Science Matters

The Institution decides to focus on four basic questions

Right from the start, the Smithsonian gave pride of place to science. The Institution's third secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley, put our first astronomical observatory, which he described as a "one-story building, or rather shed," on prime real estate, next to the Castle. Today its heir, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), has six facilities on three continents and several out in the cosmos. Directly across from the Castle, another of the Smithsonian's early research centers, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), is dedicated not only to disciplines such as biology and geology but also to anthropology and archaeology. Given these historical beginnings, it is especially fitting that the Institution, in accordance with a newly created strategic plan for science, has decided to concentrate its resources over the next five years on addressing four questions, as crucial and engaging to the general public as they are to scientists. They are: What is the nature and origin of the universe? How was the Earth formed and how has life on our planet evolved? How did early humans develop and how did they adapt to the wrenching environmental, cultural and other changes that challenged them? How can we best sustain the Earth's fragile biological diversity for future generations?

Langley, who pioneered astrophysics, the cutting-edge field in which SAO excels today, would no doubt be thrilled to see the stunning images—which are helping to answer the first of these questions—sent to us by the Chandra X-ray telescope. Built by NASA and SAO, Chandra recently sent pictures of Jupiter's poles, where auroras, luminous phenomena such as Earth's aurora borealis, appear like supersized electrical storms. The voltages associated with these auroras, however, are about a hundred times more powerful than the most potent lightning bolt on Earth. By studying Jupiter's auroras, Chandra helps astronomers to fathom magnetic fields, which are important throughout the universe.

Langley would also surely recognize how the scientific enterprise has changed dramatically in the past 100 years. Science at the beginning of the 21st century is a far more specialized—and vastly more expensive—pursuit than it was in the 19th, or for that matter, the 20th century. It was in light of these realities that the Smithsonian recently drafted its plan, "Science Matters: Priorities and Strategies," which was completed only after nine months of careful deliberation by a group of 83 scientists, museum professionals and the Institution's leadership. Building on the Smithsonian's many strengths—its record of advances and its unrivaled collections of specimens—the plan will serve as a broad and ambitious map to guide scientific exploration at the Smithsonian, and beyond.

Whether Smithsonian scientists study mosquito-borne illnesses, early human fossils, the lush treetop canopies of tropical cloud forests or distant galaxies of massive stars, their work often takes them far from the Mall. And it involves them with many other organizations. For example, in the Mars rover project, scientists studying earth and planetary science at the National Air and Space Museum worked with geologists and other specialists from NMNH's Department of Mineral Sciences. Together, they helped maneuver the hardy rovers over the red planet's forbiddingly rocky terrain, deciding not only where to land them but where to gather samples and to go next.

Meanwhile, at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, life scientists have had the rare opportunity to study a complex environment containing a number of unique ecosystems. By taking a regular census of the flora and fauna there, scientists will better determine how the environment changes over time.

The Smithsonian has come a long way from Langley's little observatory by the Castle. But Institution science, as our new plan reminds us, still reaches for the stars—and helps us understand our place among them.

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