“Few things that can happen to a nation are more important than the invention of a new form of…”

You’ll have to scroll down for the last word of that sentence. It may surprise you.

I took this quote from another old(ish) book that didn’t make it into Free Radicals’ notes and sources section. But it’s a gem, nonetheless. Jacob Bronowski's Magic, Science and Civilisation was published in 1978 and is a treasure trove of forgotten insights.

One of the most interesting things to me was Bronowski’s discussion of the difference between the perspective of the working scientist and the outsider’s view.

Here’s Bronowski on Popper:

…And though I have great admiration for my friend and colleague Karl Popper, in his recent work he has begun to stress the notion that there is a great problem-solving element in making laws of science. I think he suffers, as many of his colleagues do, from the fact that he really isn’t used to how a laboratory carries on. There aren’t any clear-cut problems; there certainly aren’t any decisions in which you set up an experiment and you say, ‘Here’s a law, here’s a hypothesis, I challenge it, I’m going to negate it.’ Instead it all works by a highly tentative and experimental process.

I have heard scientists quoting the Popperian, ‘it’s all about falsification’ so many times – always to outsiders, as a defence of why people should take science’s claims seriously. As Bronowski says, and as anyone who has spent time in a research laboratory knows, that’s a drastic over-simplification.

The question is, is it a dangerous one? I think it is: it dehumanises the process of science, stripping away the bits that people outside of science – people who have only engaged with the arts, for instance – would actually appreciate and connect with. It’s a bit like Picasso saying, “well, the thing I do is just paint the eye a bit wonky. Rather pleasing, isn't it?”

Simply describing the end result does not do justice to the creative process and the sheer enormous effort that science requires. And, of course, the challenging, radical new worldview that a new scientific insight leaves us with.

For me, this is what people haven’t been allowed to appreciate about science, and it is damaging.  What Nobel laureate Peter Medawar called the “postures we choose to be seen in when the curtain goes up and the public sees us” have affected how we teach science, how the media engages with it, how it is funded, how governments relate to it – and many other things (that I do discuss in the book). The worst is public engagement. For my money, anyone who makes scientists sound like robots, then complains that people don’t engage with science, deserves a slap.

So, the end of that sentence I began with? “Verse.” Few things that can happen to a nation are more important than the invention of a new form of verse.

Really? Erm, apparently.

The quote comes from T.S. Eliot, and Bronowski agrees it is important: he points out the invention of the “heroic couplet” in England in the late seventeenth century represented a new approach to framing an argument, the key to seeding a revolution in society. But, Brownowski adds, you could say the same about science:

… literary criticism aside, if Mr Eliot has a right to say that about a new form of verse then we certainly have a right to say it about a new form of thinking which came in with the couplet at the time of the Royal Society in the last part of the seventeenth century.

Few things that can happen to a nation were more important than that, he says: the establishment of a new way of thinking and arguing, with experimental proof as the ultimate arbiter. As Bronowski says, “The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself.”

Instead of trying to subvert nature through magic and alchemy, we began to embrace nature, be ruled by the limits it imposes, but exploit its properties for gains in technology and simple understanding. That’s why Francis Bacon said, “we cannot command nature except by obeying her.”

This insight led to a revelation about what humans could achieve, whether scientists or not. As Bronowski says, “at one moment in history, science and the arts rose together, because of the simple sense of man’s pleasure in his own gifts.”

Our worldview should not be about science, nor should it be about the arts. It should be about ensuring we are good stewards of the extraordinary abilities of the human mind.

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