I just began reading The Invention of Nature, a book about one of the greatest scientists, Alexander von Humboldt. In 1869, a century after his birth, in Europe, South America, and the United States, there was a massive celebration with lectures, dedications of statues, and massive parades. Even Syracuse, NY, where I attended graduate school, had a parade of 15,000 people.
By now, I'm guessing your scratching your head or heading to Google. Your not alone. One of the most famous men 150 years ago has slid to the back of our text books and our minds. The author of The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf, is trying to bring our attention back to him again--and particularly to some of his greatest scientific conclusions: that nature is an interconnected web that has consequences when one part of it changes.
Alexander Humboldt was a great explorer and scientist. He was one of the most respected naturalists of his age.
As I read the introduction to this book that described the centennial celebrations of his birth, I felt deep sadness in light of current events for the way our scientists are treated today. People that dedicate their lives to long, sometimes tedious and monotonous, and underpaid work that illuminates the world for all of us, face budget cuts, government censorship, and even ridicule and death threats. The amount of distrust for these tireless and unthanked individuals is not only depressing, but baffling. How quickly people dismiss climate scientists, but forget that everything that makes their lives better: modern medicine, safe transportation, readily available food had an inquiring mind of science behind it.
The beauty of science is that it all based on a simple method, used by all, and constantly tested and questioned by a body of knowledgeable peers. Observation. Hypothesis. Experiment. Analysis. Conclusion. Repeat. It is democratic, unbiased, and constant.
I take comfort in this system, just like I take comfort in nature which does not favor one organism over another, it is chaotic but constant in its chaos, and does not have a predestination for anyone. Maybe that is why people fear both science and nature--because it does not have a plan or favorites--and that will never change. The only faith I have is in that blind ambivalence. Somehow it is comforting to me--that my life has no greater or lesser worth or meaning than any others. But I know that's not what most people want to hear. Securing one's place and prosperity for many is important above all else.
This does not mean that scientists do not falter under the prejudices of their times, political or corporate pressure, or their own egos. But science is inherently reflective in order to question it practitioners and their results. Test it. Again. And again. And again. Compare results. Start again. Other people test it. Review it. Question it. Again.
I think this points to another reason why people become distrustful of science. They want constancy. They want rules, written down and hollowed. As much as people want change, they fear it also. Science holds that no one idea is perfect--it only holds until the next scientist comes along and disproves it. The only constant is the method and the system.
I understand the fear. Generally, most cultures uphold characteristics like constancy, loyalty, stalwart, etc. We look down upon changing characteristics as flippant, mercurial, rebellious and even traitorous. We want people, our governments, our homes to be better and change, but we can't help our discomfort when they do.
I know that fear. I have held that metallic taste in my mouth and had to swallow it up and move onwards. But what we don't talk about how with change there is hope.
Science can seem untrustworthy because while it is democratic, unbiased, and constant, it also questions everything it delivers again and again. We get complacent knowing something only to be told that it isn't quite that or entirely wrong. Science is not meant to reflect us though and our yearnings. It is a reflection of the world itself.
This week, my wish is for more of the world to see the hope and wonder in change. To embrace it, despite it being scary. To have some gratitude towards scientists and defend them and their work.
I want to understand the world better. I want awe and discovery. I want to walk with clear eyes, mind, and heart through this world that has no aim.