Director's Letter

Winter 2019

The Surprising Side Effects of Being Human in 2019


"That’s funny."

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once noted that this phrase—not "Eureka!"—is the most exciting thing a scientist can say. I've been a scientist at the Smithsonian for 40 years, and in that time I've heard plenty of variations of "Hunh…that’s odd."

One of the greatest goals of science is to make the world more predictable. And yet, as scientists, we're constantly surprised. Research has a way of revealing hidden connections or unexpected consequences we never imagined until we took a closer look. Often, it’s not “the exception that proves the rule,” but rather the exception that reveals how a rule or ecological process works. Such surprises provide new ways of looking at a problem, insights that often unlock solutions.

That's especially true for the environment, and it's especially true now. If we want to heal our planet for the next century, we need to understand how it works. Farmers, fishers, business owners, policymakers, military personnel—we all depend on accurate predictions. We need to know how high sea levels could rise by 2050, or where the next deadly wildfire is most likely to strike. Most importantly, we need to know what actions we can take that stand the best chance of success.

This year, SERC scientists have helped uncover several unexpected ways humans are transforming their environments. High carbon dioxide is causing wetland plants to shrink? Yes—and that could be an unlooked-for blessing. Fishing too many male blue crabs in the Chesapeake is causing some females to suffer "sperm limitation"? Yes—and that could become a problem, so I'm thankful our Fisheries Conservation Lab discovered it early. Ocean plastic is enabling invasive species to raft across the Pacific? Check—and we've pinpointed some of the species most likely to thrive once they reach shore.

But 2019 hasn't been only about unintended side effects. I've also witnessed many positive ways people inside and outside the Smithsonian are transforming the world for the better.

Our marine biologists have joined forces with Ben Lecomte and the Vortex Swim team, to study plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This September, I was also proud to see our staff host our first event to target zero waste: the Chesapeake Music Festival. Part of the Smithsonian's Year of Music, the festival was a joint effort by SERC and the Arundel Rivers Federation. More than 400 people gathered on our hilltop overlooking the Rhode River, drinking craft beer, listening to Bay folk music and learning about the Bay's history and traditions. Everything offered was either recyclable or compostable. We were even able to convince the food trucks not to sell plastic bottled water.

The world is full of people eager to make change. Without good science, we're groping for solutions in the dark. Time and time again, science has shown us that the world is more beautifully complicated than we dreamed. Our mission at the Smithsonian is to find the hidden and unexpected connections, and use that knowledge to make the world better.

Your support enabled us to do this in 2019. You can make more of these moments possible in 2020. Because the phrase, "That's funny," is often just a few steps behind "Eureka."

-Anson "Tuck" Hines, director