Even for people with the right inclination, the sciences aren't always easy to enjoy. They're exacting frustrating, and slow-to-advance — but also ever-changing. And sometimes, the most unexpected things can make you rediscover them all over again. Here are the strangest things that made me love each of the sciences.
Top image: NGC 1999, image via Hubble Space Telescope/NASA/Judy Schmidt
Physics is the science I liked best, and liked it almost immediately. I think that's the case with most kids, because physics has the ability to explain concrete, everyday phenomena — like why car horns change tone as the car speeds by you, or why water condenses from nowhere on the side of your glass of ice water on a hot day. Physics manages to sustains people's interest through college and early adulthood because, once you've passed the everyday phenomena you get rewarded with weird stuff — with multiple universes, and the fact that space warps when people change their relative speed.
But even I will admit that, after a while, it's hard to keep gasping in wonder at the idea of a quantum bullet and the fact that time slows in high gravity. What can you do to keep your interest alive?
Angry internet fights rarely contribute anything positive to the world — but in physics, they can be wonderfully reinvigorating. After being told for much of one's primary education that physics has all the answers, it's refreshing to see that sometimes physicists can't even agree on the questions. More importantly, it's fascinating to see people who really know what they're doing fight — whether they do it inside or outside a cage.
Look in the right places and you can see everyone from students to Nobel prize winners rip into each other about which interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, or whether loop quantum gravity or string theory is the way forward. And just like any other kind of fight, when you see the professionals go at it, you'll want to study up so you can appreciate what they're doing
A writer I once read compared math to torture. When she was a child, she didn't see the relationship between the part of the equation on one side of the equals sign and the part of the equation on the other. Without that connection she couldn't understand what people wanted her to do when they asked her to solve a math problem. Every problem was just a teacher inflicting pain and misery and bizarre petty torments on her until she gave them a solution that satisfied them.
For me, math was more of a work house. I understood what I was doing and why I was doing it, but it was mental assembly line. It was a boring, repetitive slog that required careful attention to be paid to arbitrary, inconsequential details. (How could the details be anything but arbitrary, since the teacher made the problems up? A three might as well be a two might as well be a nine, for all it mattered.) A few math majors I talked to assured me that I had stopped taking classes just before math got "fun" — but really, why would I trust a math major?
The thing that reinvigorated my interest in math was something I wrote about on this site. It's a simple proof of the Pythagorean theorem. It proved not only the theorem, but that math didn't have to involve transforming oneself into the living embodiment of a tax return. It didn't have to be long rows of numbers that ended whenever an instructor is satisfied. Math can be creative and artistic and fun, and you can play with it until it gives you results that satisfy you.
This is the toughest science for me to like, probably because I could read a hundred times about what a "redox reaction" is, and it still won't be there when I search my brain for it a day later. Worse yet, chemistry consists of 118 different elements, that combine in endless ways. Approach chemistry the wrong way, and it sounds like you're just playing Magick the Gathering with more boring powers and more confusing names: "Oxygen can often be found in hydroxyl groups or carbonyl groups. Carbonyl have two variations; aldehyde groups and keto groups. Now neither hydroxyl groups or carbonyl groups should be confused with carboxyl groups — which are used primarily by dark elves." Or something like that.
The key to chemistry, is using it to show how very accustomed we are to seeing elements (and combinations of elements) only under extremely specific conditions. Sodium is the stuff that we sprinkle on potato chips, and the substance that either does or doesn't increase our blood pressure depending on what doctors are saying this week. There's billions of tons of it in the ocean. But change a few little things and it's also the stuff that explodes when it hits water.
Fertilizer decomposes an old stump, but it also makes explosives. How does something so familiar act so strange? Chemistry can explain the conditions that make familiar elements act in unfamiliar ways. (And if those unfamiliar ways include explosions, so much the better.)
Biology has hooked me only lately, and what's strange is it hooked me through a system I always hated. The Linnaean classification system seemed, for a long time, like a fussy old card catalog. Sure it was necessary to sort animals according to their lineage, but it was the scientific equivalent of bureaucracy. It was an annoying digression that took up time which should be used to look at weird animals.
And then there was Madagascar. Seeing the struggles that biologists went through to classify animals like the fossa, and laughing over the linguistic nesting doll system used to classify the tenrec gave me a new appreciation for the way classification works - and the way science works.
Science is a way of understanding relationships in the world, and relationships can be slippery things. The point is not to settle on information but to keep seeing how one piece of evidence fits with another, and how they can be recombined into a more useful, complete, and illuminating picture. Seeing how and why people are forced to revise what they know is more interesting than what they know. The more we see science as a way to grapple with the world, rather than just explain it, the more fun we can have.