‘Science’ means different things for different people.
Scientists may scoff at this statement – asserting that ‘science’ can be defined precisely and correctly, the most common definition being ‘systematic study of the world using observation and experimentation’. What does that mean in plain English? Simply that science tries to answer questions by proposing solutions that can be verified by carrying out experiments. You want to find out why your milk is smelling weird? You first come up with an answer to this question by thinking about it (maybe it smells weird because it was left outside all night?). Then you conduct an experiment to find out if this is true (you could take another glass of milk, and leave it outside for one night), and from the results of that experiment (the second glass of milk smells/does not smell weird) you conclude whether your proposed answer was correct or not. If it was true, voilà, you’ve solved the problem! If not, you go back to the drawing board, and propose another solution (maybe an assassin hired by your ex-wife sneaked in and added something to the milk?) In doing so, you have followed the scientific method, and what you have done is essentially ‘science’.
But this is not the picture the average person gets when he/she hears the word ‘science’. Science means space and atoms, bacteria and earthworms, test tubes and microscopes, acids and fumes and lab coats. Science is what is used to justify differences and settle debates when a new drug enters the market or when politicians argue about climate change. Science is a small section of the daily newspaper, a periodical your neighbor subscribes to, your child’s colorful textbook. Science is something you hear about, science is not a part of your daily life.
How did this difference in perception arise? Until the time of the technological revolution, a few centuries ago, science was the luxury of a few, not the imperative of the many. It was something that explorers, naturalists, gentlemen of fortune did in their spare time. Disciplines were loosely defined and it was not uncommon for one man to claim the mantles of physicist and biologist and engineer, all rolled into one. As the volume of human knowledge grew, science became more and more fragmented, and specialization became a necessity.
Today, anyone wishing to pursue scientific research needs to spend long years absorbing and assimilating information already present (earning a few degrees in the process), progressively focusing on narrower and narrower topics, ignoring everything not absolutely necessary to their chosen research question. Giant collaborations, which are notoriously difficult to sustain, are now required for gaining big picture views on central ideas. Competition and shrinking resources have also driven scientists farther apart. And a really unfortunate result of all these has been the distancing of non-specialists from the results of scientific research. Scientific literature has grown more and more dry and jargon-laded – I, being a scientist, still find it extremely difficult to comprehend research papers from other fields. Consider this – over a million research papers get published every year. How many do you hear about? Certain studies that are published in high-profile journals such as Nature and Science attract the notice of the press and get moderate coverage that way, while the rest join the mass of technical information in the huge databases that are journal archives, never to be read, except perhaps by other scientists doing the same research. And while they serve a useful purpose that way, it is a pity that so much of this information fails to reach public ears.
My aim with this blog is to share fascinating and relevant scientific discoveries that I come across, and to try and build a place where we can freely discuss all things science related. I will talk most frequently about biology because my academic background lies that way, but I will be looking for help along the way so that we can discuss important findings in other fields like physics and astronomy and chemistry.
Thank you so much, dear reader, for visiting my site and reading this far. I will do my best to make this journey pleasant and useful for you. Please comment below if you have any suggestions, or questions, or ideas, or even if you just want to say ‘hi’. I sincerely look forward to discussing science with you.