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ISSUE 120 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 11/3/2006

Science tests itself

By April Wright
Variety Editor


Friday, November 3, 2006

Imagine reading and memorizing from a textbook. Now imagine that when you wake up tomorrow morning, the arguments, evidence and facts that you've spent so long learning might change radically the next day.

Welcome to the world of science.

Science is a dynamic and ever-changing field of study. Just this week, a major problem with the Big Bang model for the beginning of the universe has been solved and the evolutionary tree of insects has been altered.

Some might consider this an inconvenience or evidence of an inherent weakness in the way scientists know and interpret the world, but the incorporation of new and better evidence into the canon of scientific knowledge is what makes the scientific world the best of all those possible.

Earlier this week, astrophysicists announced that they had solved one of the major problems plaguing the study of the Big Bang: a discrepancy in the amount of Helium 3 gas present in the universe and the amount of Helium 3 gas theorized to exist. As it turns out, some of the gas is used in fusion reactions of stars.

Okay, so that was a whole lot of science. The facts themselves aren't terribly important (for my purposes, and by proxy, yours), but the impact of the discovery is huge. On ScienceDaily.com, the discovery was released with a headline of "Big Bang Theory Saved." The absence of Helium 3 gas had been a problem for scientists; they couldn't explain it.

It sounds bad when things can't be explained, doesn't it? It sounds like there's a hole in the fabric of an idea. In other words, it sounds like science itself has holes. But these "holes" are what allows science to show its mettle. When confronted with the Helium 3 gas problem, researchers of the Big Bang didn't give up. Instead, they used their big Ph.D. brains to get to the bottom of the issue and to solve it. There was no moment when it seemed that a physics problem was beyond our reach; there was always reassurance that a problem of chemistry and physics could be solved using chemistry and physics.

In a different scenario, biologists improved their understanding of the natural world this week, too. After much genetic analysis, it has become clear that the phylogenetic tree (a depiction of groups and their evolutionary relationship to each other) of insects used up until this point has been faulty. In the new tree, bees are more closely related to termites and other social insects, and less closely related to moths, which are now more closely related to beetles.

It doesn't sound like a big change, but really, it is. Trees showing the genetic relationships between species are fundamental to the study of species and evolution. When the position of a species, family or other group changes on a phylogenetic tree, the evolutionary relationship between the species often also has to be reconsidered.

Reconsidering the evolutionary relationships between species means more work, more time and more money are needed (plus, it means that students need to update what they have already memorized about the groups!). Sure, it's inconvenient, but having to refigure the structures we've been using brings scientists closer to the truth.

That's what makes science special, then, isn't it? When someone's idea is wrong, it isn't a dead end, it just means the idea needs to be rethought, taking new evidence into account. When an experiment doesn't yield the right result, it may be disappointing, but you can still learn from it. Every failure or alteration allows for new clarity and correctness to be attained; every failure, change and bit of new evidence brings observation, theory and reality closer together.

Variety Editor April Wright is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She majors in English and in biology.





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