In introducing this anthology of American scientific writing I invoke two recently dead heroes, one a scientist and American, the other a writer, not trained in science and not from America but a lover of both. Carl Sagan gave one of his last books the characteristically memorable subtitle Science as a Candle in the Dark. Douglas Adams chose to study English literature at Cambridge, but he explained to me, in a televised conversation in 1997, that his reading habits have now changed: “I think I read much more science than novels. I think the role of the novel has changed a little bit. In the nineteenth century the novel was where you went to get your serious reflections and questionings about life. You’d go to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Nowadays, of course, you know the scientists actually tell us much, much more about such issues than you would ever get from novelists. So I think for the real solid red meat of what I read I go to science books, and read some novels as light relief.” Even while listening to him, I reflected on my frustration, going into bookshops and trying to find scientific books. If there is a science section at all, it is dwarfed not only by fiction, history, biography, “self-help,” cookery, and gardening, but also by “new age,” “occult,” and religion. It has become a commonplace that astrology books outsell astronomy by a large margin.
Turning back to Adams, I asked him, “What is it about science that really gets your blood running?” and he replied: “The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strange- ness that is absolutely awesome. I mean, the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity but probably absolutely out of nothing is the most fabulous, extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened — it’s just wonderful. And I feel, you know, that the opportunity to spend seventy or eighty years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned!” Carl Sagan obviously shared those sentiments and devoted much of his career to expounding them, but The Demon-Haunted World, whose subtitle I quoted, has a darker theme. The darkness of ignorance breeds fear. In the words of a prayer which I early learned from my Cornish grandmother,
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties And things that go bump in the night Good Lord deliver us.
Some say it is Scottish, not Cornish, but the sentiments are anyway worldwide. People are afraid of the dark. Science, as Sagan argued and personally exemplifled, has the power to reduce ignorance and dispel fear. We should all read science and learn to think like scientists, not because science is useful (though it is), but because the light of knowledge is wonderful and banishes the debilitating and time-wasting fear of the dark. That uncompromisingly articulate chemist Peter Atkins has a utopian vision of a scientifically enlightened world which I share: “When we have dealt with the values of the fundamental constants by seeing that they are unavoidably so, and have dismissed them as irrelevant, we shall have arrived at complete understanding. Fundamental science can then rest. We are almost there. Complete knowledge is within our grasp. Comprehension is moving across the face of the Earth, like the sunrise.” Unfortunately, science arouses fears of its own, usually because of a confusion with technology. Even technology is not inherently frightening, but it can, of course, do bad things as well as good. If you want to do good, or if you want to do bad, science will provide the most effective way in either case. The trick is to choose the good rather than the bad, and what I fear is the judgment of those to whom society delegates that choice.
Science is the systematic method by which we apprehend what is true about the real world in which we live. If you want consolation, or an ethical guide to the good life, you can look elsewhere (and may be disappointed). But if you want to know what is true about reality, science is the only way. If there were a better way, science would embrace it.
Science can be seen as a sophisticated extension of the sense organs nature gave us. Properly used, the worldwide cooperative enterprise of science works like a telescope pointing toward reality; or, turned around, a microscope to dissect details and analyze causes. So understood, science is fundamentally a benign force, even though the technology that it spawns is powerful enough to be dangerous when abused. Ignorance of science can never be a good thing, and scientists have a paramount duty to explain their subject and make it as simple as possible (though no simpler, as Einsteein rightly insisted).
Ignorance is usually a passive state, seldom deliberately sought or intrinsically blameworthy. Unfortunately, there do seem to be some people who positively prefer ignorance and resent being told the truth. Michael Shermer, debonair editor and proprietor of Skeptic magazine, tells of the audience reaction when he unmasked a professional charlatan onstage. Far from showing Shermer the gratitude he deserved for exposing a fake who was conning them, the audience was hostile. “One woman glared at me and told me it was ‘inappropriate’ to destroy these people’s hopes during their time of grief.” Admittedly, this particular phony’s claim was to communicate with the dead, so the bereaved may have had special reasons for resenting a scientific debunker. But Shermer’s experience is typical of a more general mood of protective affection for ignorance. Far from being seen as a candle in the dark, or as a wonderful source of poetic inspiration, science is too often decried as poetry’s spoilsport.
A more snobbish denigration of science can be found in some, but by no means all, literary circles. “Scientism” is as dirty a word as any in today’s intellectual lexicon. Scientific explanations that have the virtue of simplicity are derided as “simplistic.” Obscurity is often mistaken for profundity; simple clarity can be taken for arrogance. Analytical minds are denigrated as “reductionist” — as with “sin,” we may not know what it means, but we do know that we are against it. The Nobel Prize–winning immunologist and polymath Peter Medawar, not a man to suffer fools gladly, remarked that “reductive analysis is the most successful research stratagem ever devised,” and continued: “Some resent the whole idea of elucidating any entity or state of affairs that would otherwise have continued to languish in a familiar and nonthreatening squalor of incomprehension.” Nonscientific ways of thinking — intuitive, sensitive, imaginative (as if science were not imaginative!) — are thought by some to have a built-in superiority over cold, austere, scientific “reason.” Here’s Medawar again, this time in his celebrated lecture “Science and Literature”: “The official Romantic view is that Reason and the Imagination are antithetical, or at best that they provide alternative pathways leading to the truth, the pathway of Reason being long and winding and stopping short of the summit, so that while Reason is breathing heavily there is Imagination capering lightly up the hill.” Medawar goes on to point out that this view was even once supported by scientists themselves. Newton claimed to make no hypotheses, and scientists generally were supposed to employ “a calculus of discovery, a formulary of intellectual behaviour which could be relied upon to conduct the sc...