YES! Magazine – Issue 81, Spring 2017
It’s time to look up, look around, and take note because the planet and democracy need you
Up against the White House’s “alternative facts” and attempts to hide climate data, can new allies—citizens and science—prevail against politicians and corporations?
After he moved to London in his early 20s, Luke Howard became obsessed with the weather. Howard had a day job running a pharmacy business in the 1790s and early 1800s, but he spent a lot of his spare time staring at the sky. He collected a set of makeshift weather instruments—glass thermometers; a hygrometer (to measure moisture in the air) cobbled together from a wire spring and a strip of whalebone; and a barometer attached to an old astronomical clock that he bought secondhand and repaired himself. He and his business partner, William Allen, started a science club of a dozen or so members, all men, who met in each other’s houses to give talks about a range of subjects like chemistry, astronomy, and mineralogy. When he was 30, Howard presented to the group three names he had come up with for different types of clouds—cirrus (from the Latin for “curl of hair”), cumulus (referring to a pile), and stratus (a “horizontal sheet”). The talk was a hit, and he published a version of the lecture a year later in a science magazine. And the names stuck: Howard’s cloud categories are still used by professional meteorologists.
This was science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—a buzzing world of nerds and amateurs trying to document the workings of the world in their spare time. It was less an institution than a labor of love, like sculpture or poetry. London was a kind of hub, full of scientific societies and clubs—they were like the maker faires, the do-it-yourself collectives, the hack-a-thons of the Enlightenment. In the United States, there was a flurry of interest in collecting plant and animal specimens and documenting the natural history of North America. The barriers of the time kept certain people out of science. (There were few scientists of color, although women managed to push their way into influential scientific circles in Europe and America, and Black inventors made important technological contributions in the United States.) Still, the technology for making scientific observations was cheap, much was unknown, and nearly anyone with the means available could make a major contribution.
Then, somewhere between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, science took a turn. As it became more powerful, sophisticated, complicated, and better funded, it disappeared behind the walls of ivory towers and corporate labs. Since the 1970s, support for science has become a partisan issue in the United States, as conservatives’ faith in science keeps declining. Fifty-eight percent of Europeans say they can’t trust scientists because they are too influenced by corporate money. Science culture is now elitist, say its detractors.
Have we forgotten what science is actually for?