Monday, January 12, 2009

Have You Been Involved In Noisy Smelly Science?

My Book Shelf - 6

Have you done science that involves a lot of physical activity, puking, bleeding, nasty smells?

Still flipping through Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World and this passage about 1700's science stuck with me:

Science itself was intensely physical: medicine was a saga of bleeding and blisters; chemistry a matter of green fumes and red fumes, of the tang of acid on the tongue, of sneezing and choking and watering eyes. And this sensual bias was embedded in the terms they used: as chemical substances proved mysteriously choosy, reacting with some substances and repelled by others, so chemists hunted for "affinities", patterns of binding (and baffling) as choices in love.

As I recall my research days I wonder what has changed! My experience with science involved a lot of physical activity and a lot of noise. Hours of walking on outcrops, the wham of the sledgehammer on rock (Ordovician limestones of the S. Appalachians are very well cemented and hard) and the endless high pitched grind of the thin section cutting and grinding wheel. I made more than 600 thin sections over the course of my research and was really sick of that machine by the end. Not much time in the wet geochemistry lab, so I was spared the fumes and the smell of chemicals.

What has the experience of doing science been in the geoblogosphere? Have you bleed from wounds or blisters, or gagged on noxious fumes? Do tell! :-)

The practice of science has changed a lot off course since Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen. You can now spend a career in a clean silent lab. Just the hum of supercomputers crunching their way through gene sequences, or the silent hiss of a laser isotope or ion microprobe as it analyzes elemental distributions. I did that too (the microprobe part) and boy, was that a welcome break from that squealing thin section machine.

What has not changed is the recognition that science is an immensely empowering activity with the ability to transform one's outlook towards life. Certainly the giants of 1700's science, Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier amongst many recognized this just as surely and clearly as we recognize it today. They looked at science not just as an instrument that helped the industrial revolution chug along but as a weapon to further democratic ideals of justice and equality.

In my last post I quoted Joseph Priestley's thoughts on the role of science in society. Leaping ahead a couple of centuries here is another thought from a guy who knew a thing or two about science, Albert Einstein:

It stands to the everlasting credit of science that by acting on the human mind, it has overcome man's insecurity before himself and before nature.

There has been a lot of introspection and debate in India recently on how to build world class universities and how to attract bright people into pursuing a career in science in India as against going abroad. Those are extremely worthy goals. But to me the most important pursuit for any country is to produce a citizenry that has "overcome man's insecurity before himself and before nature". Abraham Pais, Einstein's friend and colleague called him "the freest man I have known". That is empowerment through science.

Not everyone can be a high-powered research scientist let alone be another Einstein. In fact the vast majority of educated people in any society will not spend a career practicing science. But if more and more are helped to inculcate a scientific outlook then that would be as good a step as any towards building a tolerant and just society. And that means giving equal importance to good quality science education at the high school and junior college level before people leave the sciences altogether and join different career streams.

See: My Book Shelf

1 comment:

  1. You hit the nail on this one. Inculcating a scientific outlook and thinking, right from childhood is essential, not only in encouraging more quality research in the sciences, but also in building a tolerant society. Really, like your writings. Keep up the good work!