In the last couple of months, much has been written about the upcoming March for Science to take place here in Atlanta and around the world on April 22. And a lot has been said about what makes science great. But, in my mind, not enough has yet been said about how science makes us great.
I am the executive director of the Atlanta Science Tavern, a grassroots public science forum organized on Meetup.com with over 6,200 members. We produce and promote science-related educational events and activities in the Atlanta area.
In the time that I have led the Science Tavern, the most prized compliment that I have received has been, “your group is one of the things that makes Atlanta a great place to live.” The reason that I like hearing this so much is that it implicitly recognizes that science, like art and music and theater, is an essential part of the cultural fabric of our wonderful city.
Now, I wouldn’t for a second downplay the amazing practical benefits that science has brought us.
Vaccination, a resounding public health triumph, has saved hundreds of millions of lives and fought back the timeless scourge of commonplace childhood mortality.
The physical sciences, with their mastery of light and matter, have given us the ability to process and communicate vast quantities of information in the blink of an eye, allowing us to form a web of human connection spanning the globe.
Scientific investigation of the Earth and its precious atmosphere has made it possible for us to understand the role we play in altering our environment, providing us with guidance on what to do to safeguard the well-being of future generations.
But beyond these many marvelous useful things, science has also served to ennoble us. And it has done so by helping us to cultivate a sense of wonder about ourselves and the world around us.
How did the universe grow from a microscopic knot in space-time fourteen billion years ago into the one we now observe, brimming with dark matter and dark energy?
Did life on this planet originate, perhaps as Darwin speculated, in a warm little pond, and might we discover that it has arisen elsewhere in our solar system, perhaps beneath the surface of one of the icy moons of Jupiter or Saturn?
How did we, around two hundred thousand years ago, come to be the clever, social primate species that we are today, one capable both of acts of heart-lifting compassion and of heart-breaking cruelty?
Is it possible for us to explain how the workings of the tens of billions of neurons in the human brain give rise to our inner experience and even to the phenomenon of consciousness itself?
If you think that we can reap the practical benefits of science without the drive of pure, curiosity-driven research, think again; it is the timeless draw of these profound questions that sparked the scientific revolution four hundred years ago, and they are what continues to propel scientific advances of all types to this very day.
Looking at science in this way, namely as an integral part of our culture, helps make sense of much of what we see going on on the political scene. The same forces that are trying to undercut science also have the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in their crosshairs. Along the way, they intend to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Contrary to what our Philistine opponents believe, we do not live by bread alone – although some among them would deny even that to our schoolchildren. Our human spirit is nourished and elevated by painting and poetry, by music and dance, by theater and film, by philosophy and history, and, of course, by science.
This time around, though, it appears that we will not enjoy the opportunity to speak out as they come for each of us in turn; this time around, they are coming for us all in one fell swoop. So, as we march for science on Earth Day, we must also march for the arts and the humanities and for the libraries and the museums. We must march for all the strands in the glorious tapestry that we call culture. We must march for all these things that make us great.