I love science. I know that makes me a geek, but as someone who suffered the social stigma of having to answer “I’m studying maths” when asked what I do at parties, I’m well used to my geekhood. But the reasons for loving science are important. It’s not just because it can make our lives better – that’s the medical and technological sides of science. They’re useful, but they’re not awe-inspiring, and they don’t give much of a warm fuzzy. I love science because the universe is such an amazing place. Particularly life on earth, since we don’t know anything about life elsewhere.
And that’s why I love the website It’s Okay To Be Smart: it’s full of items about recent discoveries in science that reinvigorate the delight that some of us get from science and the world around us.
Here are a couple of examples: Mammals with hair or fur enjoy being stroked. “Quelle surprise”, I hear you say. The interesting part here is that different neurons are responsible for sensing different types of touch: some fire when the animal is stroked, others when the animal is pinched or poked. There’s a clear evolutionary advantage here: grooming helps keep animals free from pests and foreign bodies that might threaten their health, and also helps in developing social bonds which in turn strengthens the reproductive potential of the family or social group. So the development of these neurons gave an advantage to these animals.
But what about ability to recognise music? Ronan, a sea lion, nods her head vigorously in time to the beat, whether it’s a simple metronome or music (apparently her current favourite is Earth, Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland). This not only casts doubt on the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for beat recognition (as in parrots who bob their heads and dance), but also indicates that both animals share a trait in common with humans. The question that leapt to my mind was “What was the evolutionary advantage of beat recognition?” Although I haven’t spent much time in the company of sea lions, the ones I have seen spent most of their time lying on the beach in the sun, rather than getting down and getting funky.
Another fascinating musical mystery is the research done at the University of Queensland, where researchers found that male humpback whale songs change in both an evolutionary (gradually over time) and revolutionary (sudden change all at once) fashion. Since the male humpbacks sing to attract mates, inevitable images spring to mind of a humpback crooner desperate to make it into the ocean top 10. The primary factor in all science, at least for the scientists that I know, is curiosity: “I wonder why this happens? I wonder what happens if this changes? I wonder…?”
No-one enters a career in science expecting to become rich, because it just doesn’t happen, so the next time someone suggests that scientists are just saying X to get grant money (usually, but not always, something about climate change), you know what to say. They’re doing it because they want to know why the sea lion dances.