Serendipitous Science

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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?

References/Further Reading:

Cosmic Microwave Background

Man cured of HIV by bone-marrow transplant

Deepwater Horizon allows effects of methane release to be studied

Research Paper on the Deepwater Horizon Methane

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Discussion16 Comments

  1. avatar

    Hi Benjamin, great article, I very much agree with your take on the subject.

    I was having a conversation with my Uncle over Christmas about the current state of science teaching in schools and we both seemed to agree that science has lost its experimental edge. During his scientific education, group dissections of rats, frogs, bull’s eyes, lamb’s organs and more were commonplace. During my education, we weren’t allowed to dissect any whole animals, we had to use pig’s eyes in place of bull’s eyes for fear of BSE, and only the teacher was allowed to dissect lamb’s organs for fear we would steal them and throw them at each other during break (which was probably justified). Whilst I hesitate to take the ‘health and safety gone mad’ approach, it does seem that somewhere along the line the teaching path of science has become rigid, tied down, and less hands-on, when it’s a subject that as you say, yields impressive results when given a little more rope to play with.

    As for those that find science boring, geeky, and a turn-off; holding such opinions whilst reaping the endless benefits of modern science is pretty hypocritical. As the proverb goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    Ben Brooks
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    Thanks for the comment Henry,

    I have to confess that whilst at school I vehemently defended the UK school system but now that I’ve left and been through the mill here at university I now find myself wishing school was both more content-heavy and better organised. It’s quite something to see oneself becoming one’s own parents.

    Added to which, I’m of the opinion that the best teachers are the ones who have a real passion for their subject; sadly something often beaten out of teachers by an over-reliance on examinations and constrictive curricula.

    As to cake; most people have “had their cake and eaten it” regarding science for far too long, when was the last time the average consumer at the petrol pump really thought about where that petrol came from? I mean originally… millions upon millions of microscopic plants, many single celled, which died and fell to the sea floor, to be pressured (literally) into becoming oil over thousands, even millions of years.

    Ben

    Henry C Taylor
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    It’s also pretty impressive that with extraction, shipment to refineries, fractional distillation, purification, shipment to distributors, and even WITH the price hike, petrol is still sold for around the same price per litre as some premium bottled waters. National uproar at a 2.5% increased tax rate on petrol would be a lot more justified if science hadn’t already provided us with affordable fuel, even if it is currently at an a record high.

  2. avatar

    Really interesting article Benjamin.

    I always struggled with Science at school and I do feel that is partly down to the teaching of it, as well as the complex content. My school always put me in the highest set because I was in the highest set for everything else, so by default I was put there which was definitely wrong. Science and Maths were sort of blindly banded together and if you were capable in one that must be true of the other.

    Ever since, I have had quite an aversion to Science, finding it too baffling to really be worth exploring. It would be great to read more articles like this, from you or from Henry – it makes Science accessible for us, the ignorant masses!

  3. avatar

    Also, I heard on the grapevine that you went to Woodroffe, Benjamin? I went to Colfox. Hey neighbour.

    Benjamin Brooks
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    Hi Chloe,

    Thank you for your comment, I apologise for not responding sooner but it’s been a busy week.

    I suspect the story you tell is a fairly typical one really, when science education goes badly it scares people away from science and makes it very difficult to pick it up again. The same thing happenned with me and mathematics.

    The masses aren’t ignorant though, just think about how many people watch TV Programmes such as Horizon, Wonders of the Universe or anything involving David Attenborough!

    As to where I went to school, Woodroffe it was, though what grapevine would give you that information?!

    Ben

    Chloe
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    I say the grapevine – of course I mean facebook. It was recommended that we become friends as we have pals in common, those being some people from yonder Dorset way. Small world, eh?

    Looking forward to your next article!

    Chloe

    Benjamin Brooks
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    A small world indeed!

  4. avatar

    “As for those that find science boring, geeky, and a turn-off; holding such opinions whilst reaping the endless benefits of modern science is pretty hypocritical. As the proverb goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

    As long as some people find science interesting I can get on doing what I want to and reap the benefits as much as I want. Having cake and eating it, tastes good.

    Henry C Taylor
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    …..that depends if you enjoy the sour taste of hypocrisy.

    Dhanesh Patel
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    It isn’t hypocritical lol. Plenty of important things are boring.

    Samuel Gilonis
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    It does not make you a hypocrite to reap the benefits of science and not be a scientist or care about science any more than it makes you a hypocrite for eating Crunchies and not caring that Cadbury’s have to use a fine jet of oil to cut the sponge toffee as a blade would shatter it (although what sort of a philistine would not care about that).

    You would however be a hypocrite for reaping the benefits of science while condemning and decrying the value and importance of science. That Creationists have no problem putting their views on the internet, using mobile phones, cars, western medicine and tucking into a nice piece of beef from a cow selectively bred for size and taste over thousands of years, perfectly demonstrating the effect of selection in combination with natural mutation – does somewhat stick in the throat. And yet one fifth of the UK allegedly take this position…

    Dhanesh Patel
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    I’m no creationist but to be fair the Church used to fund scientific research when science as a discipline was in its infancy. So in a way God created science 😉

    Samuel Gilonis
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    Don’t make me laugh Dhanesh.

    Ben Brooks
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    Gentlemen;
    With all due respect for your positions on that other issue, I would ask you not to hijack this article’s thread for such a discussion, no one ever gains anything from such polarising debates and the main thrust of this article (science education and the Deepwater Horizon Methane story) will be lost in the crossfire.
    Ben

    Samuel Gilonis
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    Of course, apologies.

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