Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The more tender functions

I gave a talk Monday evening at the new Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, introducing my new book Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. I began by make a distinction between science as practiced and communicated by scientists among themselves -- which I called the Big Snooze (for non-scientists) -- with the work of interpretive institutions like the Museum and writers like me. Our task is to take the reliable knowledge of the world gleaned by scientists, make it accessible to the non-scientist, and use it to enrich and illuminate the human adventure.

I own a book from my mother's library called Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists by the mid-20th-century nature writer Donald Culross Peattie, which I happened to be scanning this morning, and on the last pages he make a similar observation. He writes: "The biologist, the man [sic] of the laboratory...is the assayer, the tester, the one who takes the stuff of life, analyzes its composition, exercises its individual units to test their pure properties and behaviors. To him theory, in the future, must be handed over for verification...mechanism is his business, his instrument, and his signed search warrant served upon mystery."

I love that last phrase, "a signed search warrant served upon mystery."

By contrast, he writes, "[The role of the naturalist] has the more passive, more tender functions. Toward the findings of the laboratory its should make a certain amount of submission. But it dwells in its own house and is mistress to it. And that mansion is the earth, rolling upon its predestined course through space, its poles glistening with snows, its flanks with the oceans, its continents with the deep true green of the jungles and forests. This whole, this planetary life entity, breathes with the rhythm of tides, of day and night, enacts the drama of the colored seasons, and plays out the titanic epic of the geologic ages. On earth and only on earth are sunset glow, green leaf, and eyes to see them. Here is all we know of reality, all sufficient to our destiny, our thoughts and passions."