Science matters (a.k.a. “It’s NOT a damn duck!”)

I come by my nerd credentials honestly. I was probably born with a pocket protector and a near-sighted squint. Meteorology was my first love and I can remember, quite vividly, the excitement I felt before every hurricane, the thrill of a thunderstorm, the sound and the smell of rain bucketing down the side of the house while my mother ran around unplugging every electrical gadget in the house, periodically reminding me to keep my feet off the floor lest I be inadvertently electrocuted by the thunder gods.

When I was old enough to multiply, my father taught me to count the seconds between the lightning stroke and the thunder, and then multiply by seven. I was told that was the measure of the distance, in miles, between our house and the storm (which was probably not precisely true, but it did teach me that the lapse between a lightning strike and the ensuing thunder was a measure of how close you’d come to being incinerated). I learned to identify the types of clouds. I set up a really lame ass weather station in my back yard. I taught myself latitude and longitude via hurricane tracking charts. When I was about eight, lightning hit my grandmother’s stove which I thought was pretty damn cool, although to be fair, I didn’t like my grandmother very much and appeal of the event went a little beyond the thralls of scientific inquiry.

So yeah – nerd to the core. Nerd fer life, yo.

Or at least until I got to school. In the early sixties, you see, female nerds were culled from male nerds with surgical precision. Some girls figured that out and went on to do some amazing science. Some, but not many. I was not one of them. Being an only child who entertained herself, of necessity, a lot, I was a voracious reader and came to school equipped with a vocabulary that virtually ensured childhood pariah status. This equated to a career as a spinster English teacher, at least in the minds of my own teachers. Or at most, a librarian.

And I bought the goods.

I’ll admit I secretly aspired to be a writer, but that wasn’t until much later. The upshot of this educational trajectory was that I wound up majoring in English Lit. Boy did I fuck up.

It turns out that, at fifty-seven, I have found, much to my dismay, that I am a science junkie. I can’t get enough of it. When Neil deGrasse Tyson says he became apoplectic in the movie theater when they depicted the night sky “all wrong” in the film the Titanic, I can relate. “The sky is wrong!” he yells. “The sky is wrong!” I’ve been known to do the same thing is less august circles. “That’s not a duck,” I will admonish some poor, unsuspecting grandparent who has just misinformed his grand-spawn regarding the identity of a water bird. This is a very polite, pre-frontal cortex, sanitized-for-your-protection version of what I’m screaming in less civilized parts of my brain. What I really want to say is, “Show some respect for nature, damn it. If you don’t know what it is, look it up. Have you ever seen a damn duck spear a fish on its bill? I think not. And don’t insult your grandchild’s intelligence by simply spewing the first thing that pops into your old and addled brain. Darwin, sir, would not approve.”

Seem a bit over the top? Perhaps, but consider this. Naming is a sign of respect. If your name was Tom and every time I ran into you, I called you Joe, you may be a bit offended that I didn’t care enough to even remember who you are. It would be acceptable to say, “I apologize. I have a very poor memory for names. Can you please remind me of yours?” It would not be acceptable to just simply brush it off or make some shit up every time I ran into you. Worse yet, it would be completely wrong of me to introduce you to my friends and family as “Joe.” So how is it that we can expect our children to grow up with a respect for nature if we don’t care enough to understand it ourselves?

The environment is being devoured by human carelessness. We don’t care enough to stop paving over every square inch of habitable land with concrete. We don’t care enough to stop dumping garbage in our rivers and oceans. We don’t care enough to stop poisoning our food supply. And the non-human world is suffering – not just dying, which would be bad enough, but suffering prior to dying, and that is an intolerable situation. It’s only a matter of time, for those who need additional motivation, before some bacteria or virus that we’ve not bothered to learn about vomits on our own “parade of progress.”

I am not speaking here, of something cooked up by some terrorist organization or in the lab of some secret military project. I’m talking about ordinary mutations that occur in nature all the freakin’ time. For example, take the flu virus. According to Johns Hopkins “Vaccine strains must be chosen nine to 10 months before the influenza season, and sometimes mutations occur in the circulating strains of viruses between the time vaccine strains are chosen and the next influenza season. These mutations sometimes reduce the ability of the vaccine-induced antibody to inhibit the newly mutated virus, thereby reducing vaccine effectiveness.” This is just the tip of the ice burg. There are rapidly mutating rabies viruses, strains of hepatitis and retroviruses that show equally robust adaptive behaviors.

Now when – not “if” – some viral pandemic occurs, a very large percentage of our population (and I can only speak for the United States) will react as follows:

  1. First we will brush it off as a “few isolated cases.”
  2. Then we will panic.
  3. The media will alternately run clips from hysterical parents pulling their kids out of school and sobering commentary from scientific commentators (not actual scientists, mind you, but just some guys in suits who look good on television).
  4. Then we will all wait for the government to solve the problem so we can get on with shopping and shit.
  5. Then, as the body count starts to roll in, the Westboro Baptist Church will blame it on gay marriage.
  6. Some other bloody fools will believe that the virus is a conspiracy concocted specifically to thin the herd.
  7. One obscure talking head will erroneously report that scientists believe the virus is spread by dogs.
  8. The media will give the virus some catchy name, such as, perhaps, the “Canine Apocalypse Flu.”
  9. Wholesale slaughter of household pets will ensue.
  10. Meanwhile, real scientists will find out that the real vector is an ear of contaminated corn from some state fair in bumfuck Iowa, but no one will listen and both the purging of household pets and gay-bashing will continue unabated.
  11. Politicians will enact impotent legislation that makes them look re-electable.
  12. People will die by the millions not knowing the real name of the thing that killed them. They will not know its etiology or understand its vector. They will die not understanding, even at a high level, what happened or why. Such a virus should be called the “Scientific Illiteracy Virus” but humans would rather blame the gods or some poor unsuspecting non-human animal than blame themselves.
  13. In the aftermath, there will be much political posturing and pointing of fingers, provided there is anyone left to do it.

So what does this all have to do with my thwarted childhood obsession with science and some poor schmuck who can’t tell a duck from not-a-duck?

First, it speaks to how we raise our kids. Do we encourage them to explore the natural world? Do we invite them to pick up a handful of sand and a handful of clay and note how they are different? Do we encourage their curiosity further by helping them to discover what is different about sand and clay? Do we even ask ourselves how one became fine and grainy and the other thick and viscous? Do we identify them as different in our own minds or do we just dismiss them both as “dirt?”

Second, are we content with our own ignorance? Are we comfortable continuing to get our understanding from media talking heads who may or may not be right? Does it bother us when our peers repeat everything they heard on the pseudo-news as if it were gospel? Or are we O.K. with that? Because if we are, I would suggest that we, as a species, have outlived our usefulness.

I truly do not care if you believe in evolution or intelligent design. I do not even care whether you believe in global warming. What I do care about, is whether or not you are curious enough to test your beliefs. And if you feel you do not have enough of a background in science to take on the Big Questions, take on the little ones. Even nineteenth century farmers could tell good soil from bad, simply from the way it looked, felt and smelled. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to explore your own back yard or to encourage your kids to do the same.

What you do need, instead, is respect – respect for the land, for the eco-system, and for the myriad forms of life that are trying to share a planet with us. And respect comes from understanding, and understanding comes from science.

And that, boys and girls, is why science matters.

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Insatiable curiosity

Where to begin?

In the middle, perhaps. Skip the intro, skip the formalities and plunge into the deep end where the wild things live. In this case, that means my brain, an untidy collection of unlabeled boxes that may contain just about anything. Half the time I don’t even know what’s in ’em which means I am endlessly confounded by the contents. My brain is like the perennial Trickster god of folklore, leading me down one path until I am just starting to feel like I know where I’m going and then pushing me off the edge of a – surprise! – waterfall. I picture it peering thoughtfully over the edge as I go rocketing down into the abyss and musing, “I hope to hell she can swim.”

You see I am insatiably curious. Not in the normal sort of hmmmm-that’s-interesting sort of way, but in the “holy-shit-tell-me-more-right-now” sort of way – a way that sometimes causes even my closest friends to begin frantically pulling things out of my medicine chest and begin muttering something about locating my psych meds.

Curiosity is an aphrodesiac to me. It’s the drug I give my mind after work. It’s a structure-free, self-organizing storm of pure synaptic pleasure that leads me down Google-lane riffing effortlessly from music to ethology, from neuroscience to religion. It takes me to all the “Keep Out” places when I am hiking. It neatly bypasses my childhood “Don’t touch that” programming. It mercilessly plows through social norms and concerns of future consequences. It’s almost like a Tourette’s tic, which incidentally gives me the additional perverse pleasure of knowing that the “You may also like” section of any given website is totally screwed when it comes to applying arcane algorithms to produce my personalized ad offerings.

And speaking of tics, (or in this case, ticks), today I am celebrating insatiable curiosity with a shout-out to Tony Goldberg. Whether  or not Tony goes down in the annals of history as a renowned scientist is a subject for the trained professionals who give out science prizes. For the moment at least, he shall have to settle for the meager satisfaction of winning the Debut Blog Post Insatiable Curiosity award.

Tony is a patho-biologist who wrote a piece for The Guardian entitled, “Experience: I discovered a new species up my nose” which landed up on my facebook wall today. A National Geographic blogger wrote about this incident in October, so apparently the information has been out there for awhile and doubtlessly passed around like a communion plate, but nonetheless it was new to me.

Two things fascinated me about the article.

First, there is the discovery of a new species of critter that has evolved specifically to burrow beyond the reaches of even those most dedicated nose-picker or social groomer. This, alone, is one of those things that makes me say “Well played, Mother Nature. Well Played.”

Second, there is the intrepid scientist, Tony Goldberg, resisting the temptation to run screaming from  the house, pawing at his face and yelling, “Get it out! Get it out!” Put yourself in his shoes – I mean really, really visualize it – and tell me that you would have the presence of mind to gather the proper equipment for a delicate DIY tick extraction, then drop the little bugger (forgive the corny play on words) into a Ziploc, mail it off for DNA analysis and then, after receiving the results (“Eureka! A new species!”), publicly thank the tick for inserting itself into your nasal cavity. Insatiable curiosity trumping inherent fear. That, my friends, is a noteworthy achievement.

I hope you will all take the time to read the article and give the man some mad-ass props in his comments section because it is an interesting piece and worth the read, if only to use as inspiration for your own scientific inquiries.

For the inquiring mind, there are 899 species of ticks worldwide according to Purdue University. Certainly enough material to keep a budding entomologist or epidemiologist busy for a lifetime. And for you homeschoolers, particularly if you live in a rural area or like to hike, share the Purdue page with your kids. It does contain information regarding the proper way to remove a tick (practical application)  as well as interesting information about its life cycle (science lesson material).

Question of the day: Why do you think nose-picking is considered such a gross violation of social norms, scoring as high on the scale of repugnant habits as. . .oh, say. . .farting in a crowded elevator? It seems logical that one would be more unacceptable than the other, however we humanoids have viscerally lumped them both together. I wonder why that is so.