McKIBBEN: It seems to me that one thing one needs to keep in mind is that how we feel about science has a great deal to do with the kind of policy choices that people are going to make in the real world. I think an acute problem in some ways is that sense thatís grown up that science is sort of the last holy order of man and is full of people out searching out truth for its own sake, and in a lot of cases that is true. But the areas that I write about are in some ways stories in which both the heroes and the villains are scientists, or at least technicians using the fruits of what scientists have found and confronting the choices that will be made in the future. I think that there is a very widespread belief, in dealing with environmental problems anyway, that science will take care of it somehowóyou name it, science will take care of it. Partly this is because none of us really wants to take the responsibility of taking care of things ourselves and changing the way that we live, and partly itís also this fable thatís gotten imbedded in our minds that science is going to always find a solution to each problem. Something that interests me very much is the whole subject of genetic engineering. I think by anybodyís definition this is one of the real breakthrough technologies in history. I think that you could argue for a very long time about the moral and cultural implications of a lot of the things that people have proposed and that will soon be happening if they are not already, but whatís interesting to me is that this argument is almost never made. The only arguments that people have about genetic engineering are technical ones, that something bad is going to escape from a laboratory someplace and eat my children, not what is the proper place of human beings in this world. And of course one way that scientists tend to answer this is, Well, we do basic research, what happens with it in the real world is not our fault. In the first place thatís in this case not true. Most of the genetic engineers are now presidents of publicly owned corporations, busily marketing this kind of thing. Thereís no question that if someone comes up with something thatís potentially profitable at the moment, in the kind of regard with which we hold this notion of progress, that itís going to be developed and used, and probably not with enough discussion. Thereís something, some sort of hagiography about science thatís grown up that lets us allow science or at least technology to in many ways change the world in very fundamental ways without feeling that we sort of have the right to ask if we want this or not.
GLEICK: You have written more critically than anyone else on this panel of the way, as you have said, science has become a kind of religion for many of us. It has become a belief system that has replaced in some ways our belief in God. Tim Ferris has said that science is the centuryís greatest art form.
FERRIS: I think I stole that line from Horace Freeland Judson actually.
GLEICK: Thereís no question that there is a tension between these points of view, and furthermore this is after all the century of the famous two cultures, science and science journalism. For many people science is something alien, difficult, so little a part of their lives that it is impossible to distinguished truth from falsehood on simple questions like whether there are flying saucers buzzing around capturing citizens of Albany and taking them off to indoctrination sessions.
FERRIS: It seems to me that there is another side to the point you are making about this opinion that science will take care of everything. There is also an opinion that weíve got to stop this, that we canít learn more about this, itís too dangerous, which considering how little we know is a pretty interesting opinion to hold. There may be some field in which the human race has so much knowledge now that we ought to call a halt to it. There really is an enormous gulf between those views, and between the scientists. Two days ago I was at a meeting at Berkeley with a group of graduate students who were in biotechnology. These are people who are right on the edge of a wave of one of the most powerful developments in the history of science and technology, theyíre right in a position to do something about it. Theyíve got a list of horrible diseases and things that happen to people that they have a real prospect of doing something about real quick, and to tell them that they ought to stop and think about it, is as if they had a loaded star ship in orbit, ready finally to go to Alpha Centauri and one of the crew members says, Well, maybe we shouldnít actually take this trip, you know, maybe we belong here on Earth after all. To them itís not the time and place to debate it. The question becomes, where is the time and place and that debate really isnít taking place very often in an appropriate way thatís useful and profitable to the society.
RHODES: It seems to me a relatively easy distinction to draw between science as an enterprise and technology as an enterprise. I think that much that we worry about and complain about about science properly belongs in the other category. Itís a curious notion that we can pick and choose which aspect of the real world of the world of nature we will endorse. Itís an old notion, primarily a religious notion, and it was a forlorned hope even then. If there is any rule that obtains in the world that we are all as animals a part of, itís a rule that I think was first listed in The Once and Future King: everything that isnít forbidden is required. Niels Bohr used to talk about science in a time when science was generally assumed even by scientists to be some sort of deluxe search for truth. He used to suggest that it had a much more modest purpose, and he described that purpose as the gradual alleviation of prejudice, the gradual removal of prejudice. And he meant by that something like what happens when one day in Berlin a couple of chemists discover that they can split the uranium nucleus. That discovery has nothing to do with whether they sat around and voted on it. It was indeed an accident. They were ready, the time was ripe, there were a lot of other laboratories that probably would have come across it the same week, and in fact did. Luis Alvarez, a physicist, told me that he discovered nucleur fission too, only it was two days after the real discovery, so his didnít get counted. But he made it independently.
What followed from that discovery was the human world adjusting to the alleviation of the prejudices, realizing that it wasnít possible to have essentially an unlimited source of energy in the world. That was the prejudice that was alleviated, and as it cascaded down through the years, gaining momentum through human society, it finally changed our whole system of international politics. I argue that simply because by the time nuclear fission had been embodied in the course of technological decision making and political decision making and military decision making into a series of increasingly destructive weapons, it finally reached a point long before 1989, I would say probably by 1953, when all the leaders of all the contending nation states of the world tacitly understood that they couldnít use those things. And at that point world war ceased to be possible in the world, and in fact there have been none and there can be none, although there can still be devastating wars on a smaller scale as we recently saw. All that huge change in the course of human affairs followed from something that happened in a context where no one had a chance to vote, and even if we had voted or a dictator had dictated, they could not have discovered that discovery until they did and it could not have been suppressed. So I think itís whistling in the dark a little bit for all of us to say, like Luddites, Weíll stick our wooden shoes in the machinery, and argue that we should stop all this because we have this cultural dissonance about it. It wonít be stopped. It will go on and it will accelerate, and it will change our world beyond recognition as it already has.
FERRIS: Stephen, given that science isnít a religion, does science incline its practitioners toward any particular attitude toward nature?
GOULD: I think so much of this discussion really involves a set of mistaken categories. As I see science, itís that enterprise that tries to probe the empirical character of nature and to coordinate what it finds with explanations that we call theories. In some technical sense I really do believe that itís value neutral.
Now ideologues, and thatís all of us to some extent, use any material thatís available. Science is notoriously available because it is very powerful, by which I donít mean that scientists donít have ethical responsibilities, of course they do, but I donít know that they have ethical responsibilities per se arising from the material of science. They have ethical responsibilities as human beings. All human beings have ethical responsibilities, and we damn well have ethical responsibilities to the things weíve created. So if we happen to be harnessing ourselves to this enterprise of science and have discovered something that has implications, of course as human beings we have responsibilities for them.
Science is so broad and it is so value neutral in that sense that I donít even know how to respond to Timís question, a very important one ó do scientists have a particular attitude towards nature? The spectrum of science, first of all, is so great. It goes from funny little characters in my profession like me who get tiny little grants, if we get any at all, and go out and describe nature and love diversity as an aesthetic that motivates almost anyone in the field, to people who are bringing in millions of bucks a year and have very hard models about reductionistic, underlying realities that take all diversity and channel it in. Now if there are corrolated general attitudes, and there probably are, that donít again arise out of the facts, then those are more sociological or psychological correlations. Whatever attitude you have towards nature, some of which can properly be described as philosophical, theological or ethical, really doesnít derive automatically from science anyway and canít. McKIBBEN: I feel the need to speak up for Luddism. This sense that things just inevitably go on and that as societies and human beings and political systems we have no possibility or right to even think of controlling them, strikes me as a dangerous, not necessarily physically, but morally, the yielding up of something important about ourselves to a priesthood thatís not necessarily any more reflective than priesthoods have tended to be in other regards. In the first place, itís not clear physically that things will just keep going on and on forever. The Luddites said, Letís have workshops instead of enormous factories to protect our jobs. We decided on enormous factories but one of the results, among the many good results I suppose, of that has been that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels will have doubled by the middle of the next century. And this may represent certain physical limits.
But thereís also, this line you draw between science and technology, and at least in some of the disciplines it is not a true line, really. When I was at Harvard as an undergraduate, the people who were doing genetic engineering, were right at the beginning of this sort of commercialization of genetic engineering, and each of the labs was forming into its own corporation. At the Harvard Crimson for a while, we were keeping a table each day of what the value of the common stock of each lab was. Thereís a possibility always that people live in a unique moment, and that we may be crossing over thresholds that carry us farther than we want to go. Weíre talking about, for the first time in human history, a period of great loss of genetic diversity around the world, a lot of which can be traced to some of the things weíre talking about. That may be one threshold, the first time that humans are able to fundamentally alter the most basic physical systems like climate, things like that.
GLEICK: Youíre complaining about the scientists. Where are the science writers during this process? Are they just drifting along like pilot fish with the sharks, reporting a naive version of the truth, or are they less cynical than their counterparts writing in other fields?
McKIBBEN: Science writers like scientists, self select to a certain degree. One of the problems with this conference is that itís only the sort of really good people who have been invited. So you have the historians up here and really they canít point to each other as an example of the kind of bad history that theyíre talking about because theyíre not writing it. I think by and large that thereís an awful lot of popular writing about science that consists of going to scientists and asking them whatís coming next and happily writing it down and assuming thatís all you have to do. All Iím saying is that whether or not you throw your wooden shoe into the machine, itís all right for human beings to at least contemplate throwing a little bit of their culture and their religious sense or their feelings about the natural world or whatever into a machine. I donít feel that in the end thatís illegitimate, but I do feel itís pretty ineffective.
RHODES: In talking about these issues of science and technology weíre also talking about science writing because we as writers of verity have to try to grapple with these very issues, as is clear from this discussion. I still think that there is a valid distinction that can be drawn, perhaps itís a shaper distinction in physics than in other lines of science, between basic scientific experiment and the technological development of that basic information that comes from that operation.
To take perhaps the most notorious example and one about which a great deal of garbage has been written, the question of the physicists working on the bomb. Now there was an example where very clearly scientists had decided to do some engineering. Robert Oppenheimer said in 1946 there was no physics done during the war. And he was referring among other things to the emptying out of the universities, graduate students going off to do this and that including work on the bomb. The decision to work on the bomb had, as far as I can see, nothing whatsoever to do with science, not only in the practical sense that it was engineering, but also in the personal sense. They made the decision as human beings. They made it on the basis of great fear of what would happen if Germany got the bomb first. And later when they knew Germany didnít have a bomb they made the decisions on the basis of an understanding, which was quite insightful for the time, that this thing was going to change everything, that in the long run it would probably mean an end to large-scale war. They werenít acting as scientists. When they were acting a scientists was when they were messing around with some neutron sources and some uranium nitrate in the laboratory in Berlin in 1938. Thatís when they were acting as scientists.
Whatís important about the question of science versus technology, and why one shouldnít decide that scientists should sit around trying to decide whether theyíre going to do an experiment and whether thatís a good thing to do for humanity, is that itís very difficult to predict, especially the future. You canít know the outcome, you canít know the future unless you go there. And thatís a very frightening and threatening thing to do. I would point out, in terms of the specific context that Bill McKibben has been talking about, that the instruments that people use to determine that thereís too much CO2 in the atmosphere, the instruments that the Swedish used to determine that Chernobal had exploded, were instruments that were developed as a part of an ongoing process called science. Most scientific instruments and then their commercial versions originate as experiments and then later find application, are standardized, are manufactured and find application to look at phenomenon on a regular basis. Without science, which is I think neutralóbut that doesnít mean good or bad, it means good and bad because the consequences are the futureówithout the work of science there is no way to solve the problems that science and technology introduce into the world. Itís all part of this larger human enterprise which is ongoing and which I donít think we want to stop however many stupid mistakes we make along the way, of alleviating human pain. I would just point out that at least half of the number of people in this room would be dead, would not be here, if it werenĎt for some fairly simple kinds of public health measures that were devised in a scientific spirit and context over the last hundred years. But itís also true that some who might be here were killed in war because of explosives that were developed at the same time. Everything that science develops and technology elaborates can be either a tool or a weapon.
GLEICK: Certainly itís clear that everyone on this panel writes with a conviction that the ideas of science, if not the things of science, are intricately bound up with the rest of the culture, with the questions that we are most seriously interested in. Dick Rhodes could have written his history of the atomic bomb, which is a military history, a political history, a social history, without including the intimate details of nuclear physics that he chose to make a part of that story. Bill McKibben, with his powerful mixed feelings about the role of science in our time, nevertheless could not help but make the ideas of science an intimate part of the story that he told in his book.
RHODES: But to leave out the science would be I think the same sort of sin of omission as the histories of the West that left out the Indians, that left out the other part of the story. I put all that physics in the bookówhich I think many people found to be a real stumbling block, and I understand it, so did Ióbecause I didnít think it was possible to understand all those other consequences unless one had some grasp of how this happened and its inevitability. Thatís what was so important to me.
GOULD: I have a hundred thirty pages of anthropoid anatomy in Wonderful Life, in part for some abstract notion of completeness, but in part because itís just wonderfully interesting material. So is your physics.
FERRIS: Thereís a relationship, too, between what makes for an interesting story and a felicitous style and this goal of trying to tell the truth. Anyone who aspires to be a good writer wants to tell the truth. Itís hard to do that. I think Cervantes quotes an old Spanish saying that itís very difficult not to write satire. Particularly when you are starting out as a writer youíre writing satire all the time without meaning to. I often tell my students that when you have a stylistic problem, a persistent stylistic problem like a lead that wonít work, and for a month youíve been trying to start this magazine article, letís say, and you keep moving the words around and it never works, very often whatís happening is that style is trying to signal you that the contents of the sentence are not true, and that can happen often to a young writer for many reasons, because you donít know the truth or youíre not honest enough with yourself yet, youíre trying to get away with something, often in the lead particularly because you are inviting the reader into the story and thereís a temptation as in all retail merchandising to bend the truth a little bit in order to attract their interest. I think one of the things that attracted me to science as a subject is that one could find some verifiably true things here. But you reach a point where you say, This isnít ultimate truth, either, and this powerful mechanism of science is embedded in the larger culture and has all kinds of effects beyond the scientistsí own power to control or foresee them. What is the most truthful attitude that one can take to that, and with that question youíre drawn out of science and into broader philosophical and religious questions, which some scientists I think, to the impoverishment of their lives, regard as irrelevant. There are scientists who simply think that all religion and philosophy is just kind of soft-headed. That is a narrow attitude and itís by no means the attitude that all scientists take. And you know, itís the dilemma of the writer as well. Youíre following all these threads, but everything turns out to be connected and ultimately youíre back in the same soup that you were when you started the whole process. But by then youíre old and youíve written a bunch of books and itís all over anyway.
QUESTION: Is there a myth that science has to be entirely democratic and is not that myth not of a service to science but a disservice to democracy?
GOULD: In retrospect you can see that the junior person in research who is urging something was right and history may actually credit that person. But science is extremely hierarchical, and it almost has to be in part, a small part, in the legitimate sense that we all recognize that democracy is a terrible institution for getting certain sorts of things done. I would say, on the analogy to the orchestra model or the ship model, that to get things done you need a certain amount of non-democratic hierarchy. Thatís not necessarily bad. What is bad, as it would also be on a ship, is when the captain doesnít listen to someone in the right context. You may not be able to confront the captain while heís leading a meeting but the captain should be willing to listen when the guy comes over to him later and says something. There are hierarchical aspects of science that are necessarily so and I donít object to them. The bad part of scientific hierarchy is that most of it is done in institutions like universities that are intensely hierarchical in the very bad sense of the term. That is, they stifle creativity. In a sense that hierarchy of science is often very bad for people on the top because it drives them out of the laboratory. Most of my colleagues in biochemistry have not been behind the bench in years. They are administering science and writing grants. Thatís what they do all the time. So there are many aspects of the non-democratic organization that are very bad as well.
FERRIS: The lionization of particular scientists at the hands of science writers has a similar effect, too. The average scientist is no better at handling fame than anyone else, and when we go out and make somebody famous we often cause a lot of damage in his or her life.
RHODES: Iím not sure that those things are exactly what one means by science. Itís certainly true that scientists organize themselves hierarchically as do most human beings in most situations. But I think the work of science itself at the level of experiment and so forth is profoundly democratic. I think itís based on one Bill of Right, and that is freedom of speech. Without that one requirement it would not be as it is, self-correcting. If work isnít published, if work canít be verified, if work canít be duplicatedó those are fields of effort where democracy is vital.
GLEICK: Why do so many scientists discount science writers? Steve, why do you?
GOULD: As with all things, thereís a good side and a bad side to it, or good reasons and bad reasons. The bad reasons are embodied in the notion of parochialism. That is, weíre afraid that if people do it very well theyíll show us up. The other side of it, of course, is that many people who write science are very bad at it and we are sensitive to that. Weíve been abused often. The parochialism is enormously unfortunate, the bad writing is very unfortunate. If you could eliminate both of them would there be harmony? Probably not, given xenophobia, etc., but things would be a lot better.
GLEICK: There are a lot of built in reasons for tension. The time scales of the two disciplines are so different. Science makes news on a scale of decades or years or at the fastest, months. Newspapers like news on a slightly quicker scale. Scientists donít like to believe a thing until they have read it in a refereed journal. Newspapers are quite happy to interview scientists in corridors. I think Steve is right. Thereís a lot of bad science journalism, just as there is bad journalism in other fields. One difference is that scientists are by their nature less accustomed to the intrusions of journalists, less willing to let journalists have the arrogance to define for them whatís news in their business.
RHODES: I must say though I didnít find that scientists disliked the work that I did. I found that historians of science were absolutely savage. Talk about parochialismóif you invade their territory, watch out.
GLEICK: A central theme of this panel has been that science makes a claim on empirical truth, yet scientists are human beings. They are ideologues. They stumble. They are, as Steve has said, always embedded in a social context. Are we doing enough to make that clear, or are we simply too accepting of the mantel of objectivity in which this discipline cloaks itself? Feynman hated the view of science as received truth, as authoritative. His dispute with text books actually was not just that they presented science as a succession of facts,but that they gave no hint of the human process and therefore they gave a false sense of what it meant to understand something. He disliked most history of science for the same reason, especially the academic history of science. My own view is that the writing of the history of science, whether by people in or out of the academy, has changed somewhat since he had these feelings.
RHODES: As Steve said at the beginning, not only scientists do science. I think what scientists do is not different from other exercises of human imagination, except again in the particular set of reference that the field defines as necessary to arrive at a given conclusion. When writers write, they try to find within the sentences that they construct with the kit of tools that they have, which is language, a very complex and rich and multi-layered kind of set of tools, a kind of verity, just as scientists do. The difference is that the set of references are different. If we are taking about fiction, for example, they are internal and they have to do with some very subtle and not usually articulated balances between experience and invention, common memories that we think we share with others and therefore can analogize with. Many things like that that are not exactly different from what scientists do except that at the end of the quest of a scientist in a particular experiment, if the experiment produces useful and interesting resultsó and Iíve always envied scientists thisóitís as if at the end of their effort of imagination nature steps forth and says, with a pat on the back, Youíre right. One writer has compared it to paranoia, in the philosophic sense of believing that at some ultimate extreme the universe is meaningful because the paranoid essentially believes that things are happening out there that have to do with him, and that they connect with him and that there is a connection whether they be little green men or uranium nitrate. But at the end of this little paranoid exercise, nature says, Yeah, youíre right. Catching that is maybe what a lot of science writing ought to be about.
QUESTION: Recently we had a disturbing glimpse into the process of sciencing in a series of stories in The New York Times and other newspapers. The stories reported that a scientist changed data to reflect what she wanted to reflect. Someone else blew the whistle on her but was put down by the rest of the scientific community, and it took five years for much of this to be uncovered. Do you think there is enough investigative reporting into how we conduct science?
GOULD: First of all it wasnít investigative reporters who uncovered it, but the zealousness of one person who persisted. I think itís an unfortunate case because the incident in itself, though not unreflective as any small incident is of something that is very common in science, in this case is unfortunately so. Itís not a good paradigm case for the very real and important issue of fraud and other kinds of malfeasance in science because, handled a different way, which would have been not only more right but immensely more practical in terms of saving time, it could have been so easily handled. Itís more a question of the psychology of the people involved, and in some sense I understand. The incident itself was relatively minor, but I think the subsequent cover-up became much larger. And if investigated fully when it had first happened it would simply have led to one of the many correctives that occur all the time in science that are momentarily embarrassing to those who have to publish them but in no way life or career destroying. Any lab director must trust the people brought into the lab. Otherwise the enterprise collapses. Thereís nothing wrong with that, but when itís brought to your attention that all may not be on the up and up, the one thing this teaches us is that you really better investigate it thoroughly and not try to use authority to cover it up. But I donít know what big issue it raises. To me itís just a very unfortunate incident that has caused immense loss in reputation and loss of what is absolutely the most precious thing in the world, which is time. Thatís something people forget. So often you suppress things not for really deep nasty reasons, but just because time is so ultimately precious.
GLEICK: But donít you think that the press, which in other areas of social life might have been conducting investigations, asking questions, trying to bring facts to life, questioning the authority of the scientist, might have a greater role to play in such cases in the future?
GOULD: In this case a more active press role might have made the resolution quicker, which would have been less painful, but in fact there was very little press intervention until the whole thing got going. There are probably thousands of cases like this brewing.
QUESTION: Should not the public or the Luddites or whomever, have some more say into what amount of money and time is given to one particular project to the exclusion of others?
RHODES: We do have say. We elect representatives. They go to the government. Are they not our elected representatives? Donít they say what we believe? If they donít, then we really shouldnít elect them. Iím saying there is a mechanism for these large financing decisions about science. Itís of course influenced by the terrible scientific illiteracy that we suffer from in the United States. We donít really know whether we should invest in the superconducting super collider, whether we should invest in the space shuttle, etc. Those are problems which I presume refer directly to the sort of work that we as more or less informed laymen, try to do, to examine these questions, to look at past examples, to see how they came about and what we might learn from them. Iím rather cynical about what Washington might learn from my book or anyone elseís book. Weíre still working on Star Wars you know. Edward Teller has a plan that perhaps the Israelis would like a little star Wars system to fight those Scuds.
FERRIS: The funding process for big science projects has itself generated a lot of problems, of which NASA is a case study. In my opinion, NASAís constituency has become the aerospace industry and the members of Congress who fund NASA. What typically happens is the kind of space shuttle or Hubbell telescope mission where the project takes on a certain size because otherwise its not exciting enough to attract and maintain its funding from Congress. The Congress then gets cold feet about actually pouring this kind of money into it year after year so they cut funding. That delays the project and you end up with a big thing in space thatís got technology in it thatís ten or twenty years old and that has cost two or three times what it originally should have cost because you had to pay everybodyís salary during all this time that you delayed everything. And this aspect is not being covered sufficiently yet in the press. NASA is criticized for things failing, but this mechanism thatís causing failure and obsolescence of big science projects has not to my knowledge been adequately treated in the press.
QUESTION: How can theoretical concepts be adequately reported?
FERRIS: The traditional wisdom amongst newspaper editors is that there should be a paragraph around about the third paragraph or so of the story, called the nut paragraph or the billboard, and the function of this paragraph is to explain the relevance of this purely theoretical development to the man on the street as this person used to be called. Iíve always felt personally that the theoretical developments are often sufficiently interesting in themselves and Iíve had fights with editors about this as a result. In one piece in The New York Times Magazine about the search for a unified theory that would explain every fundamental process in the universe, we fought forever because there wasnít any practical thing in this third paragraph and they kept trying to come up with things. And I would say, But it really is just interesting enough in itself. If you really say this theory would explain every fundamental process in the whole history of the universe and the reader still isnít interested, then maybe thatís not the reader for the rest of this article.
GOULD: I think you underestimate the public, 250 million people in the country. It may be that for a majority, even 100 or 200 million, that unless there is something immediately palatable and practical they wonít read it. But thereís tens of millions of other readers who have fascination for the things of science and the concepts of science for their intellectual sake. I think thatís proven by many of us who do not in fact generally write about practical consequences but are read. Maybe weíre never going to be majoritarian but I donít know that that necessarily matters.
GLEICK: Youíre looking at a whole panel of people who have pretty much written about science as ideas without any particular product, although maybe Dick Rhodes is the notable exception. But it certainly is true. Tim is right that most newspaper editors have the cynical view of the audience that Steve has just decriedóthat people like to know whether this theoretical advance is going to somehow lead to a better toaster oven. I also think that itís obviously the goal of most of the writers here to write about the ideas themselves as a part of our shared culture.
RHODES: Maybe there should be a standard piece of boiler plate for that third paragraph that says, This piece of work may help us understand how the world works.
FERRIS: Actually Walter Sullivan was said to have had a genius for this, and he always put in the same sentence which was, "That if verified this development will cause researchers throughout the field to rethink some of their basic assumptions.Ē In the case of the story I was mentioning, 48 hours before deadline an unidentified editor at 10 in the evening came into the office and on the computer inserted a sentence that would perform this function in my piece, which I caught before it went to press. But had I not scrutinized the computer printout, the third paragraph on my unified theory article in The New York Times Magazine would have said that if the unified theory could be found it would be ďthe greatest thing to have happened since the bomb dropped on Hiroshima."
QUESTION: Are science textbooks written well enough? Do they fail to provide narratives?
GLEICK: Well all of my writing is addressed to a childish level. You donít get too much of the narrative in textbooks and I think that a consequence of that is that we receive a view of science that is not accurate, itís not true, itís a view of science as a collection of facts as received wisdom. When you do finally get to the frontiers, you discover that science is a bunch of human beings stumbling around in the fog, making mistakes, failing to communicate well with each other and occasionally having that moment of exhilaration.
FERRIS: When I was in school I used to wonder why the great science popularizers like Isaac Asimov were not writing textbooks, and so when I got older I wrote a textbook and I found out why. Itís not an experience I would recommend to anyone. The forces controlling what goes into textbooks are forbidding. The process is debilitating to writers. It actively discourages good writers from being involved.
RHODES: I think that brings up exactly the problem with some aspects of writing for educational systems. They are in a way the very locus of the contention between various believers and various beliefs in our society. The most obvious example is creationism and evolution, which has been an ongoing struggle in the textbook business now for quite a while. As a result you get textbooks that are lowest common denominator, committee camels, if you will. I know this sounds totally utopian given the budgets and so forth, but I still will say that teachers at some level where itís possible should try to go to the wider literature of science, even including scientific papers. It has seemed to me that after reading some of Niels Bohrís papers and others that if I were teaching a course in writing, especially the writing of verity, I would include in that course not only Daniel Defoeóbut I would include some scientific papers because theyíre models of logic and clarityósome of them, not all of them by any means. So, perhaps the problem is to try to get around this impasse that textbooks represent. They are boilings-down and boilings-down never can clarify very much.
FERRIS: One other problem is that the good stories which seem to help science teaching also can freeze it in place. The classic example of a good story is that Einsteinís theory of relativity came as a revelation and shattered classical physics. We keep repeating this story in the educational process so our children are still taught Newtonian physics, then at some point along comes Einstein and their world view is shattered and they have to change it all. It really doesnít seem necessary that the children should keep having to relive that story just because itís a good story. It would be easier just to start with relativity and then pick up on Newton later on.
QUESTION: Do you need a solid background in science in order to write about it?
RHODES: I think itís very painful to approach a scientific field from the outside and try to understand it enough to write about it without deep embarrassment. I was petrified, terrified. For me the ultimate moment came after the book was published and I was invited to speak to the Harvard physics faculty. I told them the history of their own field, and afterwards one of the younger faculty members came up and said what I thought might be a rather left-handed compliment, which was, You have a good intuitive grasp of physics.
GLEICK: Iím going to tell one more story about Feynman in that connection. Feynman was once asked by one of his colleagues, a physicist but not a particle physicist, if he could explain at the level of a freshman physics seminar some obscure thing to do with particles of spin one-half or something. And Feynman said, Oh sure, give me a week Iíll come back and answer that for you. A week later he came back and said, You know, I couldnít do that, I canít explain it at that level and I think that means that we truly donít understand it yet.