not widespread. The recent phenomenon of the cultural elevation of the “nerd,” which although has led to more social inclusion for scientific wonks among us, hasn’t really led us to enjoying poetry written about the beauty of pulsars, or how quaint mitochondrion are. (It does sound outlandish, but you know what I mean, we don’t include science in our culture, save for the occasional We Might Be Giants tune.) We have a federal government that slashes NSF and NASA funding in the name of reining in the budget, at the expense of future discovery. And no, watching “The Big Bang Theory” does not make you a person of science or a nerd. (It’s a typical comedy with nerds put in cookie-cutter amusing characters), More distressingly, there are many of us (including me at some low points) that have complained “Oh, [science class name] is hard!”

In saying this, I don’t suggest we suck it up because science is “important” – enough pundits have said enough about the supposed demand in STEM fields that I take with a grain of salt. Frankly, understanding how something works is, well, work in and of itself. I’m resuming a study of physics, the most challenging subject I ever undertook in my life – and yet I get a kick out of it. I don’t blame you if you and your course material or applications don’t see eye to eye – my problem sets and I don’t agree either for a few minutes!
Instead, I suggest this: let’s not be constrained by the words and equations and figures in order to understand and appreciate the natural sciences. These are surely quantifiable and descriptive ways of making sense of an idea, but ideas are beyond our arbitrary assignment. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, science isn’t just about names and definitions to the topics we assign. Work may be described as force applied over a distance, but what does that really look like? How does that act? Now that has an infinite (or close to infinite) number of examples: pushing a box, moving up and down…

Can we always expect to get a sense of our sciences unconstrained by definitions? Not always – class schedules are usually too tight to give enough tangible applications. And I would be remiss to not note different learning styles. But to appreciate science goes beyond knowing a hard definition of a complex equation. I think back to that little seed in the Styrofoam cup. It sure is hard to understand at some point, but in the end, the biological and chemical processes create something unique and unexpected – a plant. Why not understand it’s elegance? Go and understand your seed.

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