What draws us to science? Oftentimes science gives us a glimpse of the vast workings of the natural world, showing us the enormity of the system in which we live and, if we peek inside, all the spinning cogs and gears that work together and allow that system to exist at all. Those insights make our hearts skip a beat and our hair stand on end with excitement and awe. It feels profound, and we are humbled by the thought that, even if just for a moment, we have grasped an idea that is so much bigger than ourselves. The humility grows more once we realize that our lives here on Earth are minuscule compared to the vast complexity of the universe.
Our understanding of the natural world’s size and complexity takes many forms, whether it’s when we realize the cells in our kidneys and in the nebulae in outer space look eerily similar to one another in shape (see below), or when we discover that individual sea creatures roam the oceans for hundreds of years with stability as human civilization ebbs and flows; that our lives could be a blink to them, so long as their habitat remains intact. Zooming out even further in time, the existence of human race is an even smaller blip in Earth’s evolutionary history: scientists estimate that Earth is 4.5 billion years old, while homo sapiens have only been on this planet for 0.004% of that time, about 200,000 years. If Earth’s history were represented by the height of the Sears Tower, our time on this planet would be represented by a couple magazines stacked on the roof.
One of the first times I was struck with this sense of awe in school was when I learned about the concept of how ecosystems work. I sat attentively in a classroom while my teacher instructed me to think about how an ecosystem could remain balanced and evolve among countless individuals, different species of plants and animals, different seasons, different weather, different resources, and different challenges. Later, I learned things can get more even complicated: ecosystems can be both large and small, spanning continents or existing within our own intestines, but all in one interdependent network. All of these factors and more inevitably interact with one another over time, and in a healthy ecosystem, those interactions lie in an ideal but delicate balance.
It was in that moment when I was young, contemplating all of these moving parts, trying to hold them all in my mind at once, trying to understand how this ecological balance could possibly exist and how it might change, that science knocked my socks right off.
Because you see, I don’t only find science impressive because it pushes boundaries and explores the unknown. I am also struck by how important it is to study scientific ideas we’ve explored in the past on the chance that we may see something we didn’t notice before — even though it had been in front of us the whole time (like the galaxies in the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field). Such pursuits may make us feel uneasy, forcing us to be critical of ourselves for not having observed what seem like obvious misses in retrospect. It is a very human response to feel defensive after realizing how much knowledge is out there that we don’t yet comprehend. It is equally natural to glance over a familiar concept assuming that there’s nothing left to figure out, without giving it enough attention to realize that we don’t actually understand it at all. But in the end, revisiting an old idea might reveal something completely new.
To remain open to learning, it’s important for us to take a step back and remember that it’s a very big world out there, and we cannot expect any human being to know everything about it. And that is especially true when pursuing scientific ideas: we are merely tiny, fallible organisms taking on the near-impossible task of understanding a little more about a universe that dwarfs us in comparison, after all.
It is okay to not know something, and it is even better to try to learn more about what you don’t understand. And so whether ideas you come across seem familiar or not on the surface, I urge you to try to think about them carefully. For example, consider that snapshot of a theoretical ecosystem that I was so amazed by when I was in school. Try to imagine how such an ecosystem might exist and change over time. Try to hold all the variables (plants, animals, land, time of year, geographical location, and more) in your head at once, and try to ponder the interplay between the details, both big and small. Because it is by slogging through all of the details that you often break free into a moment of clarity, and it is then that you may find yourself struck by that same sense of awe that I was many years ago.
Kate Proudfoot is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology. Kate is also an organizer for Expanding Your Horizons Chicago, a one-day symposium aimed at engaging middle school girls in science.