While in the park on Sunday, I noticed a child jump for joy as she threw a paper airplane into the air. I then remembered a profound bit of wisdom from a famous scientist. I’m not going to mention his name, but he was famous enough that my undergraduate Biology professors drove 3 cars of interested students 20 minutes to hear him speak at another college.
His talk was decent, but the most memorable part for me was the Q and A following the talk. A portion of his talk was dedicated to the importance of conveying information about the environment to the general public. Naturally, someone in the audience asked a question about how we can get children excited about science in the age of computers, smartphones and entertainment at the fingertips.
His answer boiled down to “Let the kids explore!” He said when he was a kid he would go down to the pond and catch frogs in a bucket. He didn’t just walk on a nature hike with every tree and fern pre-labeled; he just wandered around in the woods. In short, he advocated we simply need to expose kids to nature and let them run wild. I think he would have approved of this video from Nature Explore.
Looking back in my life, I can relate. When I was young I spent a decent portion of my time exploring the woods behind my house, or catching fireflies at night. What’s more, I’ve heard similar things from scientists in other fields. I have heard a Nobel Prize winning chemist speak poetically about “playing” with chemicals as a child, by consulting a large book of chemistry and performing reactions that wouldn’t blow himself up.
So why do I bring this up now?
It’s ok to be amazed by science. For people working in laboratories, listening to discoveries on the news, or even hearing politicians argue about the state of science, science itself can seem very dry. It’s as if science is something to be afraid of or something that requires constant vigilance. But there is another aspect of science. For me, science is the art of understanding how the world works, but, like any art, it is ok to step back and breathe for a second. The biologist can admire the soft glow of the GFP or the dance of a folding protein, the chemist should listen to the symphony of the bubbling chemicals or the light show of a reaction, and the field researcher can stand in awe of nature for a moment even as he or she documents it.
For those of us who do science professionally, it’s important that we remember this not just for our own sanity (to remind us why we do science), but also that this is what gets people started with science. Just as seeing a beautiful painting may inspire a child to paint, seeing a chemical reaction may inspire a child to try science on their own.
And kids can accomplish great things – they don’t have to wait until they’ve been through twenty years of school to come up with the next amazing idea. Recently Marvel Entertainment revealed the finalist of the Captain America Civil War Challenge, a contest for girls ages 15-18 to submit innovative ideas for STEM based projects. Just watching the video, I was amazed at the ideas these young women have developed. While they are high school age, you can bet that they had an existing passion for science that has developed over time, and didn’t just suddenly decide to participate in the contest on a whim.
So today, whether you are doing cutting edge research, simply making a piece of paper fly through the air, or even just watching the clouds in the sky, take a second to take a deep breath and for just a moment, let yourself be amazed.
The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t have a twitter but you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org