The Dynamic and Unifying Force of Science.

The world (the United States at least) seems utterly divided and the neo-nazi rally in Charlottesville last weekend as well as other events this week has made me despair and wonder if there’s a bright future or not, and so I’m going to write a story. And it is the story of us – of humans – exploration and science. 

Science is unifying in at least one sense: it builds a consensus (of the data) picture of the natural world. It is the story of humanity, and how we all contribute to it in some way to get a better and better picture of the universe – and planet – where we live. It’s not just scientists that contribute. Truly, everyone does. Scientists may be the tip of the arrow of exploration, but they depend on citizens and context, and confirmation by others. 

Scientific/critical thinking are essential for a well functioning democracy (go see Sean Otto’s work for more on this). Science is open to anyone. It’s a verb, and a process anyone can apply, and should. It may not be a flawless tool, but it has led us to where we are now. 

Science is done by people and has all the social flaws of any human institution and humans interpreting science can use it for horrible things. But the world over, the method works and it does give us the best view into what nature is. As we explore and discover, we develop stories to tell emerging from our exploration. It takes everyone to contribute.

High Definition

Exploring, tinkering, and complexity aren’t limited to humans, of course. They seem to be interwoven into life itself. However, for us humans who are more aware, the story of us is one of revealing more and more detail about what we see in nature. And often put those discoveries to use. Though often, it isn’t readily apparent how the fruits of curiosity will be sown and grow. And so we study it all, or as much as we can given resources we have.

Let’s start here. The NASA Juno mission currently orbiting Jupiter took a series of pictures of the Jovian system in the weeks ahead of its arrival.

This incredible time lapse movie was captured over several weeks in June 2016. The big ball in the middle is Jupiter, and the four smaller spheres from inner to outer are the Galilean moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Each fascinating worlds in their own right.

The moons just seem to move of their own accord around Jupiter, an invisible force holding them in orbit around the planet. We now know this is gravity at work, but it is incredible to have a movie of massive bodies moving in space. It’s not an everyday experience. But seeing it is brought to you by science.

On August 21, 2017, another dynamic event in the solar system will take place, a total solar eclipse. The Earth’s moon blocking out the central disc of the sun for several minutes. It’s apparently an awe-inspring-plus-more experience (also read Annie Dillard’s account of a total eclipse in The Atlantic). And a regular enough one that eclipses have been important to science in all sorts of ways. There are even images and video of solar eclipses that occur on Mars, Jupiter, and other planets.

People noted eclipses early in our history. It must have all started when people in Africa, perhaps an ancestor of humankind, looked up. Whoever they were, probably caught on that the moon, stars, and sun are on a cycle as are many things in the natural world. But eclipses are weird events.

There are wet and dry seasons. Stars change seasonally. And stories started to develop around these natural cycles. Besides the moon and sun, they would have noticed some “wanderers” or planets amongst the stars. To them, these would have just been fast-moving dots in the sky.

In the 16th century Galileo was the first to see Jupiter’s moons even though he didn’t know what he was looking at. He also observed the moons over a several week period and made this now iconic series of sketches. Suddenly that wandering dot was five dots. All the people that helped train Galileo, the discussions he had, letters he wrote, the Catholic Church that cared about looking up to time holidays like Easter all made his better look at the universe possible.

Galileo’s Jovian Moon drawings. Jupiter is the big circle, the moons the small dots. Image source.

Knowledge transferred from the Greeks to The Middle East and then back to Europe made it possible. Humans leaving Africa after just hanging on made it possible. Humans went through a population bottle necks at some points where there were as few as several thousand of us on the Earth. We are all descended from that group today. Their descendants wandered out of Africa, perhaps inspired by the wandering stars.

The First Eclipse Viewers

Even further back, life on Earth has seen countless eclipses, though for much of Earth’s history, life was blind and in the oceans, unlikely to take note. Eventually, the sun directly fueled life (it has always indirectly done so). Cyanobacteria producing oxygen through photosynthesis, directly produced sugar, the base of a food chain.

New results have an idea about when more complex photosynthesizers, the algae, became important. It was after Earth became frozen over, almost completely. The scientist measured the ratio of two chemicals in cores of sediment, one a product of bacteria, the other a signature of algae and could pinpoint when algae became dominant in between two global ice ages. Ultimately, photosynthesis by green algae and cyanobacteria oxygenated Earth’s atmosphere and could support complex life. Eventually, fresh water algal descendants would colonize land. Mosses are some of the most resilient plants on the planet to this day. They may be the hardy tardigrades (aka water bears or moss piglets) of the plant kingdom. A few eventful hundreds of millions of years later, the undirected hand of evolution led to humans, Galileo being able to live to create his drawings, and the humans of NASA to build the Juno orbiter to get the high-definition version of Galileo’s sketches.

PNAS 2012 Mar 109(10) 4008-13, Fig. 3
Cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae). Important photosynthesizers in Earth’s history (& even today). Image credit: Lamiot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ()], via Wikimedia Commons
A cyanobacteria experiencing an eclipse likely sees photosynthesis slow down for a few minutes and would register a drop in temperature as well. They may start to switch to their “night” mode – where respiration happens more. Ocean dwelling creatures of the “false bottom” (a biological layer detectable by sonar that appears to be the bottom of the ocean, but isn’t) start their nightly migration upwards during eclipses. Again, something humans have discovered and learned through our exploration. Every rock overturned or peered at closely contains a universe of wonder. And it does all connect. The rocks here are made of the same stuff that Jupiter and its moons are and all formed around the same time, when the sun was born and gas coalesced into the planets. All made of the elements discovered by humans and put to use in some way.

The sun is unifying for all of the solar system. It literally holds the place together and is the source of energy that life used to transform the planet from lifeless rock to teeming biosphere.

A Unifying Story

Overlapping sphere’s of knowledge form a while picture. Every human carries part of knowledge with them. 

Scientists explore and when a discovery is made and applied, the rest of us continually test their ideas in the practical tests we put it through every day. Touching a smartphone is a validation of atomic theory, the electron, and that living things having electrical currents running through their bodies. It works.

GPS is a validation of Einstein’s relativity. Relativity was tested during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and in 1922), to see if it really did predict how light from distant stars would bend due to the sun’s mass. It passed that experimental test and has so far, passed all others. Relativity works and humans discovered it. Einstein did not work alone, as good as his contributions may have been; his peers, his physicist spouse Mileva Marić, even Isaac Newton and the spreading of Calculus by Maria Gaetana Agnesi, made it possible.

Science builds and continually asks for better and better evidence, to see if our current understanding is completely correct or not. We are always learning new things as the Juno mission hasshown. Even during this eclipse, scientists will learn new things about the sun.

Humans are curious creatures. When we started farming and living in larger and larger groups, agriculture freed up people to specialize and do other things besides hunt, gather, or grow food. That is when humanity really got going reshaping the Earth and exploring nature. This may have started even earlier than was once thought with new evidence indicating humans may have cultivated plants and lived in early cities up to 45,000 years ago.

Wonder at Renwick Gallery. Photo by Ian Street

Science has gotten us to the point that there are 7 billion humans on the Earth right now that we have to feed, clothe, and shelter. A challenge made harder if we don’t do something about climate change, a problem science has thoroughly explored and characterized.

We may not be doing a great job at achieving a sustainable modern existence. However, no one has stopped exploring and working to make the world a better place. Humans live and die as a group. Granted, our group is much larger than it once was, but here we are. Right now. One species able to explore and create better and better images of the natural world that created us. Deep mysteries remain to explore that will end up enriching all our lives. Curiosity is one of our best adaptations to life on Earth. We just don’t know ahead of time what paths will prove fruitful and which not.

Science also permits changing of one’s mind in light of evidence. It updates as new evidence emerges and is tested, re-tested, and deeply thought about.

Humans tell stories, and the natural world is a good story to tell – so rich I’ve glossed over many details in this post. It involves all of us on some level. And the picture is unifying. Critical thinking and people coming together to solve problems is unifying. Science is one of the best problem solving tools ever devised. And we owe it to ourselves to keep exploring because it’s what’s lead to our success as a species.

And that curiosity and resilience of us, and life on Earth, gives me hope.



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