On Science

February 28, 2007

Name anything on earth or in the sky far beyond. Think of anything that you can think of. I can bet that Science has something interesting to say about it.

Except Science, there is nothing that humans have ever done , no goal that they have ever pursued that goes beyond our self-centric nature, our ever-present temptation to irrationally hold one species to be more important than all others and one planet to be the centre of everything.

Science is the universal language – when you learn how our heart works, you learn about hearts of so many other cousins of our species. When you understand the colours flowing out of a vapour lamp, you understand the language of the same gases staring at you from the stars far away. When you can decipher that small piece of magnet lying around, you understand the history of our planet etched in the magnetic domains of the Atlantic sea floor.

All that you see with your naked eye speaks electromagnetism – brandishing proudly their charged swords, writing psychedelic hues on the vacuum slate. Their masses come mostly from the ever-boiling strong interaction fields that pop in and out of nowhere like little kids. A silent swarm of neutrinos run through your body in a breeze more gentle than any that you’ve felt.

The deepest of your emotions is a symphony of atoms – the most mellisonant tune you’ve heard is their passionate dance in your eardrum.

Gold gets its golden hue from its electrons speaking relativity. The plain crystal of salt mumbles incessantly of solid state. The glorious sun hums as its plasma whirls around its magnetic roads.

To those who can hear, it is a concert with science as the ticket. For those who cannot, deep are my condolences.

And stronger still shall be my condemnation of all that deprives one of this most glorious of feelings – poverty of the body and soul, the hunger, human cruelty and indifference, mindless wars, boundless arrogance, shameless plunder and surrender to superstition. India celebrates Science Day today – and science means much more than most of its citizens assume…


7 Responses to “On Science”

  1. Subhojoy Says:

    Well put! Could go on and on about it myself :).. but not now! But I do want to just add, although you did mention it briefly, that science – universal and unifying as it may be – is also very much a *human* pursuit. It is our innate human curiosity – our innocent bewildered childlike state as we marvel wide-eyed at the universe – that makes us try and understand it as best as we can. That ‘human’ core of science makes it all the more interesting and engaging!

  2. nayagam Says:

    ..science – universal and unifying as it may be – is also very much a *human* pursuit..

    Yes, indeed. Science is “human” in its essential core for its success depends on understanding human talents and biases. In one sense, “scientific method” (or for that matter the quest for rigour in mathematics) is all about understanding how fallible our intuitions might be and what kind of a system would be robust enough to help not so infallible people do some great work.

    To put it succinctly, Science is not great because scientists are saints but it is great because scientists need not be saints and still end up discovering things which are unbelievably profound. For example, Newton might have been an insufferable person who spent most of his time on highly dubitable theological speculations, but he was a first rank scientist nevertheless.

    And as you say, there is something quiet engaging about science – a mature passion that is a mix of child-like curiosity, a detective’s diligence, a kind of exalted honesty not to fool oneself[1] , a deep humility [2] combined with a conviction to stand for a scientific fact come what may.

    Having said that, I should hasten to add some qualifications – One should not go overboard with the “essentially human” nature of science, lest we fall prey to the temptations of our ancestors who declared abstract thought to be a prerogative of the elite castes.

    I find it an interesting question to ask whether we should provide (to at least our closest cousins like Chimpanzees) genetic and cultural environment to partake in this great endeavour called science. The third millennium of the Common Era started of with a map of both Human and Chimp genomes. Will it end with Chimp poets and philosophers, scientists and mathematicians ? Do we really have it in us to vote for a chimp prime minister(who deserves that post) to rule over us ?

    Given the difficult battles that humanity is till fighting to go beyond casteism, racism, religionism, sexism, colonialism or the kind of jingoistic nationalism that is a fashion of these days, one could be excused for believing that speciesism is here to stay. Most probably there will never come a time when a Dolphin researcher brings his unique perspective to bear upon study of marine wildlife. Probably we are too ingrained in our mammalian pride to attend a lecture by an octopus on abstract mathematics.

    But probably not. There is still space for a slender hope. And so excuse me this long (and admittedly greatly speculative) detour to qualify your opinion. Let us hope that the speciesism inherent in our “Science-is-essentially-human” rhetoric does not sound as jarring to those who come after us as the statements of those came before us[3] sounds to us.

    [1] which is more difficult than the kind of honesty which prevents us from fooling others

    [2] For example, it is amazing how (mostly unintentionally) arrogant even the most humble people sound when they are not science-aware. Many “humble” people around continue believing, for example, that somehow Humans are in an exalted position and most of them without slightest hesitation continue to look down upon their own kin who photosynthesise their food.

    [3] After all, we should remember how the sexism inherent in What will our soldiers think when they return to the University and find that they are expected to learn at the feet of a woman?” sounds jarring to our ears.

  3. Subhojoy Says:

    Well if one has the analogy of a ‘child’ in mind, I wouldn’t stress too much on the ‘exalted honesty’ and ‘deep humility’ part of it – but perhaps I am being influenced by a famous quote of Grothendieck’s (see below). Also, I think the ‘scientific method’ is there precisely to exploit human intuition, and other human cognitive biases. And as for ‘human’, I really mean these human ‘qualities’, like our curiousity or our bias towards seeing patterns. If other species or any other entity (eg. a computer program) also have these, we would be more than happy to share our attempts at understanding the universe!

    In our acquisition of knowledge of the Universe (whether mathematical or otherwise) that which renovates the quest is nothing more nor less than complete innocence. It is in this state of complete innocence that we receive everything from the moment of our birth. Although so often the object of our contempt and of our private fears, it is always in us. It alone can unite humility with boldness so as to allow us to penetrate to the heart of things, or allow things to enter us and taken possession of us.

    This unique power is in no way a privilege given to “exceptional talents” – persons of incredible brain power (for example), who are better able to manipulate, with dexterity and ease, an enormous mass of data, ideas and specialized skills. Such gifts are undeniably valuable, and certainly worthy of envy from those who (like myself) were not so “endowed at birth, far beyond the ordinary”.

    Yet it is not these gifts, nor the most determined ambition combined with irresistible will-power, that enables one to surmount the “invisible yet formidable boundaries” that encircle our universe. Only innocence can surmount them, which mere knowledge doesn’t even take into account, in those moments when we find ourselves able to listen to things, totally and intensely absorbed in child’s play.


  4. Subhojoy Says:

    Um the last three paragraphs are not mine, but Grothendieck’s!

  5. nayagam Says:

    Note : I’ve taken the liberty to italicise and “blockquote” Grothendieck’s words.

    Now, coming back to what you wrote :

    ..I wouldn’t stress too much on the ‘exalted honesty’ and ‘deep humility’ part of it..

    I think it is a question of what you choose to emphasise.

    Sometimes in science, the boundary defining “being honest with oneself” is so clear-cut, so obvious that one should be crazy to cross that Rubicon. What would you think, say, of a person who denies a proven theorem in mathematics and actually believes that theorem to be false with his whole heart ?[1] Such people are indeed rare [2] and their self-delusions are obvious enough to their colleagues.

    But, more often, it takes a lot of effort to protect oneself from self-delusion. Mathematician to a large extent and physicists to some extent do not need to put in so much effort – but, we should not underestimate how our natural cognitive biases can hamper our understanding of say evolutionary biology, anthropology or Cognitive Neuroscience. It often takes some effort to not let in our prejudices(both innate and acquired from our culture[3]) seep into our analysis.

    Having said that, the misleading notion of a dispassionate scientist wearing lab-coat staring into nature “scientifically”[4] should be thoroughly debunked – there is no great scientist I know of who did not have deep feelings about their subject. Or more importantly, both rational and emotional thinking arise out of a single nervous system – to assume a priori that reason and emotion inhabit two different worlds is not an easy hypothesis to justify.[5]

    This brings us to what you later write :

    ..I think the ’scientific method’ is there precisely to exploit human intuition, and other human cognitive biases.And as for ‘human’, I really mean these human ‘qualities’, like our curiousity or our bias towards seeing patterns.

    I will agree that Science is deeply human in the way it involves some of our cognitive biases. But, the keyword is “some”. A bias towards seeing patterns might be a great gift but it is known how it hampers our understanding of probability and the notion of randomness – we tend to “see” patterns even when they are really not there ![6] Quantum mechanics is not very intuitive, which is unsurprising given that our brain evolved in a mostly classical world. So, science picks and chooses among our biases, sublimates some of them into deep understanding while cautioning us to be careful about some others.The scientific method could not have been formulated by those who didn’t have at least a preliminary understanding of human biases. In my opinion, a scientific understanding of human irrationality is absolutely necessary for better understanding of what constitutes scientific method.[7]

    And I liked the quote by Grothendeick.

    “Only innocence can surmount them, which mere knowledge doesn’t even take into account, in those moments when we find ourselves able to listen to things, totally and intensely absorbed in child’s play.” Grothendieck

    I will just add that among the noblest influences that science has on its practitioners is to deepen that innocence. It takes quite a lot of wisdom to be child-like.

    [1] I have chosen an example in mathematics . Similar examples in Natural Sciences do exist but are slightly more trickier to find/formulate.

    [2] The main reason for they being rare is this – Most people (are simply ignorant of) / (do not care about) deep theorems in mathematics to express their opinions one way or another.

    [3] I suspect “innate vs acquired” distinction might itself be an almost universal cognitive bias. That suspicion of mine , if you are interested, comes from my inability to formulate a natural way of defining that distinction.

    [4] Sometimes one hears people sincerely believing that to do something “scientifically” is to take a thing, break it into pieces, get rid of all the “beauty” in the stuff, put it into a mental centrifuge, take the useful thing and dump the rest ! To be fair, quite some “scientists” go about doing their work this way – but, to do science this way is, in my opinion, is to descend into mediocrity. Scientific diligence is not mere mechanized execution. To do something scientifically is not so much about breaking stuff as much as it is about the wisdom to know when/how to break and when not to.

    [5] Given that art,culture,science and religion(of both superstitious and deeply philosophical kind) arise out of a single system, the onus is on those who believe in great walls dividing these human endeavours, to justify their belief.

    [6] The pseudo science of Astrology, for example, sustains itself mainly because of our “ability” to see connections between things which are unconnected. In fact, the wikipedia list of cognitive biases reads like one long answer to the question – “Why pseudo-science is so popular ?”

    [7] I consider scientific method to be (at least partly) a scientific theory like quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology and that explains why our understanding of it is definitely incomplete.The successes of science definitely show that we have got a very good approximation to the theory of scientific method and scientists in most cases seem to have a very good gut feeling for what is scientific. But, it would definitely help to understand this gut feeling better. Many do not realise that “what is science ?” is as much a scientific question as it is a question in philosophy.

  6. Sandeepan Says:

    Really liked the last part of your essay…
    reminded me of some of the writings of Feynman where he wrote beautifully about Nature (the kind of thing a poet or an artist would write if he knew all that a scientist knoes about Nature. To give an example

    There are the rushing waves
    mountains of molecules
    each stupidly minding its own business
    trillions apart
    yet forming white surf in unison.
    Ages on ages
    before any eyes could see
    year after year
    thunderously pounding the shore as now.
    For whom, for what?
    On a dead planet
    with no life to entertain.

    Never at rest
    tortured by energy
    wasted prodigiously by the sun
    poured into space.
    A mite makes the sea roar.

    Deep in the sea
    all molecules repeat
    the patterns of another
    till complex new ones are formed.
    They make others like themselves
    and a new dance starts.

    Growing in size and complexity
    living things
    masses of atoms
    DNA, protein
    dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

    Out of the cradle
    onto dry land
    here it is
    atoms with consciousness;
    matter with curiosity.

    Stands at the sea, wondering: I
    a universe of atoms
    an atom in the universe

    There are other examples in Feynman lectures and other places you would have surely seen. I do not know why I do not find such writings elsewhere…
    either poets do not know enough Science
    or the poetically inclined scientists do not express themselves or just that it is there but it is hard to find such stuff. Wud luv to see you write more essays like this.

  7. Sandeepan Says:

    In the first sentence of the last paragraph there is a slight error. The correct sentence is

    Stands at the sea, wonders at wondering

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