It’s Mr. Darwin’s birthday, but we get the presents. Last April The Guardian put up its seven-part online Science Course, in partnership with the Science Museum in London; where, by the way, entry is free, so that’s another present.
From Part II, Life & Genetics, “Evolution and Darwin” by Tim Radford, with a good look at the life of a scientist:
He had, at the time, no idea of how living things passed their characteristics from one generation to the next, or how any modifications could happen. He was not the only prophet of evolutionary theory, but he is the one whose name will be forever linked with it, and that was because Darwin backed up a great, but incomplete idea, with a huge body of highly detailed evidence. Some of it was gathered on his voyage around the world on HMS Beagle, but most of it was assembled painstakingly through decades of observation, note-taking and inquiry, quietly at home in his study and garden at Down House in Kent. There were no “eureka moments”, dramatic pronouncements or a search for the limelight.
He probably first began to wonder about descent with modification in about 1838. He spent the next two decades simply thinking about creatures and how they varied. He wrote thousands of letters, to gardeners, foresters, naturalists, geologists, explorers, curators and keepers, asking questions, and then asking supplementary questions. He wondered about why coral atolls formed and what strange specimens pigeon fanciers could breed, the enormous variation in the domestic dog, the effect of earthworms on the ground in which they lived, and the life cycle of the barnacle.
And from Part VII, Experiments for Kids, to help children become scientists, Gabrielle Walker writes in “Get Stuck In!”,
One of my favourite scientists from history is the wonderful and chaotic Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen. He didn’t know what oxygen was, but he did know that if you mixed it with hydrogen in a bottle and then put a flame to the neck you got a satisfyingly loud explosion. He used to carry little tubes of the mix around in his pocket. When giving a lecture he would whip one out and light it to make his audiences jump. He was insatiably, exasperatingly curious.
Science has moved on since the 18th century, and these days it’s harder to stumble across fantastic new gases, but the principles Priestley followed still hold true. Real science isn’t about textbooks, it’s about experiments that are surprising, exciting and — yes, even a bit dangerous.
Doing them means taking risks, getting stuck in, finding out for yourself — using your imagination.
Kids should do scientific experiments too, for the same reason that they should write stories as well as reading them or do sport as well as watching it. Experiments encourage kids to be curious, creative and confident. Jokes make us laugh because the punchline takes us by surprise. The best experiments do the same.
So take this guide and use it, and may it show you many new ways to make yourself and your audience jump. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”
I couldn’t agree more, either with Ms. Walker or Mr. Emerson, and I think Mr. Darwin would, too. And also Mr. Priestley — who was a friend of Mr. Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus and fellow Lunatick — while we’re at it. Celebrate the bicentennial with some proper noisemakers, experiments, and big bangs, won’t you?