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Earth Day March for Science in Washington: Think like a proton

Apparently Abraham Lincoln emerged from the grave to give his nod to science, at the April 22 March for Science in Washington, D.C. Below, marchers were creative in their sign making. Photo by Rob Bettigole

Steady rain, soggy fields, sharp-pointed umbrella ribs, and long lines at security checkpoints failed to dampen the spirits of the 12,000 or so participants in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., on Earth Day, April 22. 

People of all ages, and from all over the country, convened for the purpose of celebrating the wonders and the importance of science, as well as protesting new policies that would both decrease funding for scientific research and detract from evidence-based decision-making in health, industry, and public service. (Though one sign claimed another purpose: “I came for the pi.”) 

The crowd listened to four hours of speeches and musical entertainment, followed by the march down Pennsylvania Avenue ending at the Capitol building. As the people around us danced to the music, Rob recalled hearing Ike and Tina Turner sing at his protest debut, the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. 

The marchers included babies in strollers, toddlers on shoulders, teenagers, college students, graduate students, post-docs, doctors, professors, engineers and other active supporters of science or scientists. We met, for example, a field biologist from Seattle, a group of science majors from the University of Maryland and a professor of biochemistry at nearby George Mason University. Not surprisingly, given the size of the crowd, we did not find any familiar faces from the Northwest Corner.

After several text messages, we finally connected with a friend and fellow Nutmegger, Paul Anastas, Yale professor and the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for R&D in the first Obama administration. 

We know that many from our neck of the woods attended local marches for science. There were four satellite March for Science sites in Connecticut and over 600 worldwide. Our son, Charlie, his wife, Minna, and their daughter, Margot, marched in New Haven. 

The organizers of the D.C. march arranged an impressive variety of speakers and musical interludes. All inspired cheers and applause from the rain-soaked throng, but none more than Bill Nye (aka The Science Guy). 

The oldest scientist to enter the stage (proudly and with the aid of a walker) was 91-year-old Dr. Nancy Roman, known as Mother Hubble, former Chief of NASA’s Astronomy and Relativity Programs. Experts from nearly every field of science spoke to the crowd, sharing compelling stories of their passion for science. 

Dr. Caroline Solomon, Professor of Biology at Gallaudet University, delivered her speech in sign language, citing the significant work of other deaf scientists. Manu Prakash, born in India, recalled having no access to microscopes as a child until he built one from his brother’s eyeglasses; now his work at Stanford includes manufacturing and delivering microscopes to underserved students around the world. 

Other speakers represented the National Farmers Union, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the Academy of American Poets and a myriad of fields including public health, forensic science, firefighting, architecture and climate science.

As in recent marches and rallies, the handmade signs and targeted chants attracted great attention from photographers, film crews and fellow marchers. We came upon an amiable Tyrannosaurus Rex sporting a sign, “Have some respect for the dead! Seek alternatives to fossil fuels.” A toddler in a stroller offered his view of science: “Chemistry Blows My Mind.” Other sign bearers skipped the witty word play and simply credited science with saving their lives, citing advances in pharmaceuticals and medical intervention: “Fund Science, Find Cures” and “I’m able to walk today because of science.” 

The messages embedded in the signs and chants emphasized the need for reliance on evidence and facts and criticized the new administration’s dismissal and disdain of the scientific process. Other popular themes were peer review, climate change, STEM curricula, alternative energy, life-saving pharmaceutical developments, the impact of scientific breakthroughs on quality of life and the non-partisan nature of science.

All over the world, people marched to draw attention to the very real and vital role that science plays in our lives. As many speakers advised, all of us need to stay engaged in science and appreciate how our lives are served by the work of scientists. 

And one final piece of advice from a marcher: “Think like a proton. Stay positive.”

Barbara and Rob Bettigole live in Lakeville.