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Wonder and the humanity of science

Posted by Melissa on April 22, 2009

It’s been quiet around here lately, in part because the lab has been busy. Although various projects are moving forward, there have been more challenges and frustrations than usual in the past few weeks. I’ll be the first to admit that all those bumps in the experimental road are par for the course, but sometimes they wear me down more than they should.

However, I’ve recently finished a fabulous book that reminded me exactly why I love doing science. The book is Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. It’s not yet available in the US, but I highly recommend it. (Check out the Guardian review by Jenny Uglow, which provides a much more eloquent description than I can.) This book is perhaps my favorite history of science book yet. Why? Because it focuses broadly on the scientific endeavor… the people who participate in science and their varied personalities, the role of collaboration and professional societies, the interaction between science and the public, the long and twisted process of doing science, including the wrong-turns and the lucky breaks. Most of all, the book does an incredible job of exploring the emotions that accompany the practice of science.

Holmes captures the sense of wonder of the Romantic generation, both the scientists and the public. He explores the interaction of the Romantic poets with the men and women of science. I was interested to learn that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a staunch defender of science. “[Colderidge] thought that science, as a human activity, ‘being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical.’ Science, like poetry, was not merely ‘progressive.’ It directed a particular kind of moral energy and imaginative longing into the future. It enshrined the implicit belief that mankind could achieve a better, happier world.” The role of wonder, longing, imagination, and humanity are probed throughout the book.

I found Holmes’ epilogue to be particularly thoughtful. He considers where he started the book, and what he discovered through the process of writing it: “We need to understand how science is actually made; how scientists themselves think and feel and speculate. We need to explore what makes scientists creative, as well as poets or painters, or musicians. That is how this book began.”

I’ve been thinking about the humanity of science this week, in part because of a question that my Adopt-a-Physicist students have asked me. These students have been told by their high school physics teacher that science is about people, and yet in high school physics, what students see is facts and equations. The people, the emotions, the struggles, the triumphs, the adventure, they go unseen. Although physics is the accumulation of many people’s knowledge over the course of hundreds of years, the human minds, interactions, creativity, and mistakes all get lost in the physics facts. Would people be more attracted to science if they saw this? I know many scientists don’t like to acknowledge this messy, political, human part of the endeavor, but to ignore it is to pretend that doing science is something it’s not.

I think it is awe and wonder that often entice us into physics, and keep us going despite the sometimes difficult journey.  We don’t always convey the wonder to a broader audience, focusing instead on sharing concepts and facts. Are astrophysics and particle physics popular in the general media because they capture the wonder better than the more practically-minded condensed matter physics?

Holmes concludes his book by reflecting on the role of science today: “Above all, perhaps, we need three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.” Too often I let the day-to-day frustrations and setbacks in lab get in the way of the wonder and the hope. I need to remember to be filled with wonder, and to share that wonder with others, particularly those who are not scientists.

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