If you spend more than five minutes a day on social media (and I think we know that you do), our Celebrations of National You-Name-It Day are getting a little out of hand. Did you know today, November 6, is both National Saxophone Day and Marooned Without a Compass Day? It’s true!
And yet…in the category of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…somehow, there isn’t a Science Day or a Science Appreciation Day or even a Science Teacher Appreciation Day. Well, not really. I don’t count pi day, March 14, because that’s really about mathematics. And it’s true that every day may as well be called Tech Industry Appreciation Day. But that’s not the same as telling your kids “Today is Science Day.”
This website, nationalwhateverday.com, tries to provide a 365-day calendar of all of our various commemorative days. If you enter “science” into the search field, you get no love. However, if you google, you’ll learn that there’s a facebook group that’s trying to bring India’s Science Day, February 28, to America.
That’s not bad. Though it might be a little weird to name an American Commemorative Day after an Indian scientist’s birthday. More concerning is the fact that a quick look at nationalwhateverday confirms that that day is already taken up by Floral Design Day, National Tooth Fairy Day, Public Sleeping Day, and Rare Disease Day. Oh, it only seems like I’m making this up.
On the other hand, November 10 offers three distinct advantages. One is that as of now, again according to nationalwhateverday.com, it’s only occupied by National Forget-Me-Not Day – I think we can safely Forget That. Second and more importantly, it’s already the United Nations’ official World Science Day.
Third, it comes the day before Veteran’s Day. This I love, and I’m going to tell you why, but first I’m going to express my happiness that Veteran’s Day has become a much bigger thing in recent years. In the not-so-distant past – the second Bush administration – banks and schools treated Veteran’s Day as an optional Monday off, at best. Only recently has November 11 become The Day That You Take Off of Work or School No Matter What. As a holiday, it’s set at a particular date in a way that only three other are: Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the Fourth of July. Of course, we should honor our veterans every day, but we should also have a day (or two or three) to honor them more, and I’m glad that in our era of National Bittersweet Chocolate With Almonds Day (that’s tomorrow, November 7) and Chaos Never Dies Day (November 8), we haven’t forgotten that the men and women who served their country deserve more than two words on a calendar; they deserve the tribute of our disrupted routines in order that we afford them our gratitude and respect.
In fact, anyone willing to put on our nation’s uniform and be put in harm’s way deserves all the help the rest of us can give them, and that’s where science comes in. Scientific accomplishments are deeply connected to our military history, in ways not always acknowledged by history books or wikipedia. For example, America wasn’t exactly thrilled when Mexico killed hundreds of Americans at the Alamo in 1836. There were several political reasons why it took another decade to declare war, but in 1844 James Polk was able to run and win on a bellicose platform for President knowing that he could use the brand-new electric telegraph system to help him plan diplomatic and, if necessary, military maneuvers. (The 1844 telegraph message that became well-known during Polk’s campaign was, appropriately, “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”) Though it took the entire war to build relay stations all the way to the Texas border, Polk skillfully manipulated his nearest diplomats, officers, and troops (stationed throughout the East Coast) in a manner no previous President, nor contemporary Mexican one, could possibly match. It was the first war we ever won easily.
Our next cakewalk came a half-century later, also invaluably assisted by new technology. When you think of the Spanish-American War, do you think of searchlights? You should. Americans weren’t only motivated to go to war with Cuba because of William Randolph Hearst, racist imperialism, and a sense of boredom after the closing of the Western frontier; we had also watched the English, French, and Italians accelerate their scramble for Africa with the advent of massive spotlights. Warships had always had problems sending soldiers on shore; turns out that if your night warship shines massive kilowattage at land troops, their guns tend to miss a lot more. (When blinded, it’s not as easy to aim for and shoot out the lights as you might think.) Of course, this strategy works a lot better on initial naval invasion than it does during a traditional ground campaign – 1890s searchlights weren’t easy to transport, especially over land – as the Italians found out the hard way in Ethiopia. That’s one reason that our “Spanish-American War” extended to islands all over the Pacific Ocean but not to the innermost reaches of Spain itself. You might say we hurried to shine lights on Spain’s territories about a year before Spain could send its own counter-wattage. As in the 1840s, scientists saved the lives of countless hundreds of Americans who would have otherwise died in far more evenhanded fighting.
From the very first tanks, introduced in the middle of World War I, which swung that conflict to the Allies, to the A-bomb of 1945, to McDonnell-Douglas, to the moon landing, to whoever invented the internet (thanks Al Gore! or not), to the Patriot-versus-Scud battles of the First Gulf War, science has been our military’s best friend. Now I know you’re already thinking 21st century: if we have better drones than them, why haven’t we “won”? Well, technology invaluably assists well-defined goals like the surrenders of Mexico, Spain, Germany, Japan, and Iraq. But drones can’t win a “war on terror” partly because no one can agree on the conditions of victory. Certainly, drones have minimized our losses, and tech has helped our casualties – compared to Vietnam, a vet who loses a leg has a significantly better chance of someday walking again. One way ISIS superseded Al-Qaeda was by picking up our old drones and reverse-engineering them; we’re now at a science stalemate with them. (ISIS is nothing if not internet-savvy, slyly using YouTube videos for recruitment and intimidation.) History teaches us that our military is far more effective when we press our scientific advantage.
You know this paragraph is coming, but I’ll make it quick: writers and politicians who question the science behind well-established phenomena like evolution and global warming aren’t just kowtowing to the wrong people; they’re putting our troops in harm’s way. When science is stigmatized, kids pay less attention to science, and we fail to cultivate the Samuel Morses, Thomas Edisons, Robert Oppenheimers, and Jonas Salks who have, through their innovations, saved the lives of thousands of American soldiers and probably even more enemy combatants and civilians. The tech industry, which has become the hub of the American economy, will continue to recruit most of its new engineers from around the world, but we can’t rely on Google, Facebook, and Apple to win future wars for us; we need science to get the same love in American schools as it did in the 1960s, when Sputnik and John F. Kennedy challenged kids to think of us as a polity that, if it tried, could land on the moon.
So let’s hook up with the U.N. and start celebrating National Science Day on November 10th. When the anchors on Today, CBS This Morning, Good Morning America, The View, The Five, Morning Joe, Fox and Friends, and the other shows spend those hours commemorating veterans on November 11th, Veteran’s Day – as is absolutely appropriate – let them take an equally appropriate minute to check on yesterday’s bread mold or photosynthesis experiment. Science and our military go together like peanut butter and jelly. Let their commemoration days stand together as well.