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Pourquoi science? – inter alia

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So as I approach my sixtieth year I’m in a mood to reflect on my largely wasted, dilettantish life (at least seen from a certain perspective… ).

It seems to me that my two older siblings and I were largely the products of benign neglect, if that’s not too unfair to my parents, who seemed largely pre-occupied with their – highly dysfunctional – relationship with each other. Anyway this neglect had its advantages and disadvantages, and it was offset by at least one key decision of my mother (by far the dominant parent). She had us taken to the local library once a fortnight to borrow books, and there were always books aplenty in the house, including at least two sets of encyclopaedias. So from the age of six or seven until I left home, the local libraries became a haven.

From almost the beginning though I felt a difference between learning, which was a thrill, and school, which I suffered in silence. My first strong memory of school comes from grade one, when I was five or six. My teacher asked me to read from our class reader and I had to tell her that I’d forgotten to bring it from home. She blew up at me. ‘You’ve forgotten it again! What’s the matter with you? How many times have I told you,’ etc etc. I was extremely humiliated. I was learning that I was vague, forgetful, disorganised, and it was all too true. Shortly after this, I arrived at school and discovered I’d forgotten my reader again. I was so scared I hid in the bushes until break time, when I rejoined the class unnoticed, apparently (though probably not). I remember the sense of being defiant and tricksterish.

It’s funny that I’m now a teacher who checks students’ homework and has to admonish those who don’t do it, because as a kid in primary school and later in high school, when the issue loomed much larger, I never did any homework. Not once, ever. I even got caned for it in high school. And suffered endless screaming fits from my mother when the matter was reported back to her. I remember many sleepless nights fretting about how to survive the next day’s questioning, but still I was unable or unwilling to comply. I spent a lot of my school days staring out the window, daydreaming of freedom. One day I watched a tiny bird – a hummingbird, I thought, but we have no hummingbirds in Australia – hovering a bit driftily above some bushes, for ages and ages. What an ability, what a perspective it had! And yet it felt constrained to hover there. Maybe only humans could free themselves from these ‘natural’ constraints.



I concocted an idea for a novel, which I confided to my sister, of schoolkids rising up and throwing out the teachers, establishing an ‘independent state’ school – an idea I probably took from Animal Farm. She was very enthusiastic, probing me on the details, assuring me it would be a best-seller, I would become famous. I became briefly obsessed with contemplating and planning the takeover – the secret meetings, the charismatic leader, the precisely organised tactics, the shock and dismay of our former masters, the nationwide reaction –  but of course I soon stumbled over the outcome. Surely not Animal Farm again?

I learned over time that Elizabeth, our town, was the most working-class electorate in South Australia, with the largest percentage of labor voters in the state, and possibly even the country. Of course, one had to take pride in being the biggest or the most of anything, but what did it mean to be working-class? Was it a good or a bad thing? Was our family more or less working-class than our neighbours? I was discovering that interesting questions led to more questions, rather than to answers. That, as Milan Kundera wrote, the best questions didn’t have answers, or at least not final ones. Of course, the provisional answer seemed to be that it wasn’t good to be working class, or middle class, or upper class, but to move beyond such limitations. But I was learning, through my library reading, which increasingly consisted of Victorian English literature for some reason, that class wasn’t so easy to transcend.

I continued to struggle as my schooling moved towards the pointy end. Classmates were dropping out, working in factories, getting their first cars. I was wagging school a lot, avoiding the house, sleeping rough, drinking. My older brother started an economics degree at university, probably the first person in the history of my parents’ families to do so as the prospect of university education was opened up to the great unwashed, but I was unlikely to be the second. I recall wagging it one afternoon, walking to the end of my street, where the city of Elizabeth came to an abrupt end, and wandering through the fields and among the glasshouses of the Italian marketers, armed with my brother’s hefty economics textbook, and getting quite excited over the mysteries of supply and demand.

And so it went – I left school, worked in a factory here, a factory there, went on the dole, worked in an office for a while, got laid off, another factory, moved to the city, shared houses with art students, philosophy students, mathematics nerds (whom I loved), wrote volumes of journals, tried to write stories, ritually burned my writings, read philosophy, had regular bull sessions about all the really interesting things that young people obsess about and so on and on. And I haven’t even mentioned sex.

I’d always been hopelessly shy with the opposite sex and wrote myself off as eternally poor and inadequate, but I loved girls and fantasised endlessly. I felt guilty about it, not because I thought it immoral – I never had any moral qualms about sex, which made it all the more easy to dismiss religions, which all seemed to be obsessed with regulating or suppressing it. I felt guilty because sexual daydreaming always seemed the lazy option. I was like Proust’s Swann, I would tire easily from thinking too much, especially as those great questions never had any easy or final answers. So  I would give up and indulge my fantasies, and even the occasional unrequited or unrealistic passion for real female acquaintance. I remember hearing of a celebrated mathematician who would wander homeless around the USA I think it was, couchsurfing at the homes of mathematical colleagues male and female, inspiring them to collaborate with him on mathematical papers, so that he held a record for the most papers published in peer-reviewed journals. An attractive female colleague laughed at the idea of an affair with him, because apparently everyone knew he was entirely asexual, had never been heard to even mention sex in his life… Could this be true, I wondered, and if so, how could I create for myself a brain like his? It seemed to me that Aristotle was right, the pleasure derived from certain types of contemplation was greater than sexual pleasure (though dog knows I’d hate to forgo sex). I’d experienced this myself, grappling with something in Wittgenstein, reading a passage over and over until an insight hit me and set me pacing around my bedroom all night long talking to myself. But maybe it was all bullshit.

So now to get to the heart of the matter – pourquoi science? As a youngster I read novels, and sometime works of history – one of my first big adult books was a very good biography of Richard III, which I read at 14, and which came flooding back when Richard’s body was miraculously discovered recently. But I never read science. At school I quickly lost track of physics and mathematics, while always being vaguely aware of how fundamental they were. Through philosophy in my early twenties I started to regain an interest, but generally I’d resigned myself to being on the arts side of the great divide.

One book, or one passage in a book, changed this. The book was Der Zauberberg, or The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, which I read in 1981. This was the story of Hans Castorp, a young man in his mid-twenties, as I was when I read it. As a tubercular patient, he was sent to a sanitarium in the Alps for a period of enforced idleness, where he encountered a number of more or less interesting characters and was encouraged to grapple with some more or less interesting ideas. Wrapped up on his loggia, he was reading some books on fundamental science, and fell into contemplation, and in a passage of some fifteen pages he asked himself two fundamental questions, both of which branched off into a whole series of sub-questions (or so I remember it). They were: What is life? and What is matter? And there was something about the way Mann animated this Castorp character, as ordinary a fellow as myself, and made me identify with his questioning and his profound wonder. It just flipped a switch in me. These were the questions. They could easily fill several lifetimes. No reason ever to be bored again.


I immediately went out and bought my first ever science magazine, Scientific American, and throughout the eighties I bought each monthly issue and read it cover to cover, not always understanding it all of course, but gradually building up a general knowledge. Later I switched to New Scientist, and nowadays I read the fine Australian magazine Cosmos, as well as listening to science podcasts and reading the odd blog. I’m far from being a scientist, and I’ll never have more than a passing knowledge – but then, that’s all that even the most brilliant scientist can hope for, as Einstein well knew.

But here’s the thing – and I’ll expand on this in my next post. It’s not science that’s interesting – science is just a collection of tools. What’s interesting is the world. Or the universe, or everything. It’s the curiosity, and the questions, and the astonishing answers that raise so many more questions. For example – what is matter? Our investigations into this question have revealed that we know bugger all abut the stuff. And when we were young, as a species, we thought we knew it all!

Next time, I’ll focus more deeply on science itself, its meaning and its detractors.




Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2016 at 8:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. The mathematician you are talking about is Paul Erdös


    April 12, 2016 at 9:16 pm

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