Inspiring science


For the sake of clarity, ‘inspiration’ is here defined as: ‘arousal of the mind to special unusual activity or creativity‘.

Inspiration is important; after all, every human cultural advance or achievement is the result of someone being inspired to do something new. I want to explore some of the ways in which people are inspired to undertake scientific investigation, but I also want to consider how the outcomes of science feed back and inspire broader culture.

Charles Darwin provides us with a topical place to start – it’s exactly 150 years since the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life‘  (later changed to the more snappy ‘On the Origin of Species‘); a book containing an idea inspired by a complex web of circumstances and experiences and which has subsequently inspired a new understanding of our place on this planet.

Darwin himself was inspired by a wide variety of factors: people (family,  friends, mentors, colleagues); books (e.g. White’s “The Natural History of Selborne“, Paley’s “Natural Theology“, Herschel“Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy“, Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population“); cultural institutions (Museums, the Royal Institution, the Linnean Society,  Zoological Gardens); places (Santiago, the Falkland Islands, Quiriquina, the Galapagos, Downe); hobbies (shooting, fishing, insect collecting, gardening, chemistry), and of course his experiences with nature (from earthquakes to earthworms, tropical forests to his Bromley garden). Interestingly he was not inspired by his schooling (neither at Mr Case’s grammar school nor Shrewsbury Grammar School) or University education (both in Edinburgh and Cambridge); for example, Darwin initially dismissed geology as dull based on his experiences at Edinburgh University under the tutelege of Professor Robert Jameson, yet 5 years later under the guidance of Professor Adam Sedgwick he became an avid geologist. Facts alone seldom inspire; it is how they are presented and how they can help us understand and formulate new ideas that can make them inspirational.

I’ve discussed fact-based science before (more than once), with the take-home message that it provides the best method that currently exists for checking what we think is true. Science is all about asking questions and finding ways to answer them by observation of the world around us (preferably in the controlled conditions of an experiment); the initial questions that scientists ask need to be inspired by something and answering that question takes motivation. Of course, absolutely anything might motivate a person to pursue a question, but some things will be more motivational than others.

Necessity is the mother of invention, which is why need will often provide the inspiration and motivation required for science to address a problem. Life and death situations are a prime example of how science has often found its inspiration and motivation – just look at the funding in science and it immediately becomes obvious that health, the military and agriculture are way up there. These things are directly relevant to people’s everyday survival – they are necessities.

However, there is more to science than catering to basic needs – science is about understanding our universe and thereby allowing us to better address the bigger questions that our over complicated human brains enjoy cooking up. Where once we had to make do with simple explanations that didn’t really work (like echoes are spirits shouting back at you, schizophrenics are possessed by demons, rainbows are Gods way of reminding himself not to flood the world again) now we can delve into the causes and reasons for the odd things we witness and we can turn that to our advantage. Understanding the deeper mysteries of the universe requires a lot of imagination, so it’s little wonder that the fringe of science tends to be populated by people who extrapolate beyond the fringe (this is where science fiction is born) or are being pushed back as the fringe expands (which is where homeopaths, psychics and those with a deep-rooted fear of change still linger).

Of course, those extrapolating beyond the fringe of science can help inspire new science and technology, from communicators in Star Trek inspiring mobile phones to lasers taking cues from The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1927). The moon landing shown on TV sets in 1969 was pre-empted in 1902 by Le Voyage dans la lune; Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea provided a visionary new concept of what submarines might achieve and spurred advances in the field, and we all know that good old Leonardo Da Vinci was great at letting his imagination wander way beyond the fringes of the science of his time (yet still be informed by his own observations) – who knows the full extent of what Da Vinci has inspired (I’d wager it goes beyond a ropey Dan Brown book).

Of course, each new development in science does more than push back a theoretical fringe; it inspires new ideas that lead to further developments. Science and technology move quickly and are seldom permitted to stagnate – which is good, because stagnation of ideas is what gives rise to dogma and suppression of alternative viewpoints.

For something to be inspirational it needs to open someone’s mind to a previously unknown world of possibilities, a conceptual space ripe for exploration. It needs to spark the imagination – with the possibility that the spark will ignite the interest and enthusiasm needed to fuel the exploration and investigation of the wider universe, of which we are a tiny part.

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