science as “fun”

by Adam Johnston

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked a lot about how I got to where I am in my career, and in particular why I pursued science. I’ve taken advantage of those moments as a way to amass a variety of answers. It’s funny, though, because the question gets asked in lots of different ways. There’s “why are you a scientist?” and “how did you become a scientist?” and “what inspired you to go into science?” These are all different questions, and they all have different answers. I wish I could answer even one of them.

When I was on the radio a couple weeks ago (yes, I enjoy saying that) I was asked about the personal appeal for science. I talked about it being “fun.” Later, I tried to clarify this a bit. You could call it fun, or whimsy, or curiosity, or intrigue — any of these things and many others would do, even though none of them are adequate. It’s as adequate and satisfying as saying “love feels good”. When I said “fun” I didn’t mean it in the playing video games kind of fun. I meant fun like improvising on the piano and hiking a mountain, maybe at the same time. I meant “fun” like the part of me that feels a little more humble and a little more aware than other primates. I meant “fun” in the way you say it when you realize it isn’t adequate, but at the same time you have an awareness of the inadequacy of a word, the inadequacy of your own understanding of something that’s bigger than you, but the desire to get it right, to get it figured out.

In short, I meant “fun” in the sense that it is a part of what makes me human. It’s what inspires me and justifies to me the act of bringing science to children. They should own science like they own their own humanity. On that same radio show, the other discussant talked about science being about “power”. That bothered me at the time, and it still pricks me. Not to be antagonistic, but I think it’s completely the opposite. Yes, I know that he probably meant “power” in an intellectual way. To understand something is to feel a control and awareness of your place within nature. But even that I don’t think I really buy. I understand a little more about the space within me and without me, and I’m humbled. I’m shocked that we have capacity for this stuff, the understandings, and the consciousness of what we’re doing in science. We pick up pebbles, turn them over, one by one. None of the pebbles say anything in particular, but together, the pebbles and us and the rest of it, we make something out of it. That isn’t power; it’s sublimity.

There are plenty of moments, days, and weeks that I wander around wondering if I really am a scientist.  I think I am. Sometimes I joke that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t get a job, although I’m not always sure whether or not I’m joking. There are days I’m fairly certain that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t make it as a rock star.  Or maybe I’m not a rock star because I had the opportunity to be a scientist. That was a gift I didn’t know I’d been given until much later.

I remember wanting to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer (or a scientist) is. And then I remember a switch that flipped during a physics class taught by Herschel Snodgrass.  (Yes, that really was his name.)  He did the demo where the ball launched, aimed directly up, from a moving cart, and yet it still landed in the cart, jumping over a miniature bridge in the process.  I can’t say for sure that this was the moment exactly that I became a scientist, but it’s one that I refer to.  That demo, maybe more than anything, flipped the switch and cleared up the distinction between being a scientist and an engineer.  The engineer would be building that bridge in the demo and be satisfied with it in its stability and structure.  The scientist gets to wonder things like, “What rule determines the motion of that ball?”  “What is inertia and from where does it come?” and “Holy Jesus!?!”  And we stew in that.  

I still do that demo for most every class I teach, and I tell them about that moment and the switch, and I tell them that, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen and a little bit about why and how it connects to so many other rules, it still gets me, sticks a pin in some sensitive inside part of me that loves, is in love, with that beauty.  Not the beauty of an angel or a rainbow or a unicorn, but the simple up and down of that ball that keeps perfect pace with the cart.  How did the ball know how to do that without the ability to know anything? I still don’t know. I still see that ball, up, over, down, back in the cart… I still wonder. I’m in awe. And that, I suppose, is what I meant when I said it was “fun”.

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