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Wonder as a Motivator

In a special essay published by the Humanities program at Stanford University, Roger Blandford -- Director of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology -- discusses how wonder and curiosity sparked his own interest in astrophysics, and serves as a creative force to both science and the humanities.

"The great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." So wrote Thomas Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, expressing an ideal that most scientists recognize. To many non-scientists, this seems to describe a forbidding religion whose practitioners are presumably coldly logical and unfeeling. Such an inference, reinforced by stereotypical portrayals of scientists in movies and television, is hardly justified. Indeed most working scientists bristle at the insinuation that collectively they have a Vulcan indifference to the charms of music, painting, literature or the splendor of nature and believe that they are really no different from the rest of humanity. Evidence abounds.

There is no guidebook to discovery or even understanding. Sometimes, it requires a Holmesian elimination of alternatives. On other occasions it might be a casual remark on an unrelated topic that releases the logjam in the river of ideas... But when it happens... the experience can be exhilirating."

"One of our students at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology decorated our building with art. Another has just played his first violin sonata at Campbell Hall. The launch of the wildly successful Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope inspired a "Cosmic Reflections" symphony commissioned by local physics enthusiast Pierre Schwob and composed by Stanford musicologist Nolan Gasser, which was performed to acclaim by astrophysicists and non-astrophysicists alike at the Kennedy Center. Stanford chemist, Carl Djerassi, is also an accomplished poet and playwright. Perhaps the most famous icon of impersonal science, Los Alamos National Laboratory, was intentionally located by its first director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, in a spectacular setting in the "Land of Enchantment". And so on.

Roger BlandfordRoger Blandford

So, what of science itself? Although it differs from the humanities, it is still compatible with it. The theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, who worked under Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, in an aside that was so influential as to be expanded into a book, declared that he could see beauty in a rainbow or a flower and that this appreciation was not diminished by his ability, using physics, chemistry and biology to explain how each came to be, but rather added to his appreciation. Feynman’s colleague, Paul Dirac, though, drew the distinction more sharply and tried to dissuade Oppenheimer from writing verse by explaining that "In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say...something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand." However, he also said that it was important for theoretical physicists to find beauty in their equations - an unusual acknowledgement of an inner mathematical aesthetic as well as a recognition that scientific discovery was “logically unscripted”, to adopt biologist Peter Medawar’s apposite phrase. Anyone who works with mathematics understand that some results have a universal appeal that cannot be put into words, whereas others seem irreducibly pedestrian. However, they will also tell you that a proof is a proof, no matter how you get it.

Crab Nebula PulsarThe Crab pulsar is a rapidly spinning ball of ultra-dense matter, called a neutron star, created when a star died in a massive explosion called a supernova.(Image Credit / NASA/ESA/ASU/J.Hester & A.Loll)

And getting it is a mystery. There is no guidebook to discovery or even understanding. Sometimes, it requires a Holmesian elimination of alternatives. On other occasions it might be a casual remark on an unrelated topic that releases the logjam in the river of ideas. Surprisingly often, the trite advice to “Sleep on it” is sound. But, when it happens, either to Dirac getting the key idea for the equation that now bears his name during a Sunday walk or being the millionth student to appreciate what the second law of thermodynamics is actually all about, the experience can be exhilarating. There can be wonder that the world is constructed in a certain way and pride that you now understand something of which you were ignorant yesterday.

This wonder is a great motivator. I was an undergraduate in 1967 and recall hearing first hand about pulsars (neutron stars about ten miles in diameter that can spin on their axes in milliseconds) from one of their discoverers. This, coming hot on the heels of the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources (containing hundred million degree gas), quasars (powered by massive, spinning black holes) and the cosmic microwave background (relict radiation from the hot big bang), persuaded me that the universe was a far more enchanting place than I had ever imagined and I became eager to find out more. Astronomy thrives on images and there is no better example of wonder than the first deep image of a tiny dark and blank patch of the sky taken by Hubble Space Telescope which showed it to be teeming with galaxies of all shapes, colors and sizes. I could not resist the opportunity to help study these galaxies in detail using much larger telescopes on the ground.

Binary Star SimulationThis computer-simulated image shows the formation of two high density regions (yellow) in the early universe, approximately 200 million years after the Big Bang. Click to view short video of the simulation. (Image and simulation courtesy of Ralf Kaehler, Matthew Turk and Tom Abel.)

How does one convert discoveries like these into scientific knowledge? I am not a philosopher of science and like many others stumbling along in the dark, I have to be content with a pragmatic modus operandi. I was brought up with the notion, developed largely by Karl Popper, that scientific propositions should be falsifiable and survive challenge before they can be accepted as part of the canon. However, much of the most exciting and important contemporary science, including string theory, astrophysics and climate research, is not, in practice, subject to direct experimental test and one must make do with relaxed and less satisfactory criteria such as internal consistency and capacity to account economically for a large quantity of data. Scientists are usually eager to go through any good check of their ideas, not necessarily out of arrogance or innate moral superiority, but because they learn early that the deeper the hole one digs for oneself, the harder it is to climb out of it. If one is going to be wrong, one wants to find out sooner rather than later!

So, I have argued that scientists are capable of awe, that the scientific process is progressive and admits opportunities to experience epiphanies large and small. This is all starting to sound like humanism. However, there is one crucial difference that every scientist understands. At any given time, a discipline that calls itself scientific possesses a foundation, a single set of common precepts that is adopted on account of evidence and argument in an uncompromising way and is the basis for the work that scientists do. This is impersonal and democraticizing; it is also essentially simple. Perhaps Huxley should have the last as well as the first word. “Science is nothing, but trained and organized common sense.”

Published with permission from the Humanites Program at Stanford University.

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