Science is a story that explains the world

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Why do you love science? That's what Smithsonian editor Sarah Zielinski asked me a few weeks ago, when she was putting together a series of essays for Smithsonian Magazine's Surprising Science blog. Answering her question actually made me realize how intertwined my love of science is with my love of storytelling.

Photo via jpeepz

Here's what I said:

It started with monsters and ended with taxonomies. When I was a kid, my parents took me to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, where reeking ponds of bubbling tar had mired unwary mammoths, perfectly preserving their bones. You could walk right up to a chain link fence and gawk at the still-simmering tar, where museum curators had set up a tableau of a woolly mammoth family trying to rescue one of its members, who was slowly sinking into oblivion. I loved the giant bones you could see in the museum nearby and became a fierce dinosaur enthusiast, learning the names of all the mega-monsters who had come before the mammoths. I built a model of a stegosaurus and put it next to my bed.

In elementary school, I came to understand that any program or book labeled "science" would turn out to be awesome. I devoured books about biology, anthropology, outer space and evolution. I spent a lot of time pondering the poster in my school library showing the evolutionary stages between Australopithicus and Homo sapiens. I liked how scientists took the messiness of the world and organized it into classifications, categories and comprehensible chunks. At the same time, science opened up a yawning chasm of the unknown inside ordinary objects. A wooden table wasn't just a piece of furniture–it was a blob of swarming atoms, constantly decaying and changing.

Even when I took a detour into the humanities and social sciences in graduate school, I carried my love of scientific categories with me. I studied narrative genres because that allowed me to place movies and books into recognizable categories (even if those categories included "uncategorized" or "wacky"). And in my dissertation, I analyzed the way pop culture stories about monsters evolved over time. Even in the absence of science, I had my taxonomies and evolutionary theories. And, of course, my monsters.

For the past decade, I've written almost exclusively about science. I've returned to my roots as a science geek, but now I understand that every scientific discovery always takes place within a story. I don't mean that there are no truths–one of the things I love best about scientific thought is that it allows evidence to prove facts more or less definitively, which is frustratingly never possible in the humanities and social sciences. But science is nevertheless a story about the world, a way of explaining how everything functions. Best of all, science is a story with an open ending. Every discovery ends with more questions. And every line of scientific questioning ends with, "I don't know, but I'm designing an experiment to find out."


You can read other people's stories about why they love science on the Smithsonian's Surprising Science blog.

So, why do you love science? Tell us!