Sunday, March 19, 2017

Can a scientist be well-rounded?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, nature, essay collections

Nearly a month has passed since I reviewed Eiseley, Volume One. Loren Eiseley's writing rewards close reading. If you are an aficionado of the Evelyn Wood speed reading method, you probably won't like Eiseley's essays. But if you can "slow down and smell the roses" you will find much to enjoy in Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos, Volume Two.

This book collects all of The Invisible Pyramid, The Night Country, and many selections from The Star Thrower. It is this last that probably engendered a parable about meaning that has circulated for most of my lifetime:
Walking along a lonely beach one windswept day, I saw that many starfish had been thrown onto the sand. I saw in the distance a man stoop, pick up a star, and sling it over the waves back into the sea. As I came up to him I looked around and said, "There must be thousands of starfish. You cannot throw them all back. How can it matter?" He held out a star and said, "It matters to this one," and flung it out to sea.
This is not a quote from Loren Eiseley; when he met a star thrower, he began throwing also, but said nothing to the man. That story is from an essay somewhere amidst Volume One. But, to take last things first, when he gathered essays to publish as The Star Thrower, perhaps he saw himself as one striving to do something "that matters to this one," among any who might read from him. These essays explore the boundary between science and, not just art, but everything else one might call "not science". Musing on the dramatic changes in human life that occurred once speech was attained, he considers the significant costs of our exceptionally large brain:
"His skull has enhanced its youthful globularity; he has lost most of his body hair and what remains grows strangely. He demands, because of his immature emergence into the world, a lengthened and protected childhood. Without prolonged familial attendance he would not survive, yet in him reposes the capacity for great art, inventiveness, and his first mental tool, speech, which creates his humanity. He is without doubt the oddest and most unusual evolutionary product that this planet has yet seen." (p. 357; emphasis mine)
The essay is titled "Science and the Sense of the Holy." Animals other than a very few primates (most especially humans) are divorced from considerations of time, space, and greatness (though not from rank: viz. pecking orders and the "Alpha male" phenomenon). A common house cat is able to anticipate tracking down the mouse she has just discerned beneath the stove in the kitchen. But for her, the next three or five minutes constitutes long-term planning. Your dog may consider you a deity, and thus the joking answer to the question some evangelists pose: "Why do we never see a dog set up an idol and worship it?", "Because dogs live among their gods!" But you dog's planning abilities are slender as compared to those of any toddler.

Eiseley gets to the meat of the matter in the essay "The Illusion of the Two Cultures." He writes here, and had written before, of the dismissive attitude he saw among numerous young scientists, that to pay attention to anything "arty" was quite suspect and to be discouraged, strenuously if necessary. These young Philistines are presumably in it either for glory or a good salary, but have no "sense of science."

Science is the art of the repeatable. The pinnacle of scientific achievement is to produce experimental results, publish them, and to have another scientist, or a laboratory full of them, reproduce the experiment and attain the same results. This is called "confirmation". Phenomena that cannot be repeated cannot be "confirmed" and are not admitted as science. Thus, one of my favorite parables (and less widely known than the one about the starfish), titled Non-repeatable phenomena:
There is a class of activity that is undertaken by nearly every person on Earth. Sometimes it produces great emotional responses—either positive or negative—and sometimes, not. Some people undertake these things alone, and some with one or more others; sometimes with many others. Some use various artifacts and implements, and others are able to obtain great results using only their bodily members. Some may attempt to repeat what others have done, to no effect whatever; others do so with greater and greater effect upon each repetition. There is no way to measure, ahead of time, whether a particular instance will be effective or not, or even perhaps quite negative. What is this activity? Music!
The same could be said of any performance art, of fine art, of "folk art"—which is fine art that hasn't been "discovered" yet—or even telling a story or joke ("Some can tell 'em, and some can't"). Thus, Eiseley gnaws at the great rift between "science" and "the arts" that had arisen in the past couple of centuries, and is growing still. Pointing out the need we all have for awe and beauty (I remember Einstein and his violin), he declares that this rift does disservice to both. It may not be possible to write great operas about the experiments of Edison or Faraday (though I once wrote a somewhat creditable sonnet about photosynthesis). Perhaps no painting can convey the beauty a mathematician sees in a new and succinct proof. But the best scientists everywhere confess that, when an experiment "comes together", they feel a sense of awe or beauty; when an astronomer has discerned a pattern in the dry data gathered from star after star or galaxy after galaxy, the emotional release equals that from hearing the climax of a great symphony as performed by a great orchestra. By the way, check out the audience who paid $100 or more to hear, say, the Berlin Philharmonic perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. People whose day job is technical or scientific will be well-represented. Thus Eiseley declares that "the two cultures" so frequently decried by some and touted by others, are an illusion. Without a sense of beauty, awe, and even holiness, few would persist.

I'll leave it to the reader to enjoy the first two-thirds of the volume and discover its delights. See why we are more similar to a slime mold than we may like to think ("The Star Dragon"), or how our attainment of wide-ranging consciousness of past and future has caused us to suffer "the wound of time" ("The Mind in Nature"). You won't be sorry.

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