I think it is fair to say that we can all dig up a few lines of poetry when the natural beauty of the world stuns us. For instance, recall William Blake’s musings in ‘The Tyger’:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Whether or not Blake was as high as a kite whilst writing these memorably exquisite lines or not is beside the point; what matters is that we remember them, for they produce a kind of deep connection to the natural world that we all crave. But we also remember lines which horrify us and show us how fragile our lives seem to be, especially when they are under forces beyond our control:
“Peace upon Earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.
We have actually got a bit further than that, what with the cataclysmic power of nuclear weapons available on demand in most nations. Thomas Hardy could not have foreseen that when he wrote ‘Christmas: 1924’, though it is unsettling when thinking that the advances in weapons, in designing ones to inflict massive damage to an enemy, were all conceived in war-time. Poison gas was the product of the First World War, and nuclear weapons in the Second.
And so science has much in common with poetry. It is a kind of poetry, when one has been well-versed in its intricacies. But to most, particularly those whose science education has failed them, science is either some unfathomable mystery best left to the scientists or a powerful menace which can be used to cause inconceivable devastation. It is not so surprising, then, that when confronted with the challenges of our time which rests on scientific understanding, from climate change to genetic engineering, the public either meets these with either indifference or fear. Indifference due to induced paroxysm stemming from ignorance; if you do not understand the scientific method and do not have basic scientific literacy, then the language of scientists seems too technical to care about or overblown hype, greedily exploited by certain politicians. Fear is also breed from ignorance, although unlike indifference, fear is additionally cultivated in it; the scientific language becomes not only stupefying but also dangerous. Who knows what the scientists will do if left to their own devices?
As one with a background in science, this gulf between the scientists and the ordinary public is alarming. It is also not new. There are many examples of public figures explaining science to the masses; Bill Nye and Neil de Grasse Tyson among them, as well as the memorable Carl Sagan. Good for them. We need scientists to go out there and make science seem less scary and, actually, quite exciting. However, we know that their efforts alone are not enough. Not even this blog is enough. There is a wealth of ignorance and peddlers of ignorance who will salaciously prey upon a person’s lack of understanding. Sagan noted this in ‘A demon haunted world’; he saw that science education is crucial in fighting those who would unscrupulously empty the pockets of the desperate or those requiring more meaning in their lives.
It is a crying shame that the wonders and mysteries of science are not available to all. We have plenty of poetry to describe our highest moments and our lowest in a world filled with pleasure, happiness, misery, and pain, but little know of the science which describes this complexly beautiful universe. Science has sometimes been described as a way of destroying people’s pleasure in pondering little mysteries. To myself, it is a new way of viewing the world; one in which, instead of inventing ways in which we think the world works, we can see it as it is in all of its wonder.