Popular Science: A New World of Inspiration

The British biologist Richard Dawkins once remarked that his career had been more like a love affair than work, and that, like anyone in love, he longed to tell others. Such joy and excitement is typical of the best popular science writers, and it can be wonderfully infectious. Indeed, even those who claim to be uninterested, or to find science too difficult, are often astonished by how inspiring such books can be.

Resistance and Hostility

In Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, a conversation takes place between a physicist and a children’s author, the first representing the world of science, the second the arts. Though they are friends, and the exchange lighthearted, the physicist expresses the frustration science lovers feel towards those in the arts. Referring to the discoveries of 20th century physics, she says, “A scientific revolution, no, an intellectual revolution, an emotional, sensual explosion, a fabulous story just beginning to unfold for us, and you and your kind won’t give it a serious minute of your time.”

What infuriates such people most is that while no one would admit to having never read a novel or poem, many seem almost proud to claim that science bores them. This may be because while artists and poets are thought to be eccentric, colourful, and entertaining, scientists continue to be thought of as nerdy, odd, and socially dysfunctional. Scientists are uncool, and so loving science is also uncool. No need to struggle through Hawking’s Brief History of Time or Dawkins’ Selfish Gene; on the contrary, not putting in the time or effort makes you cool. What a relief!

Of course, some would argue that they have tried, but that it’s hopeless – they just don’t have that kind of mind. Others make the excuse that “science was ruined for me as a kid,” going on to describe a dreary chemistry teacher who bored everyone to death, or to recall their frustration and despair as they struggled with physics’ homework. But those who talk in this way are often just lazy. And many are guilty of another sin, one guaranteed to leave them miserable and bored in later life – a lack of curiosity.

Wonder and Awe

Above all, science provides a sense of wonder and awe. It has pushed human knowledge beyond the reach of the senses. Who among us would ever have seen a cell or an atom, or been able to imagine a galaxy or a supernovae?! Scientists provide us with knowledge that no ordinary individual could hope to acquire. The telescope and the microscope have enabled us to see things that would astonish the most sophisticated Roman or Greek philosopher.

And scientists themselves find this thrilling. The best popular science writers, such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins, Bill Bryson, and many others, often write with a childlike astonishment. The idea that they are dull people, only interested in facts and immune to wonder, is absurd. The physicist Richard Feynman, for example, once recalled a conversation he had with an artist, who said that when he, the artist, looked at a flower he saw its beauty, but that Feynman, a scientist, stripped away this beauty and reduced the flower to cells and atoms. Feynman disagreed, arguing that scientific knowledge adds to our sense of “the mystery and the awe of a flower.”

Examples of such wonder are endless, but to take an obvious one, at some point most of us have looked at the stars and imagined what would happen if we flew upwards in a straight line. Would we ever reach the end? Is there an end? After all, even if you reached a big wall with a sign on it saying “End of the Universe” there must be something behind that wall! The answer is that you would never reach an outer boundary. Instead, you would arrive back where you began. That is because, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, space curves or bends in ways we cannot imagine. Knowing this makes your experience of a clear night sky more wonderful, not less.

Mystery and Magic

Another stubborn myth is that science strips the world of magic and mystery. Oscar Wilde famously remarked that “dull facts” ought to be “kept in their proper place,” i.e subordinate to art and imagination. The British novelist Jeanette Winterson even writes that the very idea of knowing too much repels her – that she doesn’t want the laws and mechanics of the Universe revealed, preferring to retain a little darkness and obscurity instead.

But anyone who believes that scientists are immune to this feeling is wrong. The more they discover, the more magical and strange the Universe seems. Feynman offers a good example of this, writing of how his deepest speculations always “end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty.” In 2001, Dr Andrei Linde, a cosmologist, even remarked that the deepest problems he and his colleagues wrestle with “are very close to religious questions.”

The strangest thing of all is not the way the Universe is but the fact that we can understand it. The Universe appeared 13.7 billion years ago, the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. So far as we know, for billions of years there was no life and no consciousness. And yet now there is. Many still find this baffling. How did matter give rise to conscious awareness? As the philosopher Susan Blackmore puts it, “How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like ‘I am striding through the grass?…the objective world out there, and the subjective experience in here seem to be totally different kinds of things.”

Life began, species evolved, and eventually there appeared a primate able to describe the origins of the Universe itself, one that would even become conscious of its own consciousness! Bill Bryson writes that “at the level of chemistry, life is fantastically mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulphur, a light dusting of other ordinary elements…” In other words, we are made out of the very atoms of the Universe. And yet such atoms form the brain of a man like Stephen Hawking, sitting in his rooms at Cambridge, writing books that explain the fundamental laws underpinning the cosmos.

Humility and Consolation

Good science writing can also be consoling. This is in part because it humbles us, both as individuals and as a species. To an ancient astronomer, Earth was the center of everything. To a modern astronomer, however, the Earth is more like a speck of dust floating in the sunbeams of some vast cathedral, or like a grain of sand in the Sahara desert. There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy, each with planets of their own. And our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies, each with billions of stars and planets.

While the astronomers remind us of our physical insignificance, geologists and paleontologists remind us of our temporal insignificance. Homo sapiens are just one more species. And 99% of species to have ever existed are now extinct. At one point, our own species was reduced to a few nomadic bands wandering the African savannah. Had the climate taken a bad turn, causing a sudden drought or famine, we would almost certainly have gone the same way.

And we are also relative newcomers. Modern humans have only existed for about 200,000 years. When you consider that the Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old, and that the first mammal appeared 160 million years ago, this puts our species into perspective. It also reminds us that one day our species will probably be extinct – though the Earth itself won’t notice; animals will continue to evolve, and the tectonic plates will continue to shift.

No doubt some find such ideas depressing. But such facts humble the ego, placing it in a larger context, so large that it begins to seem absurd. Of course, the sense of absurdity can be painful. But if embraced, it can also lead to a kind of joyful release. What do your petty desires and fears matter when confronted by the vastness of the cosmos that produced you? Science frees you: paleontology takes you away from the here, astronomy from the now (it is no coincidence that the word “ecstasy” comes from the Greek for “to get outside yourself”).

The Future

Finally, popular science inspires the reader with future discoveries and inventions. For example, Stephen Hawking finishes his A Brief History of Time hoping for what he describes as a “complete theory.” Once achieved, he adds, we will turn with renewed fascination to the ultimate question – why. Why do we and the universe exist? Hawking famously closes his book by stating that should we solve that, it will be the ultimate triumph of human reason, enabling us to “know the mind of God.”

Another fascinating example can be found in Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Future, where he takes an overview of topics ranging from Artificial Intelligence and space travel to nanotechnology and medicine, making astonishing and dazzling predictions along the way. The ordinary person, preoccupied with bills and relationships, tends not to wonder about life in the near future. And so when a man of Kaku’s intellect tells us that nanotechnology will enable humanity to play with the very atoms and molecules out of which everything is made, or that we will be able to not only halt, but actually reverse, ageing, it can come as a thrilling shock.

When trying popular science books, people are their own worst enemies. Many convince themselves that such books are boring or difficult – or both. And if that is what you expect, that is what you will find.

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