If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Category: Science

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Very few see science as the high adventure it really is, the wildest of all explorations ever undertaken by human beings, the chance to catch close views of things never seen before, the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works. Instead, they become baffled early on, and they are misled into thinking that bafflement is simply the result of not having learned all the facts. They are not told, as they should be told, that everyone else–from the professor in his endowed chair down to the platoons of postdoctoral students in the laboratory all night–is baffled as well. Every important scientific advance that has come in looking like an answer has turned, sooner or later–usually sooner–into a question. And the game is just beginning.

“Humanities and Science”

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Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

It is the very strangeness of nature that makes science engrossing. That ought to be at the center of science teaching. …

…Science, especially twentieth-century science, has provided us with a glimpse of something we never really knew before, the revelation of human ignorance. We have been used to the belief, down one century after another, that we more or less comprehend everything bar one or two mysteries like the mental processes of our gods.

“Humanities and Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

It is as important–and as hard–to learn when to use mathematics as how to use it, and this matter should remain high on the agenda of consideration for education in the social and behavioral sciences.

“Humanities and Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

The task of converting observations into numbers is the hardest of all, the last task rather than the first thing to be done, and it can be done only when you have learned, beforehand, a great deal about the observations themselves.

“Humanities and Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

But what can be said about the future yields from basic research, in any field of science? No Science Adviser, nor any committee, has ever succeeded in forecasting the future outcome of this kind of scientific endeavor. It is in the nature of basic research that the future is unknowable until it happens.

“Some Scientific Advice”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

I have long believed that there is no scientist alive whose career could not be terminated by an enemy, if the enemy were capable of increasing the laboratory’s budget by tenfold or any-fold overnight and, as well, assuring access immediately to any instrument within reach of the victim’s imagination.

‘Science and “Science”’

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Insoluble problems abound. It takes almost as much good judgment to recognize these when they turn up as to perceive quickly the ones that can be settled, solved, nailed down once and for all by research.

‘Science and “Science”’

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

In science in general, one characteristic feature is the awareness of error in the selection and pursuit of a problem. This is the most commonplace of criteria: if a scientist is going to engage in research of any kind, he has to have it on his mind, from the outset, that he may be on to a dud. You can tell a world-class scientist from the run-of-the-mill investigator by the speed with which he recognizes that he is heading into a blind alley.

‘Science and “Science”’

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

…Sooner or later, while this process is going on, the biologist shifting the dish of sugar will find that his bees are out there waiting for him, precisely where the next position had been planned. This is an uncomfortable observation to make, harder still to explain in conventional terms: Why would bees be programmed for such behavior in their evolution? Flowers do not walk away in regular, predictable leaps.

“Things Unflattened by Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Alchemy exists only as a museum piece, an intellectual fossil, so antique that we no longer need be embarrassed by the memory, but the memory is there. Science began by fumbling. It works because the people involved in it work, and work together. They become excited and exasperated, they exchange their bits of information at a full shout, and, the most wonderful thing of all, they keep at one another.

“Alchemy”