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  Discovery: The spark for science
a galaxy and water droplets
"Eureka!" or "aha!" moments may not happen frequently, but they are often experiences that drive science and scientists. For a scientist, every day holds the possibility of discovery — of coming up with a brand new idea or of observing something that no one has ever seen before. Vast bodies of knowledge have yet to be built and many of the most basic questions about the universe have yet to be answered:

  • What causes gravity?

  • How do tectonic plates move around on Earth's surface?

  • How do our brains store memories?

  • How do water molecules interact with each other?

We don't know the complete answers to these and an overwhelming number of other questions, but the prospect of answering them beckons science forward.

Even making cookies can lead to scientific questions.

Scientific questions can seem complex (e.g., what chemical reactions allow cells to break the bonds in sugar molecules), but they don't have to be. You've probably posed many perfectly valid scientific questions yourself: how can airplanes fly, why do cakes rise in the oven, why do apples turn brown once they're cut? You can discover the answers to many of these "everyday" science questions in your local library, but for others, science may not have the answers yet, and answering such questions can lead to astonishing new discoveries. For example, we still don't know much about how your brain remembers to buy milk at the grocery store. Just as we're motivated to answer questions about our everyday experiences, scientists confront such questions at all scales, including questions about the very nature of the universe.

To learn about how others have gotten involved in science and how you can develop your own scientific outlook on the world, check out this side trip:

Discoveries, new questions, and new ideas are what keep scientists going and awake at night, but they are only one part of the picture; the rest involves a lot of hard (and sometimes tedious) work. In science, discoveries and ideas must be verified by multiple lines of evidence and then integrated into the rest of science, a process which can take many years. And often, discoveries are not bolts from the blue. A discovery may itself be the result of many years of work on a particular problem, as illustrated by Henrietta Leavitt's stellar discovery …

Henrietta Leavitt
Henrietta Leavitt

Astronomers had long known about the existence of variable stars — stars whose brightness changes over time, slowly shifting between brilliant and dim — when, in 1912, Henrietta Leavitt announced a remarkable (and totally unanticipated) discovery about them. For these stars, the length of time between their brightest and dimmest points seemed to be related to their overall brightness: slower cycling stars are more luminous. At the time, no one knew why that was the case, but nevertheless, the discovery allowed astronomers to infer the distances to far-off stars, and hence, to figure out the size of our own galaxy. Leavitt's observation was a true surprise — a discovery in the classic sense — but one that came only after she'd spent years carefully comparing thousands of photos of these specks of light, looking for patterns in the darkness.

Read more about Henrietta Leavitt's investigation of variable stars.

The process of scientific discovery is not limited to professional scientists working in labs. The everyday experience of deducing that your car won't start because of a bad fuel pump, or of figuring out that the centipedes in your backyard prefer shady rocks shares fundamental similarities with classically scientific discoveries like working out DNA's double helix. These activities all involve making observations and analyzing evidence — and they all provide the satisfaction of finding an answer that makes sense of all the facts. In fact, some psychologists argue that the way individual humans learn (especially as children) bears a lot of similarity to the progress of science: both involve making observations, considering evidence, testing ideas, and holding on to those that work.

To learn more about the analogy between the progress of science and human learning, take an advanced side trip to Baby's first research.

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  • Discoveries are an exciting part of science.

  • Many important discoveries have yet to be made.

  • Discoveries and breakthroughs must be verified by multiple lines of evidence.

Misconception: Science is boring.

Correction: Science can be extremely exciting! Read more about it.

science in action
To see how the prospect of making a discovery beckons science forward, explore The structure of DNA: Cooperation and competition.

take a sidetrip
Some scientists are motivated by the prospect of discovery, but this is often supplemented by the desire to solve a practical problem. Learn more in Meeting society's needs in our Science and society section.

key points
  • Learn strategies for building lessons and activities around the Science Checklist:
    Grades 6-8
    Grades 9-12
    Grades 13-16

  • Get graphics and pdfs of the Science Checklist to use in your classroom.

  • You can help your students appreciate the excitement of scientific discoveries in many ways — for example, by discussing science news stories, new and compelling research, or the announcement of the Nobel prizes in science. Most importantly, you should model the excitement and curiosity for science that you want to inspire in your students. One way to do this is to take time to legitimately engage student questions about science topics, even if they stray somewhat from the designated content. After all, scientists do not limit their curiosity to topics narrowly defined by their previous work.

Photo of Spiral Galaxy M81 provided by NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); photo of water provided by Andrew Davidhazy; photo of Henrietta Leavitt provided by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO); food scientist photo provided by USDA

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