Why is ‘science’ valuable?

Posted on 2012/02/09

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Feature Image - Why Is Science Valuable?

[This is a short speech I presented to a group of around 300 students aged between 11 and 15 to mark ‘National Science Week’ (sometime in March 2011, I forget exactly when).]

Hello. If you haven’t met me yet, my name is James Sheils and I teach in the physics department. I have been informed that this week is ‘national science and engineering week’.

If you’re someone like me, every week is science week so that’s no big news. Anyway, because it is apparently ‘science week’, someone from the science department was invited to mark the occasion with something interesting to say.

As I haven’t been give much time to speak about this – especially if I’m to talk about ‘science’, and not just physics – I have, unusually, prepared the words in advance.

I’ll address a basic question – ‘why learn science?’ Don’t worry – I’m not going to start talking about jobs or anything like that. I mean, why do we humans do science? Why is ‘science’ valuable? What’s is it for?

Of course, to answer all this, we first need to ask ‘what is science?’

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One fun way to try to figure out what a word means is to imagine aliens coming to visit us from another planet. When they arrive, they watch us do things and talk to each other, and they try to learn what we’re up to.

After a short time, perhaps they’ll pick up some basic English and understand a few of our movements.

What do you suppose they’ll think ‘science’ means?

I think they might at first guess that ‘science’ was some sort of person.

I’ve reached this conclusion because if you read newspapers articles and watch television shows about ‘science’, most people say things like, ‘Science tells us that…’, or, ‘we know from Science that…’

Whoever this Science guy is, he seems pretty smart! Or maybe they’ll think Science is some big supercomputer, or a god that answers all our questions.

I think it would take them quite a while to find someone who doesn’t speak about ‘Science’ in this way.

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Okay, imagine they’ve figure out ‘science’ isn’t a person.

What else might ‘science’ mean?

If its not a person, maybe its an object. Is ‘science’ all our technology – the tools and inventions that make our lives easier, longer, healthier and more enjoyable?

When people die we sometimes inherit their stuff. You or your family might have some favourite possessions that were ‘passed down’ to you in this way. ‘Heir looms’, they are often called.

Well, some ‘heir looms’ get passed down to all of us – the whole of humanity inherits the technology of its ancestors.

For example, when an American man called Benjamin Franklin died, he passed down the invention of a lightning rod. Ever since he invented it, buildings can be protected from catching on fire from a lightning strike.

Here’s another example (I have to be fair to science that isn’t physics!). Who’s had a vaccination injection at the school recently? The English biologist Edward Jenner invented those, and it means we can avoid dying from some diseases.

More common examples are all around you: a car, a bed, a piano. These were all built by many groups of people, and we inherit the information for how to build these things. We benefit from this extra control over the world.

Of course, this technology (these new abilities) sometimes can do great harm. We can harm each other directly (weapons, bombs) and we can harm each other indirectly by damaging the environment.

Our ability to invent and use tools also gives us an ability to misuse them.

So, in one sense, we can use science.

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‘Alright,’ the aliens say, ‘ but don’t people say they know science as well?’

So, maybe science is all the facts that scientists say they have found out about the universe.

Mars has two moons, for example. There are around 10,000 different species of bird. Helium can make your voice sound higher in pitch.

These facts and all the other ones are inherited as well, just like the technology. They are written in books and put in web-pages for other people to read.

These facts are all very interesting things to learn about, but that’s not all there is to knowing science (although most schools often make it seem that way).

All this technology and extra new facts that scientists are constantly discovering and inventing can make the world a very confusing place. How can each of us understand what’s going on in our lives.

Well, if you just go about the world trying to remember as many facts as possible, you’ll find one of two things will start to happen.

Either you’ll get very confused and need to sit down for a while, or you’ll start to see patterns.

Seeing patterns is part of doing science. I think it is in this sense that ‘science’ is a very valuable word.

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These patterns can be as simple as ‘if you let go of an object, it always falls to the ground.’ Or it could be more complicated, such as ‘objects always speed up as they fall to the ground by 10 meters per second every second.’

If the patterns get more complicated, we need to start writing them down with symbols and sorting them out with mathematics. You might define mathematics as the logical sorting of patterns.

Notice that these patterns aren’t ‘facts’ like knowing about the two moons of Mars is a fact.

That’s the reason the patterns are so valuable. They are predictions – they say that all objects fall all the time (when released near the surface of the Earth, at least).

The patterns (or theories) are guesses. I must stress to you, that when we come up with these patterns, they are guesses. Nobody know how we do this, how we guess our theories.

Now, we can’t possily ‘know’ these patterns in the same way we know Mars has two moons. We haven’t seen all the objects. We haven’t seen them fall all the time either. These patterns are really just guesses.

How do we find out if the guesses are true? We can’t. We simply can’t do it – we only see a few things happen, and we guess it happens that way all the time! Even if we see it happen a few more times – or a million times – that still isn’t all the time.

‘What’s the point of making guesses if you can’t see if they’re true?’ you might ask.

Here’s the key ingredient. It so different from everything you’ve ever learnt in school that I need to stress to you how important this idea is:

We do experiments to see if the patterns are wrong.

Scientists ask questions about nature, guess the answers and let nature tell us which of our answer are wrong.

In the falling objects example, this is easy – someone just has to give you a helium balloon for you to know that, in some way, the idea ‘objects always fall to the Earth’ is wrong. Maybe you got ‘objects’ wrong and need to think about that some more. Also, maybe ‘fall’ is wrong two, since we’ve learnt the Earth is spherical. Should we say ‘falls towards the centre of the Earth’ instead?

So, we’ve got new problems and will try to think up a new pattern that incorporates the new information.

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Why try to come up with a new pattern? Couldn’t we just have two patterns, one for balloons and one for all other objects?

We could do that, but once again, after we do enough science, these patterns start to pile up and we can’t help but see patterns in the patterns.

It is from these patterns that we seek out new facts. Technology can be built from new patterns we have just invented. We can do new experiments with the new technology. And from it, we can discover a new strange fact, and have to start over again with a new pattern!

So it goes around with technology, experiments and guessing patterns.

That’s science. It’s a process. It’s not remembering particular things, but thinking in a certain way.

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For those of us who don’t work as scientist, the most beneficial aspects of ‘science’ seem to be all the great technology we can use. Although we mostly take it all for granted.

Then, there’s the ‘facts’ that we can remember. What use are they? Well, people do seem very interested in these things and will swap strange facts with each other. You probably know someone who says stuff like, ‘did you know that box jellyfish has 24 eyes?’ Interesting, but is that useful? What are you going to do with that information!?

I don’t want you to stop being interested in these things, but recommend you focus more attention on the guessing patterns and testing part of ‘science’. This way, you can learn how to figure things out for yourselves.

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Let me end by telling you a story about what happens to me when I go to parties. I know you probably don’t think any of us teachers get invited to parties, but just go along with it for now.

As you may know, adults like to start conversations with people they’ve just met by asking what they do for a job. When someone asks me this, I say – predictably – “I teach physics”.

The most common reply is, “I hated physics when I was at school.” [Presumably, this means they also still hate physics now.] You might sympathize with this particular point of view!

My reply is that if you hate physics, it’s not the universe’s fault. Perhaps you had a bad teacher (so it would be your teacher’s fault). Or you weren’t giving it enough time or concentration (then it would be your fault).

But it’s never nature’s fault.

The world is there for us to figure out, and if we try we can better ourselves. Humanity has never run out of things to be interested in, because there is always something we don’t know, or a problem we need to solve.

That’s why we do science, and why living never needs to be boring.

Thank you.