On Purpose

“When Henry Fawcett commented to Charles Darwin that some scientists found Darwin too theoretical and believed that he should just let the facts speak for themselves, Darwin responded: ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.’3

This quote is taken from a review in Science magazine of cognitive neuroscientist Paul Thagard’s book: The Brain and the Meaning of Life1,2. I found the review intriguing, particularly the section which comment’s on Thagard’s attempts to use a scientific point of view to answer the question: “What kind of government should countries have?”

However, I reproduced the quote, above, because it struck a chord in my mind. To my mind, Darwin’s viewpoint discards the great utility and pleasure that one may find in observation for the sake of observation. That is, scientific exploration. It is not always possible to observe, to collect information with a hypothesis in mind, and such exploratory behavior can inspire hypotheses or new avenues of scientific discovery. How limiting to always approach a situation with a theory, a reason, a preconception.

In fact, I don’t believe that Darwin was suggesting anything so strong as to eliminate exploration from one’s methods, his own travels as a young man were likely not begun with a plan of attack to corroborate his grandfather Erasmus’ evolutionary theory, though this was the end result. However, science in the present day is extraordinary goal oriented; every scientist must compete for funding and the drive to present completed work is thus ever present. There is something romantic and collaborative in the idea that some men of science in Darwin’s age wanted the facts to “speak for themselves.”

Collaboration is something that we can always use more of.

1. Shermer, M (2010) Meaning-Making Neurons. Science, 328: 693-694; DOI: 10.1126/science.1189752
2. Thagard, Paul. The Brain and the Meaning of Life. Priceton: Princeton University Press.
3. Letter, C. R. Darwin to H. Fawcett, 18 September 1861; www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-3257.

On Goals / (I’m back)

Freeman Dyson’s piece on Steven Weinberg’s recently published collection of writings was a beautiful and informative exploration of science, history, and politics1,2. One quote, about the differing goals of the Russian and American space programs, struck me in particular. Perhaps I found it so intriguing because it highlights a an ever-present conflict in my own life: short-term vs. long-term goals. An excerpt:

“[American] unmanned missions to explore the planets and stars and galaxies have made us truly at home in the universe, while our manned missions after the Apollo program to land on the moon have been scientifically fruitless. Forty years after Apollo, the manned program is still stuck aimlessly in low orbit around the earth, while politicians debate what it should try to do next.

…In Russia you do not go into space to do science. You go into space because it is a part of human destiny… Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the schoolteacher who worked out the mathematics of interplanetary rocketry in the nineteenth century, said, “The earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot live forever in a cradle.” It may take us a few centuries to get to the planets, but we are on our way. We will keep going, no matter how long it takes.

If you think as Americans do, on a time scale of decades, then unmanned missions succeed and manned missions fail. The grandest unmanned missions, such as the Cassini mission now exploring the satellites of Saturn, take about one decade to build and another decade to fly. The grandest manned mission, the Apollo moon landing, ended after a decade and could not be sustained. The time scale of a decade is fundamentally right for unmanned missions and wrong for manned missions. If you think as Russians do, on a time scale of centuries, then the situation is reversed. Russian space science activities have failed to achieve much because they did not concentrate their attention on immediate scientific objectives. Russian manned mission activities, driven not by science but by a belief in human destiny, keep moving quietly forward. There is room for both cultures in our future. Space is big enough for both.” (my emphasis)

Here’s to moving quietly forward.

1. Dyson, F. (2010) What Price Glory?, The New York Review of Books LVII-10: 8-12
2. Weinberg, Steven. Lake Views: This World and the Universe, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.