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“A remarkably interesting collection of writings by scientists, setting their formally impersonal discipline in a rich context of humane experience and understanding. The book is an important contribution to a deeper understanding of the character of science and it deserves to be widely read.”—John Polkinghorne, author of Theology in the Context of Science
“This is an inspirational anthology of the thoughts and vision of scientists through the ages. A much needed antidote to the current dehumanizing of scientific discovery. A book which questions the very basis on which modern science is conducted and to take us back to the values and vision of why we investigate and try to explain the world in which we live.”—John Wood, professor, Imperial College, London; Chair of the European Research Area Board
In From Galileo to Gell-Mann, Marco Bersanelli and Mario Gargantini have gathered writings from over one hundred of the world’s brightest scientific minds on the question of “Why?”—specifically, why did these great scientists commit themselves so ardently to life in the laboratory? What was it that kept them dedicated to their research endeavors for years on end?
This new anthology is a goldmine of insight that previously could only to be found hidden deep within thousands of scattershot pages of footnotes from out-of-print journals, rare books, and unpublished papers. Among the most remarkable similarities that emerge when one considers together these writings from the likes of Albert Einstein, Gregor Mendel, Marie Curie, and others, is the sense of wonder and outright awe at what the study of the natural world can reveal.
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No less worthy of exaltation and amazement is the setting for human life: this vast, mysterious, magnificent world, this universe of a thousand forces, a thousand laws, a thousand beauties, a thousand depths. Have I studied sufficiently, explored, admired the space within which life is lived? What an unforgivable distraction, what blameworthy superficiality!PAUL VI
Those who have reached the stage of no longer being able to marvel at anything simply show that they have lost the art of reasoning and reflection.MAX PLANCK
FROM TIME TO TIME, particular words enter scientific jargon that reveal the way in which scientists work on the natural world that they try to get to know. Thus, in the pages of a review of particle physics or in the thick of the discussion at a conference on molecular biology or astrophysics, it is easy to run into the word "evidence." Scientific research continuously feeds on and thrives on experimental evidence: there are the facts, the characteristics, the information that derive from a laboratory investigation or a program of observations carried out perhaps with extremely sophisticated instruments and methods of analysis. In the end, a step forward is taken only when evidence emerges from all this: at one point, however infinitesimal, reality shows its face, its mode of being. And this mode of being is persuasive; it is a point at which it is no longer necessary to say more, but simply to recognize the facts. The term "evidence" brings out a simple but profound truth, yet one that is important: scientists can undertake their research only because the natural phenomena in some way put themselves in front of them as "facts," as the inexorable emergence of their being there and their mode of relating themselves to the rest of reality.
The starting point for the cognitive adventure of science is not therefore something that we invent for ourselves, but reality, which comes to us as evidence. It is a reality that presents itself with some characteristics, apparently obvious but not always well received in the dominant cultural terms of reference, whether in popularization or in the media.
The world that the scientist observes and investigates first of all exists: it is not an illusion nor a daydream. Those who have faced the challenge of research know very well that nature does not obey their imagination. Scientists are well aware of this when answers are slow in coming from their experiments or when after a great deal of toil they have an intuition of the perspective that allows them finally to see a glimmer of a relationship that binds the factors of a problem together.
Noting the presence of things is the first and fundamental action of the human being who knows. It is from this strange passivity that curiosity, questions, the desire for research grow. Perhaps for this reason, at the heart of all great scientists there is something that, as in a child, keeps their eyes wide open and focused on reality. The existence of things is the object of recognition but not of demonstration. And perhaps this can stimulate our mentality, still led to give value to only what can be demonstrated, as if the only credible knowledge were that of a mathematical kind. However, even a great logician such as Wittgenstein could not avoid recognizing that "an experience is such that when I prove it to myself I marvel at the existence of the world. And here I am inclined to use phrases such as 'how extraordinary it is that something exists' or 'how extraordinary it is that the world exists.'" This wonder at existence is the condition for an authentic encounter with things and opens up the possibility of knowledge. If in fact we ask what moves researchers to their research, we have to admit that their reason is set in motion by an attraction that reality exercises on them. However, the origin of this attraction is not directly the fact that they can "measure," "divide" things, but the simple and giddy fact that reality is there. It is wonder that things are there. This is a wonder that does not stop at an aesthetic sentiment, is not reduced to a momentary curiosity, but is the beginning of a process, kindling the desire to enter into relationship with the world, to get to know it. Wonder accompanies every step; every step of research is in fact a beginning.
Human reason is first of all provoked, moved by the fact that reality is there. What reason first acknowledges is the pure presence of things ("Look at the stars!"). But the capacity for wonder also becomes fruitful from a strictly scientific point of view. First of all, it makes scientists more attentive because they are wholly open to the data of reality, intent on interacting with them, and allow themselves to be provoked and therefore to respond, bringing all their own rational capacity to bear. It is fundamental for scientists to appreciate the beauty of the nature that they are studying, to be attracted by the sense of order and the regularity that they perceive in it. Scientists are thus led to collect all the data and are therefore put in a position to be able to grasp reality in all its expressions, in all its facets, including the quantitative aspects that help them to decipher the phenomena and go back rationally to the causes.
Quantitative curiosity ("How many stars are there?") is entirely based on this perception of the real as given and on the amazement that derives from it. The quantitative question that characterizes the scientific method arises as a particular expressive mode of the original amazement. The "measurable" aspect is a partial character, selected from the real: clearly there is much more to the world than being able to divide it and measure it. Scientific research has its specific character in the fact that it proceeds by asking "quantitative" questions that are addressed to the measurable components of reality. However, what moves research and gives energy to those who devote themselves to it does not arise from a logical deductive capacity but from an affective energy: that which makes a human being "a lover of being," desiring to know reality and interested in its possible meaning.
Wonder and Reality: New Territory Spread Out before My Eyes
The repercussions for the existence of natural reality imply the awareness that nature is there before us, precedes us. Physical reality presents itself as a "datum." This is an expressive term of scientific language: researchers live immersed in data, they collect them, elaborate them, confront them, interpret them, make links between them.... In any case we cannot ignore the fact that there is a reality that comes as a "given": the given of the problem or the experiment is something that is offered, something one encounters. Heisenberg even uses the word "gift" to express the nature of the objective fact that emerges to his awareness.
The last few weeks have been very exciting for me. Perhaps an analogy is the best way of describing my experiment: that of the attempt to attain the summit of atomic theory which is still unknown, an attempt which has required great efforts of me over the last five years. And now the summit is there in front of me; the whole area of internal relations in atomic theory is unexpectedly and clearly spread out before my eyes. What these internal relations show in all their mathematic abstraction, an incredible degree of simplicity, is a gift that we can only accept with humility. Not even Plato could have believed that it would be so beautiful. In fact these relations cannot have been invented: they have existed since the creation of the world.
Here Heisenberg emphasizes his amazement at the undeniable fact that atomic theory is woven together from relatively simple internal relations. This is not expected. In reality it is an absolutely surprising fact that reality allows itself to be known, that the scientific enterprise in all its complexity is possible. This requires that not only is there an order in reality, but also that human beings (human reason) are in a position to establish a relationship with this order in some way. Trust in such an accessible order is essential for embarking on the adventure of knowledge.
On the other hand, physical reality also appears unattainable in its ultimate consistency (if one thinks of the initial moment of the big bang or of the elementary particles). One gets the impression that the ultimate level of reality is always beyond what reason can define and understand. It is always a terra incognita, a level that cannot be attained. Reality is at the same time both accessible and inaccessible. In this sense, scientific research sheds light on the nature of reality as "mystery": it exists, it establishes a relationship with it, but ultimately escapes the complete understanding of reason. It is as if all our knowledge or achievements related inexorably to an ultimate and hidden object. "It is an endless struggle with the mystery."
This is the enthralling condition that imposes itself on research, which is at the same time humbling in the sense that it makes us humble before the mystery of reality, the ultimate nature of which is always superfluous to all our cognitive and creative capacities. Far from being frustrating, it is more of an "adventurous" condition.
The sense of adventure in scientific research has rarely been described so effectively and concisely as in the brief comment by Richard Feynman that follows. The perception of the ultimately unfathomable nature of the natural world is a fascinating starting point.
The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, come again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough. With more knowledge comes deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove disappointing, but with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries—certainly a grand adventure!
The capacity for wonder, for marveling at nature as something "given" and "mysterious," is identified by Einstein with "the" fundamental characteristic of the scientist. It is a characteristic that scientists share with artists, who are also caught up in the quest for truth and expressivity.
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind..... To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that is there.
The wonder is not in fact circumscribed and delimited in advance of knowledge, as is commonly thought. Indeed the very acquisition of knowledge is the cause of another wonder. It is as if the advance in our capacity to describe nature scientifically inexorably increases our perception of the inexhaustible character of reality.
I have already said this many times, but it gives me great pleasure to repeat it. When we look at a particular physical phenomenon, for example a starry night, we feel deeply moved; we feel within ourselves a message which comes from nature, which transcends it and dominates it. The specialist, the researcher who sees into things, feels much more strongly, much more intensely, this same sensation of amazement, of wonder, at what each of us regards as a natural phenomenon. The beauty of nature, seen from within and in its most essential terms, is even more perfect than what appears externally: the inside of things is even more beautiful than the outside, so that I feel neither alarm nor fear. I feel curiosity and am honored to be able to see these things, fortunate, because nature is in fact a spectacle that is never exhausted.
A great philosopher such as Immanuel Kant, when putting himself in the shoes of the scientist grappling with cosmology, experienced the amazement that grows as scientific enquiry broadens the confines of the known universe. He put it like this: "With what astonishment will one be enchanted if one considers the infinite amount of worlds and systems which fill the totality of the Milky Way; but how this astonishment increases when one realizes that all these immeasurable star-orders again form the unit of a number whose end we do not know and which perhaps just as the former is conceivably great and yet again is only the unit of a new number system. We see the first members of a progressive relation of worlds and systems, and the first part of this infinite progression makes already known what one must conjecture about the whole. There is no end here but an abyss of a true immeasurability in which all ability of human concepts sinks....."
But the perception of the inexhaustibility of reality did not have to wait for Newtonian science to show itself. In ancient Greece the awareness of the giddy vastness and variety of the world was alive and grew to the degree that it is, or can be, noted by the researchers of the third millennium.
There are some, king Gelon, who think that the number of the sand is infinite in multitude; and I mean by the sand not only that which exists about Syracuse and the rest of Sicily but also that which is found in every region whether inhabited or uninhabited. Again there are some who, without regarding it as infinite, yet think that no number has been named which is great enough to exceed its multitude.
These immense spaces of creation cannot be spanned by our finite powers; these great cycles of time cannot be lived even by the life of a race. And yet, small as is our whole system compared with the infinitude of creation, brief as is our life compared with cycles of time, we are so tethered to all by the beautiful dependencies of law, that not only the sparrow's fall is felt to the outermost bound, but the vibrations set in motion by the words that we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time.
Wonder and Beauty: The Unmistakable Fascination of the Thoroughbred
We have asserted that what attract reason and set research in motion are ultimately the consequences of the sheer presence of things and the attraction that they exercise. This initial attractiveness grows with the first steps of knowledge. The perception of a beauty, hidden but perceptible, always feeds the fruitful relationship with reality; scientific knowledge is no exception. It is difficult to find great scientists who have not explicitly described their decisive experience of the perception of beauty as the hidden order of the laws of nature that they desire to master.
I belong in the ranks of those who have cultivated the beauty that is the distinctive feature of scientific research. A scientist in the laboratory is not just a technician; he confronts the laws of nature as a child confronts the world of fairy tales. We do not have to make people believe that scientific progress can be reduced to a mechanism, to a machine: things which, moreover, have their beauty.
I do not believe that the spirit of the scientific enterprise threatens to disappear from our world. If there is something vital in everything that I notice, this is the spirit of adventure which seems inextinguishable and is bound up with curiosity.
The sense of beauty in the world seems to be a basic requirement for bringing curiosity to bear and therefore for research. In fact, when interest in the object of one's study becomes enthusiasm, a source of incredible energy has been discovered. Here we are a long way from the fear of those who claim to be detaching reason as much as possible from a positive feeling for reality and the fascination that this provokes, so as not to risk disturbing the "objectivity" of knowledge.
The magnificence and the beauty of this world must indeed be made readily accessible to the young people of today so that they are not left in any doubt about the present position of mankind and so that they are not left to despair..... It must somehow still be possible to make comprehensible to such young people that truth, too, is not only beautiful but also full of mind-boggling mystery, that one does not have to take drugs or become a mystic in order to experience the wondrous.
At a time when it has become fashionable to regard science as an essentially value-indifferent undertaking, it is understandable that the scientist feels obliged to demand of himself a value-free attitude toward his research subject or toward the object of his study. I regard this vogue as dangerous, however, because of its self-deception. For example, all of the biologists I know are undeniably lovers of their objects of study, in exactly the same sense that someone whose hobby is aquaria is in love with the objects being cared for.
Excerpted from From Galileo to Gell-Mann by Marco Bersanelli, Mario Gargantini, John Bowden. Copyright © 2003 RCS Libri S.p.A., Milan. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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