The importance of being interested part 1
Science is awesome.
When I say awesome, I mean it in the strictest sense of the word: it inspires awe. Awe at the beauty of the natural world and the incredibly elegant process by which all this life came about (yay for evolution). Awe at the fascinating and complex chemical reactions going on inside each and every one of our trillions of cells that keep us alive. Awe at the sheer massive-ness of the universe, making us feel very small and then realising that we’re all made up of bits of a star that had the courtesy to explode and release the atoms that make everything we see around us and suddenly feeling very BIG.
Most awe-inspiring of all? All these things I’ve just talked about are connected. Connected by the same cosmic and atomic rules that make everything in the universe work. Just take a moment to really think about all of this. That’s awesome.
Look at your hand: pretty average depending on what may or may not be in it, right? Imagine you had Superman-level vision and could zoom in further and further towards your hand. If you could you would be looking at more bacteria living on there than there are people in China — well over two billion! And that’s just your hand: the rest of your body’s own cells, numbering in the trillions, is outnumbered ten to one by bacterials cells and their cells are outnumbered almost 100 to one by viruses! The first time I heard that I had to stop and just let it settle in for a bit: being a walking ship for gazillions of foreign cells is pretty crazy. Crazy awesome.
So that’s biology and just one example of the incredible, jaw-dropping things that biology can tell you and there’s so much more! There’s evolution, the most important idea in all biology, but that’s so awesome I want to save that for another post so let me just remove the next paragraph featuring insanely cute pictures of my pug and put it somewhere safe…done, you’ll just need to keep coming back for pugs.
Assuming you are the product of evolution that the rest of us humans are, you’re probably using a phone or laptop to read this. The same phone or laptop you use to take pictures of your food and put on Instagram: a chemist made that (as in the physical materials it’s made from, you’ve got designers and software engineers to thank for things like autocorrect). Well, more likely an underpaid worker in a factory in China made it but chemists certainly developed the plastics that your electronic gadgets are all made from. The shampoo that keeps your hair super-shiny and tangle-free? A chemist made that. The medicine the doctor gave you to get rid of that embarrassing rash? Yup, a chemist made that, too. Awesome.
Chemistry isn’t all lab coats, bunsen burners and weird smells, though; chemists do lots of exciting work outside the lab. Chemists are out there in the real world doing awesome stuff like taking samples from Antarctica to see how climate change is affecting the environment (which is definitely something we all need to be working towards fixing) and all kinds of other amazing things that I hope to show you in the coming weeks and months.
Let’s get back to that phone or laptop. Where does it get it’s energy from? The truth of it is far more exciting than “the plug socket”. Turn the clocks back about 13.7 billion years ago and an event more violent than the last UFC pay-per-view, the Big Bang, happened and in that moment of intense violence our universe was born. Fast forward to about 5 billion years ago and our closest star, the Sun, starts churning out some energy in the form of infrared heat and light. Give it another few million years and you’ve got the formation of our planet. Shuffle on a good few hundred million years and there are green plants using that sunlight to make food for themselves. These plants die (RIP plants) and are then buried under layers of dirt and rocks, becoming squished at ridiculously high pressures until they become either coal, oil or gas. Time ticks by and then you’ve got humans digging up all of those dead plants to burn and make electricity. That tens-of-million years old energy from Sun via dead plants then makes its way along the cable to your house, your plug socket and then into your phone. Then you take a selfie. Awesome(?).
“Physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is an attempt by an atom to understand itself.” — Michio Kaku
I think the above quote really sums up the field of physics incredibly well. Studying physics is like trying to study the basic driving forces behind everything. We’ve got pretty good ideas of how things work on a massive, universe-sized scale and how things work on an incredibly small scale but, and this is one of the weirdest things about physics: the laws of the very big don’t work for the very small and vice-versa. Awesome.
An important point here is that science isn’t really a subject or set of subjects, nor is it a belief system; science is a way of going about finding the answers to questions. And it is those questions that have pushed our progress as a species to the point we’re at today. In the short time we’ve been capable to think about and communicate those questions we’ve figured out so much amazing stuff: our planet is round and it isn’t the centre of the solar system; we share a common ancestor with every living thing on the planet; everything in existence is made up of incredibly small things and even these things (atoms) are made up of even smaller things (quarks, neutrinos, leptons, bosons…) and we’ve got some pretty solid rules for putting them in an order that makes not being blown up by a bridge made of sodium easier. With the answers to these questions we’ve colonised planets with robots; discovered the amazing power of genetics; created new materials that let us explore even more of the universe (and take really good selfies); found ways of preventing some of the most horrific diseases and the list goes on and on. Most importantly of all? Through trying to answer these questions we’ve given ourselves a set of steps for finding out the least wrong answers to everything we put our mind to. The steps we’ve created for ourselves, the scientific method, will continue to answer all of the questions we haven’t got answers for yet and get even less wrong answers for everything else.
It’s true: we don’t have all of the answers about these rules connect life, the universe and everything but that doesn’t mean the answers aren’t out there and that is awesome (and incredibly exciting).
Being constantly amazed and in awe of the natural world, the universe and everything in between is what got me into science (to be specific, dinosaurs were my gateway science) but you might be harder to impress than me and need more concrete, “this directly impacts my life” sorts of reasons as to why you should be interested in science. Click over to part two when it comes out to find out how science is both saving your life and making it better.
Want to find out more about some of the things I’ve talked about here? Below are some links to get you started:
- Microbes of the skin, from The Scientist
- All the cool things you can do as a chemist, by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute
- The Big History Project, find out more about where it all (as in the universe) all began. A really cool human perspective from different cultures is shown.
Edit: A recent study has shown that the numbers mentioned above are out. It’s more likely a one to one ratio of human to bacterial cells. That’s another awesome thing about science: (real/good) scientists are always looking to take what they know one step further and don’t get upset when they’re disproven because humanity’s knowledge on the subject has improved.
Related Past Events:
- The Science of Doctor Who
- ECR Network: Non-Academic Careers
- ECR Network September: How to Partner With Industry
- Science in the Pub with The Bad Astronomer!
- Climate: the critical decade
- The importance of being interested Part 3
- WOMADelaide 2016
- CRISPR/Cas9 – what is it really?
- Beauty is simple
- Science Meets Parliament 2016