questions on a grand scale

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

— Carl Sagan

There is certainly something to be said for perspective.

I am not a scientist. I read and watch a lot of popular science because it fascinates me. I want to learn and understand everything I can about the world in which I live and the laws by which it functions. I am aware that this knowledge only just about allows me know how very little I will ever know, but science is a heady drug. And I’ve definitely gained a lot of perspective.

Being reminded every so often that you are the result of millions of years of evolution – a mid-stage example of your species, by all accounts – and that you reside on a rock hurtling around one of an unfathomably large number of stars in an ever-expanding universe will do that to you.

Oh, did you mean perspective in the ‘expect the mundane’ sense? Sorry. I heard it in the Douglas Adams sense.

Coming to hobbyist science reading as an adult is a strange experience. I studied general science up until Junior Cert level (that’s GCSE equivalent). Then I looked at my overall aptitudes and decided that, although I’m sure I would’ve made an adequate scientist, I would rather be an excellent humanities student. I ditched science, hopped into the modern languages driving seat, and left behind me only dust.

Of course, it didn’t help that up until then, I had never encountered any science education that had grabbed me. Biology was a collection of sets of diagrams to label and memorise. Physics, as explained through pictures with little arrows showing vectors but no real-life examples, looked stultifying dull. Chemistry was an unending series of covalent bonds – although, no, I’m being unfair to chemistry here. It provided the only specific memory I have of that class: one day our teacher wanted to show us the reactive qualities of sodium in water. Unfortunately, she used slightly too much of the sodium, and it displayed its reactive qualities very nicely. No-one ever painted over the scorch marks, though.

There’s nothing more dulling to a child’s enthusiasm and capability for awe than a textbook that gives you the basics but leaves out the bigger picture. It’s very important to know the fundamentals, certainly – I would argue that a knowledge of basic human biology is a necessity for everyone, considering you own and live in a body, and Newtonian physics gives you the physical laws within which you work (until you take up lightspeed travel as a hobby). It is fairly soporific, though, if you don’t understand why you’re learning all of this.

If, on my first day of secondary school, someone had Total Perspective Vortex-ed me (“Hello! You are the universe understanding itself! You’re made of stuff from the hearts of stars! You’re an astonishingly complicated evolved mechanism! Now you’d better get to work on figuring out HOW!”), I’m guessing I would’ve dug in with a bit more relish.

This is the balancing act that popular science must perform, then: educate, entertain, and arouse curiosity. Good popsci should leave you, at the end of the book/programme, standing at a crossroads: do you want to leave this topic where you are and just enjoy what you have experienced, or do you want to learn more in-depth? That accessibility is the key, in my opinion. You let down your audience both by overloading them with the nitty-gritty, and by failing to render the reader able to own the topic and relate it to herself.

I started this post with Carl Sagan; there is a reason he’s known as the foremost ambassador of popular science. Reading Sagan is like being spoken to by a warm, knowledgeable friend. He understood that education is important, but that inspiration to learn only comes from the ability to retain a sense of wonder. He, and your Feynmans, Attenboroughs, Moores, and the rest, became or have become in their lifetimes the doyens of gentle guidance into science education. It’s a fine line to walk between show and tell.  Both facets should leave a little to the imagination.

Certainly no-one should think that every day in the life of a working scientist is a spot of proton collision in the morning, driving Curiosity around in the afternoon, and dinner at Stephen Hawking’s place. Every job has its day-to-day requirements and its frankly boring sides.

I just don’t know any doctors who chose their profession because of all the paperwork.

If science writing doesn’t make you feel you are in touch with something greater than yourself, it’s bad science writing.

Oh, I don’t mean God, or a god or gods. I’ve had more than enough of gods and religion to do me a lifetime. I’m talking about matter and about history. I’m talking about that which drives us to wonder about the world, which makes us the most inquisitive and self-aware of creatures. That which lies beyond our tiny, transient lives. It is a fundamental ingredient in the human condition that we feel this wonder and seek to understand it. Some people find their answers in religion. Some people find their answers in science. These are not mutally exclusive – I have friends who are empirical, logical thinkers when it comes to questions of the tangible world, but who retain their faith in God.

If you think that scientists are trying to keep people in unseeing ignorance by trying to make a religion out of science, you are either misguided or wilfully misunderstanding. This is one of the most beautiful things about communicated science: the writer isn’t a minister, isn’t imbued with special supernatural powers, isn’t infallible. They are a person with an aptitude for science who has chosen to share their work. You or I could have the same knowledge with a bit of luck and a lot of hard graft.

Think of sitting in a university lecture and fuming that the professor is trying to make him/herself seem like the possessor of esoteric knowledge by detailing the import in the world of the subject as a whole. Ludicrous.

Two childhood scenes:

1) I am about 8 and still very, fearfully Catholic. My grandmother has given me a book about guardian angels. The book assures me that my guardian angel sits at the end of my bed at night and watches over me. There is no further explanation offered. I read to the end of the book and am still without an explanation of this stranger who turns up invisibly and hangs around in my room all night. I don’t ask questions, though. If I do, God might think I’m being cheeky. I put away the book.

2) I am still about 8. I get an encyclopaedia for my birthday and start reading about the solar system. It is incredible; I am incredulous. How do they know all of this? Why can’t I see the planets and moons when I look in the sky? I turn the page. I learn about Voyager and Hubble and Mir. I think this is brilliant. I have questions and I get answers. No-one tells me I’m wrong for asking questions.

A seed is sown.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. — Richard Feynman


2 thoughts on “questions on a grand scale

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