If Science was Easy Would Humans Exist? (or sponge crabs for that matter)

Here is draft number one, I look forward to the grammarians pointing out the ghastly errors that come with my hasty typing and scattermind. Did I express what I wanted to, I am not sure I did, see this as thoughts that might have failed.

 

Science is hard. 

I was once warned that I should be careful with my silly science variety shows and solo escapades. Just as some left Top Gun and signed up for the US air force, the malleable young might leave a night of particle physics related tap dancing, hula hooping and quark inspired flippancy, and sign up to spend the rest of their life squinting at equations that at first offer the hope of a theory of everything, but end up leading to the sanitarium. 

 One of the reasons I enjoy science so much is that I don’t need to understand it, I just need to be enthralled and enchanted by it. Each time I pick up a new book on quantum mechanics or genetic engineering, I briefly experience a waking dream where I turn the final page and experience total comprehension, but then I snap out of my illusory future and realise that I’ll just enjoy the ride. Sometimes, when Brian Cox is talking to me, i don’t know when to say, “errr, can you go back a bit, you lost me at the basic Lagrangian mechanics.”

 I meet people who tell me they tried some science book, couldn’t make head nor tail of it, so have returned to the comfort of the immaculate and thrilling plots of Ian Rankin or another book on wooden teeth and monarchy. Humans want certainty. For much of ape evolution there was little time to start a philosophy talking point group when mulling over the possible approaches to evading a rapidly approaching drooling beast. Our minds are tuned to make us jump first and the rationalise it was a shadow not a dragon second. 

 When reading a book or watching a TV documentary we want to feel we have learnt, that our mind is less muddy than before. I wonder of people give up on reading science for pleasure because they want the buzz of the victory of understanding and then telling everyone else that they understand, rather than the more solitary joy of seeing the world slightly differently, whether when observing the movement of a bee or the glimmer of a star. 

 The older I become, the more I accept that Mr Know-It-All is only a position you can hold if you bullshit a lot and hope no one in the room knows anything on the subject you are extemporising on. Oh the horror of cobbling together your three facts about Jean Paul Sartre and holding court by the quiche, only to find out that Mary Warnock is by the potato salad. 

Perhaps what I am attempting to express (it is a hot day and my mind is clammier than usual) is “lower your personal Nobel prize winning potential expectations when reading Roger Penrose”. If you set out to read books with the sole purpose of understanding the universe and all that lies, hangs and spins within it, you may be tetchy by tuesday week. 

Accept that you will die ignorant of much, but that you leave behind the pencil marks in books and the post it notes scribbles that meant you enjoyed trying to comprehend. 

 Be thrilled to be a self-conscious entity able to ponder and turn pages. Be happy you know you are an idiot, because each day you can have the thrill of trying to repair this foible via investigation or observation or experimentation. 

 So what I meant to say was – don’t worry about feeling stupid when you first read about the  Higgs field, muons, gluons, quarks, RNA, DNA, special relativity, general relativity, biosynthesis and the rest, and don’t feel worried if you are still feeling pretty ignorant at the third, fourth and fifth time, if the universe was easy to understand, then it wouldn’t be complex enough to contain all that it does and that includes you. Enjoy each inkling of understanding what atoms can do and to relax, just think of the complex language of bee choreography. 

 (All of the above does not count if you are a professional scientist – know you’re stuff and have all the answers or you’ll never be able to terraform Mars and give us somewhere new to look out from when we’ve screwed up this place. )

New science app The Incomplete Map of the Cosmic Genome is here https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/incomplete-map-cosmic-genome/id644882342?mt=8 includes Brian Cox, Lawrence Krauss, Helen Czerski, Stewart Lee and many more

Infinite Monkey Cage returns to BBC Radio 4 on Monday 24th June, podcast version soon after

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11 Responses to If Science was Easy Would Humans Exist? (or sponge crabs for that matter)

  1. Nathan says:

    A very nice article Robin. I do wonder though, is complexity necessary for complexity to arise? The universe could be ultimately very simple at its most basic and still lead to unfathomable complexity. If I remember correctly, Marcus Chown writes about this in his book the never ending days of being dead (is that the right title?) but I can’t remember exactly what was said….

  2. Jennie Towan says:

    Thanks Robin, you’ve encapsulated just how I feel about science. Most of my life has been the humdrum of family, work etc, and no Internet, & I’ve lived it in blind ignorance, believing (albeit with scepticism) in a good God who kept his finger on the pulse. Retirement has given me time and the Internet, and it’s impossible to explain what that has meant to me. I may not have masses of books with pencilled notes to show my journey, but if it were possible to follow my web history it would amount to the same thing. So much I just don’t understand, but I’ve waded in regardless & experienced the joy & wonder I had hoped to find in religious experience, spiced by the knowledge that science is a journey seeking Truth, and it’s always happy to backtrack if it finds it’s made a mistake. There is such freedom in that concept.
    Thanks for adding another brushstroke to my life.

  3. Nathan says:

    Thinking about it, in mathematics (in by extension, perhaps in nature) there are many cases of very simple things leading to *seemingly* complex outcomes – for example the number pi, or fractals…

  4. Great post! The end was little bit of a bollock twister though. I tend to be a little more optimistic regarding our continued existence on the planet. As far as books are concerned my only gripe, with the science type, is how to avoid drawing blood to pay for all those freebie desk copies. Although, discovering Mary Warnock by the potato salad could help negate that gripe.

    • robinince says:

      I did mean the end in a jokey, “you get working, scientists” manner.

      • ryanbrown870 says:

        Unfortunately it doesn’t get easier when you are a scientist! You just get more used to not having a clue what is going on. I think as you read more, you get a better feel for what is important to understand and what you can get away with still being ignorant of after your 8th reading 🙂

  5. I’m a scientist. But I’m not a physicist or biologist, and within chemistry I’m pretty damn specialised. Most of us are- the knowledge and skills required for even a narrow specialisation are so vast that being a Newton style generalist is simply unfeasible. We probably like to think that our “scientific traing” means we can understand unrelated areas a bit better, but really, the world of the Large Hadron Collider is pretty much as alien to me as it is to a chef. I find it fascinating, but getting my head round it makes me gloriously confused

  6. ryanbrown870 says:

    Unfortunately it doesn’t get any easier when you are a scientist! You just get more used to not understanding things. I think as you read more you get a better feel for what is important to get and what you can get away with. Its always more interesting when you are still clueless after your 8th read anyway!

  7. Laura says:

    There’s joy in understanding something you didn’t understand before, but there’s also joy in discovering there’s something new you don’t understand at all (yet). I think we need both — life would be really dull if we just had the first and downright terrifying if we just had the second.

    And since you said you were looking forward to this: you have “know you’re stuff” in the third-to-last paragraph. Although I guess you could simply be reminding scientists that they are, in fact, stuff.

  8. Tor Hershman says:

    You don’t gotta be a rocket scientist
    to be a rocket scientist
    .
    Have you heard “Crispy Krishna”
    ?

  9. Nice article. 🙂 Also encouraging when you’ve just opened your A Level physics book and decided to have heart palpitations at the complexity of it all. First step is always just to enjoy it. Just saved an afternoon of panic!

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