The Sciences

Science Wıth a 
Common Touch

There’s an old joke: if you tell someone the universe is expanding, he’ll believe you. If you tell him there’s wet paint on the park bench, he’ll want to touch it to make sure...

By Corey S PowellOct 19, 2011 5:00 AM


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The joke above is usually told as a commentary on how the ideas of science are far removed from the concerns of ordinary people, but I see a more encouraging lesson embedded in this wry little observation. Anyone who has the impulse to check whether the paint is wet has exactly the right kind of instincts for doing science: a ready curiosity, a desire to gather empirical evidence, a willingness to get dirty in order to put a theory to the test. Those instincts are reassuringly widespread. I recently spent an enlightening day with my wife and two young daughters at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh (a wonderful spot, in case you are ever in town). All around, kids were playing with weighted balls and air jets and floppy rockets, all looking fairly happy. But their parents were looking even happier, running the intended science experiments with those toys and reading up on Bernoulli’s Principle, turbulent flow, and the like.

The inquisitive souls who have made it into the academic science world will find no shortage of practical ends for even esoteric types of research—the curative applications are celebrated in this month’s issue. Laboratory studies of magnetic flux leakage turned out to be crucial for repairing broken gas pipelines (see "How to Fix Our Most Vexing Problems, From Mosquitoes to Potholes to Missing Corpses"). The ccr5 receptor, a protein found on the surface of cd4 T-cell lymphocytes in the immune system (try saying that quickly), may hold the key to ending the aids pandemic (see "The End of AIDS").

But those who stand outside of the research world have a growing number of ways to contribute as well. A generation ago, chemistry sets and Heathkit build-it-yourself electronic devices were the entry points for amateurs. These days the door is open much wider. Anyone can sign up for a public laboratory like Genspace in Brooklyn and learn genetic sequencing (see "Dawn of the BioHackers"). Even science-minded people with no patience or ability for hands-on study have plenty of opportunities. Online projects like Galaxy Zoo let amateurs participate in high-level astronomical research.

In short, the gap between the park bench and the expanding universe—always smaller than it seemed—is getting smaller. And this month, in our new Out There column, physicist and Discover Blogger Sean Carroll does his part to bring one of the most remote ideas in cosmology back down to Earth. Other universes and other dimensions? In his view, it’s not so far from a walk in the park.

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