Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I hated science

Growing up, I hated science.

Hated science fair projects. Hated that, as a 2nd grader, I was supposed to come up with some interesting question that no one had ever answered before, even though there were professional scientists out there with decades of training and experience whose entire job was to come up with interesting ideas and ways to test those ideas.

Hated memorizing a bunch of facts that seemed disconnected, irrelevant, and not rooted in first principles or a framework as far as I could tell.

Didn't find plants or rocks all that relatable.

Always felt unsatisfied by the "scientific" answers to the questions I thought were interesting.

And then, I found physics. As a junior in high school. And finally, here was the set of first principles I'd been looking for. Here was the framework, the rules and laws. Here they were! And I could use math and the laws to predict outcomes, no less!

Did I mention that I was a junior in high school? 16 years old, and this physics class was the first time I had seen these physical principles broken down into the most basic forms. Force, mass, acceleration. Newton's laws. Friction, gravity, drag. Conservation of mass, conservation of energy. Momentum. Energy, work, power. Waves. Light and optics. Amazing.

Now, I admit. I actually didn't feel as bowled over and excited about this stuff then as I do now. I actually was still somewhat frustrated. Frustrated because even though I learned these concepts well, I still couldn't describe the physics of anything more complicated than a perfectly spherical ball flying through air. Or a cube-shaped box sliding down an incline in vacuum. But at least I had the first hint of the possibility of deriving outcomes based on first principles. This was the first hint that science might be something I could like.

And of course, later I learned more advanced physics. More mechanics with more complicated mathematical treatments. Electricity and magnetism. Modern physics and quantum mechanics. And so on and so on. And as I learned, I liked it more and more.

But something else had happened, as well. I now found I could really like chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology. Before taking physics, the other sciences seemed like a bunch of annoying facts to memorize. After physics, the other sciences made sense.

Actually, biology was the science that took the longest to make sense. I could much more easily see how mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics governed the atoms, molecules and reactions in chemistry. I could see how gravity governed stars and planets and galaxies in astronomy. I could understand how pressure and temperature governed plate tectonics in geology. I'm not saying chemistry, astronomy, and geology are easy or that everything is understood, just that the application of physics is more readily discernible than in biology.

The breakthrough in biology for me finally occurred in graduate school. I started working in a biophysics lab, and I needed to learn some biochemistry, so I took an undergrad biochemistry class. And we learned about proteins. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Proteins catalyze reactions. Proteins use ATP as an energy source. Blah blah blah, same old, same old.

But wait. Here's the actual atoms that make up amino acids, and the amino acids have charge and shape and hydrophobicity, and when you assemble them into a chain that makes a protein, they fold up into a particular shape based on their *physical properties*!

And there's more! ATP is also made of atoms, specifically these three crazily charged phosphates that really don't like being so close together. And if you put together your protein and your ATP, maybe some of these physical properties conspire to add just enough energy to break off one or more of these phosphates, resulting in a tremendous release of energy that can physically kick the protein into a different shape!

Finally, the basic rules and framework behind proteins, amino acids, catalysis, and ATP as an energy source all came together in my mind. This link from physics to biology was complete, and absolutely amazing.

And so, now I like science. I like being able to explain and predict. I like the tricks and simplifications that make it possible to describe everything from the functioning of the human body to a car driving down the road. Sometimes, I might even say I love science (though perhaps not right now as I try to make the final push writing my thesis).

The question is, could I have learned that I liked it earlier? If for my 2nd grade science fair project, I had just dropped a ball off a building and learned a little about gravity and friction? If in 3rd grade, I had just made the baking-soda volcano and learned a little chemistry? I'm exaggerating, of course, but seriously, is there something wrong with the order in which science is taught? I know that kids don't have the mathematical background to understand kinematic equations, and I also know I had heard of gravity and friction before my 11th grade physics class. Was my mind just not ready to really wrap around science before that point? Or is there a way to give kids the concepts that make up the framework earlier? And if we could, and if we did, what difference would that make? Would it change the pipeline of people who go into science? Would it improve the average person's understanding of science? I think it could. And I think it would be a good thing.

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