Paddling his canoe into the North Sea in 2002, John Darwin was undeniably alive. Six years later, as he sat in the back of a prison van, the same applied. It is his status in between these two events that is the more unusual (and less obvious) one. During that intervening period, as his struggling family would tearfully recount, he was really not in a good way at all – he was dead.
Although the wreckage of his canoe washed up the day after his death, Darwin’s body was never recovered. His adult sons were heartbroken at the loss of their father, but took a modicum of comfort from knowing that their mother, Anne, had not quite lost everything. She received thousands of pounds of life insurance pay-outs, and the policy paid off her mortgage too. Even the darkest of clouds, it would seem, could still have a silvery lining. Continue reading →
Climbing mountains brings perspective. Looking down from the top of a high peak, you can see the whole of the surrounding area laid out like a map. You can plan where you want to go next, or maybe even your whole route for the next few days. The feeling of achievement that comes from climbing a mountain is wonderful. Chairlifts and funicular railways are great – especially if you can’t manage a climb – but standing on the summit is many times more exhilarating if you’ve plodded very step of the way up from the bottom. John Muir was unusual as a scientist because his fieldwork actually involved climbing mountains. A career in most branches of science involves working indoors, sometimes in windowless rooms. As a PhD student in Edinburgh I spent many days examining Zebrafish embryos in the basement, but I could see the Pentland hills from my lab bench – until Cancer Research UK built a research centre that blocked out the view (and I am clearly still nursing a grudge against them for it!) Actually climbing the mountains on my doorstep was a refreshing reminder that the world was going to carry on revolving whether my experiments worked or not. Over the last year I have noticed that mountains are a popular source of metaphors for describing the scientific journey. Being interested in mountains myself, I began to collect these passages and thought they would make an interesting blog post and source of quotes for others. Continue reading →
Awe is an important part of the experience of science – one could almost say it’s a universal. When a scientist feels awe it is usually in response to something complex, precise, ordered, powerful or beautiful. There is an element of unexpectedness and delight, maybe even respect, fear or reverence. Awe always involves the need for some sort of mental adjustment or accommodation: we need to make room in our internal map of the world for this new and amazing experience. The physicist Werner Heisenberg vividly described this process of taking on board a startling new concept when he wrote of his discovery of atomic energy levels:
In the first moment I was deeply frightened. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a deeply lying bottom of remarkable internal beauty. I felt almost giddy at the thought that I had now to probe this wealth of mathematical structures that nature down there had spread before me. Continue reading →
The physicist Ernst Mach didn’t believe in wonder. He thought it was the preserve of children and the ignorant, and that proper scientific discovery would reveal the true nature of all surprising phenomena. Of course reducing astonishing events to mere calculations can lead to disillusionment, but Mach thought that was a necessary part of science. Einstein disagreed. He thought the most surprising and fascinating thing about the natural world is that we can make sense of it. A scientist might start with a jumble of data, but after some patient sorting and calculating they notice a pattern: maybe a mathematical description or a link between one process and another. To discover that pattern for yourself is stunning – it was there all along, just waiting to be found.
Olaf Pedersen was a well-known Danish historian of science, but he began his working life as a science teacher. In his essay, ‘Christian Belief and the Fascination of Science’, he describes two very different lessons which demonstrate the fascination of scientific discovery. In the first, rather unsuccessful lesson he followed the textbook. He described the ‘specific gravity’ (a measure of density) of lead to his class of eleven year olds, then gave them pieces of lead to weigh and measure. Of course Pedersen’s students weren’t able to weigh and measure with absolute precision, so they failed to come up with the exact figure for the specific gravity of lead quoted in the book. They became discouraged and lost interest. Continue reading →