Thursday, November 13, 2008

For Science!

When I was a child, if an adult asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would always say "A scientist". I don't really know where I got this idea from except that from an early age, I was very interested in the natural world. When I was five or six I had a large book called Our World, which explained all about plate tectonics and volcanoes and the water cycle and how rocks turn into sand, and I read it again and again until it almost fell to bits.

Later I had other science books, some of which were Christmas presents from my uncle, who had been a research scientist for a while. And I enjoyed Chemistry and Physics at school, though not Biology, since I was much too squeamish even to watch videos of dissections (it having been declared unhygienic for the younger classes to do real dissections. Which was just as well for me).

I did well in Chemistry in particular, and was on the school's science quiz team, and up until I was fourteen or fifteen I still thought I might maybe do Chemistry at university. Unfortunately, the ability to remember a lot of vaguely science-related facts, and to take pleasure in doing classroom experiments, don't actually make one suited to do proper science. By the stage that Chemistry became all about doing calculations and working out formulae, I realised that I didn't have either the mathematical aptitude or the dedication to do the duller bits.

I'm still interested, though. Throughout my years studying English and French literature at university, I continued to read popular science and science-based magazines, and a few years ago my parents got me a subscription to the New Scientist. I still read it every week. My friends and family have probably learned to dread my saying "Yes, I saw something about that in New Scientist recently..." on diverse occasions. It arrives on Thursdays, hence this post.

Maybe I've spent many hours reading New Scientist that could more profitably have been spent reading the Journal of the Society of Archivists. Or Tolstoy. Or learning Japanese. I don't really have any conviction that the things I learn will have much practical application in my life; my knowledge will never get beyond "interested layperson", and it's not an interest I can really trot out to any but my nearest and dearest, who, as I've said, are used to me banging on about genetically modified food and new kinds of laptop batteries. Some of the articles I have to read twice before I can work out what's going on, let alone understand them. (These are usually the ones on maths or quantum physics. I was never under the illusion that I'd make a physicist.)

But on the other hand, I do feel that it has given me an intellectual toolbox which sometimes comes in useful. I'm not a scientist, but I can work towards some understanding of what science is supposed to be about, and what it's for (and it isn't generally what we read about in headlines). I can read an article about climate change and know what the background is. I can read an exercise programme on a website and decide whether it's worth trying on the basis of what I already know.

I feel, too, that it makes me a more complete person. I won't make any world-shattering discoveries, but I've found out a lot of interesting stuff. And I have a shot at answering some of the science-type questions on University Challenge. Though not the ones involving much physics or maths.


Tanya Brown said...

I think this is wonderful. Having interests outside one's primary discipline makes life richer, I think. If everyone was as well informed, the world would be much better off.

On a silly note, my former co-workers and I used to refer to the publication as "Nude Scientist", and speculate who we might find as the centerfold impaled by staples.

Rosemary Grace said...

Your subscription inspired this scientist to subscribe also, and rediscover why I *am* a scientist after all...this stuff is COOL. I am attempting to reduce the daily dose of squeam in my life, Epidemiologists don't have to do dissections.

Loth said...

Does this mean when I get the "Why is the sky blue?" questions from the kids, I can send them round to you?

K said...

Tanya - I think they should at least get to keep their lab coats on...

RG - it IS cool. I don't entirely understand why everyone doesn't think so.

Loth - OK, here goes. It's because Earth's atmosphere causes the rays of white light from the sun to scatter, and absorbs most of the wavelengths of light which produce colours other than blue, so that what we see is predominantly blue.

The effect varies depending on the angle at which the sun hits the atmosphere, which is why at sunrise and sunset (when the light is coming diagonally rather than straight down) the sky appears redder.

OK, I know that wasn't quite what you meant. Mum used to send me to Grandpa when I asked questions like this. He wouldn't always know what the answer was, but he'd come up with something that sounded convincing! I may possibly have inherited this tendency...