Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #125. Firs published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 2, 2017; in print Dec. 3

“I’ve never been a big fan of turning nouns into verbs when perfectly good options already exist. But I’d be happy to see us use ‘science’ that way.” So writes Mariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief, in the December Scientific American.

She goes on: Science “is a powerful, evidence-based process of conducting experiments, gathering data and performing analysis on the results. It’s at once a methodical set of practices and a tool that inspires hope for a brighter future by advancing discovery and innovation.”

“Let’s science that.” This isn’t a cure for all that ails us, but it would be a pretty good start.

Scientific American is a monthly tonic. When the day’s news causes my head to spin and my stomach to churn, a dose of “discovery and innovation” — which can be found on nearly every page of the magazine — provides perspective, restores balance and offers at least a glimmer of hope.

The magazine, which began publication in 1845, testifies every month to the dependence of “the latest thing” on what has gone before in its feature called “50, 100 & 150 Years Ago: Innovation and discovery as chronicled in Scientific American.”

Some recent entries:

“1967: End of the ‘Monkey Law’”: The law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools was adopted in 1925, and led later that year to the conviction of John T. Scopes. The sentence was overturned in 1927 on a technicality, but it was another half century before the Tennessee legislature scrubbed the law from the books.

Yet here it is almost a full century on, and still one-third of Americans deny evolution entirely. Encouragingly, people under 30, in rapidly increasing numbers, are joining Pope Francis in acknowledging evolution.

“1917: Women at Work”: “A development of the war in Europe that has attracted widespread attention is the employment of women in munition factories. … The wages paid to women are less than the men they replace received. After the war is ended, will employers give women greater wages than at present? … The necessities of the present are laying the foundation for future problems of most serious, far reaching and revolutionary importance.”

Enough said.

1867: “Be Careful What You Wish For”: “Why should not every house have its telegraphic wire? … A fire, a murder, a riot, the result of an election, would be simultaneously known in every part of the city. Of course, this would do away with newspapers, but what of that? All things have their day, and why should such ephemeral things as newspapers be an exception to the rule?”

Well, newspapers have survived — shrunk on paper, to be sure, but adapted to online. We have re-learned how essential they are for seeking the truth — especially about our leaders. With misinformation spreading across the internet by the terabyte, we come to see again that, as the Washington Post proclaims, “Democracy dies in darkness.”  Support for the press, as well as freedom of the press, is more critical to our democracy than we knew.

The chief significance for me of the regular appearance of “50, 100 & 150 Years Ago” is the reminder that science is properly understood as a human activity exercised through time.

In reading Scientific American articles I am caught up in the excitement of discovery. The writers sometimes go full speed ahead and reach the goal. More often, there are fits and starts, dead ends, and, my favorite, a conclusion that says we have a long way yet to go. Acknowledgments of help along the way far exceed gloatings over rivals vanquished.

Cosmologist Brian Greene evokes what I sense over and over again in Scientific American articles as the scheme of scientific advance.

“I like to say things more than one way” he writes. “From the scientific point of view, if you stick with one road, I think you really compromise your ability to make breakthroughs. … Everybody’s looking at a problem one way, and you come at it from the back. That different way of getting there somehow reveals things that the other approach didn’t.”

DiChristina highlighted discovery and innovation as consequences of “Let’s science that.” I would add community.

Science often does community better than religion does. Geographical boundaries are regularly brushed away. Reference is made to teams of scientists whose individual bases of operation are as disparate as the U.S. and Japan and Brazil, or Taiwan and Italy and Ukraine. Authors of an article in more technical journals, especially particle physicists, can number in the thousands. Tribalism is vanishing.

Discovery, innovation, community — we need these always, never more than now. Science has skillful means — experiment, data, analysis (not so much an answer for every question as a question for every answer) — in short, a disciplined set of practices that counter our myopia, our entrenchment, our fear. Let's science that.