Monday, February 16, 2009

Science and the Sense of Wonder

I clearly recall that bright, crisp February day in 1983 when my academic world and my appreciation of nature collided. Enrolled in college, I had taken up jogging for exercise and communion with the surrounding rural environs. But while my mind and body ran toward a “wilderness” of rolling grasslands in Corvallis, Oregon, my curriculum steered me inexorably away from the living world.

After reaching the literal end of the road that evening, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the alpenglow on the snow-capped Cascades. I was a long way from campus, but the soils course I was taking colored my view. In the classroom we studied the nitty gritty of that marvelous medium that coats this planet, including its mountaintops. No mind was paid to the landscape, though, only to the proportion of silt, sand, and clay. Sort of a quantum mechanics of humus and loam.

Regaining my breath, and a sense of what really matters to me, I exhaled heavily and voiced out loud that it was degrading to reduce a mountain to a soil profile.

Science isolates, concentrates, and fragments nature until the disciplines lose sight of the whole. The joys of the field are replaced with paper ecosystems and laboratory facsimiles. The implication is thus: science is not the study of nature, it is the management of nature. The flames of awe are extinguished in academia, replaced with utilitarian values. The “sense of wonder” and “biophilia” are buried under computer models, equations, and formulas.

Perhaps I am guilty of rationalizing the frequency with which I failed calculus and dropped statistics, but I felt those subjects tore me away from the lives of the insects I wanted to learn about. These abstract sciences were a wall I had to break through first. It was spring term of my sophomore year before I was allowed to even take a class in my major of entomology. This prolonged detachment eventually proved intolerable and I gave up the pursuit of a degree.

It seems to me that placing man remote from nature is also what created our present environmental crises. Like war propaganda dehumanizes the enemy, it becomes easier to destroy an ecosystem, or a species, when it is represented by schematic diagrams, numbers, graphs, tables, or charts. It is more difficult to develop the habitat of an endangered butterfly, for example, if we experience the area ourselves, firsthand. Documents like Environmental Impact Statements give the illusion that we know and understand all, and that nature is easily manipulated. Paper is a safer medium than experimenting with the real thing, and we are spared a guilt trip if something goes awry.

All this is not to say that botanists, entomologists, and others are inadvertently conspiring to undermine the conservation of biodiversity. To the contrary, I greatly admire professionals such as E. O. Wilson, Bernd Heinrich, and Thomas Eisner who conduct valuable research and still articulate their sense of wonder so eloquently to collegiate casualties like myself. I shall never forget the biology lab in which our teacher assistant began each period reading an essay by the late Lewis Thomas. Such wisdom should be a routine complement to textbook assignments and laboratory experiments. It is all too easy for students to lose interest, and perspective, when they are pressured to lower their horizons to fit specialized career markets.

I thrive as a generalist, forever amazed, and anxious to translate the latest scientific detective story for the lay public. I believe it is my duty to cultivate the curiosity that leads to discovery, fascination, appreciation, and ultimately a practical, caring approach to the stewardship of the Earth. When it comes to mathematics, that “language of science,” well, I will need an interpreter.

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