Systematic Wonder: A Definition of Science That Accounts for Whimsy
On “the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free.”
By Maria Popova
We march through the world armed with intuition and rationality to conquer the unknown, the two in near-constant friction in a culture that frames them as opposing forces. We turn to science and the scientific method as the ultimate bastion of rationality in our quest for Truth. But science isn’t merely reason, science is culture. It’s a poetic and practical sensemaking mechanism for the universe and our place in it, the totality of whose machinery is greater than the sum of its logical parts. In this poignant short excerpt from A General Theory of Love, one of the 5 essential books on the psychology of love, psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon eloquently capture that elusive, often intentionally dismissed, but wildly important aspect of science that embraces intuition and imagination:
Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world. In its mundane form, the methodical instinct prevails and the result, an orderly procession of papers, advances the perimeter of knowledge, step by laborious step. Great scientific minds partake of that daily discipline and can also suspend it, yielding to the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free. And then Einstein imagines himself riding a light beam, Kekule formulates the structure of benzene in a dream, and Fleming’s eye travels past the annoying mold on his glassware to the clear ring surrounding it — a lucid halo in a dish otherwise opaque with bacteria — and penicillin is born. Who knows how many scientific revolutions have been missed because their potential inaugurators disregarded the whimsical, the incidental, the inconvenient inside the laboratory?
A General Theory of Love, it bears repeating, is an indispensable and revelatory read from cover to cover.
Published February 23, 2012