APS News

We Must Protect U.S. Investment in Scientific Knowledge

By Mark B. Boslough

In northern Arizona, signs along I-40 read: "Meteor Crater... the planet's most penetrating natural attraction." South of the interstate a low ridge rises from the flat desert. An earlier generation called the ridge "Coon Butte", not realizing that it was the rim of a deep crater. The cavity is so expansive that it changes the wind patterns and attracts raptors that soar in the updrafts. This big hole is truly one of the natural wonders of the world.

Meteor Crater was also once the subject of a great scientific controversy, and was a focal point for defining the scientific method and promoting scientific research. A century after that debate, Meteor Crater is a reminder of the importance of science to our way of life.

G.K. Gilbert, one of the top scientific thinkers of his time, gave an address on this subject in Washington on December 11, 1895. At the center of the scientific method, he said, is the hypothesis, or "the scientific guess." Gilbert used the crater to illustrate how science works.

Four scientific guesses to explain the crater's origin had been made at the time. The first came from a shepherd named Mathias Armijo, who found pieces of iron near the crater and reasoned that an explosion had hurled the metal out of the ground and formed the big hole (one does not have to be a scientist to think scientifically). Geologists offered two more scientific guesses involving volcanic processes. A fourth hypothesis was the radical idea that a meteorite had hit the Earth.

Gilbert traveled to Arizona and made measurements to test the various ideas. Little was known about the physics of meteorite impacts, and he predicted that such a cosmic collision would have left a very large piece of buried iron. His tests failed to find it, so Gilbert rejected the impact idea. The iron objects on the surface turned out to be meteorite fragments (ruling out Armijo's hypothesis that they came out of the ground) but Gilbert concluded that they were not related to the hole.

Of the two volcanic ideas, one predicted that volcanic rocks would be found in the crater. But the crater had none, so there was only one hypothesis left that had not been eliminated: some type of volcanic steam explosion. Gilbert accepted that explanation, even though he had arrived at the crater thinking it was formed by an impact (a good scientist does not allow personal feelings to get in the way of evidence). However, he recognized that new facts might be discovered about meteorites and impacts that would overturn his conclusion.

And that is exactly what happened. Gilbert had overestimated the amount of speeding iron that would be needed to blast out such a big hole: hypervelocity impacts are much more powerful than he realized. Furthermore, most of the meteorite was vaporized by the impact, leaving few traces. It had been a mistake to think that the impact would leave a lot of buried iron. Many years later, scientists would discover rare new minerals in the rocks at the crater_minerals that had been predicted to form from an impact_finally settling the controversy.

Science is sometimes slow, but it always involves making educated guesses that eventually lead to testable predictions. If the predictions turn out to be incorrect, the test is still successful if scientists learn enough to modify the theory, find a better one, or discover mistaken assumptions.

Unfortunately, even after the successes of 20th-century science, there are a lot of people who still don't like (or don't understand) the scientific method. Science is now under attack from many directions.

On the left are those who twist legitimate multiculturalism by going way beyond it. They dogmatically assert that all ways of seeking knowledge are equally valid, but still insist that science is flawed because they view it as a "Eurocentric" white male endeavor. Such thinking has encouraged belief in pseudoscientific and unscientific ideas ranging from crystal healing in Taos to flying saucers in Roswell. Even worse, it has turned some women and minorities away from careers in science, to their detriment and to that of society.

Science is also under attack from the religious right, whose literal interpretation of the Bible supersedes scientific evidence, logical reasoning, and common sense. To fundamentalists, any fact that is at odds with their beliefs must be ignored. This faction is not satisfied merely to reject science for itself, but it now has an active campaign to remove scientifically validated subjects _ such as evolution _ from the classroom and have them replaced by their own unscientific opinions, such as creationism.

And science is now under attack by a budget-cutting Congress to whom dollars have measurable value but scientific knowledge does not. They think that spending on science is like throwing money into a big hole in the ground. They do not realize that a dollar saved is a dollar saved, but it may be two dollars (or more) worth of knowledge lost.

G.K. Gilbert closed his address 100 years ago by explaining that "fertility of invention implies a wide and varied knowledge of the causes of things," that deep understanding of nature through scientific research is essential, and that our "material, social, and intellectual condition" directly depends on our scientific knowledge. He compared science to an investment: "Knowledge of Nature is an account at [the] bank, where each dividend is added to the principal and the interest is ever compounded..."

Our scientific bank account has led to inventions that Gilbert's audience could not have imagined. It has swollen with the advances we associate with modern living, with medical discoveries that have given us longer, healthier, happier lives, and with unsurpassed national security.

We should again ask those in Washington to pass along the American tradition of a strong investment in scientific knowledge, and trust in the scientific method, to future generations. And we should remind them that research spending is money in the bank, not money in a hole.

Mark B. Boslough is an Albuquerque scientist who specializes in impact physics.

by Mark B. Boslough

In northern Arizona, signs along I-40 read: "Meteor Crater... the planet's most penetrating natural attraction." South of the interstate a low ridge rises from the flat desert. An earlier generation called the ridge "Coon Butte", not realizing that it was the rim of a deep crater. The cavity is so expansive that it changes the wind patterns and attracts raptors that soar in the updrafts. This big hole is truly one of the natural wonders of the world.

Meteor Crater was also once the subject of a great scientific controversy, and was a focal point for defining the scientific method and promoting scientific research. A century after that debate, Meteor Crater is a reminder of the importance of science to our way of life.

G.K. Gilbert, one of the top scientific thinkers of his time, gave an address on this subject in Washington on December 11, 1895. At the center of the scientific method, he said, is the hypothesis, or "the scientific guess." Gilbert used the crater to illustrate how science works.

Four scientific guesses to explain the crater's origin had been made at the time. The first came from a shepherd named Mathias Armijo, who found pieces of iron near the crater and reasoned that an explosion had hurled the metal out of the ground and formed the big hole (one does not have to be a scientist to think scientifically). Geologists offered two more scientific guesses involving volcanic processes. A fourth hypothesis was the radical idea that a meteorite had hit the Earth.

Gilbert traveled to Arizona and made measurements to test the various ideas. Little was known about the physics of meteorite impacts, and he predicted that such a cosmic collision would have left a very large piece of buried iron. His tests failed to find it, so Gilbert rejected the impact idea. The iron objects on the surface turned out to be meteorite fragments (ruling out Armijo's hypothesis that they came out of the ground) but Gilbert concluded that they were not related to the hole.

Of the two volcanic ideas, one predicted that volcanic rocks would be found in the crater. But the crater had none, so there was only one hypothesis left that had not been eliminated: some type of volcanic steam explosion. Gilbert accepted that explanation, even though he had arrived at the crater thinking it was formed by an impact (a good scientist does not allow personal feelings to get in the way of evidence). However, he recognized that new facts might be discovered about meteorites and impacts that would overturn his conclusion.

And that is exactly what happened. Gilbert had overestimated the amount of speeding iron that would be needed to blast out such a big hole: hypervelocity impacts are much more powerful than he realized. Furthermore, most of the meteorite was vaporized by the impact, leaving few traces. It had been a mistake to think that the impact would leave a lot of buried iron. Many years later, scientists would discover rare new minerals in the rocks at the crater_minerals that had been predicted to form from an impact_finally settling the controversy.

Science is sometimes slow, but it always involves making educated guesses that eventually lead to testable predictions. If the predictions turn out to be incorrect, the test is still successful if scientists learn enough to modify the theory, find a better one, or discover mistaken assumptions.

Unfortunately, even after the successes of 20th-century science, there are a lot of people who still don't like (or don't understand) the scientific method. Science is now under attack from many directions.

On the left are those who twist legitimate multiculturalism by going way beyond it. They dogmatically assert that all ways of seeking knowledge are equally valid, but still insist that science is flawed because they view it as a "Eurocentric" white male endeavor. Such thinking has encouraged belief in pseudoscientific and unscientific ideas ranging from crystal healing in Taos to flying saucers in Roswell. Even worse, it has turned some women and minorities away from careers in science, to their detriment and to that of society.

Science is also under attack from the religious right, whose literal interpretation of the Bible supersedes scientific evidence, logical reasoning, and common sense. To fundamentalists, any fact that is at odds with their beliefs must be ignored. This faction is not satisfied merely to reject science for itself, but it now has an active campaign to remove scientifically validated subjects _ such as evolution _ from the classroom and have them replaced by their own unscientific opinions, such as creationism.

And science is now under attack by a budget-cutting Congress to whom dollars have measurable value but scientific knowledge does not. They think that spending on science is like throwing money into a big hole in the ground. They do not realize that a dollar saved is a dollar saved, but it may be two dollars (or more) worth of knowledge lost.

G.K. Gilbert closed his address 100 years ago by explaining that "fertility of invention implies a wide and varied knowledge of the causes of things," that deep understanding of nature through scientific research is essential, and that our "material, social, and intellectual condition" directly depends on our scientific knowledge. He compared science to an investment: "Knowledge of Nature is an account at [the] bank, where each dividend is added to the principal and the interest is ever compounded..."

Our scientific bank account has led to inventions that Gilbert's audience could not have imagined. It has swollen with the advances we associate with modern living, with medical discoveries that have given us longer, healthier, happier lives, and with unsurpassed national security.

We should again ask those in Washington to pass along the American tradition of a strong investment in scientific knowledge, and trust in the scientific method, to future generations. And we should remind them that research spending is money in the bank, not money in a hole.

Mark B. Boslough is an Albuquerque scientist who specializes in impact physics.


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