Science with Richard Bleil
Yes, today is National Mole Day. Or, perhaps more appropriately, National Mole Half Day since it officially runs from 6:02 AM to 6:02 PM. It’s a clever play on time, since the mole is accepted to be 6.02×1023 (although I’m not sure if WordPress does superscripts, so let’s say 6.02×10^23). More precisely, it’s 6.02214076×10^23. The reality is that we do not know the “exact” value. Much like the speed of light, or absolute zero, or pi, more and more digits are added and verified periodically.
One mole is a number. It’s no different from a dozen being 12. Or a score being 20. Or a gross being 144. A mole is an integer, but it doesn’t look like one to our eyes because it is always written in scientific notation, and it’s written in scientific notation because nobody wants to write 602,214,076,000,000,000,000,000 every time we write it out. It’s actually six hundred and two million trillion. To put this into some perspective, the national debt is currently about twenty-seven trillion dollars, or twenty-two million times smaller than a mole.
But National Mole Day isn’t just a day to celebrate a number. The American Chemistry Society coined the day to celebrate and raise awareness of chemistry and science in general. In the most general terms, science is simply using the scientific method of hypothesizing and testing to answer questions. Anybody can be a scientist, and, indeed, everybody is. Today I’m studying guitar and piano. I’m asking questions about what sounds are best together and trying to figure out why. Every time I sit and try out different notes together, I’m experimenting. It’s science.
When I attended my undergraduate university, my major was part of the College of Arts and Sciences. One day, many years later as I was teaching, I got to thinking about this seemingly odd pairing of art with science. Is it reasonable? That led me to a question that I enjoyed asking my students in a class I was teaching (a forensic science course in which I was the adjunct professor while working as the director of a forensic lab). What is the difference between art and science?
It’s a fun question to ponder, and some of the most obvious answers fail to answer the question. Art begins with the artist thinking about what might be the best medium to express their desire. Science does the same thing, but we call it a “hypothesis”, a guess as to the best answer for our question. Science works with experimentation to find the best answer possible. An artist does the same, experimenting with pigments on a canvas or the notes of a song. Every answer my students sent forth I celebrated and showed that the same was true in the other.
Of course, without science so many venues of art would not be possible. Early cave dwellers (insert your favorite joke about the other political party) learned about natural pigments from various plants that can stain their walls, giving rise to the earliest art. But, indeed, wasn’t it exploring the world around them and experimenting with these staining plants that gave rise to the medium for the cave painting?
As it turns out, cave dwellers invented brain surgery, and they were quite successful at it. This started with observation. No doubt, they would notice that one of their own would fall and hit their head and hasn’t woken up since. They would take the sharpest rock tools they had, cut away the scalp and remove pieces of the skull that didn’t look like it was in the right place, even using the tool to cut and smooth the skull. We know this is the case because of skulls that have been found with bone that seemed to be chiseled away. What’s more, the bone would often show signs of healing, meaning that the individual survived the procedure long enough for the healing process to occur. Looking at skulls that showed signs of the surgery and the percentage that showed signs of healing leads some scientists to believe that these ingenious cave ancestors of ours had a higher success rate than doctors in the first world war.
We often don’t think about science and what it has brought to our society, although thanks to the pandemic the advances and mechanisms of science has been thrown in our faces recently, as well as the dangers of those who fear it. The brain surgeries of the cave dwellers became a mechanism of superstition when the procedure began to be used to treat other conditions like headaches believed to “release demons”. Today, fears of science are being sowed for political gain, and far too many people are buying into it. Science nearly eradicated polio, and yet today it’s on the rise again as people are buying into the holistic belief that natural remedies are somehow better. The work of virologists has given rise to a vaccine that, as the one during the black plague did, has the potential to fight back and eradicate Covid-19, but for a far-too-large swath of society that is ignoring science out of superstitious fears with no foundation in reality. As for me, I’ll take the word of science over fear and superstition.