Monday, February 15, 2010

The poetry of science

As we've said before, BBC radio is an amazing resource. Three episodes of the World Service program, Discovery, explore "What Scientists Believe". Philosopher of science, Stephen Webster, interviews six scientists in an effort to discover how their beliefs, values and personalities influence the work they choose to do. In the final episode, he talks with Andrew Gosler, a zoologist who has spent decades of his life exploring a wood near Oxford, England, with a particular interest in a little bird called the Great Tit (the photo here is by Luc Viatour). He also talks with Piers Ingram, an applied mathematician who does medical research modeling cell behavior.

Webster accompanied Gosler into the wood in an effort to find out what makes him tick. Gosler said he'd come to zoology from birdwatching as a child. Though he grew up in London, a relative began taking him birding when he was eight, when he discovered that he simply needed to know the names of the birds and flowers he saw around him. This need stayed with him. So now he makes his living by spending time in the woods, finding answers to questions that interest him (such as why the Great Tit's eggs are more speckled in nests lower down the hill, and when it is that Tits put on fat), but he also finds peace and spiritual meaning in the woods. Webster asked him what he'd miss most if he could no longer go there. He said his salary. He'd quit his job before he'd sit at a desk all day.

Which is just where Piers Ingram finds himself. In front of a computer, building computer models of cellular function. He said, among many other things, that he would like to apply his models to organs, or even organisms, but he had a lot more to learn before he could do that. To Ingram, it's not of the essence to connect with what he studies at the organismal level, as it is for Gosler. He probably never was driven to learn the name of everything he saw in the woods, and we don't know whether he finds peace or spiritual meaning in his job. Though, clearly he loves his job.

EO Wilson has said that the problem with modern biologists is that they don't know the difference between moles and voles (moles are how you quantify DNA, aren't they?). And we've told the story here before about the Kawasaki mouse in our lab. Gosler is probably older, and perhaps even a lot older, than Ingram -- and as an organismal biologist, he probably earns significantly less -- but he surely could tell a mole from a vole, and would know that a mouse needs innards to survive. Gosler's overriding questions have to do with conservation and climate change, while Ingram's have to do with finding medical applications for what he learns about cells. One can predict that Ingram would have a greater chance of 'success' than Gosler, because his goals are much more immediate and finite and within his control. Does this make him a better scientist? No, it makes him a more pragmatic one.

Scientists, and of course especially those caught up in the heavily reductionist and grant- and hence productivity-driven world, often scoff at such thoughts. They denigrate the 'organismal' or even 'ecological' thinkers as soft-headed and their work as vague or unimportant -- pasttime rather than real science. From a molecular deterministic point of view, they may be right. More knowledge about mechanism comes, and comes faster, from experimental than observational research, for example, because it's more technical in being more focused on one variable at a time.

But the world is made of whole organisms, and as we stress in Mermaid's Tale, of interactions among cooperating components at all levels from DNA up to the global biosphere. Molecular understanding is not the only kind of understanding. And, because our brains are the result of interactions par excellence, the satisfaction of higher-levels of knowledge is a natural fact, and a part of our evolution and our existence.

So it will be a sad day when there's no longer a place for poetry in science.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Hear hear.

Anne Buchanan said...

Paleontology is a great example, isn't it, Holly? I imagine that paleontologists have to love the whole process of discovery -- whether or not they discover anything.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Yes yes. And there's ALWAYS something to discover!

Arjun said...

This entry reminds me of ArtScience, a book I'm currently reading by David Edwards that investigates how certain individuals have crossed from art into science or vice versa in trying to understand or help the world-- for example, a cell biologist who gained insight into cytoskeletal structure from his experience with 3-D sculpting, or the chemical engineer who saw parallels between mixing paints and the mechanism of fluid mixing in general, or the concert pianist-turned -electrical engineer who uses principles from chaos theory to generate musical variation in original works.

Anne Buchanan said...

The first episode in the BBC Discovery series was an interview with a cardiologist who left the field to become a sculptor, and 10 years later went back into cardiology, equipped with many new skills that he now uses in practice. So, yes, exactly, Arjun. And, thanks for the book reference.

Ken Weiss said...

There is probably another element to this, which is probably the same aspects of brain function are involved in many aspects of what seems like 'rigorous' science. Intuition in the sciences is probably similar to that in the arts, and likewise things like pattern recognition, and so on

Arjun said...

I've been batting around myself the idea of science as an endeavor to elucidate patterns in nature, preferably in the form of powerful generalizations.

Aren't natural 'laws' such patterns summarizing masses of data we've gathered on the world?

Ken Weiss said...

I think it was Isaac Newton who said something to the effect that if you can't put it in mathematical terms, it isn't science.

I don't agree with that, but mathematics is nothing more than attempting to express regularities in nature (or for some pure math, the imagination)

Anyone interested in this would enjoy listening to last week's BBC discussion of mathematics and unintended consequences (BBC4, the program called In Our Time), which presents math in just this way--a means of expression regularities in nature.

Arjun said...

But must laws necessarily be mathematical?

Take for example Gause's Law, or the competitive exclusion principle, which states that two competing species cannot coexist given that all other ecological factors are held constant. Though predictive models support this conclusion, it was not formulated or expressed in mathematical terms.

I would say the same goes for the conservations laws, which CAN be expressed in mathematical terms and which apparently fall out of mathematically-derived physical theorem but which were initially deduced through repeated experiment independently of mathematics.

Ken Weiss said...

I would say your question is a non-question in the following sense: mathematics is a way of systematizing logical reasoning and describing things of the world.

I think a hard-core mathematophile would say that competitive exclusion could be expressed mathematically within evolutionary or population ecological theory. Whether that gains anything is an open question.

Math, to me, often forces things to be more regular and systematic than they may really be, esp. if there is a probabilistic element or the system in question is very complex.

So asserting the need for mathematics may be a way of scientist self-congratulation, or a way of hiding unrealism behind intimidating appearance of rigor.

But if the rules of logic can legitimately be taken to be true--a debatable point, perhaps--then since mathematics and logic are largely isomorphic, the mathematics above all argument would be relevant.

However, we know since Godel that many things in mathematical logic are, like the many body problem in physics, not soluble or knowable.