It’s 1985. You’re laying outside staring up at the stars. But tonight is different than other nights. Tonight, Halley’s Comet soars across the night sky.
Source: NSSDC’s Photo Gallery (NASA)
Halley’s Comet is a spectacular example of how scientific discoveries don’t go away. Over 2,000 years ago it was seen by the Chinese and Ancient Greeks. Then, William the Conqueror may have interpreted it as a sign that he was meant to invade England in 1066. The comet might have even inspired a part of one of Shakespeare’s plays (Space, 2017).
What’s so incredible about Halley’s Comet is that it has influenced people across the Earth and across time. The reason why might be that Halley’s Comet comes back into view from Earth every 75 years. The last time that it was seen was 1986 making 2061 the next time it will be visible with the naked eye. The story might seem to end for you there. You might be thinking, why do I care about what happens in 41 years? One reason might be because what we do now affects our future – ourselves, our community, and our planet.
The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also cared so much that in 1986 they made a 75 year plan to think about a couple of interesting questions in regards to the public and science:
- What should Americans be learning about in science that will equip them for the future – at home, in their community, and across the globe?
- How do we cultivate “scientifically literate” Americans?
These are excellent questions to think about. And I’m not sure we’d all agree on what this looks like in practice. But I’m really inspired by one way that the AAAS began to redefine and reshape “who can do science” and “what science is”. They reframed “the scientific method” to “scientific methods” and began to break down constraints and limitations to who can do science and what science is. In my opinion, they really challenged the culture around science in the US.
A quick search of Twitter hashtags reveals the way that this has manifested. The community of science on Twitter has challenged the identity of scientists.
The idea of a scientist as an old, white, man in a lab coat not only doesn’t represent who scientists are but it also limits who identifies as a scientist. Here are some hashtags that I found surrounding a campaign to challenge who can be a scientist and what a scientist does. Follow #scientistswhoselfie and you’ll find that the image above isn’t the only scientist around.
The hashtags attached to these scientists tell us about what their identity is in science:
#WomeninScience, #LatinainSTEM, #BlackandSTEM, #PhDMom, #QueerSTEM, #PhDShawty, #DisabledScientist
So I decided to think about the same for myself. What makes me identity as a scientist? Why did I think about pursuing a career in science? Did science ever seem inaccessible to me? Pretty much all of my identity markers like being white or identifying as a man made me never question the idea of becoming a scientist.
I collected some items that are a part of my science identity. In some cases they have served as my “lab coat”, my “safety goggles” or my “pipette” and in other cases they’ve acted as a means to explore the world and ask questions about it even if I didn’t conduct an experiment or gather results. So what I mean is lab coats, safety goggles, and pipettes don’t mean science is happening or define a scientist. They’re just some of the tools we use to do some types of science or be safe when doing science. Here are some of my tools that enable me to participate in the world of science or what AAAS might define as my tools to make sense of “how the world works; to think critically and independently; and to lead interesting, responsible, and productive lives in a culture increasingly shaped by science and technology?”
Some of these don’t make me a scientist or mean science is happening. But sometimes they do and sometimes they have. Regardless, they are ways that I think about and make sense of my health and life, the science of my hobbies and interests, the health of our environment, and the impact that I have on plants, animals, and people. It’s my “Halley’s Comet” that inspires me to think of science in the world around me during the next 75 years of life.
My jacket, tights, and gloves are like my labcoat. They don’t protect against chemical burns, but they sure do protect against frost bite. My snowshoes are like protective boots that scientists may use when exploring volcanos or rivers. They also help keep me from slipping and falling. This day I was only going for a run and thinking about my physical and mental health. But snowshoes have also been a part of me collecting data about average snowfall and animal migration.
My canoe allowed me to explore Assateague Island to observe wild horses in the water. I had only ever seen horses on a farm or on land before. Boats and other water tools have been used to ask cool questions about how and why horses travel.
I also have science tools in my kitchen. I love making meals, trying new spices and new foods. Sometimes the food I make doesn’t taste great. That means I return to the “drawing board” or in this case, the cutting board to think about things like: how long I cook something for, how hot of a temperature it’s cooked at, and what amount of ingredients I add. While everyone’s taste is different, cooking is highly scientific in the sense that you can change parts of the experiment and get wildly different outcomes. It’s also highly scientific because it rarely comes out the same twice.
My snowshoes, my canoe, and my spatula. They’re all just tools I use to think about science, ask scientific questions, and even sometimes conduct experiments. They’re not the only science tools that I use, and they’re not the only science tools that you might use. But what they provide for me is a joy and an identity in science outside of the “lab”.
I hope you also can think about the tools that enable you to do or think about science everyday.
What are some of your science tools that aren’t lab coats, goggles, and pipettes?