Tiktaalik, the Mpemba Effect, and the Trend Toward a More Inclusive Science

The International Astronomical Union has announced that 86 stars have gotten new official names recently, and the list boasts a welcome spate of diversity. Not only are many nations represented among these newly-christened stars, but Indigenous cultures within many of those countries are being honored in these names.

In Western classrooms a lot of popular historical anecdotes told in science textbooks and classroom lectures have emphasized the role of white, European-descended men of means. This is partly because there was a period of time when Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy were extremely economically powerful, but scientific study was largely considered a leisure activity of wealthy men, particularly the nobility. Note the many sirs and lords, like Lord Kelvin, Sir Isaac Newton, or French noble Antoine Lavoisier, who lost his head with Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution.

But this is just one period in science. Astrophysicist and public educator Neil deGrasse Tyson used to tell an amusing anecdote where he poked fun at then president George W. Bush, whom he quotes as saying “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in the context of honoring American bravery, innovation, and discovery as contrasted against Muslim extremists. Tyson points out that two-thirds of named stars, including the brightest and most visible stars, far from reflecting Christian European or American values, actually have Arabic names.

This is true because of course, prior to the Renaissance, the greatest centers of learning, art, science, and innovation weren’t in Europe. For quite some time early in the second millennium, it was in the Muslim world, when mathematical principles were being discovered (algebra and algorithms, for example) and stars named.

So it’s not just counterproductive, it’s also incorrect to paint one ethnic group as backwards or regressive. All cultures have leaps forward, stumbles, and steps back. The U.S. has experienced a growing anti-science sub-culture for a couple of decades now, but it doesn’t mean we diminish previous accomplishments or assume there won’t be more gains in the future. (In defense of Bush, note that Tyson later realized he had misremembered the timing and context of the presidential quote.)

A cursory reading of the history of science reveals no shortage of examples of non-white rich male contributions, ranging from Ancient Egypt to the Reconstruction-Era United States (George Washington Carver, black American scientific genius born during the Civil War, I’m looking at you).

I’d also like to give shout-outs to Michael Faraday, a poor Englishman raised by a single mother who managed to break into the club of nineteenth-century lords, peers, and other nobles even though he had to work for a living and never got to attend a fancy school and Marie Curie, who ignored the slut-shaming of her less talented male colleagues and would soon go on to collect a second Nobel Prize, in person, in a different category, with her head held high (a feat no one has yet matched).

I love the history of science, particularly the personal circumstances of the people who figured things out, and I love letting my students see themselves in these scientific revolutionaries. I teach in the downtown area of a Canadian city, and my time is split between two schools, one with a high Indigenous student population, and another with a high African and Middle Eastern immigrant/refugee population. Traditional scientific naming for newly discovered species has usually relied on Latin or Greek, but I love that the most important fossil discovery of the last 30 or more years, Tiktaalik, is from the Inuktitut name for a freshwater fish, honoring the Inuit in whose territory the missing link between fish and amphibians was found.

And if that’s a great thing to share in biology class, I also love talking about the Mpemba Effect in physics class. A 13-year-old Tanzanian boy discovered that under certain circumstances a hot liquid can actually freeze faster than one that is at room temperature, despite the greater amount of heat to be removed. He figured this out on his own, taking his own initiative to experiment and test and retest, and then took the opportunity to corner a scientist visiting his school to explain his observations. The effect is still not fully understood, but there’s been enough work there to show that this a real thing, and Erasto Mpemba is the only 13-year-old I’ve heard of to have a paper published in a professional physics journal. What a great story to share with my students who are from Tanzania or neighboring African countries.

While there is work to be done, I think over the past decades we’ve been moving in the right direction, with more nations, more diverse groups, more different kinds of personal stories joining in and shaping the shared consciousness of what science is and can be. I think we’re all going to benefit from what a deeper and more diverse pool of scientific talent is able to produce. As a teacher, my goal is to ensure that my students, from economically and politically marginalized groups, know that there’s space for them in a scientific career, too. I’m happy to say it’s becoming truer and truer over time.

Photo credit: NASA Ames Research Center

45 comments

hELEN hEARFIELD
hELEN hEARFIELD5 days ago

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Carole R
Carole R7 days ago

Thanks for posting.

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Richard B
Richard B16 days ago

thanks for sharing

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hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELDabout a month ago

tyfs

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Peggy B
Peggy Babout a month ago

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Peggy B
Peggy Babout a month ago

TYFS

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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