So You Think You Can Science

Since formalised science began in the 17th Century, people have had one of three relationships with it: inspired, indifferent or uninterested. It has become synonymous with advances in the human race, and great science names like Newton, Edison, Da Vinci, Curie, Fleming, Bohr and Einstein have been touted as leaders in their respective fields. With names like that and pop culture references including ‘it’s not rocket science’, making a ‘quantum leap’ and various ‘medical breakthroughs’, it’s no wonder people approach science with fear and in trepidation.

But I’m here to blow the lid on science. When it all boils down, science is easy. All scientists follow the same problem solving process. We call it “The Scientific Method” which is just an intimidating title for asking a question, having a guess and then testing it to get results.

Question

Asking questions is probably one of the easiest things to do; it’s something we’ve been doing since we learnt to talk (But why Mummy? Are we there yet?).

In 1616, Galileo Galilei, gave this science thing a stab and asked a question “What if Earth wasn’t the centre of our solar system?” This idea had been started by Copernicus back in the 15th Century and was coined heliocentrism. Gallileo’s idea was directly opposed to the views of the Catholic Church, which claimed that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and taught that everything revolved around it (similar thinking is found in some teenagers).

Questioning the Church, of course, brought on some huge consequences. Galileo was dragged before a jury to be tried for heresy, had his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems banned from publication and finally was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

While asking certain questions may have had some dire outcomes once upon a time, rest assured the world is much more open to scientific ideas now, as in the case of climate change.Oh, actually, probably not the best example.

Guess

Making a guess is probably the hardest part of the scientific method. We, as human beings, like to be right and so will take any avenue possible to make sure our guess (or ‘hypothesis’ if you’re being scientific) is correct. Some go as far as to forge results to get the desired outcome (like Hwang Woo-suk. Google him if you’re interested). However some scientists just take an Aussie approach and ‘avago’.

In 1856, Billy Perkins (aka Sir William Henry Perkins) had a guess at what he thought would create quinine (synthetic antimalarial treatment). So with his guess, he threw some chemicals together in a beaker (that’s the simplified version of events) and did he get quinine? Well no! What he made was the first synthetic fabric dye. The pleasant shade of pastel purple he named ‘mauve’ and the colour has been enjoyed by cardigan wearing grandmas and old gay men ever since (mainly in early spring). Clearly Queen Victoria liked the colour so much that she knighted ole Bill. Not bad for a guess!

Test

Testing or experimenting is often the best part of doing science. My high school chemistry teacher let me keep a beaker under my bench where I would put any leftover chemicals from in-class practicals (and who knows what poisonous products were created). It’s what inspired me to study science at uni.

Another guy who liked to experiment was Alfie. He liked to blow things up and when he started playing with explosives, Nitroglycerin was the newest chemical on the scene. It was highly explosive and very unstable.

In 1864, he was testing a way to make the liquid more user-friendly. He found that if he combined it with fossilised algae (Kieselguhr for those playing at home) it was much more stable. In the process of this discovery he had the chemical banned from use in Stockholm and he also killed several people including his brother. Finally in 1867 he called the product ‘Dynamite’.

Alfie felt so bad about all the destruction he had caused (not to mention his poor brother’s demise) that he bequeathed $472 million (in today’s figures) to start an award to celebrate achievements in science which was named after him: The Nobel Prize.

Science really isn’t as hard as people think. Who knows what you could do for the world if you took some time to question, guess and test?

No mauve-wearing brothers were harmed in the writing of this article.