June 18, 2008

Discovering My Inner Scientist

I never did well in science classes. I hated biology. I don't think I ever took physics--it was for brainiacs. I'm sure I took chemistry but I have no recollection of the class beyond late nights spent struggling to memorize the periodic table of elements and wondering Why? Why? Why I was being forced to memorize something as mundane and useless as a conglomeration of letters and numbers scribbled across a creased poster taped to the puce colored wall of our classroom?

At the time I couldn't imagine anything more irrelevant to my life. If it didn't have to do with friends, dance, Adam Ant, acting, cheerleading, Duran Duran, friends, Depeche Mode, a good book, or how I was going to spend Saturday night it didn't have anything to do with me.

As a theatre major in college I managed to fill my science requirements with science-light: a geology class on earthquakes (as a California native I could relate to those) and some kind of lab (probably geology again) that I managed to slide through. As far as I could tell there were people who liked and were good at math and science and there were people who were creative. I was definitely in the second bunch.

Fast forward ten years or so to 2001. Six-year-old Jerry is home with a babysitter and I'm in my usual seat at the Mark Taper Forum, a theatre in downtown Los Angeles. As a season ticket holder I didn't always pay attention to the title of the play I'd be seeing until I sat down and opened up the program. On this particular night, as the aging audience adjusted their hearing aids (season-tickets to the theatre apparently come in a bundle with hearing aid batteries), I opened my program. It read, "QED."

QED stands for quantum electrodynamics. Ten years earlier a play with this title may have sent me screaming into the underground parking structure and back onto the crowded freeway. But, I'm happy to say that in the years between college and finding myself at the theatre that night, I had expanded my circle of "things that have to do with me." Actually, I guess  I was just more open to things outside of my circle. Because science was still out--but that was about to change. 

QED is a play about the late physicist, Richard Feynman. This line, delivered by Alan Alda as Feynman, completely changed my view of science:
"ALL of science is about trying to describe nature--whether it's biology or the known laws of physics. See, Nature is always out there, she's always doing what she does, and it's our job to try and trick her into revealing her secrets to us. It's a dance, because Nature doesn't always give up her secrets easily. You have to look closely at her; you have to experiment to really find out how she actually behaves!"
All of a sudden science started to look more, well, creative. There was an air of mystery to it. And it was about nature! I loved nature! 

So, if you're a nature-lover (and what's not to love about nature?) and you like to have a deeper understanding of the the things you love, but thought you didn't like science. Guess what!? You do! You love it! Let your inner scientist out! Then, go out and buy The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. It's funny, fascinating and easy to understand. And it covers all the basics. 

If you're still not convinced contemplate this (it's Feynman again):
"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."
I want to know something.

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