I am a scientist (and so are you)

Guest Post By Toby R. Ault, Assoc. Prof., Cornell University

Suppose you find some mysterious-looking seeds in the garage of your grandparent’s house. You bring a few of them home and plant them just outside your window. As you lie awake that night, your mind starts racing with curiosity.

Will they sprout overnight? How high will they grow? How much water do they need? Could they be magical beans that grow into the sky and takes you to the land of giants?

You must know. You cannot sleep until you know. You find a flashlight and shine it out the window, but now a heavy rainstorm casts countless droplettes of water down through the darkness. They reflect the beam of your flashlight and shine like thousands of tiny meteors falling from the sky.

Do we even know how high those raindrops are falling from? Where does a raindrop start? How long has it been falling from? How could we possibly even know?

Fog from your own breath clouds the window and you finally resign yourself to resting and giving this experiment its due time.

Though you might not know it yet, you have already embarked on a journey to the edge of human knowledge. When you arrive at your destination, you will take just one more step into the absolute unknown. Forget about the beans. What might you learn about the vast, beautiful, and infinitely complex world we inhabit? Or, what might you learn about the vast, beautiful, and infinitely complex minds and bodies we call our selves?

Many years later, you are clinging to the railing of an arctic-bound ship with just one hand. In your other hand, you hold the tether of a weather balloon. Nauseous, freezing, and barely able to see through the sea spray and sleet, your mind to transport you back in time to that dark and stormy night when you tried peering out at your beans and a thunderstorm thwarted your efforts. What did those beans grow into? You try to remember, but before you’ve even finished the thought, you realize that you don’t know the answer because you are still climbing that beanstalk into the clouds. All these long years of coursework, fieldwork, lab work, all the months of planning and preparing, all the days spent waiting restlessly for the journey to finally begin, all of them have led you to this point. And yet you still wonder…

Are there giants in the clouds?  

A gust of wind nearly tears you off the ship’s deck as it bobs from side to side in the massive waves of the North Pacific Ocean.

Damnit Jack just release the balloon!

You let it go. The huge white latex orb disappears into the clouds, its train of instruments swinging below like a cat’s tail. You rush inside the main cabin to start tracking it on your computer. The nausea fades into the background noise of your mind as you turn your curiosity up to full volume.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a scientist more than anything. It’s not the kind of thing that wins you lots of friends when the other kids are trading baseball cards, making bootleg tapes of LL Cool J, and hosting sleepovers to watch Mike Tyson, Rambo, and Terminator II. It is the kind of thing, however, that leads to encase your pet gerbils in plaster of Paris and bury them in your back yard after they die to see if you can make fossils; to disassemble your Estes model rocket engines to make improvised fireworks; to reprogram your video games to make the weapons in Doom 2 more powerful; to destroy your computer’s operating system to try and optimize it for said video games; and to win state science fairs by developing an algorithm for estimating the height of model rockets using a state-of-the-late-1970s programmable calculator.

But I would be lying if I told you that I found my way into science all on my own. As the son of a science education professor and education evaluator–and the grandson of a biochemist who helped discover the cure for childhood Leukemia–I’ve always thought of doing science as “the family business.”

I would also be lying if I claimed that my path into doing science professionally was at all linear. I struggled immensely in Junior High and the first half of High School to just pass my classes. By my Junior year of high school, I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to graduate with a GPA above 2.0. Maybe, I told myself, I could just drop out, hitchhike to Central America, and open a pancake house for backpackers. Or–better yet–I could become a bank robber. On the way to the Oregon State Fair, I heard Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run” and realized that I could combine these two ideas by reversing the order of operations from above. But, I wasn’t restless or reckless enough to pursue any of my teenage fantasies of entering a life of crime.

In the spring semester of my Sophmore year of high school, my grandpa, Campy, Dr. Harold Campbell, the biochemist and Don Corleone of the family, died.

Storytelling filled the waking hours in the wake of his death. His friends shook my hand and told me about his legendary scientific accomplishments. He helped discover the anticoagulant coumadin; he was a devoted mentor, friend, and colleague; he had a cot in his lab and caffeine pills in his own basement. There was no real edge between his professional identity and his personal life. Friends were collaborators, students were children, grandchildren were chaotic dynamical systems with varying initial conditions.

My grandfather’s passing weighed heavily on the whole family, but hearing more about his early life gave me a tiny seed of hope that I too could, someday, enter the family business. I stayed in school, my grades improved, I went to college, and ultimately I majored in Mathematics. After college, I became interested in the global environmental crisis of climate change, and I’ve spent my entire professional life doing research on this subject.

Recently, I have begun to reflect on just how fortunate I was to have been born into a supportive family that valued science. Yet at the same time, I have also started to see how badly we need more diversity in the physical sciences––especially climate science––to solve some of the hardest research questions being asked today. The reason is simple: science works best when a multitude of perspectives, ideas, and opinions are brought to bear on a particular problem. In climate modeling, for example, we use ensembles of simulations to gain a broader perspective of both the range of plausible future outcomes, as well as the changes in the future that are most likely to occur.

While my background and training have given me a certain set of skills and abilities as a climate researchers, they are not what makes me a scientist. Being a scientist should be one of the most egalitarian identities imaginable. All you need to do is to start asking questions and being skeptical of the answers you get––especially your own answers. Start figuring out creative ways to prove yourself wrong and ask others to do the same. With time, you will start to notice that you don’t actually know that much about what is “probably true,” but you’ve certainly ruled out a lot of things that are “definitely not true.”

And that’s most of what being a scientist is: finding out what isn’t true so that what you’re left with might be true. Or, at least, it might be less untrue than the alternatives. But be forewarned: most of what you think is true right now is probably mostly wrong, and most of what you find to be plausibly true in the future will also probably be wrong. And whatever little sliver of information you’re left with that’s unlikely to be untrue will also almost certainly be stranger than anything you’d imagined could be true. 

There probably aren’t giants in the clouds. Unless, of course, there are.

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