Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Science Proceeds By Funerals

Above all, science is a human institution. And as a machine for thinking, it's greater and more powerful than any of its single participants. You said that science proceeds by tiny steps. It also proceeds by funerals.

University departments are just waiting for the professor to get out of the way so the younger guys can get in.

That was author Ian McEwan on a very listenable hour of Science Friday on the importance of science writing in science books as well as science in fiction. The other guests were cosmologists Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss.

I thought Ian McEwan gave a really good account of why he includes science in his books:

FLATOW: Ian, why do you put science in your books? What - why do we have to know about quantum mechanics? Are you purposely doing that to teach us something or just to...

MCEWAN: No, absolutely not. No.


MCEWAN: It just came along with the character. It's a reflection of my own pleasure in it, but it seems just a human enterprise. I mean, this is - I mean, the standard measure of how alive you are is the measure of your curiosity, and I think of science as organized curiosity.

We once relied on priests to tell us the shape and nature and purpose of the cosmos and life itself. It's been a long, slow story of that undoing. We now have a far more interesting story, and it's also penetrated our lives. I mean, there's climate change, and we all have these intricate, beautiful machines in our hands, and it's impacting on our decisions about bioethics and many other things.

So if we think of the novel as an investigation of the human condition, technology and science is now so woven into that condition. You cannot escape it. So it's inevitable, I think, that...

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