Historical Entanglement

Scientists don’t pay enough attention to history, and we need to fix that.

Don’t get me wrong – scientists pay a lot of attention to historical scientists. Our collective worship of Einstein, Darwin, Curie, Hodgkin, & al is plays to the point of obsession. We care also about the history of science; how the specific details of how our disciplines were forged. These compelling stories all offer familiar anchoring points for what essentially amounts to our shared legend of creation. But that’s not enough.

These creation legends aren’t worthless, for they help to tie us together as a community and allow us a common culture from which to establish new relationships. Still, I think we miss so much of the actual point. We have ignored hitherto a vast aspect of how history applies to us. I speak of the challenging field of “world” history.

A good historical perspective gives a long view of the significance of its subject matter in broader contexts. It’s a narrative, and it must recognize that its understanding is limited in scope. Hence I approach The Penguin History of the Twentieth Century, which acknowledges at the outset quite how ambitious it is to get any broad sense of a century which profoundly redefined our civilization. The best it can do, it admits, is pick up on general themes of the world over that period and how they entangled.

Science is one of these themes. The book tackles it most notably by discussing the way science’s profusion throughout the first half of the century set the world on a course which was fundamentally new. It’s a blindingly obvious point that science has extended lives, generated wealth, and enabled new and hideous ways to maim each other, and while average food consumption and life expectancy trends are a great achievement of science, so is its interconnection of the world. Wireless communication and the internet have changed society in this century arguably more than even the advent of the printing press five centuries before. [1]

Yet, when all this is said, and much done to search for other ways to the future, it remains true that the political supremacy Europeans established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the technological advances which followed, are the main reasons why more common experiences and assumptions are now shared by more people more widely than ever before. – Ch. 18 “Changing Minds”, p 576.

[1] – And there is so much more to say on the unequal distribution of the benefits science has wrought, and how these tie in with the social and political events of the C20th, which I can’t reasonably cover right now, but which the book does an excellent job of acknowledging.

But the book turns this triumph on its head. We are reminded that as the century began, science was impressive and comprehensible only to a tiny élite sufficiently wealthy to experience its benefits. Most people in 1899 would have no material examples of the power of science to improve their everyday lives. Neither would they acknowledge science as an entity. Yet, to those élites science was an essentially unambiguous wonder which could be understood broadly and in detail by the educated layperson. A person could have a reasonable hope of mastering a discipline of the day – anatomy, for example – in its entirety within their own lifetime. One could reasonably form an insightful opinion on all of the new topics of the day. These were science’s hipsters.

But science became mainstream. As advancements and education proliferated, more and more examples of science’s everyday benefits came to view of the everyday human – to date, maybe half(ish) the population of the world have experienced the relative wonder of a telephone. People have everyday examples of miracles [2]. But by the same token, science’s scope and complexity has exploded to an incomprehensible magnitude.

[2] – Like fucking magnets – how do they work? Also regular magnets. There’s enough miracles here to blow your brains.

Not only have traditional fields expanded, but we are inventing new fusions, blurring divisions, and simply discovering new types of miracle. An expert can no longer hope to totally master their field. Even a truly gifted individual can’t expect to definitively and entirely understand neuroscience or quantum computing in their lifetime. Worse; an educated layperson might not ever gain a serious appreciation for major issues across a handful of fields. The miracles are relegated to “because we say so”, because science has become so vast and complex that none of us can understand it individually.

Even by 1950, much more had disappeared than just a long dominant set of general laws. The content and the idea of science changed, too. Any one of its great traditional divisions was by then beyond the mastery of a single mind. The conflations required by, say, importing physical theory into neurology or of mathematics into biology put new barriers in the way of attaining that synthesis of knowledge that had been one of the long-cherished visions of the nineteenth century. – Ch. 18 “Changing Minds”, p 557.

Over the last century, science passed its apex of popular understanding and appeal. That decreasing popular intelligibility has bred niches for vested interests and narcissists to exploit, and it’s the root of our current crisis of trust in scientific outcomes. [3]

[3] – which is not even to get started on the popular perception of science as supposedly “non political”: another essay for another day.

As scientists, we have to understand our place and role in these trends. We are tied up in a regression of significance of our institution, just as the world is getting to grips with its negative aspects. Where and how we benefit the world is becoming less obvious and harder to explain, and the costs more difficult to justify. Experience in science tells me that you don’t get to propose solutions until you understand the problem. Without a broader and more common understanding of science’s role in the 20th Century, scientists can’t hope to discuss with any clarity the underlying issues which confront us. We must become historians, so that we may continue to be scientists.

Yet we continue to focus on treating the symptoms by emphasizing how our projects benefit people rather than expressing the fundamental cultural and creative impact which makes science such a sublime pursuit. We need to express this better.

I have a friend who’s an artist, and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘look how beautiful it is’ … ‘but you as a scientist, take this all apart and it becomes this dull thing’. And I think that he’s kind of, uh, nutty.  … the science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts. – Richard Feynman, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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