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Posts Tagged ‘science’

06 MARCH, 2013

Richard Feynman on the Universal Responsibility of Scientists

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On harvesting the fruit of freedom of thought.

“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” E. B. White wrote of the role and responsibility of the writer.

In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman adds to history’s famous definitions of science and considers the responsibility of the scientist as just about the polar opposite: to be continuously informed and shaped by life, free of the despotism of opinion and the addiction to rectitude.

Speaking to the notion that “every child is a scientist,” Feynman champions the true responsibility of science education — a responsibility and purpose sadly belied by the current education system — and argues:

When we read about this in the newspaper, it says, ‘The scientist says that this discovery may have importance in the cure of cancer.’ The paper is only interested in the use of the idea, not the idea itself. Hardly anyone can understand the importance of an idea, it is so remarkable. Except that, possibly, some children catch on. And when a child catches on to an idea like that, we have a scientist. These ideas do filter down (in spite of all the conversation about TV replacing thinking), and lots of kids get the spirit — and when they have the spirit you have a scientist. It’s too late for them to get the spirit when they are in our universities, so we must attempt to explain these ideas to children.

He then moves on to the broader role of science as a cultural force. The idea that ignorance is central to science — as well as film, media, and design — is an enduring theme, but Feynman lives up to his reputation and articulates it more beautifully and eloquently than anyone:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to “live the questions,” Feynman traces the roots of science to the vital anti-authoritarianism of brave minds like Galileo and reminds us:

Now, we scientists … take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that’s all — not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Here lies a responsibility to society.

With his signature blend of graceful language and uncompromising conviction, Feynman echoes Bertrand Russell’s contention that “without science, democracy is impossible” and aims at the bullseye of the scientist’s responsibility:

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. There are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys, man is saved!’ and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

Pair with Feynman’s timeless commencement address on integrity and Stuart Firestein’s fantastic Ignorance: How It Drives Science, one of the best science books of 2012.

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05 MARCH, 2013

The Lady and Her Monsters: Real-Life Frankensteins and How Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece Came to Life

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The experiments and reanimations of Mary Shelley, Luigi Galvani, and Giovanni Aldini.

Mary Godwin was born during an electrical storm. As her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, sealed herself in the bedroom for the birth of her second child, the booming sound of thunder and thrilling flashes of light pierced the darkness, her labor intensifying through the night.

Less than ten years earlier, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani had sniffed the air on a similar occasion in Bologna, waiting on the thunder and lightning to create his own form of life. Eighteenth-century Italy was the center of anatomical study, from theatrical dissection to beautiful wax models of the human body. The raw meat of humanity had been poked and prodded, but scientists still questioned what exactly made the spark of life. Galvani considered it might just be that: a spark, a bit of lightning. For his stormy experiment, he had stripped and eviscerated several sets of frogs, leaving only their excitable legs intact. He planned on using the storm to conduct one of the first experiments of electric reanimation, then recorded his results:

[Whenever] in correspondence of the four thunders, contractions not small occurred in all muscles of the limbs, and as a consequence, not small hops and movements of the limbs. These occurred just at the moment of the lightning.

Mary Godwin — later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein — may also have been born at the moment of lightning, but her mother’s life ended nearly a week later from birthing complications. Young Mary was born into an age of Galvanism, when experiments in electricity had just begun to interest the scientists of the Royal Society. In The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece (public library), Roseanne Montillo brilliantly joins the live wires of Mary Shelley’s life and work with those of cutting-edge dissections and electrical experiments.

Mary Shelley, c. 1840, by Richard Rothwell

Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

When she was young, Mary and the Godwins family lived on Skinner Street near a prison, and Mary’s father, William Godwin, would write to condemned prisoners. Execution day would fill the street with onlookers, as hundreds attempted to enter the prison courtyard to witness a public hanging. Instead of attending these gruesome events, however, Godwin would stay at home and invite his friends over for an intellectual salon, where they discussed the work of poetslike Samuel Taylor Coleridge and scientists like Humphry Davy, who had just begun his own experiments in electricity.

Davy would conclude from his experiments that science had the power to conquer nature. Light could be created from darkness, and the mind itself could be altered with gases such as nitrous oxide. In an 1802 lecture titled “Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures in Chemistry,” Davy determined that the art of chemistry was:

an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it bestowed upon [Davy] powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power.

If electricity and chemistry held the mysteries of life itself, then surely Galvanism could have the power to reanimate the dead.

'A Galvanized Corpse,' a political cartoon from 1836 by Henry R. Robinson

Image courtesy Library of Contress

That same year, 1802, Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew and protégée, traveled to London from Bologna, bringing with him the desire to experiment on an animal far larger than a frog. The Murder Act of 1752 had added dissection to its list of grisly punishments, to be performed at the Royal College of Surgeons hours after a hanging, as “a peculiar mark of infamy” for the criminal. Aldini proposed an experiment far more curious: the reanimation of a dead body through the use of Galvanism, the application of electric current.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

Aldini had planned to restart the heart of George Foster, a man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and child. Dissection was a gruesome prospect for condemned criminals, who feared being removed from gallows mid-strangulation and waking up on an operating table. For Foster, there would be a morbid attempt at a second chance at life — but what kind of life?

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

After Foster was declared dead and cut down from the hangman’s noose, Galvani attached electrodes to his limbs, face, and ears, and then powered up his battery, which made a terrible sizzling noise like hot bacon on a grill. To the astonishment of everyone present, Foster’s jaw began to move and his eyes opened. When Aldini moved the current to the face, Foster’s head shook back and forth and the features began to form a horrible grimace.

The reanimation was temporary and involuntary — an act of reflexes no different from his uncle’s twitching frog legs. Foster’s heart did not restart and the experiment was deemed a failure by Aldini, who blamed his battery:

No doubt, with a stronger apparatus we might have observed muscular actions much longer.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

The Lady and Her Monsters reveals the real-life Frankensteins that populated Mary Shelley’s world at a time when the realities of science and fiction were not yet the fantasy world of science fiction.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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01 MARCH, 2013

What Is a Poem? Coleridge on Science vs. Romance, 1817

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“It is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.”

“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his treatise on how to read a poem. “Poetry must resemble prose, and both must accept the vocabulary of their time,” W. B. Yeats argued in his 1936 meditation on modern poetry. But what, exactly, is a poem? In Biographia Literaria (public library; public domain), originally published in 1817 and now available as a free Kindle download, English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers an eloquent definition:

A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference, therefore, must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise. Our definition of a poem may be thus worded. “A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.”

For, in a legitimate poem, the parts must mutually support and explain each other; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of, metrical arrangement.

And yet, the notion that a poem is diametrically opposed to science — while appropriate in the context of Coleridge’s time, as he pioneered the Romantic Movement — seems tragically reductionist today. What of Dianne Ackerman’s beautiful poems about the planets of the Solar System? Or life science professor and clock researcher Mary E. Harrintong’s poetic ode to bioluminescent creatures? Or physicist J. W. V. Storey’s scientific paper published as a 38-stanza poem? Perhaps the mesmerism of poetry, like that of science, lives in that magical place of systematic wonder.

In fact, Coleridge was rather opposed to innovation in poetry, accusing modern poets of having substituted substance of message for gimmickry of medium:

One great distinction between even the characteristic faults of our elder poets and the false beauties of the moderns is this. In the former, from Donne to Cowley, we find the most fantastic out-of-the-way thoughts, but the most pure and genuine mother English; in the latter, the most obvious thoughts, in language the most fantastic and arbitrary. Our faulty elder poets sacrificed the passion, and passionate flow of poetry, to the subtleties of intellect and to the starts of wit; the moderns to the glare and glitter of a perpetual yet broken and heterogeneous imagery. The one sacrificed the heart to the head, the other both heart and head to drapery.

It was precisely Coleridge’s cult of precision and knowledge at the expense of abstraction and beauty that inspired John Keats to come up with the concept of “negative capability”, advocating for comfort with uncertainty and nimbleness amidst changing context — a skill later advanced by poets and scientists alike.

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