I read two science stories last night.
One was about BBC journalists frantically racing down Mount Etna, scalding rocks from an eruption at their heels. I was astounded. “Didn’t they know it was going to erupt?” I thought.
As the caption in the above picture explains, something called a phreatic explosion was responsible for yesterday’s surprising attack of nature. From the BBC article, it sounds as though it wasn’t the lava flow of this very active volcano that took people by surprise, but its interaction with the thick snow cover. Did the magma sublime the snow to steam so fast as to cause an explosion? That’s my reasoning based on reading this one article.
It certainly will lead me to think twice before touring a volcano at some date in the future. I have always wanted to, and this will not deter me, but will likely lead me to study volcanoes in more detail and research the competence of the guides, etc, on whatever volcano I choose to explore.
The next story I found via slashdot had the following headline: “Astronomers Just Found a Star Orbiting A Black Hole at 1 Percent the Speed of Light”. I’m no astrophysicist, but I teach 9th grade high school physics from time to time. I don’t know enough to completely understand the story, but here, I was actually most struck by the comments. (I know, I know, never read the comments). They ranged from disinterest to ignorant to hateful. I’m still puzzled over how this hardcore physical science headline conjured so much emotion. These negative comments were to the tune of, “Science research like this is a waste of time because my life isn’t impacted by this discovery.” I was discouraged by this myopia. First, I think, our lives could be impacted by this more than we can know, and second, are we in the business of only caring about things that impact us directly?
Hopefully these comments were by a few trolls and don’t represent more than a blip. But my takeaway is that I would like to beef up my own knowledge base of the many discoveries in science that seemed irrelevant or impractical at the time and went on to have huge impacts, and push myself to step outside of my daily concerns and interests to appreciate the ideas and concepts on my periphery. To read a poem to simply appreciate it. To take out an old-fashioned dictionary and find a random word and learn it. To try and understand an article about a star orbiting a blackhole. I wonder, is research on phreatic eruptions more important, more relevant than research on blackholes? Is the act of couching it in those terms limiting?
I guess this makes me also think about how much of science is actually art. Things rarely proceed in a practical step 1, step 2 manner with no circuitous meanderings, no backtracking, no drawing from philosophy or language or geography. For example, the chemist Friedrich Kekule was inspired by an image of a snake seizing its own tail when he proposed the structure for the chemical benzene. What if he had dismissed all thoughts of non-chemical things as nonsense and irrelevant?
I want to have a well-crafted answer the next time I hear someone ask why we should care about something that doesn’t seem to alter our day-to-day existence, when that someone is not merely an internet troll in the Comments.