In the Guardian, Ian McEwan writes beautifully, as always, about the passion involved in scientific discovery, and the drive to establish priority. While it is a refrain among scientists that they are only interested in the work, and gaining a better understanding of nature, it would be hard to believe that, on a personal level, we don’t care deeply about the recognition of our own contributions. McEwan illustrates this with two of the most revered and successful scientists – Darwin and Einstein. On realizing, surprisingly, his fear of being scooped by Wallace, Darwin wrote
“I always thought it very possible that I might be forestalled, but I fancied that I had a grand enough soul not to care.”
and after Hilbert submitted his formulation of the mathematics of General Relativity, Einstein wrote
“In my personal experience I have hardly come to know the wretchedness of mankind better.”
McEwan also discusses the fascinating question of how rapidly some of our greatest scientific accomplishments became accepted, even though, in the case of General Relativity, many years were required to perform the definitive precision experiments one would typically expect. He puts this down to the beauty of the underlying ideas, and emphasizes the important role this can play, particularly for a theory such as relativity, for which the mathematics is inaccessible to most people, and the implications are, at least seemingly, remote from any everyday experience.
In the example of evolution, the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind. However, here the challenge to acceptance is not one of the inaccessibility of the theory, but the implications that it has for existing powerful world views.
“On the other hand, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ramifications of natural selection are multiple. And, relatively, they are easily, if uneasily, understood: the Earth and life on it are far older than the Bible suggests. Species are not fixed entities created at one time. They rise, fall, become extinct, and there is no purpose, no forethought in these patterns. We can explain these processes now without reference to the supernatural. We ourselves are related, however distantly, to all living things. We can explain our own existence without reference to the supernatural. We may have no purpose at all except to continue. We have a nature derived in part from our evolutionary past. Underlying natural selection are physical laws. The evolved material entity we call the brain is what makes consciousness possible. When it is damaged, so is mental function. There is no evidence for an immortal soul, and no good reason beyond fervent hope that consciousness survives the death of the brain.
It is testimony to the originality as well as the diversity of our species that some of us find such ramifications horrifying, or irritating, or self-evidently untrue and (literally) soulless, while others find them both beautiful and liberating and discover, with Darwin, “grandeur in this view of life”. Either way, if we do not find our moments of exaltation in religious awe and the contemplation of a supreme supernatural being, we will find them in the contemplation of our arts and our science. When Einstein found that his general theory made correct predictions for the shift in Mercury’s orbit, he felt so thrilled he had palpitations, “as if something had snapped inside. I was,” he wrote, “beside myself with joyous excitement.” This is the excitement any artist can recognise. This is the joy, not of simple description, but of creation. It is the expression, common to both the arts and science, of the somewhat grand, somewhat ignoble, all too human pursuit of originality in the face of total dependence on the achievements of others.”
It is also true that any scientist can recognize the excitement of a great artist taking on a subject about which he feels deeply. I’m thankful that, for McEwan, that subject is frequently science.