Science gets a raw deal.
It is stereotyped as the soulless study of statistics, the meaningless gathering of data, an uninspired reduction of life’s complexities into humdrum mundanities.
People will proudly tell you that they failed highschool chemistry – yet would be ashamed to admit that they know nothing of Shakespeare. They will snidely denigrate the hard work of lab researchers, and heap praise upon the most loathesome of composers, “artists” and musicians.
Invariably, it is those with the least knowledge of science who feel most entitled to dismiss its importance.
This pisses me off. Science is neither boring, nor mundane: it is an exploration and celebration of reality.
Because, you know what? Reality is mind-boggingly cool. The world around us is more complex, more inventive and more ingenious than we could ever understand. Don’t believe me? Check out the intricacies of the genetic code, the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, or the luminescent explosions of slug sex.
We cannot even begin to grasp just how vast, brilliant and beautiful our universe is – it is inspiring and daunting beyond words. As I always say: Truth is stranger than fiction.
It was a poet who said it, but today it may be our scientists who appreciate this line most of all: See a world in a grain of sand.
Now, this is a particularly sore point with me, as my family is densely populated with artsy fartsys who do not appreciate – nor wish to appreciate – why I adore biology and why it inspires me so. My step-grandfather, an old school Euro novelist, will dismissively say things like “Yes, sure, you are good at writing – about science,” as though my knowledge solely encompasses the meaningless nuts and bolts of base matter and not the deeper mysteries of existence. I get no respect. So take my vitriol here with a pinch of salt.
But, nonetheless, I am not alone in this view: all science buffs lament society’s lack of appreciation for our craft.
A recent issue of New Scientist carried a fantastic editorial by Lawrence Krauss which expounded upon this point very articulately:
Last month I read a column in The New York Times by David Brooks that has bothered me ever since. In it Brooks describes an essay about the medieval concept of the universe entitled C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem by Michael Ward, a chaplain at the University of Cambridge.
Brooks writes that “while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God… The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it ‘all fact and no meaning’.”
Brooks’s and Ward’s articles both reflect a popular view that science, by explaining the inner workings of the universe, robs it of the wonder that religion provides – a viewpoint that, frankly, I find offensive. How anyone can suggest that medieval hallucinations might spark the imagination more than the actual universe that we have been so fortunate to uncover is beyond me. The “heavenly actors” populating the spiritual universe of Lewis were, like many religious myths, intellectually lazy creations of fundamentally ignorant minds. It is a far grander kind of imagination that is needed to fathom the real universe.
He goes on to describe the scope of the universe, the incredible number of stars and galaxies above us, and reminds us that every atom in our bodies was born in the heart of an exploding star:
Over time, 200 million stars have exploded in our galaxy, producing almost all the elements that make up our bodies. The atoms in your left hand may have come from a different star than those in your right: we are all star children.
If this poetry of nature does not change the way we view our place in the universe, providing not mere facts but new meaning, then we are truly spiritually bereft. Yet too many people feel that they must invent alternate realities to justify human existence.
Now, to be fair, many people can be forgiven for their lack of appreciation. Science is, quite often, taught very badly at school, and we chronically suffer from a lack of good and qualified teachers. And when you consider that so much funding for the sciences is shunted into commercially profitable fields and the military (ew), no wonder that people forget about the inspiring, abstract, and artful facets to the sciences.
But you know what? If you look “science” up in the Microsoft Word thesaurus, the word “art” appears (alongside just three other words).