Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The soul of science...what is that?

I was eating watermelon at a colleague's house when I told my friend and her husband that I write a blog about finding the soul of science. Her husband who is also a scientist retorted laughingly, "There is no soul in science." I laughed as well, spit out some seeds, and we moved onto other topics.

On my way home I realized that I'm not really sure what I meant by "finding the soul of science." Was I talking about the idea that there's something animate in science that exists beyond scientists themselves, like the idea that a human soul exists beyond the lifetime of the human body?

Or was I thinking of the "warm and fuzzy part" of science -- the part that inspires hope, freedom, and joy? Maybe that's the same as the "groovy" part of science -- the part that stirs our emotions and makes us have fun telling jokes about neutrinos?

These last few ideas relate to the current colloquial use of "soul," which is why my friend's  husband made the joke that there is no soul in science -- no grooviness. Sometimes it feels that there is just competition, secrecy, analysis, and an old-boy's-network that favors the very few scientists who are allowed entry.

But the first idea -- the one about science itself having an animating force that can exist outside of the humans that do science -- that struck me as an interesting one. After all, art is done by artists, but after a generation of artists die, another generation does the work. It's as if art itself is a force that requires human attention and labor to bring itself to fruition. The soul of art could be called ART -- the force that brings art into being, generation after generation.

The soul of science, then, could be called SCIENCE -- the force that creates curiosity and single-minded pursuit of improved understanding of the universe. Sure, the trans-generational desire to do science can be partially explained by the consistent presence of brain circuits that pose questions and try to answer them using logically consistent evidence, circuits that are common to all humans with time on their hands and/or a need to solve problems. It can also be partially explained by cultural ideals that honor individuals who do such things (though these cultural ideals might only be extensions of the curious brain circuits).

But a metaphorical view is that scientists are doing a service for a larger force -- SCIENCE itself -- a force that, ironically, won't rest until we figure out what it's really made of. This description of the soul of science may not be accurate, but as most scientists know, accuracy is relative to what is known and what is possible, both of which change over time. What it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in usefulness. There is nothing more useful than something to work towards that is larger than ourselves, as long as that thing is benevolent, reasonable, and bent on unveiling itself humbly over time.

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