From rural life to the stars: a tribute to science


Dean Hiler

Of all the things I miss about rural life, the night sky is what I miss most. I think this would surprise my high school self, who lived in Watervliet, a city with a population of 1,600 and falling in rural Michigan. Big cities used to mean nightly crime on the news, rude people in a hurry, and corrupt leftist politicians. I probably imagined that I’d miss the carless open roads and friendly people. I used to think that I didn’t need to live in a big city to know I’d always prefer living out in the sticks. Plenty of country song lyrics confirmed that indelible sentiment.

The old me seems distant now — the product of a homogenous, insular kind of community that is common across the US Midwest. The years between graduating high school in Michigan and starting my first class at U of T were tumultuous years for me, but it’s fair to say the internet was a primary catalyst for these changes. What a game-changer the internet is — like a global city in which people from around the world can live. 

Granted, it enables groups with very anachronistic ways of thinking to find each other and torment the rest of us. But we don’t talk enough about how it has done the opposite as well — how the internet has allowed people who are geographically isolated and culturally insulated to get a taste of the wider world. Today, a young, rural Michigander can have a discussion on Reddit with someone in Africa, play Xbox games with someone in Asia, and listen to music from an artist in Europe before finishing their breakfast. In fact, the internet did more than just expose me to new people — it exposed me to new ideas as well. Most importantly, it gave me an appreciation for science.

I don’t know precisely how my own high school science education stacks up compared to others’, because Michigan’s science education assessments are in development. Going by the 2018 math assessment numbers, however, it probably was not very good. Only 23 per cent of the eighth graders in the Watervliet school district passed the state math assessment, and only 31 per cent of the 11th graders received a passing score on the SATs. That’s why having access to educational content online changed everything for me. 

For example, I didn’t understand or embrace the fact of evolution until I saw it explained by the scientists themselves. Even though I went to a public high school, my biology teacher told us she didn’t believe in evolution. She reluctantly taught us the core concepts, as required by the state, but in the same breath she would tell us that evolution was impossible and gave us the typical young-Earth creationist talking points. I used to feel so sorry for those poor evolutionist scientists, wasting their time on a dead theory. 

Years later, watching Richard Dawkins and other scientists explain and debate this topic, one so central to the entirety of biology, it all started to make sense for the first time. But it took time for these scientists to find their way to me by laptop and an internet connection, thousands of miles away. Even on the night that current US President Donald Trump held his last rally of the 2016 presidential election in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was a few miles down the road, attending another talk hosted by Dawkins, where I could get my books signed by him. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been at the other rally instead, if only these influential, publicly engaged scientists had decided to stick to their labs instead of cameras.

But I didn’t mean to write this piece about myself; it’s more about those things that made me into the person I am today. It’s about what forms my backbone and informs my worldviews. Science, ultimately, is such a small word with so much weight behind it. It asks its participants to hold true two seemingly opposing tasks: be skeptical and be open-minded. 

The physicist Richard Feynman once said that the first rule of science was to not fool yourself, especially since you are the easiest person to fool. What he meant was that we should always suspect that our own motives and biases may colour our work. We’re a brilliant species, but we’re also mammals who long for certainty, closure, and authority — all of which act to derail the scientific process. A dedicated scientist follows the evidence, not their ego. 

In equal measure, scientists need true open-mindedness to remain receptive to new ideas. They live awash in the culture and traditions of their upbringing and surroundings. In this way, a scientist’s mind is their prison as much as it is their primary tool, and the best way to venture out of its confines is with the help of other scientists from different backgrounds. The influx of women and other underrepresented groups entering into the sciences is like throwing motor oil on the backyard bonfire. (Which works, metaphorically speaking, but you certainly should not do this anymore because it releases a shit-ton of greenhouse gases into the air.) After all, the scientific world isn’t intuitive, so different evidence-based perspectives from people with different backgrounds can be a boon for the process. 

I think it’s important to note that science — as a tool and as a way of thinking about the world — should not be conflated with the governments and industries which have utilized it. Depending on who was asking the questions, scientists have given us answers on how to feed the hungry, as well as how to kill people halfway around the world. They have shown us how to cure diseases, as well as how to trigger a mass extinction. Knowledge is power, and there’s so much more left to be known. 

The more I study science, the more sobering this realization is. What will we learn over the next hundred years, that is unimaginable to me today? Another notion that has haunted many scientists — notably Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb — is the realization that their discoveries may bring about unintended consequences in the present and future. The late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, that our global civilization has been constructed to depend on science and technology in crucial sectors, ranging from communication, medicine, and voting, yet only a very minute subsect of the population understands science and technology.

“This is a prescription for disaster,” Sagan wrote. “We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

The key to mitigating this, it follows, would be a serious overhaul of our science education system and public outreach capacity. Encouraging more people to learn science means that it wouldn’t be solely in the hands of a powerful few. I truly believe every person is capable of understanding science, given the proper resources and time, and that we have a responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors to create a system that enables this kind of learning. 

Equally, we need the scientists we have to dedicate themselves to bettering their communication skills. There is such a diverse range of media these days — videos, podcasts, blogs, and social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram — to distribute content through. Every scientist is capable of communicating well, and they should feel a responsibility to make their findings known using current social media tools. Scientists already consider themselves educators to their colleagues — that’s why they publish papers. It’s time that their circle of dissemination is extended to the rest of society. We need it now more than ever. Scientifically illiterate politicians are a symptom of a scientifically illiterate electorate, so the onus rests in part on the shoulders of the learned.

Ultimately, science is exceptional because it showed me how to think differently, how to exist outside of a box I didn’t know I was in. No longer am I a fallen angel, but a risen ape. I’m not created special, separately, and above the rest of life’s species, nor part of a particular religion or country, favored by a creator. I’m another transient individual on the tree of life — a newly formed bud, hopeful that the things I do today will become a branch to hold the weight of those who sprout after me. 

While science doesn’t create the ethical frameworks we live by, it can certainly inform and alter them — or at least it should. Science has also given me a sense of gratitude that I am alive today in the immensity of space and time that surrounds me. Earth has an unfathomably long history of change; billions of years of shifting continents, volcanism, the evolution of life, and the occasional asteroid impact have all resulted in various lands, oceans, atmospheres, and lifeforms. 

Earth might as well have been a different planet during each eon, but each one had to happen for me, as I exist now, to be here. The early bombardments of asteroids brought water I can drink, the Great Oxygenation Event made an atmosphere I can breathe in, and an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. In short, so much history has led up to me being late for class because of another delay on the TTC. And by putting our lives in perspective, we realize that we shouldn’t complain about subway delays. Instead, maybe we should thank a tree we don’t know for our next breath.

Science has also given me a sense of connectedness to the universe. The iron in my blood, the calcium in my dog’s wagging tail bones, and the carbon exhaled in a deep laugh all were likely manufactured through the life and death of one or more dying, collapsing stars that pre-dated our own sun. 

How lucky am I to be privy to this intimate detail about myself — to know that I am stardust, conscious and aware? How many generations of our species have spent their lives looking up at the stars and wondering what they were? There have been prophecies, omens, heroes, calendars, kings, gods, and ancestors offering up different explanations. Since antiquity, we’ve looked up and postulated, making the stars central to our lives and cultures, long before our light pollution hid them from view. Yet, here I am in my banality and mediocrity, lucky to be born in one of the first generations to ever have the knowledge that I am, in some way, like them. How can I ever feel down about myself again? What setback or heartbreak can ever take this away from me? 

My ancestors 10, 20, or 100 thousand years ago experienced suffering I’ll never come close to experiencing. So much of that is thanks to scientific advancements made only in the last 50 years. I wish I could go back in time and tell the great scientists what we’ve discovered with their life’s works. Standing on the shoulders of these giants who no longer have their eyes open seems so unfair somehow. Sometimes, I imagine how these conversations might go. They often end up comical or with me being burned at the stake. 

Instead, I’ll have to be content telling people in the present and future about the fruits of science, how they can help and harm us, and why it matters to us and the rest of the planet. I can tell people why I went into the earth sciences — a nexus of chemistry, physics, biology, and the immensity of time. I can tell people why I miss looking up at the stars back in Michigan. Sagan’s words from his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space echo in my mind:

“Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the only home we’ve ever known.”

I’m no astronomer, but I think his message can be applied across all of the sciences. Science has shown me things I never would have believed before, taken me places in the world I never thought I would get to see, and given me an appreciation for things I used to take for granted. And I know I have the scientists who came before me, those in my life today, and those who will come after me to thank for that.


Illustrations by Iris Deng

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