Around the nation tomorrow, there will be marches for science. Why should that be so? We might understand marches for women, or marches for a minority group, but why should scientists march? We make only 5% of the population, it’s clearly a small proportion of the workforce. I am sure I could build a compelling scholarly argument for the importance of science, but rather than go about it mechanically, I’ve decided to talk more about my relationship with science and why it’s so important to me.
Like many children I enjoyed books with different animals and learning about their characteristics. I remember watching many an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I had a book on whales that I love to read a lot, and one on dinosaurs. I remember learning about the different planets. I found the colors of the planets, the sun, so stunning. Different atmospheric compositions led to vastly different looks. I marveled at the thought of looking up at the red sky of Mars. I used to capture a variety of insects in jars. And while I would certainly not encourage such behavior from my child without proper care and the hopes of setting it free, I marveled at the structure and behavior of such creatures. When I look back on these memories, I have hard time imagining every child not being like this. Maybe it was a precursor to what I would eventually become, but there seems nothing so natural as wanting to observe the world around us and learn about it and wonder how it works. How can one not marvel at the array of colors that nature provides? How can we not wonder at the flight of some creature and the scurrying of others? How can we not be fascinated by the massive size of the blue whale, to the little aphid that seems but a speck in your hand? I am certainly not an expert in child behavior, but I have watched enough children to know what observers they are. And while they may not understand all they see, they are constantly looking. It seems to me the essence of science lies in the very heart of who we are as humans.
From at least my early elementary age, I remember being fascinated by thunderstorms. Seeing the lightning streak across the sky was nature’s fireworks and I loved every minute of it. Often peeking out the window at night, and occasionally sneak out at night so it under the ledge of our house to watch the thunderstorms. My very first introduction to meteorology was in grade 6 when we learned about different cloud types and how different cloud types could often be predictors to the type of weather that was coming your way. For some reason I found that fascinating, but I know there was also an aesthetic quality to clouds that I found beautiful. Their variety of shapes and colors depending on the position of the sun. To this day I still look up at them and they seem almost beautifully magical floating there. My first real act as an atmospheric scientist at around adolescent to early teens. I say this because my observations were recorded mentally over probably a couple of years. Thunderstorms in the prairie of Alberta are seen a long way off and I noticed that when a line of bubbling cumulonimbus clouds was on the horizon the wind was always blowing towards the clouds, yet the clouds kept getting closer. After enough observation I saw this as simply a fact, and knew when to tell my family to prepare for thunderstorms. Often adults would question me, saying “you’re wrong kid, the wind is blowing the other way”. Of course I wouldn’t learn why this was the case until university, but it gave me some pride to recognize patterns in such a way.
My mother was always good at supporting me asking questions, and even better at showing me how to find those answers. In those days it was the library. How easily today I could have looked up the answer as to why wind blows towards the thunderstorms before they come to you. Kids today really have it so much easier, but they also have to deal with a lot more misinformation than I had to deal with in a library. She taught me a lot about research and to look for answers in multiple places to make sure there was some consensus. Though she didn’t have an advanced degree, she was always one to have questions herself and research the answers before forming an opinion. Although she never said so explicitly, I think it was important more to see that our own senses are not enough to really understand how things work, and having information from other sources can help us answer our questions and make better sense about what we see.
When I look back, the ingredients it took for me to become a scientist seem rather organic. Parents who encouraged questions and were curious themselves, made science feel like it was no extra effort. School was effort at times, and I didn’t understand everything easily, but it never stopped me from finding it all quite interesting. My favorite subject in high school was actually biology. I loved learning especially about organ systems. The way the body works and maintains itself still amazes me to this day. So while there may be some combination of genetics that works in my favor, I find it hard to understand how we aren’t all scientists. Not by profession, but just by nature. I think, that regardless of my job, science would be a part of my life. It has already helped me immensely in understanding so much and answering so many questions, and knowing that there is always more to learn is rejuvenating because it means that maybe I will learn something and it will change my whole outlook. It means that what I do today, because of what I have learned, might be something that I never saw myself doing before. I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know. Beyond the impossibility of that task, I think life would go stale quickly if there wasn’t newness. Science may not bring certainty, but it does bring to the fore previously unknown possibilities and who can say that does not make life more fulfilling?
Some people think that science removes mystery from the world and thus makes it less exciting. It was in the 8th grade that I decided to become a meteorologist. I can tell you that a thunderstorm today excites me to less than it did when I was a child. In fact now, when I look at a thunderstorms I see equations and physical laws floating around like code from the Matrix. I see into the cloud and in my head see interactions between droplets and crystals that I never saw when I was a child. I understand the magnitude of the forces that meet to produce this wonder of nature, and I feel the weight and power of it, in a way I never could have as a child. It is like the difference between falling in love with someone, and the deep intimacy and friendship that you develop after you’ve known that someone for many years. It is love with depth, it brings a lasting feeling of happiness and well being.
Somewhere a child has nowhere to turn for answers to the questions they have. Somewhere a child is told not to ask questions, or is simply told what their parents say is the truth of things, and that questions are dangerous. Somewhere parents have decided that their girl shouldn’t be educated, or that science is not for girls. Somewhere a teacher doesn’t understand science themselves and thus kills the joy of curiosity and learning in their students. Somewhere a group of politicians have decided that memorization-based exams are the important metrics to determine funding. Somewhere a television show is making scientists seem irrelevant and worthy of ridicule for finding excitement in discovery. Somewhere a journalist is completely misrepresenting a scientist’s findings. Somewhere a government is denying the findings of scientists to help rich people make more money.
These things make me sad. I see no reasons why we can’t be a society that is constantly asking questions. We have a tool for answering those questions that we know is reliable. It is so pervasive now that we don’t even recognize all the ways it shapes our lives. If we supported that scientist in all of us, the one who first makes their appearance at the earliest of ages, the power and value of this tool would be immense. It helps us ethically and morally. It helps us fight oppression and inequality. Science is the only thing that has no politics, no religion, no race or culture. It truly is for everyone, and in everyone.
I see the March for Science as not just a political statement. It is about showing the value for curiosity, for education, for discovery, and for wonder that we seem to be losing. Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn. One where opinion is as valid as fact. One where there is no consequence for lying. I don’t blame Trump for this alone, he may be the penultimate in this dangerous attitude, but it has been bleeding into our society for some time. The March for Science is a march for progress. A march that shows we care about our fellow human, and that we value science as a means to reduce suffering in the world.
I say all this, not because I am a scientist and I worry about my job. I say this because it is my lived experience. I say this because we all intrinsically know that change is the only truth in this universe, and that time makes a fool of the arrogant who think they have nothing more to learn. I say this because history is full of the darkness that follows when we rest our futures on superstition and falsehoods. Finally, I say this because I do think there is significant evidence that human-induced climate change is the scientific issue of our time, and threatens our very existence. It challenges us like no other issue, because it cannot be solved by one nation. It cannot be “felt” on a day to day basis. It is the essence of science because it takes us beyond the narrow field of view that we each individually possess and asks to widen the lens and reach out into space and time, and think big. If we cannot do that, the story of humanity becomes a tragedy. I, for one, refuse to let it be, because I know we can do better.