Making Science

I was asked to write an introduction to some of our state’s science materials. I was supposed to craft a description of the essence of all science in one page.

Of course, that’s impossible. So I was happy to try to do it. It only took me three times as many words as I was allowed, and it took twice as long as I said it would, and each time I read it I change it — usually because of a dumb typo or something that is obviously unclear, but also because I can never get this description quite right.

So, I’ll keep working on it. Here’s what it looks like for now.

What does science look and feel like?

If you’re reading this book, either as a student or a teacher, you’re going to be digging into the “practice” of science. Probably, someone, somewhere, has made you think about this before, and so you’ve probably already had a chance to imagine the possibilities. Who do you picture doing science? What do they look like? What are they doing?

Often when we ask people to imagine this, they draw or describe people with lab coats, people with crazy hair, beakers and flasks of weird looking liquids that are bubbling and frothing. Maybe there’s an explosion. Let’s be honest: Some scientists do look like this, or they look like other stereotypes: people readied with their pocket protectors and calculators, figuring out how to launch a rocket into orbit. Or, maybe what comes to mind is a list of steps that you might have to check off for your science fair project to be judged; or, maybe a graph or data table with lots of numbers comes to mind.

So let’s start over. When you imagine graphs and tables, lab coats and calculators, is that you and what you love? If this describes you, that’s great. But if it doesn’t — and that’s probably true for many of us — then go ahead and dump that image of science. It’s useless because it isn’t you. Instead, picture yourself as a maker and doer of science. The fact is, we need scientists and citizens like you, whoever you are, because we need all of the ideas, perspectives, and creative thinkers. This includes you.

Scientists wander in the woods. They dig in the dirt and chip at rocks. They peer through microscopes. They read. They play with tubes and pipes in the aisles of a hardware store to see what kinds of sounds they can make with them. They daydream and imagine. They count and measure and predict. They stare at the rock faces in the mountains and imagine how those came to be. They dance. They draw and write and write and write some more.

Scientists — and this includes all of us who do, use, apply, or think about science — don’t fit a stereotype because no people fit stereotypes. If we really want to figure out what we all have in common, it turns out that our genetic structure looks a lot like that of a chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from chimpanzees, however, might be that we walk a little more upright, have a little less hair, and make better pizza. (For what it’s worth, chimpanzees do really well at many things we think of as “human” skills, such as communicating, fighting, taking care of one another, establishing communities, and using tools.) What really sets us apart as humans is not just that we know and do things, but that we wonder and make sense of our world. We do this in many ways, including through painting, religion, music, culture, poetry, and, maybe most especially, science. Science isn’t just a method or a collection of things we know. It’s a uniquely human practice of wondering about and creating explanations for the natural world around us. This ranges from the most fundamental building blocks of all matter to the widest expanse of space that contains it all. If you’ve ever wondered, “When did time start?” or “What is the smallest thing?” or even just “What is color?” or so many other, endless questions, you’re already thinking with a scientific mind. Of course you are; you’re human, after all.

But here is where we really have to be clear. Science isn’t just these questions and their explanations. Science is about a sense of wondering and the sense-making itself. We have to wonder and then really dig into the details of our surroundings. We have to get our hands dirty. Here’s a good example: two young scientists under the presence of the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park. We can be sure that they spent some amount of time in awe of the giant sandstone walls, but here in this photo they’re enthralled with the sand that’s just been re-washed by recent rain. There’s this giant formation of sandstone looming above these kids in the desert, and they’re happily playing in the sand. This is ridiculous. Or is it?

How did that sand get there? Where did it come from? Did the sand come from the rock or does the rock come from sand? And how would you know? How do you tell this story?

Look. There’s a puddle. How often is there a puddle in the desert? The sand is wet and fine; and it makes swirling, layered patterns on the solid stone. There are pits and pockets in the rock, like the one that these two scientists are sitting in, and the gritty sand and the cold water accumulate there. And then you might start to wonder: Does the sand fill in the hole to form more rock, or is the hole worn away because it became sand? And then you might wonder more about the giant formation in the background: It has the same colors as the sand, so has this been built up or is it being worn down? And if it’s being built up by sand, how does it all get put together; and if it’s being worn away then why does it make the patterns that we see in the rock? Why? How long? What next?

Just as there is science to be found in a puddle or a pit or a simple rock formation, there’s science in a soap bubble, in a worm, in the spin of a dancer and in the structure of a bridge. But this thing we call “science” is only there if you’re paying attention, asking questions, and imagining possibilities. You have to make the science by being the person who gathers information and evidence, who organizes and reasons with this, and who communicates it to others. Most of all, you get to wonder. Throughout all of the rest of this book and all of the rest of the science that you will ever do, wonder should be at the heart of it all. Whether you’re a student or a teacher, this wonder is what will bring the sense-making of science to life and make it your own.