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Davis, California

Monday, June 17, 2024

Column: Ask lots of questions

I’m writing this column from high above Nebraska. I’m on a plane to Champaign, Illinois – the city where I plan to work and live after graduation.

Every time I fly, I remind myself that 100 years ago, a four-hour trip from California to Illinois would have been a miracle. The same can be said for my laptop. Technology has come a long way.

In two years of writing a column about science, I’ve run across a lot of discoveries that sound too weird to be true. There was the doctor who figured out how to grow human cartilage in a Petri dish. There were the scientists who put a basin of liquid xenon in a mine shaft in order to study invisible dark matter. One of my favorite sources was the UC Davis undergraduate student who uncovered an ancient oil lamp at an archeological dig in true Indiana Jones style.

So many little miracles.

I’m not a religious person. In a column last year, I referred to myself as an atheist. But I’ve changed my mind. The world is too complex for me to decide on one way of thinking.

While my rational brain (what a neurologist would call my prefrontal cortex) knows that life was created by a series of chemical reactions and spurred along by natural selection, the rest of my neurons shout “WHY?”

Why should some wasps lay their eggs inside living caterpillars? Why should earwig mothers have fungicidal saliva? Why are rabbits and guinea pigs the only mammals that don’t get motion sickness?

Nature writer Annie Dillard once wrote, “The creator has pizzazz.”

I don’t know if there’s a creator, but covering science has shown that I’ll never know everything.

When the plane took off this morning, our seats shuddered with every bump on the runway.

The kid sitting in the row behind me turned to his dad.

“This is freaking me out,” the boy said, laughing.

This kid didn’t know about the physics responsible for holding up the plane. He didn’t know how the engines worked or that the wing designs had been put through many wind tunnel tests.

Still, he thought flying was awesome.

The world is overwhelming.

It’s been through my study of science for the last four years that I’ve realized how much I don’t know. Now I just have to decide if that’s freaky or awesome.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT wonders if there is something wrong with her in-flight television. Are the “Simpsons” supposed to look neon green? Madeline can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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