Monday, May 14, 2012

Science and wonder

I am very slightly in love with this YouTube video that my husband dug up yesterday:

I have a massive soft spot for nerds generally, and science nerds singing sweet (nerdy) songs about the biology of maternity just slays me. I bet his mother is proud :-)

It prompted me to think, after looking at some of the comments, about the relationship between science and wonder. A few commenters - only a few, most people loved it - were down on this song for "making everything too clinical" and "too science-y". They seemed to feel that explanations of how things work in scientific terms somehow missed an essential element, destroyed the 'magic', of the bond that exists between a mother and a child.

This is an argument I've heard before, not infrequently in fact. It's an argument that has no resonance at all for me. The idea that science is the enemy of wonder, or emotion, or dreams, seems to me so entirely misguided that I cannot quite fathom what drives it. I am no scientist, but I have an intelligent layperson's interest in science, and have read widely especially in the fields of genetics, cosmology and neuroscience. My reading hasn't made me less amazed and awestruck at the terrible beauty and complexity of the world and myself; it's made me much more so. Journeying even a short way into the immense amount of knowledge that human beings have accrued about all manner of things opens the door to more and greater mysteries and astonishment.

How can it not be incredible, to learn about how stars are born? Is it not a sense of enlightenment, to understand a little how your brain works to carry you through life? And as a mother, grasping just what your body did to make another human being - how powerful and how wonderful.

My children share this fascination with science, with knowing how things work. I think perhaps all children do, really. For them, learning more fuels a hunger to go further and deeper, and they build rainbow castles of fancy on the foundations of the periodic table of the elements, or the constellations of the southern sky, or the colours of the spectrum of light. They get a deep satisfaction from knowing, as their beloved They Might Be Giants sing, that science is real:

I don't believe science and wonder are oppositional concepts at all. Wonder is not an exclusive prerogative of magic, faith, or the transcendent; it lives in understanding the process of oxidization, in comprehending mitochondria, in thinking about the Big Bang. How fearfully and wonderfully is this universe made and is constantly remaking itself. It should excite and awe us all.

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