Brewing Curiosity

Pin the Tail on the Ichthyosaur

Pin the Tail on the Ichthyosaur

Sometimes the answer is right in front of your face. That answer might come in the form of a trio of 3rd graders taking turns shaking a concoction of plaster “rocks” that you just put in a jar half filled with water before handing it to them and telling them to pretend that they are the nearby Truckee river, raging with springtime runoff after a winter of bountiful snowfall. I’ve been struggling for a couple weeks to come up with some erudite words about science and why the hell I feel compelled to join a big march advocating for it. Then Rachael and I found ourselves volunteering for a science expo in a gymnasium full of 9-year-old scientists and they don’t seem to need any convincing of its value. They’ve noticed the local rivers and have skipped rounded stones across them. After two minutes of their enthusiastic rock tumbling, my jeans and black Vans are speckled with gypsum-laced water droplets and the kids get see the results of weathering. Dumping the easily worn and polished test objects into a colander their tired arms intuitively understand the cause and effect of being a force of nature and they are happy and full of wonder about it. Too many adults are criminally blasé about these things as if cynical disinterest were superior to getting stoked about rocks. This is clearly learned behavior. Does it take any less effort to learn that cynicism? To my mind the feedback loop of questioning and seeking answers creates enough momentum to compete with the cop-out of cultured, self-absorbed ignorance.

You might say that I don’t do science. At least not fancy lab coat science in an expensive facility full of high precision equipment. I do observe. I can watch a Clark’s Nutcracker obsessively bury pine nuts and guess that saving these seeds to eat later may also help spread new trees around. A friend may point out that certain trees have unique mushrooms that pop up from the soil around their trunks and we can wonder that the fungus and the tree likely have a relationship. Mysterious nocturnal sounds give rise to the imagination of unfamiliar beasts before I settle on the likelihood of a resident screech owl.  I can hypothesize, let my imagination play with the possibilities, tease out a list of whys or why nots. Curiosity is our birthright; this habit starts in us before we are self-aware. It is undoubtedly a key component of the mental and emotional toolkit that has helped us survive and has shaped our place in the universe.

Science as we practice it today is simply a formalization of humanity’s inherent curiosity and passion for knowledge. As such it is an idea, a method that belongs to anyone who chooses to pick it up. Our alienation from science as some partitioned “other” is indicative of our alienation in general; our unfortunate prejudices of different people or ideas and our widespread inability to connect with the natural systems and the earth from which we were manifested. It is frightening to me how quickly we can give away the very talents that kept us alive in our Paleolithic days. Humans are a social animal that survives by shared efforts and shared knowledge. Ignorance of one’s surroundings is not a luxury a subsistence society could afford. Yet we willingly hand over our observational skills and abdicate our critical thinking, choosing instead a short hand of biases and superficial binary choices. There is a whole world of color and nuance we can participate in; that we can chose not to reduce to black and white.

The cumulative and collective endeavor of learning and passing along information has not simply given us better gadgets to play with and a deep list of trivia. It has continuously raised the baseline of human thought. Unfortunately our conscientiousness lags perpetually behind our cleverness. Atom bombs, global warming and online trolling are evidence of that. A better informed society is crucial and can come from having broader ownership of the basic process of science, can come from the truth that knowledge and lifelong learning are not burdens but part of the joy of being human. Currently there is a cadre of belief in our nation that happily takes the smart bombs and internal combustion, that buys and sells the baubles of a industrialized technological nightmare, that expects the best pharmaceuticals and medical techniques to cure the side effects of their bad habits, so long as they don’t have to chip in for anybody else’s welfare. However, god forbid, we learn evolution and the definition of Theory or make evidence based decisions about our society and environment or fund research that doesn’t immediately line a benefactor’s pocket.

Sometimes the answer is beer. Most of the crowd we found ourselves with last Friday night didn’t need beer to be inspired by the lecture of a German paleontologist, but the beer was a nice touch. Nevada has some rich fossil beds dating back roughly 250 million years when it was the edge of the supercontinent Pangea and was much closer to the equator. An inland sea harbored a wide variety of ancient creatures including many forms of Ichthyosaur (Fish-lizards). A local brewery has long celebrated the State Fossil, Shonisaurus, possibly the largest of the Ichthyosaurs, with a popular IPA and we were at their production facility for an event to share the discovery of a new fossil and to raise funds for further research. This crowd was clearly stoked about rocks. Of course it was swimming dinosaurs that time and pressure had turned into rocks, and there was beer, but this group didn’t need much convincing that science brings value to our lives that can’t be measured in just dollars.

South Lake Tahoe Science Expo

South Lake Tahoe Science Expo

Tim GillerComment