As a retired scientist, one of the things I regret is that I was not taught how to communicate scientific data and their significance to the general public. As a result, I did not try to educate the students that worked with me to do this either. Now that I have time and believe that scientific results are increasingly important for our species and have been given the chance to write for the Times-Standard, I will try to repair some of my past omissions. One of the most remarkable things the human species has done over thousands of years is to develop ideas about how our world works. We test those ideas with experiments or gathering of data from various sources.
Local scientists have used the scientific method to do some wonderful things for our community. A Humboldt State University professor, Dr. George Allen did an experiment about raising fish in a mixture of wastewater from the sewage treatment plant and bay water. This experiment was successful. Then Dr. Robert Gearheart, HSU environmental engineering professor, and some students designed an experiment to create ponds with plants that would clean wastewater by passing it through several of these ponds. This experiment was a big success and is now the Arcata Marsh. This idea is now being used in hundreds of communities around the world to treat wastewater.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves what science is about. A recent letter to the editor of the Times-Standard noted that the redwoods are a main draw for visitors to our region. These magnificent trees make this a wonderful place to live, but will they continue to survive here over time? In order to find an answer to this question, scientists need to develop concepts about the past climate on our planet and its consequences for redwood trees. The idea to test could be: What has restricted the coastal redwoods to a narrow strip along the Pacific Ocean from southern Oregon to central California? Botanists who study fossils of trees have discovered that redwoods were much more broadly distributed 160 million years ago. Redwoods were found along the ocean in Asia and Europe and in much of the western U.S. and Canada. What happened to those trees and what has restricted their distribution along our coast? Scientists started looking for redwood fossils in our area and found that redwoods have been here for a little less than 20 million years. Data about the climate over this time period strongly suggest that the frozen areas of the last Ice Age limited the distribution of redwood trees to the coast. Is this explanation for the location of our redwood trees accurate or could there be other explanations? Perhaps the development of a disease killed redwood trees, and only coastal redwoods managed to stay alive to reproduce? Science is about testing ideas that seem most likely and then gathering data to see if the prediction of the idea is supported by the data. What is clear is that new ideas and new technologies produce new data that can help us study this local question of the distribution of redwood trees or even larger puzzles such as the origin of our universe.
What I hope to do in this column is to get scientists in our community to write about science in a way that is clear to our readers. I will also write about new scientific studies that I think are important for all of us to understand. I am fascinated by what scientists are discovering about our brains and the origins of consciousness. I’m also reading about black holes and what they say about the origin of our universe, and whether the universe is really real.
Rollin Richmond is an emeritus professor of biology and emeritus president at Humboldt State University. He has worked as an evolutionary geneticist at several universities during his career. Questions or comments about this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.