What is the lure of science that attracts life-long efforts on the part of so many to understand the workings of nature? At one extreme are the great names – the immortals like Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin. But science has attracted countless philosophers, researchers, engineers, and mathematicians who, over the centuries, have devoted their personal and professional lives to understanding and harnessing nature. The rewards for most include fame, monetary compensation, and a very real intellectual satisfaction for their efforts. Clearly, curiosity is a key catalyst for most who embrace science.
But how to explain the total dedication of a Newton or Einstein, individuals whose entire being was consumed by their response to the siren-song of science. For these, family, friends, and even a comfortable life-style were decisively secondary to their scientific endeavors. How, also, to explain Galileo who risked his standing with the Church (and his life) to promote his view of the Copernican sun-centered “universe” at a time when such views were antithetical to Church teachings. Indeed, he was convicted on “suspicion of heresy” when brought before the Inquisition and spent the last several years of his life under house arrest at his villa in Arcetri, Italy where he died in 1642. He paid this price to promote scientific truth as he saw it.
Such questions have intrigued me for many years. I suppose they truly surfaced once I became a student of the history of science several years prior to my retirement eleven years ago as an electrical engineer here in Silicon Valley, California. In my freshman year of college (many years ago!), I declared myself a physics major because I liked science – and could not think of anything “better”, to be truthful. The following summer, during which I worked at a division of Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, California, I decided that the hands-on world of circuits, oscilloscopes, and other test equipment seemed more accessible, exciting, and ultimately more profitable for a graduate with a four-year degree. I then changed my major to electrical engineering, and I have no regrets to this day. But with the advantage of hindsight, I came to realize that my deepest scientific interests involve physics and its fundamental nature.
One of the appeals of physics and the other sciences is that they are truly keys with which mankind can unlock the deep mysteries of nature and human existence. It is immensely satisfying – empowering – to know that our slow but persistent efforts over many centuries continue to reveal nature’s modes of operation – her well-concealed natural laws. How can we be certain that we are correct when a theory becomes accepted science? The “scientific method” which found its voice in the science of Galileo Galilei provides a steady beacon which ultimately illuminates nature’s dark crevices. What is the scientific method?
1. Formulate a hypothesis explaining the pertinent phenomena; this is initially an educated guess based on the best current knowledge and experimental evidence.
2. Collect new experimental data which may confirm or reject the hypothesis.
3. Examine the data collected and verify its support (or not) for the hypothesis offered.
4. To the extent that the data does not support the hypothesis, modify either the hypothesis and/or the experimental approach to potentially bring greater agreement.
5. Go back to step #2 and repeat the iterative process until hypothesis and experimental data agree.
Despite occasional temporary ventures “off into the weeds,” this approach has resulted in the great body of knowledge which we possess today. It puts a certain stamp of credibility on our understanding of nature’s laws.
Deciphering nature through science is akin to a religious experience in that nature’s blueprints are surely at least a subset of the “greater truth” which encompasses the creative process – who we are and how we got here. To decipher with certainty the laws of nature – this subset of the “greater truth”- is understandably satisfying to mankind no matter what debatable religious beliefs may lie unanswered concerning the “greater truth.” I believe this factor explains much of science’s deepest allure – our need to know the “greater truth” – the ultimate truth.
Another significant motivation which has always propelled the greatest of scientists is the reward of scientific immortality. Think about it. What other field aside from science and mathematics has no linguistic/cultural boundaries. Literature and music are culturally sensitive and not truly universal. Although many segments of the arts easily pass across these boundaries, all do not. All evidence indicates that the great achievers in science and mathematics instinctively knew that demonstrating precedence in significant scientific/mathematical discoveries would bestow universal and timeless recognition.
Lest one should hold such dedicated achievers to be above ego-centered motives, one need only review Newton’s vicious priority battles waged, especially that with Gottfried Leibniz over development of the calculus. Here, the stakes were very high, and the battle was correspondingly bitter. And, of course, there is Charles Darwin who, after decades of sitting on his hard-won evolutionary kernel of natural selection, frantically rushed On the Origin of Species to press when he received a letter out of the blue from fellow naturalist Alfred Wallace outlining Wallace’s independent views on evolution. To Darwin’s dismay, these eerily coincided closely with Darwin’s long-suppressed, closely-held theory. Unlike today’s patent battles, the stakes then were not so much financial as they were egotistical or professional in nature – prompted by the scientific acclaim and heritage that could be won by being first.
Earning a living is never to be dismissed lightly in the course of human affairs, but as motivation for the greatest names in science, it pales in the strong light cast by the former two explanations. To independently wealthy individuals like Darwin (family fortune), money was never a problem or a consideration, yet his pursuit of natural science was a full time, all-out endeavor. For men of less fortune – Kepler and Galileo for instance – practicing science full time in those days required a patron, usually a royal personage. Galileo cleverly named the four visible moons of Jupiter which he discovered with the new telescope in 1609 the “Medician stars” in his 1610 classic of science, Siderius Nuncius. This no doubt helped him win his subsequent position as natural philosopher/mathematician in the court of Cosimo de Medici II. With no further need for his teaching stipend at the University of Padua, Galileo was essentially free to devote his life to his researches.
Central to all great science is the role of rampant curiosity in the intellectual makeup of its practitioners. It was one of Einstein’s greatest gifts by his own account, along with a mule-like stubborn persistence which drove him to get to the bottom of nature. He literally and admittedly attempted to read the mind of God through science – and he was by no means a deeply religious person in the traditional sense.
Curiosity and the desire to know is what fuels the fires of scientific inquiry. I believe this with my whole heart. It seems obvious that curiosity must begin with a sense of wonder about the miracles which beckon us every day of our lives. Radio, television, hummingbirds, vision, the brain, birth – it is so easy and commonplace today to routinely accept their existence without duly noting their miraculous nature, especially true for the younger generations who are so immersed in the whiz-bang excitement of today’s technology. How many of us ever take a moment to reconstruct, in our mind’s eye, life as it existed 150 years ago while reflecting on our ancestor’s reactions were they to be magically transported to our modern world with its ubiquitous technological miracles. How sobering to reflect that 150 years of such technological progress constitutes merely two modern generations!
I believe the following quotes from Albert Einstein wonderfully summarize this entire post:
“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”
“I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling. . . I also believe that this kind of religiousness . . . is the only creative religious activity of our time”
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
The above quotes from The Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice
Keep wondering and being amazed! – Alan Kubitz