The Long March for Science

Wow, it’s already been over a month past since the March for Science that happened this past Earth Day, I’ve gotten too caught up in doing science and life to get this post, or other posts out recently. Anyway here goes.

My wife Lucy and I spent Earth Day hiking on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s an awe-inspiring place, and about as good a view as you can get of Earth’s history going back over a billion years. Our (Homo sapiens) remarkably small time as a shaper of Earth History (see the Anthropocene) is reflected in some paved roads and buildings along the rim as well as 50 – 100 year old mining tunnels. It’s estimated with the GC’s continued growth – deepening and widening, all present signs of human activity will be gone within a few 10’s of thousand years, or less, as the rim continues to widen. It’s anybody’s guess whether human civilization will continue to keep pace with these changes, or fade into oblivion, consigned to an anomalous inch of sediment in the GC’s billion year long history.

The Grand Canyon from the South Rim

This was also the day of the big March for Science in Washington D.C., and many other places. I caught a little of the live broadcast streaming on the internet. There were some good speakers, and I pretty much agreed with what they said. However, I’ll admit to being a little ambivalent about a March for Science. It’s not the political aspect. As one speaker pointed out, it’s ridiculous to talk about the ‘politicalization of science’. The government funds science to learn about the natural world, be it the Higg’s Boson, Ebola, the effects of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere, or how a little old bacterium can make rust and effect the course of Earth’s history (my personal favorite). That knowledge is one of the keys to our civilization.

In theory, what scientists learn should be used to inform political debate, and then make policy decisions that accommodate both a range of human needs and the reality of the natural world as we understand it. Unfortunately, politics and politicians make a hash of this process, and then blame it on scientists, especially when the issue is at odds with preconceived notions that politicians are experts at converting to campaign funds and votes.

Still, I’m personally a little uncomfortable that it’s SCIENCE and that we are SCIENTIST’s. There a little pedestalitis going on, whether it’s intentional or not. Some of the scientists I know are named Eric, Beth, Emily, Jarrod, Jim, Barney, Nichole, Nicole, Paty, Andreas, John, Joaquin, Jose, Jessica, or Yufeng – to name just a few. Most live in regular houses, the majority would call a plumber if there was a water leak, or an electrician for a wiring problem. They might make their own firewood, or enjoy tearing apart an engine, or building an addition on their house, but they aren’t necessarily any better at it than the kid next door, or the furnace repairman down the street. Okay, so we do have a predilection for driving Subaru’s, Priuses, and station wagons, in general; so are a bit outside the mainstream there.

Maybe the point is that science just is, and there’s a lucky few of us driven by innate curiosity, and who have the stubbornness to put up with the many challenges that the natural world and the process of studying it throw in our way.  Do we deserve to march for it? When the process is threatened by lies, masquerading as alternative facts that will primly lead us to our doom? Damn Right! Do we deserve a pedestal? No more than anyone else.

Grand Canyon coda. The natural world marches on, and could care a wit what humans do. Nonetheless, we humans are the first species in Earth history that have outsized control on the direction of that march. The Grand Canyon’s a reminder that reflected against the history of the Earth, the chances are the entire passing of the human race will come down to a few inches of rock and sediment that have unique chemical signatures compared to the ones above and below them. When these chemical anomalies are dated and compared to other remnant, mostly buried artefacts, like skyscrapers, bridges, and large open pit mines, that are scattered around the Earth, this will be the fossil record of civilization’s existence. On the other hand, just maybe we’ll be like the left-behind astronaut character Matt Damon plays in the The Martian, and to survive we’ll have to ‘science the hell out of it’ (the PG version of the actual line). If we do that, and play close attention to our humanity along the way, we might just get to have a long, long existence on Earth, and beyond.  That’s a long march for science I can totally get behind.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.