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Science writing: A neglected form of literature that needs focus

Science has more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could

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The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons
The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons
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Along with philosophers, tax lawyers and computer programmers, scientists are perceived as speaking in a language which is supposedly the same as that of common people, but scarcely intelligible to them. And then they use strange symbols, complicated equations, and considerable jargon to talk of “things” unlikely to affect an average person’s life or to be even seen without specialised equipment.

So can scientific writing in any way be even comparable to literature? Yes, for scientists, across various disciplines, are also dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else, and can express themselves on their subject in ways the most lyrical poet, the most imaginative novelist or the most incisive historian could well envy.

Be it those trying to discern the cosmos’ origin, matter’s structure, the bewildering development and processes of life, including by evolution (despite what some Indian ministers may think), the abundant marvels of nature (including, but beyond humans too), and so on, scientists have written about their work and findings in absorbing ways.

Also Read: Scientists Use Pocket-size Device to Map Human Genetic Code

And in this, they have more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could.

Let us take a selection from the last century, which was full of developments across all spheres of science.

And since our existence in terms of our position in the world and the universe is key, we can start with an English physicist, astronomer and mathematician placing things in perspective.

“… we attempt to discover the nature and purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in time and space. Our first impression is something akin to terror. We find the universe terrifying because of its vast meaningless distances, terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space — a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world.

Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution -- and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons
Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons

But above all else, we find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion seem equally foreign to its plan,” wrote Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) in “The Mysterious Universe” (1930).

Also Read: Scientists Solve Mystery Of When Flowers Originated

Then, coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Among the best to explain its significance is Helena Cronin (b. 1942), a philosopher of biology and co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics.

“We are all walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes. This Darwin has taught us. The human eye, our brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past,” she says in the beginning of her “The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today” (1991), on one of science’s “foremost achievements” — the Darwinian theory.

Then there are those unravellers of life’s basic building block — DNA structure discoverers James Watson and Francis Crick.

About the moment of discovery, Crick, in his autobiography “What Mad Pursuit” (1988), says his research partner remembers he went into the pub across the road where they launched daily and told everyone they had discovered the secret of life. “Of that, I have no recollection, but I do recall going home and telling (wife) Odile that we seemed to have made a big discovery. Years later she told me that she hadn’t believed a word of it. ‘You were always coming home and saying things like that,’, she said, ‘so naturally, I thought nothing of it’…”

Also Read: Planets Beyond Milky Way Galaxy Discovered For First Time

Watson, after his “The Double Helix” (1968), followed up with “Avoid Boring People” (2007), which has each chapter ending with lessons such as “Never Be The Brightest Person In A Room”, “Avoid Gatherings Of More Two Nobel Prize Winners”, but also “Work On Sundays”, and “Put Lots Of Spin On Balls”.

Switching to the physical world, we cannot ignore possibly the 20th century’s most well-recognised scientist — Albert Einstein. Let’s take his insightful essay, “Religion and Science”, in which he eloquently pleads the case for new, better form of religious experience which will give rise to a new relationship between these two.

After discussing the need-based and the social impulse-based variants which have in common “the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God” and which is only surmounted by “individuals of exceptional endowment”, he comes to a third — “cosmic religious feeling”, which, according to Einstein, “is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”.

For “only those who realise the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue…”.

Also Read: Is the moon’s surface evolving?

Can there any better exposition of science’s purpose? (IANS)

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in) 

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Are We Alone In The Universe? Scientists Contemplate

This is a question that impacts not only science but theology, philosophy and other areas. It’s a curiosity. It’s part of being human.

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Hubble's view of a galaxy in Ursa Major, 65 million light-years away. VOA

The Hubble Telescope has given us spectacular pictures from space, from the dramatic image of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, some 6,500 to 7,000 light years from Earth, to a snapshot of nearly 10,000 galaxies, including some that may be among the most distant known, existing when the universe was just 800 million years old.

Awe-inspiring though they are, they are not detailed enough to help us in our search for life in the trillions of galaxies across the universe. And physicist Justin Crepp says the prospects for finding life out there are very good.

“If tens of a percent of stars have planets that could resemble the earth and potentially have life, then the implications are that there are billions of them just within our Milky Way Galaxy.”

Crepp, an associate professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, has been hard at work answering the age-old question, “Are we alone in the universe?” As a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Exoplanet Science Strategy, his job is to make recommendations on how and what the U.S. will explore in space over the next decade.

In September, the committee released its initial 260-page report detailing seven recommendations. First, it encourages NASA to fly a space-based mission to directly image and characterize earth-like planets around other stars and take pictures of them. But Crepp says that’s a very challenging technical problem.

“If you try to image a planet, you run into several difficulties,” he explains. “One is that their separation is very small on the sky. So, you need to spatially resolve and isolate the signal of the planet. So, you need a certain size telescope to do that. The problem is earth’s atmosphere blurs out the images, and so it exacerbates the issue.”

Another issue is that the starlight is so bright, scientists need to find a way to block it to see the planets around it. The committee thinks the technology to do that exists, but they must be able to get above the earth’s atmosphere with the right equipment to make it happen.

 

WFIRST, universe
WFIRST, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, shown here in an artist’s rendering, will provide astronomers with Hubble-quality images of large swaths of the sky. VOA

 

Better eyes on the skies

That leads to the committee’s second recommendation, this one, for the National Science Foundation: complete work on the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, and start to build the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii. The new technology in these super telescopes will produce images 10 times sharper than those from the Hubble, even though they are ground-based.

Their highly sophisticated equipment will also allow scientists to greatly enhance the work of the third recommendation: completing the partially funded Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST. When launched into space, it will search for and gather information on planets hundreds of light years away.

Crepp says that data will help scientists learn what the planets are made of.

“Is it a giant puffy atmosphere, or is it a rock or somewhere in between? Is it a water world? We don’t know the answers to these yet, but we’re just starting to get the first hints and inclinations what these worlds might be like around other stars,” Crepp said.

WFIRST, universe
Cosmic Crash with Dwarf Galaxy Reshaped Milky Way: Study. (IANS)

More importantly, scientists will try to determine if there are any signs of life.

The panel’s other recommendations include building new highly sensitive equipment, creating new ways for multidisciplinary teams all over the world to collaborate on various aspects of the project, and forming a profitable investor program to further laboratory, ground-based and theoretical telescopic research.

The big question

Crepp notes that people have wondered for millennia if our planet was unique in the universe, whether we are truly alone.

Also Read: NASA Hubble Completes First Science Operations

“This is a question that impacts not only science but theology, philosophy and other areas. It’s a curiosity. It’s part of being human. Is our world special? Is it isolated? Are there other planets out there that have life? Can we communicate with them? Are they our distant brethren? How are we related to one another? If so, what can we learn from one another? So, that’s the motivation for a lot of people on our panel to go to work on a daily basis.”

The report from the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Exoplanet Science Strategy will be reviewed by Congress. Portions of it may be included in the final 2020-2030 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, which will fund the continuing search for exoplanets and the study of extraterrestrial life. (VOA)