Carl Sagan and Leonardo Da Vinci

Science or Bust!

For an artist, I’ve been thinking a lot about science lately. Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch, as Leonardo da Vinci and Carl Sagan showed us, the two often go hand in hand.  However, they are also fundamentally different.  Art is subjective.  Science is not.

I’ll start with art.  H.G Wells put it nicely:  “Beauty is in the heart of the beholder.”  Powerful in its simplicity, and a concept to which we can probably all relate.  For instance, have you ever come across a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music and stopped in your tracks?  It may reach into your soul and grab for the air in your lungs. Or have you ever walked out of a movie theater with your head spinning as you wonder how in the world this filmmaker knew to make a movie about your life?  Maybe there’s a tear or two involved, it was just that great.

So you decide to share it.  However, you soon find out that your mom, friend, coworker…whomever….well they just don’t see the big deal. That’s art for you. Subjective.

Science is different. Very different.

Like art, science starts with a quandary, a burning desire to figure something out.  However, it ends with a long line of experiments, analyses, comparisons and, ultimately, peer reviews.  Science is…objective. Painfully so.

Pursuit of Light (NASA/2012) One of my favorite projects combining art and science.

The scientific method is one of humanity’s greatest developments.  It’s up there with fire and the wheel.  It’s allowed us to figure out how things work, and where we are in the universe.  Thanks to science, we know that the earth is spherical and 4.6 billion years old, and the universe is about 13.8 billion years old. We also know that lead is poisonous to humans and micro-organisms spoil food (which also happens to be poisonous to humans). We know that we share 98.8 % of our DNA with chimpanzees, and that mutations of the BRCA1 gene can cause breast cancer in humans.

From medicine and farming, to food and water storage, to transportation and exploration:  science is discovery.  And since knowledge itself can’t be held in your hand, it’s good to know that science is usually what leads to the invention of new technology which will simply make life better. Inventions such as PVC pipe, water treatment, antibiotics, vaccines, toilets, refrigerators…iPhones.

Oh…and there’s mathematics. Let’s not forget about math, after all it is the language of understanding.

As defined by Merriam-Webster:

Science is knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.

That’s the what. The scientific method is how.

My earliest exposure  to the scientific method was probably summed up by my teacher like so:  Make an observation and ask a question – or state the problem.  It certainly helps to research what’s available so far – maybe you’ll find your answer, but in the very least you’ll definitely find the best place to start your next step:  the hypothesis.  In other words, based on your observations and research, what do you think the answer to be? Now, come up with a way of testing your hypothesis. Carefully design the experiment, and make sure that it can be observed and tested multiple times. Now that you have a big pile of data to deal with, analyze, analyze, analyze.  Test again.  Observe.  Analyze. Draw a conclusion. Publish – or at least turn in your report on time.

Scientific Method
Scientific Method Chart by Scholastic – Go ahead, get one for your wall!

This is science.  It’s a rigorous process, a search for truth which many times spans decades or even centuries.  Every scientist builds upon those that have come before.  This is what makes it such a powerful way of understanding our world. It’s not what you or I think, and it’s certainly not what we believe.  It is simply…what is. This is not to say that science never makes a mistake, or has room to grow.  As a matter of fact, that’s its beauty: if someone says “this is so” and has no proof, the burden is on them to find it.  Whether they do or do not, the process itself is never a waste, something will be revealed. In turn, that something will need to be further explored.  Science is an endless series of observations, questions, hypotheses, experiments and analyses, and only then do we arrive at a solid, provable position. And then we are ready to ask the next question.

The latest development in understanding the dynamics of Greenland's ice sheet. Credit: NASA

Consider some of the more burning questions of our day:  how to combat hunger or heart disease; how to deal with the cancer epidemic; how to power the developing globe; what is happening to our climate?   One thing is sure:  science is at the forefront, and will continue to forge a path to the answers.  By accepting these answers, we accept science.  Just as results cannot be cherry-picked by an ethical scientist, answers cannot be cherry-picked by an honest seeker of knowledge.  To accept science at all is to accept all science. Can science be wielded in an unethical manner,  its lofty expectations dragged through the mud by greed and politics?  Most certainly.  Can science be implemented for an evil cause as well as good? Of course – consider the devastating WWII German V-2 rocket as it relates to the Apollo missions’ epic launch vehicle, the Saturn V.

Yet, as a whole, science is a stronghold of knowledge and truth, and its method should be considered independently from the implications of its findings.  Science does not have an opinion.   To deny science would be to deny all that it has taught us so far, and in turn, all benefit that we’ve derived from it as a species.

Personally,  I’m not up for dropping my iPhone in the outhouse, unplugging my fridge and re-inventing the wheel.  That’s a “no” for you too?  Then you won’t want to miss the latest from the World Science Festival, where you’ll get a dose of reality that will no doubt make your cup of knowledge overflow! And a truly spectacular mix of art and science can be seen on TV in COSMOS : A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey - Trailer - Credit: FOX

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