Do you ever think of science as being exciting, arresting and awe-inspiring? Or do you see it as boring, geeky and a complete and utter turn-off?
Science is taught in the UK’s schools as a linear progression from natural phenomena to theory by way of research, thought, hypothesis and experiment. This is true in so far as this is a suitably simple explanation of the scientific method for someone approaching their GCSE’s or A-levels, but this doesn’t capture everything that happens in the scientific realm. I would argue that this simplified linear model may go some way to explaining why higher education displays such an unfortunate “Arts vs Sciences” dichotomy; after all how many potential science students are put off by the rigid application of this linear progression model?
Science is an exploration of the universe in which we live, and to paraphrase from religious philosophy; there are many paths to understanding this universe. One of the most interesting and fascinating paths is perhaps the accidental nature of many historic breakthroughs.
For example, Archimedes discovered his eponymous principle of buoyancy whilst taking a bath. Newton is said to have thought up Gravity one afternoon after seeing an apple fall from a tree. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background while testing a new kind of radio telescope in 1964. German doctors announced in November that a man had been (apparently) cured of the HIV-1 virus that cause AIDS by a bone-marrow transplant.
Now it seems even the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may have provided a boon for climate scientists. Whilst the politicians and the mainstream media were busy fighting over who to blame for the incident; researchers studying the possible effect of methane release from clathrates (methane or other gasses trapped inside a molecular matrix of ice) were able to get a first hand look at what would happen in the event of a large scale release because approximately 30% of the gas erupting from the oil well was methane. It turns out almost all of the gas was taken up (or scavenged) by bacteria in the ocean, with very little of it reaching surface waters where it would be released from the atmosphere.
Whilst this work doesn’t necessarily mean we are safe from the worst of anthropogenic global warming, it is just another piece of the puzzle.
Once again serendipity breeds a scientific breakthrough; perhaps teaching some of these events may bring the wonder and fascination back to the science classroom?