January 4, 2010

The Thrill of Science

In my last post I gave a brief review of Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and it got me thinking about a few more things I wanted to mention. Even if you don't read the whole book, pick it up at a bookstore and thumb to the epilogue. It a great little essay on his love of science. He mentions a visit he and his son went on to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. They made their way to the Henry Crown Space Center and he realized he was looking at the actual Apollo 8 Command Module (see it in the link). It knocked him out. He remembered watching this same mission on TV as a kid and it was a big moment for him. It was "a symbol for the power of science to explain and make our universe knowable."

Did you see the 1995 movie Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks? Of course you did because it was awesome. One of my favorite bits is when we see a bunch of engineers put into a room and a box of stuff is dumped on a table in front of them. Socks, duct tape, instruction books, etc. This is everything that the astronauts have and these guys need to use it to design a new air filter so the men can make it back to Earth alive in their damaged ship. And they do it!

Later, Tom Hanks went on to produce the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. It's pretty great, but two episodes in particular capture that same sense of science and engineering as cool and dramatic. In "Spider" we follow the New Jersey engineers contracted to design and build the lunar lander. It may sound dry, but it could make you cry it's so beautiful. Remember, no one had any idea how to do this or what they would end up with. They were basically like those guys with the socks and duct tape and just really good brains.

Then there's the episode entitled "Galileo Was Right" in which the mission of Apollo 15 was dramatized. You remember the 1971 Apollo 15 mission, right? Of course you don't. Even at the time people were a bit jaded about the whole men-to-the moon thing. Sure, we'd been to the moon and it was a fantastic bit of engineering and all but what about the science? Geologist Jack Schmitt made it onto the mission and convinced his former professor, Lee Silver, to teach his fellow astronauts geology. Again, what could be more boring than guys learning about rocks for crying out loud? I tell you, it's an amazing episode that shows off all the best things about teaching and learning and science all in one.

Just as the moon missions changed how we look up, Neil Shubin and the fields of biology and palentology change how we look at life in general. It really is quite a thrill, if you ask me.

"I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity, and the remedies for many of the ills we suffer, nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet."
--Neil Shubin

(I refreshed my memory with EpisodeGuides.com)