Guest Commentary: Science isn’t obvious
Humans get sick because organisms, so tiny that they are invisible, infect our bodies and jump from person to person in ways that no one can see, feel or otherwise detect. Millions of years ago gigantic creatures the size of 10-story buildings walked the ground and swam in the oceans of this planet. The sun that rises in the morning is an object that is a million times larger than Earth and 93 million miles away across a void of empty space.
None of these things is obvious. All of these pieces of information, at one time, would have seemed ludicrous to a human hearing about them for the first time. Still, we wash our hands and take antibiotics. We marvel at the awesomeness of dinosaurs. We learn about the solar system and look at up-close pictures of Martian landscapes taken by probes that we sent across that empty void.
Science isn’t obvious. It can be strange, unintuitive and almost unbelievable. If science were obvious, though, then we wouldn’t need it. If we could look around and simply know that one of the fundamental components of matter is mobile, negatively charged and repels others like it, then we wouldn’t need tools to study it. But the electron, and how to harness the power of electricity for human purposes, was a great discovery exactly because it’s not obvious.
Intelligent, creative, critical-thinking humans seem to need to be reminded again and again that the universe is not obvious to us. We look out at the universe from the perspective of where we are, and the universe seems to spread out around us. The sun and moon seem to move around us. It’s natural to think that we are in the center of everything. It was only hundreds of years ago that science convinced humans that we live on a planet that orbits the sun. And even after being shown that our base assumptions could be so radically altered, we seem to need to be reminded again.
We look at the universe using the senses we have, and it seems that the universe is composed of things that we can detect with our senses. But it’s not. As much as 96 percent of the universe is energy and matter that we can’t detect. We use clocks to organize our lives and it seems that time is constant. But it’s not. Time literally and measurably travels at different rates depending on speed and gravitational sources. We can move up, down, forward, back, left, right, and through time as it passes — and maybe it is natural for us to assume that those are the only ways that things in the universe move. But instead we can check ourselves and remember that the universe is not made to be obvious to us — scientists are studying the possibilities of other dimensions.
Maybe it is natural for every new scientific discovery to seem unbelievable. For some reason, no matter how many times we have been surprised by information that doesn’t fit our worldview, the next piece surprises us, too. Whether it is small, like realizing that a neighbor has a differing perspective, or something as large as accepting that the Earth orbits the sun, humans always seem to need a push out of the comfort zone of familiarity. So in order to gain new knowledge, we use a guide that pushes us toward what isn’t obvious. We use science.
Science continuously produces information that is unintuitive, difficult to understand, and sometimes difficult to accept — because that is exactly why we use it. Science supports us as we reach past the obvious and convince ourselves of the incredible. And then, after we have enough information, it’s no longer incredible because it becomes intuitive.
It is now intuitive to carry hand sanitizer and to know that the seasons change as Earth moves around the sun. After studying the concept long enough, it can even be intuitive to consider how time passes a little faster for astronauts and satellites in space than for people on the ground. And with practice, it can be intuitive to expect that as we learn with and about science, we will be surprised by uncomfortable information. And that doesn’t mean that it’s unbelievable — it’s just hard to believe. It takes practice. And it takes remembering that if the information was easy and comfortable, we’d already know it.
It’s fine to struggle when science is unintuitive. That means that science is doing its job. It’s OK that science isn’t obvious — that’s exactly why it’s important.
Maya Hunt is the education coordinator for the Aspen Science Center.