“Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.” –Arthur Schopenhauer
You’ve probably heard the story, by now, of Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old girl who performed a mildly dangerous chemistry experiment on school grounds, mixing together household cleaner and aluminum inside a sealed container. You can get the full story (excellently covered) via DNLee, but to give you the 15-second version, she was arrested, expelled, and is presently being charged with a felony that carries up to 5 years in prison. The school board is not backing down, the attorney general has not (yet) dropped the charges, and there’s been a tremendous outcry surrounding this from all over the world.
Now, the vast majority of you reading this — at least my regular audience — will be beyond outraged at this. But I’m well aware that there’s also a large group of people out there who stand behind a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of unsafe behavior on public school grounds, and so even though this isn’t what the rule was designed to address, they feel that Kiera needs to face whatever legal consequences ensue. All other issues aside (and there are plenty of other issues), it is this latter viewpoint that I’d like to address.
This is Earth, the planet we were all born on. It doesn’t look very different from how it looked some 15,000 years ago, at least, not from this view. But over the past few millenia, as a species, we’ve certainly left quite a mark on the world.
This didn’t happen overnight, or in a generation, or in a lifetime, or even in a dozen lifetimes. It happened because of two reasons: because of fundamental science and applied science. Let me explain.
Everything in our daily experience is not what we think of as fundamental. All the colors, sounds, sights, and macroscopic objects that make up everything we’ve ever experienced is made up of even smaller, more fundamental things.
Living creatures are made up of cells, cells are made up of even smaller organelles and other forms of protoplasm, each of those are composed of molecules, which in turn are made up of atoms, and finally, by splitting atoms apart into the most fundamental particles that we know of in the Universe, we arrive at something truly fundamental. We arrive at indivisible particles, ones that we can no longer break up into anything simpler, no matter how hard we try, how much energy we have, or whatever reactions we subject them to.
That’s the most fundamental science that there is: understanding the basic constituents of the Universe. This also extends not just to the matter and energy we know of, but also to the fundamental nature of space and time, which — after all — contains the whole Universe.
That’s fundamental science, and it tells us what the most basic things in the Universe are and the laws that govern them.
But if all we did was investigate these fundamental things, probing smaller and smaller, to deeper and simpler physical truths, we’d never have the world we enjoy now, and we’d never have figured out some amazing truths about existence, the heavens, and our Universe.
Because fundamental science tells you how these indivisible entities exist and fundamentally interact, but it doesn’t tell you how they react with one another, how they assemble into larger structures, how they store and/or release energy, and a whole host of other things.
That’s what I call applied science, or the science of how these fundamental things behave in the presence of one another.
How quarks and gluons assemble into protons, neutrons, and other atomic nuclei? That’s the applied science of nuclear physics.
How nuclei and electrons assemble into atoms and molecules, including their reactions? That’s atomic physics and chemistry, both organic and inorganic.
How these molecules work biochemically to explain all the processes involved with life? That’s biochemistry, biology and many specific sub-fields.
And it’s through the application of all these different branches of science — plus many more — that we were able to create the world we live in today.
But in order to do that — and in order for us to continue to advance, move forward, and create an even better world for ourselves — we need to learn how it works. We need to learn the various fundamentals and applications of our science and technology, we need to develop our engineering skills, and we need to try novel things that we’ve never tried before.
In other words, we need to experiment.
Sometimes, experiments work perfectly. I’ve heard stories of that being the case, I really have. But far more frequently, experimentation involves setbacks, property damage, and occasional injury. Just as a teenager, I shocked myself with some 600 Volts multiple times, shattered glassware, temporarily blinded myself, and burned myself and my clothing with 14 molar sulfuric acid. (Which could’ve been worse; I had diluted it from 18 molar! And you wonder why I became a theorist.)
Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, and pretty much every one of the great (and even the not-so-great) inventors, engineers and scientists that you know of were curious enough to engage in this. Either they tried to take some part of the world apart, and find out how it worked and what made it up, or tried to put things together, to see how they fit, how they reacted and combined, or what new things they could build out of them.
The result of all that?
The entire modern world! If it weren’t for this process — exploration, invention, innovation — and all the people who’ve contributed to it over all of human history, we wouldn’t have the world we have now. And, what’s more than that, if we stop allowing (or even stop encouraging) people from learning, exploring, and making the world better, we’re not going to get a better world. That’s just the plain truth.
Which brings me back to Kiera. I’m very optimistic that Kiera Wilmot will have all charges against her dropped, that she’ll be admitted to the college of her choice (and — if she’s reading this — if you want to go to Lewis & Clark College, contact me and I’ll see what I can do), and that she’ll have a fulfilling life doing whatever it is she wants, whether it’s science-related or not. I’ve also made an AI-powered collection of articles, continuously updating in real time, on Kiera for you to follow here. This is a topic that touches us all, because it’s not just about one young woman and her life and career, but it’s about what we value as a society, and what kind of world we want to build.
So think about it. Think about what we know. What we’ve learned. What we care about, and how we’re going to make the world better. I’m confident, at the end of the day, we all want the same things.