Friday, December 07, 2012

Method or madness


Consider some of the great scientific advances of the last half-millennium: heliocentric astronomy, universal gravitation, atomic and molecular chemistry, evolution by natural selection, electromagnetic radiation, the germ theory of disease, anesthetics, general relativity and the equivalence of mass/energy, quantum theory, galactic astronomy, big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, DNA -- for starters.

Where did this stuff come from? Invention or discovery? Dredged up out of the bowels of nature, or cast like a mental net over unruly reality?

Here in the college library there are shelves of books debating the issue. This much seems certain: the so-called "scientific method" we were taught in school -- a mechanical truth-generating process that even a high-school sophomore could execute -- is a myth.

Good science is a mix of brains, energy, insight, courage, luck, competitiveness, money (or the lack of it), quality of instruments, being at the right place at the right time, and an index full of other factors. Perhaps it is impossible to define science in sentence, or a paragraph. But we know it when we see it, and it is nothing like the automatic "method" attributed by our teachers to Francis Bacon. As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Bacon clearly understood that science is (in Gould's words) "a quintessential human activity, inevitably emerging from the guts of our mental habits and social practices, and inexorably intertwined with foibles of human nature and contingencies of human history."

Which is not to say, as Gould reminded us, that science is an arbitrary social artifact. In Bacon's own words, scientific understanding "is extracted…not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature" All great science springs from a creative tension between mind and nature.

The writer John Steinbeck was also something of a scientist. A young boy once asked Steinbeck what he was searching for as he and his friend Ed Ricketts waded though a tide pool looking for small marine creatures. "We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another," answered Steinbeck.

Which pretty well summarizes what scientists do. It also summarizes what writers do. The difference? Science is a communal enterprise that demands consensus. Writing is a private venture that the artist pursues alone. Science is we. Art is I.

(I lifted the Steinbeck anecdote from my friend the writer Brian Doyle, as I waded around in one of the teeming tide pools of his prose. I made a more extended reference to Steinbeck here.)