The March for Science: A Road Race for Nerds
April 28, 2017
Over the years, I have been to many marches and rallies of one kind or another—several of them in Washington, DC. But the emotions I felt at the March for Science in Washington, DC, reminded me less of those previous marches and more of a road race.
These days my aging knees and lungs prevent me from doing much running, but for many years I was a several-days-a-week runner. I was never particularly competitive, but I was a happy jogger. Unless you are a runner, it is hard to communicate the feeling, but for me—someone who has never pretended to be an athlete—each run followed a predictable emotional arc. I would set out with the goal of running three to five miles, and as I began, I would say to myself, “This is never going to work. How will I possibly make it?” But after settling into my usual pace, somewhere near the middle of the run, I would begin to feel like I just might finish after all. Maybe I can do this. Typically, the last miles were a kind of joyous romp as I came to fully accept that I would survive the run and make it home in good shape. The daily miracle had occurred again.
Occasionally, I would sign up for a 10k or 5k road race. I was never very competitive, so my races were just for fun. And fun they were. The atmosphere at a road race is quite special. Yes, there is pain involved. If you try to run your fastest time, you won’t get through the race without some discomfort. But the communal experience is hard to beat. There are men and women of all ages. Friends running together, workplace teams, couples, families, parents pushing babies in strollers, and the occasional unofficial canine entrant. I’ve seen people in costumes at a New Year’s Eve midnight run, and I once saw a firefighter running in full gear in the heat of the summer.
What makes these sweaty parades so special is the massive life-affirming display of health and achievement. Every runner can say, “Look at me. I ran this whole damn thing!” If you can plod your way through three miles at a decent clip, you are out at the narrow tail of the distribution. Way above average for people in the U.S. Despite all the sweat and gasping for breath, it never fails to choke me up a bit to see all those people flying down the street. I know that many of them started out like me, not believing it was possible, and after lots of work are now surprising themselves with their achievements.
Science is an achievement, too. Science is hard. Many children love to read Harry Potter books, and, given their remarkable length, that is a notable achievement, too. But choosing to read a science book is something else entirely. Science involves math and technical vocabularies. Chemical symbols and strange-looking diagrams. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, so you have to do some work to unlock the codes. People who are unschooled in science often fear it, and those who are drawn to it are labeled geeks and nerds—names that suggest the opposite of “popular.”
The March for Science was a road race for science geeks and nerds. Despite the rain in DC, spirits were high, and there was a tremendous sense of joy and pride of accomplishment. It was as though both scientists and science enthusiasts were saying, “I made the effort to learn this stuff, and—guess what?— it’s really cool stuff.” It was a unique time and place where being a science nerd was the coolest thing you could be. Suddenly we all felt like the popular kids. Bill Nye played the role of the rock star we all know he is, and there was great music and many other inspiring speakers.
In addition, the marchers for science had noble goals in mind. They wanted to save the oceans, maintain biodiversity, and prevent global warming. They wanted to cure diseases and create new energy industries to build the economy. It is hard to feel anything but admiration for people who are in favor of—and in many cases, working toward—these high-minded goals. So, in addition to celebrating science for science’s sake, there was a strong theme of using science for the betterment of all. In that sense, the March for Science was much better than a road race.
Furthermore, the March for Science was all over the country and the world. There was a particularly large crowd in Chicago, where my friend Nate Butkus, the six-year-old host of The Show About Science podcast, marched with his family, but there were marches all over Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and even Antarctica. To me, it felt like a worldwide mass movement for something really nerdy and important.
I’d never experienced anything like the March for Science before, and I came away from the weekend believing we need to do much more of this. There are school science fairs; there is Earth Day; and there is a growing crop of science podcasts. These are all great things, but science fairs are limited to the young, and Earth Day is an annual picnic that isn’t always all that scientific. Many people—even quite a few scientists—have yet to warm to podcasts. It’s true, skeptics have CSICon and other meetings, but try as we may, these gatherings don’t yet have the broad appeal of a pure celebration of science and discovery. We need to do much more of this.
Here is my collection of photos from the DC march, which may give you a sense of the wonderful atmosphere of the event. First the obligatory kid pics:
Dogs were marching for science, too.
The great Carl Sagan was remembered by many:
Some science types used their technical vocabularies to create great nerd humor:
And, yes, given the anti-science actions of the new administration (and the march’s location), some of the messages were political:
And there were some important public service announcements:
And my personal favorite:
Despite the rain, it was well worth the trip. I look forward participating in the next nerd fest.