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.