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Cheap Thoughts on Science


Science, Imagination, Mystery, and Wonder


Imagination is the preview of life's coming attractions.
     sign at the Imagination! exhibit and Walt Disney World's Epcot Center


... One can appreciate and take pleasure in the achievements of science even though he does not himself have a bent for creative work in science. ... Initiation into the magnificent world of science brings great aesthetic satisfaction, inspiration to youth, fulfillment of the desire to know, and a deeper appreciation of the wonderful potentialities and achievements of the human mind.
     Isaac Asimov, Asimov's New Guide to Science
     "What Is Science?"


Most scientists, being human, accept that sentiment is a wonderful component of our interaction with the world, but few would accept that it is a reliable route to truth. They prefer to disentangle the awesome complexity of the world, examine it piece by isolated piece, and build it up again, with deeper understanding, as best they can. ... Science aims for thoroughness of understanding, never losing sight of the ultimate goal and not rushing to it impatiently half-baked.
     Peter Atkins, Galileo’s Finger:  The Ten Great Ideas of Science (2003)
     “Prologue:  The Emergence of Understanding”


George Wald's view, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, is mine: understanding what we are composed of, and where that stuff came from, is part of our dignity. It demands, too, a greater humility to read the lives of stars, rather than divine providence, in our bones and blood.
     Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water (2000)


The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.
     Sir William Lawrence Bragg, in A. Koestler and 
     J. R. Smithies, Beyond Reductionism (1968)


Our instinct may be to see the impossibility of tracking everything down as frustrating, dispiriting, perhaps even appalling, but it can just as well be viewed as almost unbearably exciting.  We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise.  What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)


But beauty, in science, is much more than skin-deep. The best science is an integrated product of our emotional and intellectual sides, a synthesis between what is often referred to as our “left” brain (reasoning) and “right” brain (emotional/artistic) hemispheres. The greatest “eurekas” in science combine both sensual aesthetics and conceptual insight. The physicist Victor Weisskopf (also a pianist) noted, “What is beautiful in science is the same thing that is beautiful in Beethoven. There’s a fog of events and suddenly you see an connection. It expresses a complex of human concerns that goes deeply into you, that connects things that were always in you that were never put together before.”
     In short, the best science offers the same kind of experience as the best books or films do. A mystery or drama engages us, and we follow a story toward some revelation that, in the very best examples, makes us se and understand the world more clearly. The scientist’s main constraint is the truth. Can the nonfiction world of science inspire and delight us as much as the imagined world of fiction?
     One hundred years ago, Rudyard Kipling published his classic Just So Stories, a collection of children’s tales inspired by his experiences in India. Kipling’s enchanting stories ranged from “How the Leopard Got His Spots” and “How the Camel Got His Hump” to “The Butterfly That Stamped,” and wove fanciful tales of how some of our favorite and most unusual creatures acquired prominent features. As delightful as the Just So explanations are of how spots, stripes, humps, and horns came to be, biology can now tell stories about butterflies, zebras, and leopards that I contend are every bit as enchanting as Kipling’s fairy tales. What’s more, they offer some simple, elegant truths that deepen our understanding of all animal forms, including ourselves.
     Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2005)


The real universe has mystery enough to need no help from obscurantist hucksters.
     Richard Dawkins, "The Real Romance in the Stars" 
     (Independent, 31 Dec 1995)


Far from science not being useful, my worry is that it is so useful as to overshadow and distract from its inspirational and cultural value. Usually even its sternest critics concede the usefulness of science, while completely missing the wonder. Science is often said to undermine our humanity, or destroy the mystery on which poetry is thought to thrive.
     Richard Dawkins, "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" 
     (Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1, November 12th, 1996)


There is mystery in the universe, beguiling mystery, but it isn't capricious, whimsical, frivolous in its changeability. The universe is an orderly place and, at a deep level, regions of it behave like other regions, times behave like other times.
     Richard Dawkins, "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" 
     (Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1, November 12th, 1996)


I believe that astrologers, for instance, are playing on — misusing, abusing — our sense of wonder. I mean when they hijack the constellations, and employ sub-poetic language like the moon moving into the fifth house of Aquarius. Real astronomy is the rightful proprietor of the stars and their wonder. Astrology gets in the way, even subverts and debauches the wonder.
     Richard Dawkins, "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" 
     (Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1, November 12th, 1996)


There is an appetite for wonder, and isn't true science well qualified to feed it?
     Richard Dawkins, "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" 
     (Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1, November 12th, 1996)


The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.
     Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow:  Science,
     Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder


Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Quite the contrary; the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle and, in any case, when you have solved one mystery you uncover others, perhaps to inspire greater poetry.
     Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow:  Science,
     Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder


Newton, Keats agreed with Lamb, had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours. ... Newton's dissection of the rainbow into light of different wavelengths led on to Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism and thence to Einstein's theory of special relativity. If you think the rainbow has poetic mystery, you should try relativity.
     Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow:  Science,
     Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder


Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: it gives them something to do.
     Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006)


Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.
     John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929)


"Say, rather, into the region where we balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination, but we have always some material basis on which to start our speculation."
     Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 
     The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901)


"And yet there should be no combination of events for which the wit of man cannot conceive an explanation. Simply as a mental exercise, without any assertion that it is true, let me indicate a possible line of thought. It is, I admit, mere imagination; but how often is imagination the mother of truth?
     Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 
     The Valley of Fear (1915)


Imagination is more important than knowledge.
     Albert Einstein


Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of our science.
     Ralph Waldo Emerson


Don't forget your spirit of childhood curiosity. It is the vital component for imagination.
     Leo Esaki, Look Japan


The whole question of imagination in science is often misunderstood by people in other disciplines. ... whatever we are allowed to imagine in science must be consistent with everything else we know: that the electric fields and the waves we talk about are not just some happy thoughts which we are free to make as we wish, but ideas which must be consistent with all the laws of physics we know. We can't allow ourselves to seriously imagine things which are obviously in contradiction to the known laws of nature. And so our kind of imagination is quite a difficult game. One has to have the imagination to think of something that has never been seen before, never been heard of before. At the same time the thoughts are restricted in a strait jacket, so to speak, limited by the conditions that come from our knowledge of the way nature really is. The problem of creating something which is new, but which is consistent with everything which has been seen before, is one of extreme difficulty.
     Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics: 
     Volume II - Mainly Electromagnetism and Matter 

     (with Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands, 1964)
     Chapter 20 — “Solutions of Maxwell’s Equations in Free Space”
     Section 20-3 Scientific imagination


Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.
     Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (1965)


Omni: As we came back to the office, you stopped to discuss a lecture on color vision you'll be giving. That's pretty far from fundamental physics, isn't it? Wouldn't a physiologist say you were "poaching"?
Feynman: Physiology? It has to be physiology? Look, give me a little time and I'll give a lecture on anything in physiology. I'd be delighted to study it and find out all about it, because I can guarantee you it would be very interesting. I don't know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.
     Richard Feynman, "The Smartest Man in the World" 
     (interview, Omni magazine, 1979); reprinted in
     The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works 
     of Richard P. Feynman
(Jeffrey Robbins, ed., 1999)


The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work] — those are the real things, the honors are unreal to me.
     Richard Feynman, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" 
     (interview, BBC, Horizon, 1981; shown in US on Nova)
     The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works 
     of Richard P. Feynman
(Jeffrey Robbins, ed., 1999)


But I would like not to underestimate the value of the world view which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck — half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.
     Richard Feynman, "The Value of Science" (speech at NAS meeting, 1955)
     reprinted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works 
     of Richard P. Feynman
(Jeffrey Robbins, ed., 1999)


There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.
     Richard Feynman, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?": 
     Further Adventures of a Curious Character
     "The Making of a Scientist"


... the idea that [science] takes away mystery or awe or wonder in nature is wrong. It's quite the opposite. It's much more wonderful to know what something's really like than to sit there and just simply, in ignorance, say, "Oooh, isn't it wonderful!"
     Richard Feynman, quoted in Christopher Sykes, No Ordinary 
     Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman


Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere." 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 — perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. 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! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
     Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics 
     Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
     "The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences"


There has been a revolution in our understanding over the last forty years, and the gains in knowledge are permanent. But we will never know everything, and that is as it should be. From the obscuring mist of the past, science has ensured that some of the mountains have emerged into clear view, but as soon as that happens the misty shadows of further peaks are glimpsed in the distance, rank upon rank: so many other heights to climb, so many mysteries to investigate.
     Richard Fortey, Earth: An Intimate History (2004)


When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only of how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
     R. Buckminster Fuller


... almost all scientists believe that as their knowledge increases, their sense of wonder also grows. The scientist sees a flower, said physicist John Tyndall, "with a wonder superadded."
     Martin Gardner, Weird Water & Fuzzy Logic: 
     More Notes of a Fringe Watcher


Progress can be slow. Promising ideas, more often than not, lead nowhere. That’s the nature of scientific research. Yet, even during periods of minimal progress, I’ve found that the effort spent puzzling and calculating has only made me feel a closer connection to the cosmos. I’ve found that you call come to know the universe not only by resolving its mysteries, but also by immersing yourself within them. Answers are great. Answers confirmed by experiment are greater still. But even answers that are ultimately proven wrong represent the result of a deep engagement with the cosmos — an engagement that sheds intense illumination on the questions, and hence on the universe itself. Even when the rock associated with a particular scientific exploration happens to roll back to square one, we nevertheless learn something and our experience of the cosmos is enriched.
     Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos:  Space,
     Time, and the Texture of Reality


Some discoveries provide answers to questions.  Other discoveries are so deep that they cast questions in a whole new light, showing that previous mysteries were misperceived through lack of knowledge.  You could spend a lifetime — in antiquity, some did — wondering what happens when you reach earth’s edge, or trying to figure out who or what lives on earth’s underbelly.  But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead, they’re rendered irrelevant.
     Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos:  Space,
     Time, and the Texture of Reality


Science is vastly more stimulating to the imagination than the classics.
     J. B. S. [John Burdon Sanderson] Haldane, 
     Daedalus, or science and the future (1923)


In this and all these writings, Einstein asks his reader to take the business of taking progress in science into one's own hands; to insist on thinking one’s own thoughts even if they are not blessed by consent from the crowd; to rebel against the presumed inevitability or orthodoxy of ideas that do not meet the test of an original mind; and to live and think in all segments of our rich world — at the level of everyday experience, the level of scientific reasoning, and the level of deeply felt wonder.
     Gerald Holton, Einstein, History, and Other Passions:  The Rebellion 
     against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century


For every man the world is as fresh as it was at the first day, and as full of untold novelties for him who has the eyes to see them.
     Thomas Henry [T. H.] Huxley, "A Liberal Education" (1868)


It was thought at one time by many that science would do away with poetry — that it was the enemy of the imagination. We know that it is in the highest degree poetic and that the old ideas once considered so beautiful are flat and stale. ... The more we know, the more beauty, the more poetry we find. Ignorance is not the mother of the poetic or artistic.
     Robert Ingersoll, "Science and Sentiment"


What very much bothers me in certain discussions of topics at the boundary between science and science fiction are the sometimes pejorative references to "conventional science." Often "conventional" scientists are viewed as closed-minded and conservative, while those willing to bypass the problematic issues associated with experiment are viewed as open-minded and enlightened. This seems backwards. I think that people who are willing to force their imaginations to follow the sometimes subtle signposts of nature are the ones with the open minds, not those who are uncritically willing to accept a universe that reflects their own pet theories and desires.
     Lawrence M. Krauss, Beyond Star Trek: Physics from 
     Alien Invasions to the End of Time


Nature is subtle, and part of the wonder of science is to seek out the subtleties.
     Lawrence M. Krauss, Atom: An Odyssey From the 
     Big Bang to Life on Earth ... and Beyond


The huge success of science in the last three centuries is owed to the adoption of an essentially pragmatic philosophy. Science cannot be deduced from first principles devoid of empirical content, but neither can it be inferred from an uncritical inspection of the facts. The creative element in the scientist's mind is essential: inspecting the facts, the mind of the scientist, replete with mathematical relationships and constructs, perceives dimly the form of a theory that might work. With this first guess, the process of deduction, experimental test, refinement, and further hypothesis can take off, and science is built up. In all this there must be a sort of equality, a balance, between facts and theories. Beautiful theories are preferable to ugly ones, but beauty alone does not make a theory correct; facts are to be collected and taken note of, but the judicious scientist knows when to ignore certain contradictory facts, realizing that a tentative theory cannot explain everything and anticipating that all will be well in the end.
     David Lindley, The End of Physics: The Myth of a Unified Theory (1993)


Sadly, here is a lesson that every scientist learns, and usually pretty quickly: it's easy to have clever ideas, but it's rare to have clever ideas that actually work. The solution is to come up with another solution.
     Rob DeSalle and David Lindley, The Science of Jurassic Park 
     and the
Lost World, or, How To Build a Dinosaur (1997)


... there is poetry in science, but also a lot of bookkeeping.
     Peter Medawar, "Two Conceptions of Science" (Encounter 
     143, August 1965); reprinted in The Strange Case of the 
     Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science


We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.
     Maria Mitchell


Fools have said
That knowledge drives out
wonder from the world;
They'll say it still, though all
the dust's ablaze
With miracles at their feet.
     Alfred Noyes


The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
     Eden Phillpotts


At the start of this section, I promised you'd understand all this well enough to explain it to a five-year-old. If a little kid ever asks you just why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, "It's because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae."
     Okay, that might not work. In reality, explain to them that the light coming from the Sun is like stuff falling from a tree. Lighter things like leaves get blown all around and fall everywhere, while heavier things like nuts fall straight down without getting scattered around. Blue light is like the leaves and gets spread out all over the sky. Red light is like the heavier material, falling straight down from the Sun to our eyes.
     Even if they still don't get it, that's okay. Tell them that once upon a time, not too long ago, nobody knew why the sky was blue. Some folks were brave enough to admit they didn't understand and went on to figure it out for themselves.
     Never stop asking why! Great discoveries about the simplest things are often made that way.
          Philip Plait, BAD Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses
          Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax"


The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.
     Jules Henri Poincaré


Science is founded on the twin cornerstones of skepticism and astonishment. Skepticism is a critical reluctance to take anything as absolute truth, even one's own most cherished beliefs. Astonishment is the ability to be dazzled by the commonplace. ... "Nothing is too wonderful to be true," said the nineteenth-century physicist Michael Faraday. And that is astonishment. But everything wonderful need not be true, and that is skepticism. The thoughtful person will try to walk the line between drop-jawed amazement at the wonder of creation, and cautious skepticism about the correctness or finality of our knowledge.
     Chet Raymo, Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating 
     Connection Between Science and Religion


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, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)


In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide buildup of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a transnational, transgenerational meta-mind.
     Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: 
     Science As A Candle in the Dark


Science is an astonishment and a delight. Every time a spacecraft flies by a new world, I find myself amazed. Planetary scientists ask themselves: "Oh, is that the way it is? Why didn't we think of that?" But nature is always more subtle, more intricate, more elegant than what we are able to imagine. Given our manifest human limitations, what is surprising is that we have been able to penetrate so far into the secrets of Nature.
     Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: 
     Science As A Candle in the Dark


... a world absent monsters, ghosts, demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity and eternity knowing that no one is looking back. The universe takes on a whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained, that it was not designed for us, indeed, that it was not designed at all. If we are nothing more than star stuff, how special life becomes. How inspiring it is to share in the sublimity of knowledge generated by other human minds, and perhaps to even make a tiny contribution toward that body of knowledge that will be passed down through the ages, part of the cumulative wisdom of a single species on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star on the remote edge of a not-so-unusual galaxy, itself a member of a cluster of galaxies millions of light years from nowhere. For me, the Hubble Telescope Deep Field photograph WFPC2, revealing as never before the rich density of galaxies in our neck of the universe ... is as grand a statement about the sacred as any medieval cathedral.
     Michael Shermer


What can be more soul shaking than peering through a 100-inch telescope at a distant galaxy, holding a 100-million-year-old fossil or a 500,000-year-old stone tool in one's hand, standing before the immense chasm of space and time that is the Grand Canyon, or listening to a scientist who gazed upon the face of the universe's creation and did not blink?
     Michael Shermer


As to imagination, it is true that the first recorded stoned writer, De Quincey, declared that science was the greatest threat to the facility to dream, but he was wrong. Consider the following improbable scenario: An astronomer observes events that took place 5 billion years ago (it takes that long for light from the star he is observing to reach the Earth, light generated by explosions on an unbelievable scale, at incomprehensible distances). The astronomer lives on a tiny planet, in a universe that is mostly gas or empty space, Eliot's "vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant." And yet on this planet, out of immense fiery continents of molten rock, over hundreds of millions of years, a solid crust solidified, the wild clouds rained down to form tempest-swept primeval seas, and in those seas an incredible process began. Matter, the cloth of the universe, tentatively, tenuously developed, by a slow improbable transformation, into a form so complex and so organized that it can comprehend its own history and, however pitifully, plan its own future. This is the strangest dream of all. It is a story that has the power of primitive myth, of Gilgamesh, of Adam. It is a dream created only by science. There is enough wonder in the physical world.
     Brian L. Silver, The Ascent of Science (1998)


The human imagination is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, we have the ability to imagine many things which just aren't so. The universe has no obligation to behave as we'd like, or even to be understandable to our minds.
     Donald Simanek


Human knowledge doesn't stay put. What we have been learning in our time is that we really do not understand this place or how it works, and we comprehend our own selves least of all. And the more we learn, the more we are — or ought to be — dumbfounded.
     Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to 
     Mahler's Ninth Symphony
     "On Matters of Doubt"


Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . . that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight — all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be.
     George Wald, Nobel laureate in medicine; quoted in 
     Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water (2000)


In Walt Whitman's often quoted poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," the poet tells how, being shown the astronomer's charts and diagrams, he became tired and sick and wandered off by himself to look up "in perfect silence at the stars." Generations of scientists have been annoyed by these lines. The sense of beauty does not become atrophied through the work of science, as Whitman implies.
     Steven Weinberg, "Life in the Universe" 
     (Scientific American: A Special Issue)


Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.
     Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925)


The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind. This is the cardinal tenet of scientific understanding: Our species and its ways of thinking are a product of evolution, not the purpose of evolution.
     Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)