Falling in Love With Science: Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within”

Although science—especially the science of biology—has always fascinated me, I have to admit that my proficiencies lie in other fields. Therefore, I have never legitimately considered science as a career field, and subsequently, I believe I developed several misconceptions as to what the life of a scientist can be like. When I picture “scientist,” I imagine a lab coat-clad, goggled, clipboard-scribbling person standing in a sterile white room full of bubbling green beakers. However, as “The Universe Within” proved to me, science does not have to be contained to a lab. Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within” lecture, in addition to discussing interesting facts about the constantly changing and incredibly interconnected universe, contained several fascinating anecdotes about breakthrough scientists who were not at all what I expected.

An astronomer hired a group of women to investigate the stars and collate data, and even though this was right at the beginning of women being allowed to have higher education, one of these brilliant females developed a new way to measure distance in space—something that no one had ever done before and that astronomers have been using ever since. A geologist decided to perform an experiment with himself as the subject, and isolated himself in a cave for weeks on end to test the sleep cycle of humans when left au naturel. Even Shubin himself spent months living in frigid conditions in the hopes of discovering the fossil of a flat-headed fish that would serve as the so-called missing link between water-dwelling and land-walking organism. He did, in fact, find it.

It was fascinating for me to hear examples of successful scientists making discoveries in very different ways, and even more interesting when I realized that what these scientists did directly relates to the concepts we learn in class. Neil Shubin’s investigation of the fish fossil connected directly to our evolution unit. One of the pieces of evidence he used to show a relationship between his flat-head fish and later tetrapods was comparative anatomy, something we studied when talking about evidence of evolution. On a diagram of his fossil, he pointed out to the audience small indications of limbs, which were similar to the limbs of tetrapods and showed how his fish could be the linking point between fins and legs. Shubin’s work was also an example of how the fossil record provides scientists with an evolutionary history of the world.

The geologist’s experiment also connected back to biology lessons from last year, when we learned about circadian rhythm. Although as humans our sleep schedules can seemingly change all the time with the invention of electric lights, this geologist figured out that when our life patterns are left up to nature, our natural circadian rhythm prevails and we fall into a pattern that matches this world to which we’ve adapted- twelve hours awake, twelve hours asleep.

The work of the female astronomers was not as directly related to biology, but it still showed me an example of how scientists look at data and extrapolate from it—something we do often in class when we work on labs to collect data of our own or work with data from others’ experiments.

Shubin’s entertaining and illuminating lecture taught me about the interconnectedness of the universe, and how I— and everyone else in the room— came simultaneously from stardust and a flat-headed fish. However, more than just teaching me about the sciences, Shubin’s lecture taught me about the scientists, and showed me that those fictional people in lab coats I had imagined are not wholly exemplary of what it means to participate in science. As the astronomers, geologists, and Shubin himself exemplify, the most important things for a scientist to be are dedicated, deliberate, and desirous of finding truth by any means necessary. To do science the right way, one must follow in Shubin’s footsteps: fall in love with something and follow it around the world.

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