The Marginalian
The Marginalian

What Is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Asimov to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology,” Carl Sagan famously quipped in 1994, “and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” Little seems to have changed in the nearly two decades since, and although the government is now actively encouraging “citizen science,” for many “citizens” the understanding of — let alone any agreement about — what science is and does remains meager.

So, what exactly is science, what does it aspire to do, and why should we the people care? It seems like a simple question, but it’s an infinitely complex one, the answer to which is ever elusive and contentious. Gathered here are several eloquent definitions that focus on science as process rather than product, whose conduit is curiosity rather than certainty.

Stuart Firestein writes in the excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science:

Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he appeared on the Bill Moyers show in 1988 and shared some timeless, remarkably timely insights on creativity in science and education:

Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.

Carl Sagan echoed the same sentiment when he remarked:

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

In a letter to Hans Mühsam dated July 9th, 1951, an elderly Albert Einstein observed:

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

In his recent New York Review of Books piece on Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, Freeman Dyson offers:

All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, widely regarded as the father of modern anthropology, articulated the same idea in 1964 in the first volume of his iconic Mythologiques collection of cultural anthropology:

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.

In the fantastic A General Theory of Love, psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon give this beautiful definition:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world.

This element of wonder and whimsy also comes through in the words of iconic physicist and mathematician Max Born (thanks, Joe):

Science is not formal logic — it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art. It is true that this is a gift which can hardly be taught, but its growth can be encouraged in those who already possess it.

In his iconic book On Human Nature, which should be required reading for all, the great biologist and naturalist E. O. Wilson observed:

The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles. The elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain.

In 1894, upon having received her second graduate degree, Marie Curie wrote in a letter to her brother:

One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…

Curie also likely inspired this interpretation of her famous words on the essence of the scientific ethos:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Richard Feynman would have nodded in agreement. Einstein certainly did when he observed:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

This comes full-circe to Firestein’s book on ignorance, where he asserts:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

But hardly anyone captures the essence and ethos of science more eloquently than The Great Explainer. In 1966, the National Science Teachers Association asked the great Richard Feynman to give an address that answers the question, “What is science?” The answer comes true to character:

And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.

After some time, I was reminded of a little poem:

A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

All my life, I have been doing science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell you–which foot comes after which–I am unable to do, and furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no longer be able to do any research.

Later in the speech, Feynman hones a more answer-like answer:

[I]f you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. I learned then what science was about: it was patience. If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it — although possibly not every time.


[Science] teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true.

He closes with a keen point for his audience of professional science educators:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

Science, then, necessitates a certain comfort with being wrong, a tolerance for the fear of failure — perhaps cultivating that capacity is an essential prerequisite not only for science but also for the basic appreciation of science.

Published April 6, 2012




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