Studying for the MCAT: The Stories Behind the Science
November 14, 2011
As you’re already well aware, there’s a lot of science that you need to learn as a pre-med student. From physics to chemistry to biology, the number of laws, equations and concepts for you to understand and memorize can seem daunting, so it’s important that you find an easy and effective way to internalize those facts. While many students turn to handy mnemonics like RED CAT (for electrochemistry) and Kung Pao Chicken Over Fresh Green Sprouts (for taxonomy), I find that many students also enjoy learning about the stories behind how a certain principle or phenomenon was discovered and understood. While it’s often debatable whether these events actually happened, these stories provide an amusing diversion from your normal studies and may even help you remember your science lessons better.
Archimedes takes a bath
One of the most oft repeated stories of scientific discovery tells the tale of Archimedes discovering the principle of displacement. According to the common version, an ancient king supplied a quantity of gold to a blacksmith in order to create a special crown. Upon its delivery, the king suspected that the blacksmith had stolen some of the gold, but could not accurately measure the volume of the crown due to its irregular shape. The king tasked Archimedes with solving the seemingly unsolvable puzzle. One day while climbing into the bath, Archimedes noticed that the water level rose as his body displaced the fluid; he realize that by immersing the crown in water and measuring the change in volume, he could effectively measure the crown and prove the blacksmith’s treachery. Archimedes was so elated by his discovery that he leapt from the tub and ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”).
Galileo climbs a tower
The idea of constant acceleration due to gravity is typically a difficult one for introductory physics students to grasp – after all, there’s no question that a feather falls more slowly than a rock! However, I’ve found that no story better is a better example of this phenomenon than Galileo’s visit to the Tower of Pisa. The story goes that Galileo had a suspicion about this principle, but wanted to prove his point in a dramatic way. Using two balls of equal volume and shape, but different mass (one was lead while the other was wood), Galileo climbed to the top of the Tower and dropped the balls at the same time. While popular opinion (based on the beliefs of none other than Aristotle) held that the heavier ball should fall faster, the experiment showed that this wasn’t the case, as the balls hit the ground at the same time.
Fleming paints the future of medicine
While the previous two stories have certainly been embellished over the centuries, one of my favorite stories in science is much more firmly founded in truth. In 1928, Alexander Fleming was a little known biologist who had the unusual hobby of creating “paintings” in petri dishes by seeding them with specific bacteria that grew in various colors. One morning Fleming returned to his lab and, to his dismay, found that one of his most recent works had been ruined through the contamination of a rogue mold. Curiously, the area around the mold growth showed a halo of bacteria free medium, and Fleming concluded that the mold was releasing a substance that was toxic to the bacteria. The subsequent purification of the Penicillium mold and the birth of the age of antibiotics was enough to eventually earn Fleming a Nobel Prize.
Of course, there are many more amusing and amazing stories of scientific discovery out there – too many to list them all here. Not only do these tales help us to better understand and remember the principles at work in our everyday world, but they remind us that, as scientists, we too are part of the process of discovery.