Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge” or “knowing”) is the effort to discover, and increase human understanding of how the physical world works.
This definition seems somewhat altruistic, since science can also be spectacle and/or entertainment. Exhibit one is also known as Spaceship One. A replica, at the St. Louis Science Center is pictured above. It was the wining vehicle of the Ansari X Prize. This X prize was a space competition in which the X Prize Foundation offered $10M to the first group to launch the same manned spacecraft into space twice. It was modeled after early 20th-century aviation prizes, such as the one Charles Lindbergh won by flying the Spirit of St. Louis. It is this relationship that caused the X Prize Foundation to award this prize in 2004, in St. Louis.
The success of this first X Prize has spawn more contests. There is now one for genomics, where you must sequence a 100 human genomes within 10 days. There is an automotive one where you must build a commercially viable car design that gets 100 MPG. And there is Google’s lunar challenge, where you must operate a rover on the moon. All of these scientific stunts demonstrate capability, increase efficiency and offer lower costs. For the money invested, how much more will we know?
Then there is science as pure entertainment. The St. Louis Science Center is exhibit two, as pictured above. Like most science centers that I’ve been to it is a child’s proscription for ADD. When it is empty it is quiet, but does no one any good. When it is full it is loud and chaotic. It offers one distraction from another.
The Smithsonian does science better then most, but on a recent trip to DC, I found the Air and Space museum better, only because it had the originals and not just replicas. Long ago, in junior high, I lived in Washington. My mom use to truck my brother and I down to the Smithsonian on Saturday mornings to attend classes there. We took classes in astronomy, archeology, paleontology and more. These were lectures by senior (at least in years) staff members. Some of the classes also offered tours behind the scenes. These tours where the lecturer handled exhibit material with care and casualness stays with me today.
So how do we discover knowledge of the the physical world? How do we do science? With scientists, that’s how. Real science is done only by scientists. Spectacle and entertainment are great for exciting the interest of the public and for attracting young minds, but we need to close the deal, we need tomorrow’s scientists. Today’s scientists need to recruit their replacements. Today’s scientists need to lead by example.