Anyone who pretends that science is all about rationality really isn’t a very scientific observer. It’s easy to see that nerds are captivated by the standout stories from the history of science – I hope we’ve all felt that sense of overwhelming wonder as we imagine being the first man on the moon, or standing side by side with Darwin as he got his first glimpse of the animals on the Galapagos Islands. And our trips to historic scientific sites do seem a bit like pilgrimages to the scientific holy land.
I remember as a small nerd visiting the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, where I hopped from side to side of the Greenwich Meridian. I knew that it was only an imaginary line, but I got a real kick out of seeing it – even at the time I realised this was pretty irrational.
But if we puny humans are going to be the tools of science then we need to recognise our limitations – we’re not machines, and we’re not very objective. We love neat results, breakthrough discoveries, and paradigm shifts. We love visiting the places where science happened and saying ‘I’ve been there’.
To me, this is no bad thing. I hope everyone who’s a science fan can remember a few amazing scientific events that caught their imagination – you certainly don’t usually get into science (or science communication) for the money.
Every now and again I need to remind myself why I love science – not often, but sometimes. And then it helps to have some memories of nerdy pilgrimages to draw on. Like when I nearly fell out of a canoe in Australia because our guide had spotted an echidna on the bank and I was TOO EXCITED. Or when I arrived in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos islands, and saw marine iguanas lounging on the pavement.
I’d already seen pictures and videos of echidnas and iguanas, but seeing these animals in their natural habitat symbolised something to me. A connection to my childhood memories, and to the things that made me fascinated with the natural world in the first place. It doesn’t make rational sense, but I felt like I had to see the Galapagos at least once in my life.
These nerdy trips don’t need to be anywhere exotic (although it’s sometimes more fun that way). In fact, there’s a lovely website called Nerdy Day Trips that can give you some ideas for wherever you are (mainly in the UK and US, but other places too – or you can add your own!).
For example, you can visit the site of the (relatively) famous Broad Street pump in London (on what’s now Broadwick Street in Soho), which gave epidemiologist John Snow the clue for his discovery that cholera was spread through contaminated water.
Or you can stroll around London watching out for blue plaques – which transform otherwise ordinary houses into the scene of interesting moments in scientific history – whether it’s the birth of an honorable nerd like Alan Turing or the site of a remarkable event like the first demonstration of TV. Alice Bell has also written a nice blog post about sciency plaques.
Much as I love an unexpected science landmark, I also really enjoy planning my next nerd pilgrimage. I’ve always wanted to visit the Amazon rainforest, and (perhaps because I still own a beloved toy version) I would love to see a Toco toucan in the wild. It’s one of my goals in life, along with seeing a wild chameleon and riding in a fighter jet to the edge of space. Hey, a girl can dream!
A science pilgrimage is a wonderful thing – combining a devotion to rationality with the irrational joy of discovery and wish fulfilment. I don’t think a good scientist can function without that feeling of joy – it’s something you should never lose. Let’s face it – jobs in science can be pretty frustrating, and anything that rekindles that joy and reminds you why you get out of bed in the morning has got to be worthwhile.