Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Essay Written in 1996 by a Physicist

I was somewhat embarrassed not so long ago when I opened a year-old physics journal and read that two Japanese fellows had attacked the same problem I was currently finishing up, obtaining an identical solution. The problem, not so consequential now as I reflect stoically on my preempted calculations, concerned the spatial distribution that would eventually be achieved by a group of particles of different masses interacting with each other by gravity.

The underlying theories of gravity and thermodynamics necessary for solving such a problem are certainly well established, so I suppose I should not have been surprised to find hat someone else had arrived at similar results. Still, my pulse raced as I sat with my notebook and checked off each digit of their answers, in exact agreement with mine to four decimal places.

After doing science for a number of years, one has the overwhelming feeling that there exists some objective reality outside ourselves, that various discoveries are waiting fully formed, like plums to be picked. If one scientist doesn’t pick a certain plum, the next one will. It is an eerie sensation.

This objective aspect of science is a pillar of strength and, at the same time, somewhat dehumanizing. The very usefulness of science is that individual accomplishments become calibrated, dry-cleaned, and standardized. Experimental results are considered valid only if they are reproducible; theoretical ideas are powerful only if they can be generalized and distilled into abstract, disembodied equations.

That there are often several different routes to a particular result is taken as an indication of the correctness of the result, rather than of the capacity for individual expression in science. And always there is the continual synthesis, the blending of successive results and ideas, in which individual contributions dissolve into the whole. Such strength is awesome and reassuring; it would be a tricky business to land a person on the Moon if the spaceship’s trajectory pended on the mood of the astronauts, or if the Moon were always hurrying off to unknown appointments. For these same reasons, however, science offers little comfort to anyone who aches to leave behind a personal message in his or her work, his own little poem or her own haunting sonata. Einstein is attributed with the statement that even had Newton or Leibniz never lived, the world would have had calculus, but if Beethoven had never lived, we would never have had the C-minor Symphony.

Max Delbruck, the physicist-turned-biologist, said in his Nobel Prize address, “A scientist’s message is not devoid of universality, but its universality is disembodied and anonymous. While the artist’s communication is linked forever with its original form, that of the scientist is modified, amplified, fused with the ideas and results of others and melts into the stream of knowledge and ideas which forms our culture. It seems to me that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something—this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws. Sometimes we dial the wrong number and are later found out. Ptolemy’s theory of the solar system, in which the Sun and planets revolve about Earth in cycles and cycles within cycles, is imaginative, ingenious, and even beautiful—but physically wrong. Virtually unquestioned for centuries, it was ungracefully detonated like a condemned building after Copernicus came along.

Very well. Scientists will forever have to live with the fact that their product is, in the end, impersonal. But scientists want to be understood as people. Go to any of the numerous scientific conferences each year in biology or chemistry or physics, and you will see a wonderful community of people chitchatting in the hallways, holding forth delightedly at the blackboard, or loudly interrupting each other during lectures with relevant and irrelevant remarks. It can hardly be argued that such inn-the-flesh gatherings are necessary for communication of scientific knowledge these days, with the asphyxiating crush of academic journals and the push-button ease of telephone calls. But it is here, and not in equations, however correct, that we scientists can express our colleagues and relish an appreciative smile. Sometimes I enjoy this as much as the science.

No comments:

Post a Comment