Confessions Of A Science Catcher-Upper
Upon having kids that grew to ask basic questions about the world I was embarrassed to realize that I had few answers. Why is the sky blue? Why is grass green? Colors and things. Big questions in ten words or less, always demanding clarification and detail. This endless stream of inquiry, to be in the presence of such limitless curiosity, is thrilling as a parent. For a science ignoramus such as I was then it was quietly humiliating and, eventually, transformative. It was a similar feeling to the one that led me to learn to cook after I slapped a murky grey plate of ghastliness in front of my bemused then-girlfriend-now-wife and we tossed it and went out for chimichangas. Mortification, once it passes, can be an effective change agent.
I started simple, reading around my daughter’s questions at first, following link to link in pursuit of a clear answer. I’d start on Wikipedia, usually give up due to the complexity of the material, then end up reading a lot of kids science websites because they had better diagrams and assumed a blushingly low level of preexisting knowledge. After a few months I was like a kid raised candyless let loose in a chocolate shop. Thank heavens for the web, for YouTube and Twitter, for the brilliant science bloggers and journalists and all of the public science advocates. I realized science education is everywhere on the web, on all social media, covering all branches of science and, even better, the scientists THEMSELVES are blogging about their own work. I hadn’t noticed due to an intentional blindness. I used to read nothing but novels but I quickly gave up reading fiction and read the books I’d passed by any number of time in libraries and stores, usually about biology, often about evolution. The past five years has without a doubt been the most intellectually thrilling time of my life so far. I devoured Stephen Jay Gould’s essays. I buzzed as I finally began to grasp natural selection after reading The Beak Of The Finch. Darwin became a hero not because of his observational brilliance but because of his uncertainty, his patience, his humility. I literally began to look at things differently, bending down with a 10x lens to look at mosses in the woods or peering up to view the patterns of lichens on trees. I sat and watched crow behavior and slowed down when I drove by ravens. I began to notice grasses as a set of multiple species and not just overgrown turf. I saw in the professional practice of science a way around the lazy sloppiness of my thinking by which I’d began to felt so burdened but had passively refused to modify. I realized what was all around me, what was underfoot. My goodness, I realized, THERE WAS LITERALLY NO LIVING THING THAT WAS NOT IN SOME WAY AMAZING.
And what I learned! Photosynthesis! Proton pumps! Olfaction! Protein folding! Quorum sensing?! And the endlessly goddamn thrilling tale of natural selection! Every single thing made the world brighter! And it was so clear how very little I knew and it was AMAZING to realize it.
And, so, bobbing happily along on a current of endless Things I Need To Know, I stated reading science research papers. This was a jump. A big ‘un. The vocabulary was daunting, particularly when the study went molecular, or got its chemistry or mathematics on. I once started reading a biology paper about ‘green odor’, the intense mix of volatile organic compounds that are emitted after mechanical injury to the plant and make the smell we know as cut grass. I hit this in sentence two: cis-3-hexen-1-ol. Hmm. Organic chemistry nomenclature not my strong point, I went to the web. I know it wasn’t my strong point because I didn’t know what an organic chemical was.
I just blushed then. I really did.
Two hours later, somewhat bleary eyed, I returned to the article itself with a simple working knowledge of what the cis meant (an isomer!), the 3 (position of the double bond!) and the 1 (position of hydroxyl group on the alcohol!) and the ol (it’s an alcohol!). I left realizing once more what a teeny tiny smidge of knowledge about the natural world, but I’m okay with that. And it was a really cool article, another reminder of the gorgeous complexity of things unseen that scientists have made it their job to untangle. Even if I did have to jump back into the web several times with a range of different green odor chemicals. I only got through it due to a range of useful online tutorials on nomenclature written by lovely chemists and teachers from around the world who wanted to share their knowledge because they thought it was a good thing to do. And bless them. Really. Without them and the entire public science community, journalist or researcher or blogger or YouTuber, I would know even less than what little I do, or at least be drowning in expensive textbooks. My slow attempt to make up for my own ignorance is propped up entirely by their continuing awesomeness.
In fact, the reason I feel I can begin to navigate any paper at all is because of a blog post written by Dr. Jennifer Raff, a molecular anthropologist who once wrote a gift of a post titled How To Read and Understand a Scientific Paper: A Guide For Non-Scientists on her blog Violent Metaphors. This literally changed the way I read science, or rather allowed me to begin reading science. Skip the abstract, grasp the questions, read the methods (that’s the meat of the paper) and understand every word. ALL OF THEM. Look ‘em up if you don’t know. Consider the results against the methods against the questions and see how they interpret them in their discussions. Now I do spend a lot of time playing Hunt The Vocab or drowning in statistics and so fail to understand what I’m trying to grasp. But that’s okay, because I can get through a lot of what I try to read, and I know where to go to find answers.
So, I‘m on the way. I love botany, love attempting to understand molecular biology, love reading about ingenious adaptations. I follow public science people on Twitter, catch their blogs on my feed (Scientific American blog network & Ed Yong & Moss & on and on), watch science on YouTube (loving Emily Graslie and SciShow and Periodic Videos right now) read what papers I can get my hands on and am deeply skeptical of science I catch on the news. And I tell my kids why the sky is blue, why leaves are green, and that science is hard work and method and insight and patience. I also tell them it’s how I experience beauty, because while I’m looking and reading and thinking about the natural world, just for a moment, I see how things work.