For the Love of Science

I love science.

That should be fairly obvious; the freaking site contains the words “Chemistry Freak.” But I really, really love science.

In this day and age of technology and information literally at our fingertips, more and more people are beginning to realize that engineers and scientists really are geeks…but they’re really cool geeks. Heck, geek chic is now a fashion trend; people with 20/20 vision wear glasses just to look the part. I myself, with the vision of a bat (although their vision may not be as terrible as originally thought) decided after my last eye exam to buy two pairs of glasses and forego contact lenses. (However, part of that decision is due in part to returning to a laboratory setting where contact lenses are discouraged; lab safety rules rule, people.)

But the stereotype of nerds and computer geeks being the ones who are given wedgies and having their heads shoved in toilets by the “cool kids” (the ones who make up for lack of brains with a lot of swag) is dissipating. Learning to program a computer in elementary and middle school is now becoming an integrated part of the curriculum. Robotics competitions are held for 12-year-old students; kids are designing their own apps; and work opportunities at NASA, Intel, IBM, and Google are open to 20-year-old college students. Looking at this list I sometimes wonder why I wasted my early childhood on tea parties and Pretty Pretty Princess.

Why is there such a sudden draw to science and the tech industry? With the dawn of the Information Age, these fields have become less scary in the sense that they are more available to the masses. Physics is no longer just for “smart people”; it is for anyone with interest, drive, and passion. The concept of being born a genius or that only people who are born knowing how to do math can actually do math is starting to be exposed for what it really is: a condescending misconception. Guess what? No one is born knowing how to do things except scream, eat, sleep, and fill a diaper. Babies can’t even figure out toilets on their own much less the integral of the hyperbolic secant.

I remember mentioning to a colleague that I wanted to start a future faculty program at our university (something many other top institutions have initiated) to help guide those interested through the steps of writing easily-funded grants and solid papers in high-impact journals. His response: “The problem with that is then you have a massive influx of qualified faculty candidates; it stops being a rare thing to accomplish.”

Okay. Maybe he was referring to the fact that obtaining a faculty job is already super competitive since there are so few positions available each year. But even if that were the case, why is having an influx of qualified academics on the market such a bad thing? Even if they don’t have faculty jobs, they are still more than qualified to tackle industry or start their own companies. They have most likely published more papers and presented at more conferences and collaborated with more companies and universities than their industrially-trained counterparts. They have the contacts and the skill sets, the who and the what you need to know – the perfect roadmap to a great career.

I understand that the more rare something is the higher it’s value. But the more readily available something is the more advances can be made. Competition is a great motivator to completing a job; but working not just for the good of the individual but also for the good of the collective (my tribute to John Nash’s governing dynamics) can produce a more ideal win-win solution.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a pretty competitive, not to mention possessive, person. I hate to share. My resume is stamped with the words “Doesn’t Play Well With Others.” I’d rather have a PAP smear done by Edward Scissorhands than let someone else work on my intellectual baby. But a lesson that I am still trying to force myself to learn (because in the long run it will be good for me, blah blah blah…) is that the less isolated the work, the greater its chance to blossom. Having other people involved in your ideas can take them to levels you never thought were possible.

 

And isn’t this the whole point of the Information Boom? To encourage more people to think for themselves and contribute those thoughts and ideas? Sir Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power. Three simple words that sum up the struggle for education that spans thousands of years. For the longest time only the wealthy could be educated (specifically wealthy men). Only within the last 150 years or so has education been made available to women, African Americans, and other minorities. And why have people pushed so hard to be educated?

Because it’s empowering. Because being informed allows you to form your own opinion of the world around you. And with that, you can take what the world has given you and find a way to leave your own imprint on it and make it a little bit better for the next generation.

But again, why has there been such a big push towards science in recent years? Could it be because science governs so much of our daily life? Or the fact that with every new discovery we find out there’s so much more we don’t know?

Science holds so many answers that have yet to be discovered. And from the many answers we’re fortunate to find we formulate more questions. Ben Franklin’s discovery of electricity in the 18th century eventually led to Edison’s incandescent lightbulb, Bell’s telephone, and Marconi’s radio in the 19th century. From these applications, the field of electronics boomed in the 20th century. The advent of computers revolutionized the scientific industry, and the invention of the integrated circuit turned the linear relationship between time and technology into an exponential curve. Taking those ideas and running with them, we now have technology in place that was only imaginative 20 years ago: smart phones; unmanned aerial vehicles; heck, the Internet which boasts Google, the world’s largest search engine, and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other websites (such as the one hosting all these delightful posts from yours truly).

And that’s only part of the story.

Michael Faraday discovered a new compound, eventually dubbed with the name “benzene,” shortly after inventing the electric motor. While benzene is carcinogenic, it is used in the synthesis of other compounds. For instance, fusing benzene rings together produces a new class of organic compounds called “acenes.” Napthalene (two fused benzene rings) is a component in mothballs. Pentacene (five fused benzene rings) is used in semiconductor; its derivatives are of particular interest as organic solar cell materials. While pentacene itself is not ideal for solar cells as the molecules do not stack in a way that encourages efficient charge transport, its derivatives, like 6,13-TIPS pentacene, are potential candidates for replacing silicon as the primary material for solar cells, a whole industry in its own right for promoting clean energy.

No field that comes to mind has been untouched by science. Even the materials used by artists are affected by current trends in scientific research, which opens the doors to people combining multiple passions into one booming industry.

All of these things we do for the love of science.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

 

 

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