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Why Smithsonian’s Environmental Staff Like Science

Science is our attempt to figure out the inner workings of a very messy world

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The Global Change Research Wetland at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (credit: SERC)

Visitors to the Smithsonian museums that circle the National Mall may be surprised to learn that there’s so much more to the institution. Tucked away behind exhibits and nestled in buildings far from downtown D.C. are scientists studying everything from dinosaurs to the materials used in Khmer stone sculptures. Out on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland you’ll find the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), which focuses on ecosystem science, including research into climate change, fisheries, forest ecology, invasive species and water pollution. Of course they like science there—that’s what they do. And when I started the Why I Like Science series, several people at SERC wanted to tell you why they do what they do:

Kristen Minogue, science writer and media relations coordinator

Growing up I saw science primarily as a reason to get dirty. Yes, I loved learning about the shapes of different tree leaves, the life cycles of stars and the superfast formation of obsidian in a volcanic eruption. But for a well brought-up girl in a Midwest suburb, science gave me something I couldn’t find anywhere else: an excuse to get soaked, muddy, grass-stained or all of the above without having to explain myself to anyone.

It meant I would gladly tramp through the snow every night for a month for a seventh-grade astronomy project. I would study speleology at a three-week college prep camp because students who majored in cave science returned with their clothes covered in mud, which were later displayed in a fashion show for the rest of the student body. I would forsake college parties to spend weekends clambering up rocks in the Mojave Desert. I could torment my mother’s—and later my school’s—washing machines while remaining a productive member of society.

That’s one of the reasons the myth of the academic scientist in the ivory tower has always puzzled me. Scientists have some of the dirtiest jobs I know. Whether they’re taking ice cores in the Arctic, wading through polluted marsh waters of the Chesapeake or scrambling over mangrove roots in Belize, they’re not afraid to go to the wildest, filthiest, most remote corners of the planet. Granted, the scientists I’ve met tend to have nobler motives than my 12-year-old self. There are questions to answer and mysteries to solve. But the scientists know that the secrets of the universe are often in the mud.

Textbook science is generally neat, crisp and well-ordered. Picture the perfectly circular outline of Earth’s layers or the straight fault diagrams in a middle-school Earth science book. Nature doesn’t always obey the rules of textbook science. Because, the truth is, we don’t know what all the rules are yet. Science is our attempt to figure out the inner workings of a very messy world. And often, the only way to do it is to get messy ourselves.

Maria Tzortziou, ocean and atmospheric scientist, University of Maryland, and SERC Research Associate

I love science because it allows us to discover and understand the world around us and inside us; the Earth and the universe and beyond; human physiology, psychology and behavior; life, ecosystems and biodiversity; stars and matter and energy. It allows us to find the answers to “what”, “why” and “how”. Ask new questions and move forward. As Stevie Wonder said (“Superstition”):

When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer.

In a unique way, science fights against the fear of the unknown and allows us to apply our understanding of the past and present to predict and (if only we dare) improve our future.

Karen McDonald, outreach coordinator

I like science because it’s a dialogue between myself and the Great Unknown. I ask a question and know that the answers are already provided, but I have to go humbly into nature as a student to discover them. Science is that part of life that is a mystery, and every time I learn something new the world grows just a little bit larger. As a science educator I enjoy sharing the unraveling of science and nature because I see children and adults whose disconnect from nature, and themselves, becomes connected and they appreciate some insignificant thing they passed over before. They find meaning in something once meaningless, and suddenly we’re all connected. Maybe that connection is from the beauty of the scales of a butterflies wings, the diatoms on a grain of sand or the amazing world of an earthworm’s den, but each bit uncovered, and discovered, and shared brings meaning and it’s what makes science amazing.

Angela Boysen, fall intern in the nutritional ecology lab under Olav Oftedal

Every piece of technology you use. Every car, every bike, every television and every aspirin. Every allergy pill, every glass of milk and every light switch. Every roller coaster, every camera and every contact lens. They are each a reason to love science. Every “why”, every “so what” and every “how come” is a reason to love science. There are thousands of reasons to love science. But out of all the reasons, the reason that I love science is because it can bring out the best in people.

Question. Hypothesize. Observe and experiment. Analyze. Conclude. Question.

This is the essence of the scientific method, a method which emphasizes and even necessitates curiosity and an open mind. These are qualities that I hope lie at the core of every person. Qualities that, nurtured, can lead to improvements in ourselves and our world. A questioning nature and an openness to unexpected ideas or results have often lead to scientific and technological breakthroughs. These same qualities, however, also can lead to greater tolerance and compassion.

So though it is enough to love science because it brings us a greater understanding of the world around us or because it allows us to improve our quality of life, I also love science because I think it improves us as curious, questioning, open and innovative people.

If you’d like to participate in our Why I Like Science series, send a 200- to 500-word essay to WhyILikeScience@gmail.com; I’ll publish the best entries in future posts on Surprising Science.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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