Friday, February 5, 2010
The Poetic Life of Scientists
More than any interview of a physicist of my generation, last Friday's NPR Science Friday Interview with Cal Tech Physicist Sean Carroll created a mystique for the life of a theoretical scientist. It happened in one moment, which was just marginally different from the common job description of a theoretical scientist. Ira Flotow asked Carroll if he spent his time thinking up these big ideas about time, which is what his new book "From Eternity to Here" (http://www.amazon.com/Eternity-Here-Quest-Ultimate-Theory/dp/0525951334/lecturenotesonge) describes to a general audience. He said that is his job. He goes to the wine bar with a pencil and paper, and thinks of new ways to visualize time and space, and new equations to put the puzzle together. He also said that he was lucky that he worked in such a dynamic field where he could discuss his ideas with colleagues, who we get the impression are his friends. In that moment he managed to elevate the image of a gen x physicist in Pasadena, to lost generation poets in Paris. This is a needed transformation of the imagination. Scientists of my generation and younger have been caught in a historic limbo where social and solitary explorations of the mind have been replaced in large part by social and solitary explorations on-line. We think that science happens only because of computing power, our information gathering resources, and our mass connectivity, while all the while admiring with nostalgia the thought experiments of Einstein, the Eagle Pub of Watson and Crick, or long walks through Copenhagen parks. My favorite book of 2009 was Steven Johnson's, "Invention of Air" (http://www.amazon.com/Invention-Air-Science-Revolution-America/dp/B0031MA7UW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265357899&sr=1-1) which not only told of the contribution of Joseph Priestley, but about how coffee bar culture in London led to many of the most important ideas in English science.
Over the last year there have been several books about the need for scientists to be better communicators with the public. I like "Don't Be Such a Scientist" by Randy Olson (http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Be-Such-Scientist-Substance/dp/1597265632/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265357791&sr=1-1) which dealt with this topic, by describing the necessity of scientists to use film, and other multimedia tools to demonstrate ideas to a larger public. What I realize now though is that there is an essential step missing from the picture of going from the lab to the screen. That is the step where we write, draw and eventually talk with each other, not at seminars, but at wine bars. A Greek symposium was a long night of drinking and discussing. A college symposium usually takes place in a classroom during the day and is much shorter, but for some reason I think I would be much more likely to sleep in that daytime class than drunk on Plato's sofa. While poets and philosophers have searched for ways to explain the human condition, scientists are exploring ways to understand nature in its entirety. Friendship, debate and Pinot Noir are welcome companions in this pursuit.