Friday, April 9, 2010

A smorgassboard of writing by 20th and 21st century scientists and why we should care (Books - The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing)

I find that there is too little appreciation among the commonly educated person of what science does (as opposed to, say, the average understanding of the value of the medical practitioner whose practice is served by science but is not, generally speaking a scientist). I feel I should do more frequent science posts along with my book posts to address this imbalance! This post will give you some of each.

Science's functional value is its way of understanding the phenomena we experience in our world. Science is reserved in many minds as the realm of fact - the way we achieve certainties - which distinguishes it from the realm of belief, and neither the twain shall meet. However, science is, actually, the realm of probability. It is belief that travels in the realm of certainty. One can only achieve certainty through faith - a ceaseless practice that is most obviously valuable when it ignores the experience of our senses. For example, the Jewish practice of saying Kaddish when one has lost a loved one. Kaddish is a mourning ritual, but it is not a prayer of mourning, it is a ritual of praising the source of life in the face of loss. One can see the value of such a practice for the mourner. 

In good science, observations of the world are collected and measured against some standard that is set beforehand. Scientists then express to the world just what we did and how likely it is that what was observed can be said to be true about the world (or some part of it).  Everyone, even the strictest of scientists, live with beliefs about the world. That is how they produce hypotheses, which are the genesis of scientific inquiry.  So belief generally precedes scientific inquiry. But because everyone possesses belief and because, time and again, our beliefs about our world have had to change, it is useful to have a system of inquiry, a method to discipline some of that certainty, so that we don't become too righteous. What is true about the world is not always obvious and, indeed, not always immediately visible. The work of transformational scientists is often to make the invisible visible. The earth, low and behold, is not flat. It really does revolve around the sun and not the sun around it. Germs really do exist, even though they cannot be seen with our eyes. Washing hands really does reduce transmission of germs and, therefore, infection. Cholera really is transmitted via drinking water. And gaining that new understanding is valuable. People derided those now commonly held truths when they were first introduced but we are better for each of those influential changes and somehow Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a host of other practices are alive and well.

In that spirit, the much revered Richard Dawkins has collected excerpts of influential science writing in English from the 20th and 21st centuries in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. I received it the other day from a colleague and have begun to happily making my way through its excerpts by physicists and chemists, mathematicians and biologists, cosmologists and paleontologists. They are as various as their creators and those I have read so far are illuminating, amusing, and provocative.

I'll give you just one bit of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of England's, Just Six Numbers (2000). In it, he describes the interrelationship of the microscopic scale of atoms, molecules, and cells and the macroscopic scale of planets, stars, and galaxies that are our cosmos. He uses the serpent devouring its own tail - an ancient symbol of endless recreation called the ouraborus - to depict the interdependence of these two aspects of our universe and how we humans exist smack in the middle, superimposing each point on that scale in scientific notation onto the ouraborus, to create a sort of quasi-mythic quasi-scientific clock.
Living organisms are configured into layer upon layer of complex structure. Atoms are assembled into complex molecules; these react, via complex pathways in every cell, and indirectly lead to the entire interconnected structure that makes up a tree, an insect or a human. We straddle the cosmos and the microworld - intermediate in size between the Sun, a a billion metres in diameter, and a molecule at a billionth of a metre.
What follows is a ode to the interrelatedness of what Rees calls inner and outer space that makes me want to immediately read his book. (Which I may do after I graduate). I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those books that leads to reading many other books. How very in the spirit of scientific inquiry. If you are interested in a volume that could whet your appetite for original writing by scientists, this is an enticing smorgassboard of excerpts as brief as they are various.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Well I hate to admit it but I have always been a bit "scared" of science and a bit intimidated by it. I majored in liberal arts in college in part because I brought this idea into my young adulthood with me that I wasn't "good" at science and yet I am extremely analytical and interested in the subject. Thank you for a great post with some links to some interesting writing on the subject. I will certainly add it to my list of books to attempt to pick up at the library and peruse.