Onward to Optimism
In last week's blog, I talked about bits of Science I find challenging and how there's nothing to be ashamed of in getting stuck. We're all human and we all struggle (except for Michael Keaton who is too awesome to struggle with anything) so it's OK to ask for help when needed.
My aim in writing that piece was to encourage people to be open about their difficulties and not feel judged in admitting that sometimes they find stuff hard. It seems to have been a success and I want to say thank you to everyone who e-mailed me confessing to their own hated parts of Science. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to counteract the negativity of that essay and write something a bit more upbeat. What better way to do that, than to write about the bits of science I absolutely adore!
The challenge I faced this time was narrowing it down. There are so many things I want to talk about it wouldn't fit into one blog...so I decided to break it into several. I don't know how many parts there will (or when I'll find the time to write the rest) but I'm going to share my personal picks for the best bits of science ever. Is this going to be a tad self-indulgent? Probably. Sorry about that!
Favourite Scientist (Early) - Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday was the son of a poverty-stricken blacksmith and never got a chance to attend school. He routinely faced ridicule and scorn from wealthier echelons of 19th century English society for not being as well educated, but he was a determined investigator and a perpetual thinker who ended up having the last laugh when he invented the basis of pretty much all modern technology.
When the chemist Sir Humphry Davy (discoverer of seven elements) accidentally blasted his eyeballs apart during an experiment, Faraday was hired as his lab assistant and soon showed so much skill and intuition that Davy was prompted to declare Faraday his greatest discovery.
Faraday’s most significant contribution to Science was the theory of electromagnetism – the idea that electricity and magnetism are both facets of the same phenomenon and that we can manipulate or generate them given the right tools. The importance of this discovery is hard to over-sell. Pretty much every power station in the world runs on Faraday’s principle of inducing electrical current in a wire by spinning a nearby magnet, and almost all our communication techniques rely on controlling electromagnetic fields.
We have Faraday to thank for mains electricity, radio and television, mobile phones, wi-fi signals, infra-red remotes, X-rays, lasers and all of contemporary astronomy. For a guy who could barely do fractions, he more or less invented the modern age.
The main reason I admire him so much however, is not his profound discoveries but his personal character. Faraday believed in the work he was doing and did it purely for the good of mankind. He turned down the offer of a knighthood because he didn't believe in titles and he also refused to accept numerous financial rewards because he was not concerned with making money. He also started giving Science lectures twice a week to members of the public (free of charge) and permitted women and children to attend, because he wanted everyone to have the opportunities he had never been afforded.
Faraday believed in Science and he believed in the human capacity to understand it, no matter what a person's gender, race or age might be. As a Science teacher, I can't help but idolise the guy for that. Oh, and he invented party balloons. No, seriously, I'm not kidding. Faraday invented balloons!
Favourite Scientist (Modern) – Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was in many ways at the other end of the spectrum to Michael Faraday. While Faraday was a dignified man of honour, Feynman was a charismatic rogue who delighted in pranks and parties (although, for the record, he thoroughly disliked alcohol and drug-use). While Faraday shunned glamour, Feynman swam in it - scooping a Nobel prize for physics, enjoying the “company” of countless women, and having red carpets laid out for him at weekly lectures.
Feynman was basically the Han Solo of physics, known more for his antics than his actual Science. That's not surprising mind you, given his specialism was quantum field theory, something I can't do justice to in a single paragraph. Although now's probably a good time to shamelessly plug my book on quantum physics.
The best I can do in a few sentences is say that Feynman was the first person to make quantum physics work properly. Before him, quantum physics was a disheveled array of facts and question marks which nobody had synthesised into a single idea. Feynman was the guy who achieved that, by establishing the basic principles everything else sprang from.
The reason I admire Feynman much however, is not for his caddish personality or even for his outstanding contributions to physics. It's because of the way he approached scientific problem-solving. All too often in Science you’re fed a bunch of equations and jargon-words which don’t actually get you any deeper to understanding what's going on. It’s tempting to build on the work of others, but Feynman preferred to do things differently and insisted on working everything out from first principles until he arrived at the same conclusion.
Feynman would start with a handful of easy to understand facts and extrapolate one step at a time, never introducing a new concept without picking it to pieces. He believed that the only way you could understand a phenomenon was to ignore all assumptions and work from the ground upward. Feynman's approach to knowledge is probably best summed up with this quotation of his: “If I can’t explain it to a freshman, that means I don’t really understand it.” For Feynman, the art to being a good scientist was to simplify things, not make them more complicated. Something which is forgotten all too often.
Favourite Scientist (who was really more of a mathematician) - Emmy Noether
There's a good chance you've heard of Faraday and Feynman; they're pretty well known figures in Science history. But not many people have heard of Emmy Noether and that's a shame because she was probably one of the five smartest people of the last hundred years. Oh and if you're wondering how to say her surname, it should rhyme with "murder" with a soft d. Actually, the only word I can think of which rhymes properly is the giant flaming demon-monster from Thor: Ragnarok...so if you've seen that film, you're on the right track.
Born in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, Amalie "Emmy" Noether faced a lot of prejudice throughout her life, partly down to being Jewish and partly down to having a uterus. Naturally she was treated like dirt at University, with numerous male members of staff requesting she be expelled for the crime of...I dunno...being a woman who's good at math I guess? She had to work unpaid in her role as lecturer, and had to advertise her talks under a man's name. But, just like Faraday, Noether was able to confound her doubters by coming up with one of the most important physics theorems in history: Noether's theorem.
Again, it's pretty hard to summarise Noether's theorem in a few sentences. The general gist goes something like this however: in every law of physics there are certain things which cannot change. For example, in thermodynamics we make the assumption that energy cannot be created or destroyed. In engineering and mechanics we find that it's momentum which stays constant. In particle physics it's something called lepton number and so on. What Noether's theorem does is predict which things can and cannot change for any law of physics. Or, putting it another way, it's the foundational law of physics that everything is built on.
Although technically more of a mathematician, Noether's contribution to theoretical physics is so profound it underpins everything from why neutrinos exist to where the Higgs boson comes from. Oh and as if that wasn't enough, Noether was the woman who helped Einstein figure out the mathematics of his theories of relativity when he got stuck. Just think about that. When Einstein got stuck, he asked Noether for help. Not even Michael Keaton can claim that.
Favourite Science Author – Isaac Asimov
My two jobs are talking about Science and writing about Science. So when I’m planning a lesson or lecture or when I'm sitting down to write an essay, the man I most aspire to emulate is Isaac Asimov. In a career spanning 52 years, Asimov managed to write or edit over 500 books, getting published in 9 of the 10 Dewey Decimal non-fiction book classifications. Asimov wrote histories of the Bible, analyses of Shakespeare, books of limericks, biographies of poets and critiques of politics, not to mention a somewhat phenomenal career as a science-fiction author. For me however, his greatest talent was writing about Science for non-experts.
With his wolf-man facial hair, Asimov was a professor of Biochemistry at Boston University and wrote thousands of short articles and essays explaining Science for the general public. Although some people find his acerbic self-agrandising sense of humour a little obnoxious, I always admired him as a teacher because of his guiding principle when it came to explaining things: “Be clear”.
Asimov wrote on every scientific topic imaginable, from the validity of IQ testing to the nuances of special relativity and at all times he insisted that as long as his explanations were clear, he was succeeding. He didn’t pepper his writing with flowery prose or philosophical asides (something I am often guilty of), he just stated the facts in a logical progression. So talented was Asimov, that other Scientists would challenge him to write articles on increasingly complicated and difficult-to-explain subjects, but Asimov always won because he knew something important: if you can say it with Science words, you can say it with regular words too.
Sometimes you read his work and think, “why didn’t I think of saying it like that? Ot’s really simple,” and that is the mark of a good teacher. Someone who can make even the most complicated ideas seem obvious. Frankly, he puts most other science authors to shame, myself very much included. Obviously, I know I will never be as good a writer as him...but you've got to have something to shoot for.
I love science, let me tell you why.