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Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight


Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am