When I was a little girl, I visited a cavernous museum hall full of bones. Lined up as if on parade were all my prehistoric favorites, the menacing allosaurus, the spike-tailed stegosaurus and the massive brontosaurus gleaming in the light. I was fascinated. I wanted to know what the dinosaurs sounded like, how they smelled, what they looked like—all these things that I didn’t know but I desperately wanted to. And in that moment of wonder, I started a long relationship with science.
Science can have more than one definition. To some, science is a network of institutions, experts, techniques and protocols—what we might think of as the machinery of science. This definition of science can be complicated. It’s easy to confuse the results and infrastructure of science with science as a curiosity-driven process, and this complication is what sometimes leads people to use the results of science to harm others. This is why we have historians of science, to remind us that science is done by people within the context of their time, place and identity.
But when I think of science, I think of what science means as an idea. That there is a natural reality that we can observe and interact with, and by asking questions—over and over—we can start to piece together a deeper understanding of our world and our universe. That’s at the core of science, that it’s a process focused on what we can test and verify, building upon itself as we learn more.
Consider the fate of one of those dinosaurs that so impressed my younger self, brontosaurus. The dinosaur was named in the 19th century, recognized as being the same as apatosaurus at the beginning of the 20th century, and had a dual life being popularized to the public even as paleontologists abandoned the name. The discovery of an apatosaurus skull in the 1970s helped to bring the dinosaur back into focus again, although some recent work has hinted that brontosaurus might be a valid dinosaur after all. The whole saga highlights how science works—that experts found a skeleton, reanalyzed it and have gone back over and over again to double and triple-check their expectations about this animal, learning a little more each time. Making mistakes, in a sense, is built into science and is expected because part of the process is comparing what we thought we knew to what we have only just realized. I think that’s beautiful.
Naturally, science needs a spark. We didn’t have to invent science. But there is so much to wonder about, so much that piques our curiosity about the world. That curiosity is the spark that drives science, that gives our inquiries the starting energy they require. In my favored discipline of paleontology, that can be as simple as stumbling across a fossil bone in the field or opening a museum drawer to say, “Hm, that’s funny…” We start with what we think we know and what catches our attention. Science helps us navigate through the rest, constantly self-correcting to get us closer and closer to what we hope to understand.
Science doesn’t require a lab coat, a microscope or even a supercollider to participate in. It’s an idea that’s accessible to anyone, a process by which we observe, test and learn something new. In fact, much of what’s formally thought of as science in terms of institutions and publications relies on the inspiration and insight of community scientists. Science is a process that can change how we think and how we react to the world around us. It’s so simple an idea, but so incredibly powerful.
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Beth MitchellSenior manager of external communications, Natural History Museum of Utah
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