Science is fun. But why does it matter? And, more specifically, why does it matter to you? Since you’re reading this, we know you’re probably interested in clinical research on human illnesses and conditions, which means you get why science matters to people looking to be, or get, healthier; but what about science as a theory, or — even better — as a driver of human empowerment?
Electricity: Powering Human Advancement
As I said above, you appear to be reading this, so you have either a computer, or a smartphone, or a tablet, maybe all three. Learning how to harness electricity has made the world a small blue ball, transforming it from a vast territory where it took days to get a one-sentence message from one end of a city to another into a global village where you can get an entire book from Denver to Delhi in microseconds. From the first recognition of static electricity (Thales of Miletus in sixth century B.C. Greece) through Einstein’s theory of relativity, to Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the internet, electricity has powered — pun fully intended — much of human advancement.
Electricity is definitely on my “why science matters to you” list, and I put it at No. 1 on that list. The world as we know it today — air travel, television, refrigeration, global communication, Amazon Prime same-day delivery! — is only possible thanks to humans harnessing electricity.
Plastic: A Bad Rap But Doing Much Good
Despite the fact that it’s long been a punchline word, plastic makes this list, too. In a classic scene in the classic 1967 flick, “The Graduate,” a young man just out of college (Dustin Hoffman, in his first major film role) is told by a friend of his father’s, as career advice, “I have one word for you: plastics.” Plastic has a bad rap because it’s been so successful at replacing other materials in consumer markets — as a result, discarded plastic bags and water bottles are now ever-widening trash piles in the Earth’s oceans.
However, plastic is also used in life-saving things like bulletproof vests (hello, Kevlar!) and food preservation, as well as in medical applications like syringes and IV tubing. Imagine having to use metal or glass for IV tubing — suddenly you’re more appreciative of plastic, right? If you’d like to take a deep, geeky dive into the science and history of plastic, read more about it in the Royal Society of London’s Biological Science journal (you’re welcome!).
Plastic, for all its bad press, makes modern life more accessible by making products — like phones, computers, cars, airplanes, medical devices, and more — cheaper, lighter, and faster to produce.
Agriculture: The First Human Science
Agriculture is the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil, for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food. You might not think of farming as particularly scientific, but au contraire, mon frère — agriculture was the first human science. Agriculture started the first time one of our Cro-Magnon ancestors pulled a leaf off a tree, or pulled up a blade of grass, ate it…and didn’t die. That told everyone in that ancestor’s family group that [whatever that foliage was] was safe to eat. Then, somebody figured out fire about 1 million years ago, and the next thing you know, everybody wanted to cook dinner instead of just tearing strips off the antelope that their buddy brought down with a branch carved into a spear. Humans started hunting about 2 million years ago, so that’s about a million years of antelope carpaccio.
I don’t know about you, but a million years of raw meat might get boring. I also like some salad with my protein, along with either some bread, or a nice baked potato. All of those — the salad (remember the grass above?), the bread (take grass seed, dry it out, grind it, mix it with water, apply fire), and the potato (find interesting roots, eat them, don’t die: success!) — are possible because of agriculture. Finding edible things, then figuring out how to grow them in bulk, is how humans gathered into communities. In the words of food writer and TV personality Alton Brown, “Everything in food is science. The only subjective part is when you eat it.” Agriculture + fire = Iron Chef!
Medicine: The Importance of Science and Clinical Research
You knew I’d get here eventually, right? Medicine is the science that people have the most direct, in-person experience of, usually in the form of a visit to a nurse or a doctor to get medical care. That interaction with medical professionals happens everywhere around the world, every day; the care that’s delivered by those medical professionals is deeply rooted in science.
Some of that science was established centuries ago, some of it was only discovered in the last few years. This is the role of clinical research, that “find out new things for better human health” thing. Modern medicine dawned when Edward Jenner proved that immunization worked by inoculating James Phipps against smallpox by injecting him with cowpox.
The first clinical trial was when Royal Navy surgeon James Lind looked for ways to end scurvy. The scourge of sailors on long sea voyages, Lind said, “scurvy caused more deaths in the British fleets than French and Spanish arms.” Lind did a randomized trial on twelve Navy men with scurvy, and discovered that adding citrus to one group’s diet ended the disease in those seamen. Since the 18th century, we’ve defeated polio, gotten a handle on HIV, reduced influenza pandemics, and started to unlock the genetic code that drives cancer mutations. I’m alive because of modern medicine. So it gets to be the Big Finish on this list.
Static Is for Electricity, Not for Science
Science is an evolving discipline, one that can deliver certainty and also raise new questions. We know that water boils at 100º Celsius. We don’t (yet) know how to regrow myelin sheathing on nerves (the breakdown of the myelin sheath causes multiple sclerosis and is also a factor in Guillain-Barré syndrome and several genetic disorders). We know how to use nuclear fission to build an atom bomb. We do not (yet) know what to use to switch off BRCA mutations and stop certain breast and ovarian cancers before they start. That’s why clinical research is happening around the world, every day, looking for answers. It’s critical that we continue to teach science in schools, starting in kindergarten. It’s also critically important that we, as a society and as a species, support the work that looks for the answers to human illnesses. Our lives literally depend on it.
That’s why we’re here. Spread the word — science matters. To all of us.